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Barren Advice: Thirty-Nine

This is the 39th installment of Barren Advice. You can ask questions that are fertility or non-fertility related.

Barren Advice is posted each Tuesday-ish. If you have your own question for Barren Advice, click here to learn how to submit. Please weigh in with your own thoughts in the comment section and indicate which question you’re addressing if there are multiple questions in the post.

Dear Mel:

I am going to self publish my book but things have really been blowing up for me press-wise regarding PFM. Do you think I should try to find a publishing house? I don’t have anything published as a writer. If you think I should at least try it, where do you suggest I go? I know a small publisher is probably my best bet.


I have a feeling this question is going to bring out other questions, so I’m going to start with how to pick your path to getting your manuscript in book form, and if people have other things they want to ask, throw them into the pot by submitting a question to Barren Advice.

There are three main paths you can take and there are benefits and drawbacks to all three: self-publishing, representing yourself, or utilizing an agent.

Self-publishing is open to everyone. You pay a fee, and they put your manuscript in book form. Prices range from a couple hundred to several thousand. Self-publishing utilizes a system called POD or Print-on-Demand and it’s similar to Cafepress. They do not waste materials until someone wants the book; meaning, the reason you can usually only get self-published books online rather than in a bookstore is that they don’t exist until someone makes a purchase and then they are printed within the day and mailed out. You pay an upfront fee (Booksurge, Amazon’s program, asks for anywhere from $800–$6000 depending on what you need done–and I’m sure there are places that do it for much less, but you also sometimes have lower quality with the lower fee), and then receive back a portion of the book sale–sometimes up to 35%. So…just to explain the math to see if this option is right for you, if a book costs $15, you should receive back $5.25 per book sold. You’ll need to sell a little over 150 copies of the book to break even and after that, you’ll turn a profit.

Advantages are clear–it is entirely within your control. All you need to do is write the book or convert your blog posts into a manuscript. And frankly, if you’re not up to enduring a lot of rejection (because even JK Rowling endured rejection), self-publishing is the way to go. It is a sure thing. You also have control from start to finish, deciding what goes in the book as well as the look. Though you have to front the money for the process, if you have a thousand dollars to invest, you can easily turn a profit if you have a decent platform (a platform is a term used to describe your reach from the number of people who would be interested in purchasing your book to the media contacts you have who would write about your book). And for most writers, turning a profit is not the reason they wrote the book: it’s to get the information into the hands of people who need it or would enjoy it. Therefore, self-publishing is the perfect way to make sure that information or a story doesn’t linger unpublished on a Microsoft Word doc on your computer. It is the only way within your control to make sure that it gets sent out into the world.

One other advantage is that some PODs then get picked up by a publisher, though this is uncommon and not something that can be controlled. But when it does happen, it means that you didn’t have to jump through the hoops of finding an agent, but you got the benefits of a publishing house down the road. But, again, this scenario is the needle in the haystack and I can only think of one book like this off the top of my head.

The disadvantages are clear too–since anyone can publish a POD, there is a big range of quality. POD-dy Mouth used to be the place to go to separate the wheat from the chaff, but with that closing, it’s really up to you to exercise a buyer beware mentality as a reader. PODs are edited–either by the writer or, for a fee, by a freelance editor, but copyediting is not the same as editing and vetting. Meaning, every book you are purchasing from a publishing house has been professionally edited as well as vetted if it is a work of non-fiction, with research notes examined and challenged. Having been a freelance editor–sometimes called a book doctor–(as most MFA grad students are at some point in their life) and having been on the receiving end of a publishing house edit, I can tell you that it’s two very different processes where one is receiving a collection of notes and one is participating in a collaborative process with (1) some control over using the notes removed but (2) a keen-eye focused on getting the right message across. Removing the publisher from the publishing process can remove some credibility depending on the reader.

That said, I also think that removing the publisher from the publishing process can give you a more emotional, raw text. Stuff that would be edited out at a publishing house can be left in with a POD, therefore, I think of self-published books and traditionally published books as two separate beasts with PODs closer in helpfulness to a blog: it is raw, unwatered down emotion; it is off-the-beaten-track; it is honest. But I also wouldn’t take my fact from a blog, if that makes any sense? By which I mean that I read a blog and I think “this is true for them.” It may also be true for me, but at its heart, it’s true for them. When I read a book, I tend to think more along the lines of “this is true for a lot of people.” It may not actually be true for me, but I can see how
it is more inline with fact than opinion.

I’m pro-POD for fiction if I’ve already read something from the person and know I like their style, and I’m pro-POD for memoir with the same caveat, and I’m pro-POD for non-fiction in certain cases, BUT I would never use a POD book for research unless it came from a major organization rather than an individual. Because while it’s a nice jumping-off board, it’s not a good base to use because the research hasn’t been vetted by a third party. I am obviously mixing both thoughts about each path both as a writer and as a reader–how the book may be received.

The other disadvantage is marketing. You are entirely on your own for marketing with a POD unless, again, you pay for services. If you have a pretty strong platform or the book gets a cult following, this isn’t an issue. But it means that you keep having to take the initiative to get it out there and it can be exhausting (and avenues can quickly be exhausted). Most publish
ers expect authors to take a certain amount of initiative, so it isn’t as if this disadvantage is unique to PODs, but the difference is that (1) you will not get the foot traffic picking up your unknown book off the shelf at a bookstore because it’s usually only offered online and (2) some traditional reading sources and media outlets will be closed to PODs.

So, to review about self-publishing–it’s great if you want control of the process and you want it to just happen without having to jump through hoops. Yes, you need to front the money, but if you can sell between 150–200 copies, you’ll recoup your investment. And if you have a strong platform, selling 150–200 copies won’t be a problem. The information will be out there instead of sitting on your hard drive. And there’s always a chance it will hit cult-success or be picked up by a traditional publishing house. I am personally a fan of self-publishing because there’s a lot of good stuff that will never be considered by a publishing house because it doesn’t have marketing potential (remember, a publisher buying a manuscript is essentially making an investment and just as you wouldn’t buy stock in a company that looks like its going nowhere, publishers will not invest in books that they don’t think will make a profit. And publishers need to sell many more than 150 copies to turn a profit).

At the same time, one thing to consider–a blog is essentially a POD e-book that is being given away for free. Think about that for a moment–everyone who keeps a blog is a writer. The fine line to walk is whether people will pay for what they are getting for free on the Web. In other words, is the information compelling enough that they’ll want it in book form or would they rather just access it for free via your blog? If your plan is to incorporate parts of your blog into your book, it could be a very difficult road to convince people that they want to buy what they get for free in the same form that they get it for free.

To take an example, Heather Armstrong used parts of her blog in her new book, but it was also edited by a publisher at Simon Schuster, therefore giving it new meaning, consideration, etc. I’m not sure she would have the same readership happily recommending the book to others if she had self-published the same blog entries without the requisite editing given to her by Simon Schuster. It sort of begs that free milk/cow question that is so popular as a sex/marriage analogy.

Sort of like applying to college, self-representation is open for everyone to try, but you’ll have to be accepted. Though independent publishers prefer to work with agents, some will accept direct submissions (major publishing houses will not accept submissions that do not come through an agent). Most independent publishers work with a specific genre or within a specific swath of the population, but if you fit their profile, you may be able to send your work directly to the house and have it considered for publication. If you get accepted, it contains all the advantages with working with a publishing house–you get paid to write the book, you get a professional editor, and you get help in marketing the book. It will appear in bookstores and you will have readings and reviews (hopefully–but even that is not a given these days).

The advantage with self-representation is that you don’t need to first obtain an agent. You can present yourself however you wish, meaning, you can highlight what you think is important rather than having the agent decide what to highlight. In certain cases, you can represent yourself better than an agent, though with few exceptions, an agent always represents the book better (meaning, you know you, but your agent knows books). Personally, I’d trust the agent because you’re not selling yourself per se, you’re selling the book. But there are cases where this is important (for instance, if your book is about social media and you can’t find an agent who is Twitter-proficient and you know of a publisher who would be perfect for the book).

The big advantage is that unlike self-publishing, you will never have to layout any money to be published–they will pay you. If a publisher asks you to pay for any part of the process beyond mailing your manuscript, you will know it is not a legitimate press. Publishers will not ask you to layout your money because by buying your manuscript, they are essentially making the investment.

Some people who self-represent to get the deal will turn around and get an agent once they have an offer on-hand. They will have the agent look over the contracts and help negotiate things. Personally, I see a lot of advantages and disadvantages to doing this: you get an agent, but you miss out on the reason for having an agent in the first place (more on that in a moment). But I do think it makes sense if you see yourself writing more books or negotiating more contracts (international rights, film, etc) later on.

The disadvantage to self-representation is that fewer and fewer independent publishers will accept unsolicited manuscripts (the term for a manuscript that you want them to read, but they did not ask to read nor did it come from an agent). So on one hand, it’s more immediate than getting an agent, but it’s also harder to have your manuscript read. And once you’ve taken this path, it’s hard (though not impossible) to get an agent to look at your manuscript because it has already been out there. So it’s a path I would only take if you’ve already exhausted searching for an agent or if you’re prepared to either self-represent or self-publish. But it’s not a good starting point if you’re looking to seek an agent after you try this route. Also, you will not have every publisher open to you–only a few–but going this route also cuts off access to big publishing houses later because agents will be more squeamish about taking you on if you’re a first-time author.

The other big disadvantage is that you will always be negotiating (instead of having someone negotiate on your behalf) and you’ll have to be vigilant. I think only those who know what to expect and look for within publishing should take this route. The way it was explained to me in graduate school is the offer you will receive through an agent is so much greater (not just financially, but in retaining rights et al) than what you can receive for the most part on your own, that it’s worth the cut an agent will take from your contract because you’ll still come out ahead.

So, to sum up self-representation, if you’re pretty savvy, have connections in the publishing world, have access to free law advice, or want to try this before self-publishing, it’s a great route. If you are set on publishing with a publishing house, this isn’t a great starting point, but it can be a good finishing point before you throw in the towel.

Lastly, you have traditional publishing which the majority will find they need an agent to get their foot in the door and negotiate. So first you have to find the agent–and if anyone wants me to speak to how to find an agent and what you need to prepare to send, let me know and I’ll cover that in a future Barren Advice because it’s very different for fiction and non-fiction–and then the agent finds the book deal for you. Though having an agent does not mean that you’re going to get published. First and foremost, there are a lot of agents out there who do not have the necessary connections to get you a book deal (anyone can call themselves an agent) and beyond that, even the best agents do not sell their whole list. But having an agent helps.

Let’s start with the disadvantages. It’s hard to get a good agent. Most agents will not take on work they do not think they can sell and passionately represent. The fact is that their time is precio
us and they get asked to look at a lot of projects. Feel good if an agent asks to see your manuscript. It means a lot of have it considered.

Most good agents (and again, I could declare myself an agent tomorrow but it wouldn’t mean that I am a good agent. I do not have the expertise to negotiate contracts nor the connections to get your book looked at by a major house. So when I saw “good agent,” I mean an agent with an established reputation, most likely in New York though the Internet has opened up the world to living outside New York, with prior sales or working for a solid agency) will not take on a first-time author without a platform or a published author without decent book sales. It can be very disheartening to receive rejection after rejection OR to not receive any feedback at all. Many agents say they will only contact you if they are interested, therefore, you may have a long list of people approached that are in limbo–neither rejecting you nor contacting you, making you wonder if they got your submission at all.

Yet, without the agent, you can’t get to the major publishing houses nor can you get your foot in the door at most independent presses. But this disadvantage to you–the writer–is actually an advantage to the rest of us–the reader. Because getting an agent to stand behind the work and a publisher to invest in the work, gives the work credibility and state of quality. There are plenty of great books that don’t get representation or a contract but most books that do get representation or a contract are of some substance. They may not be your cup of tea or necessary in your world, but they are considered necessary or enjoyable by a group of someones. Notice I mention the idea that it could be enjoyable. Not every book published by a major house will be healthy for your mind. There’s also a lot of literary candy out there. I tend to be a healthy reader so I sometimes look at the candy books and think, “seriously, that got published and X’s book didn’t?” But at the same time, there are a lot of unhealthy, junk food readers out there who snatch up the autobiographies of sixteen-year-old rock stars.

Okay, so the advantages of going the traditional route and getting an agent and using a publishing house start with the same advantage of self-representation: you will be paid to write your book (and again, you will never need to shell out any money beyond postage and anyone who tells you to spend money to get a contract does not have your best interests at heart). You will be a true published author. Your book will be available at brick-and-mortar bookstores. People will respect the process enough to consider the book for review in a major media outlet or offer you space for a reading.

The major advantage is that an agent is a person who is always in your corner. They are always looking out for your best interests and will help negotiate things on your behalf. It may not seem like a big deal, but having an agent is sort of like having a fairy godmother–one who is there to cheer you on, make sure you don’t fall into any pits, and generally stand up and say to the world “I think this writing rocks.” Without an agent, it is impossible to get your foot in the door at most publishing houses (because the agent is looked at as a gatekeeper. The publishers save time by looking for someone they trust and know to vouch for your work).

So, to review this form of publishing–it has the most work on the front end (obtaining an agent), but will be the smoothest ride once the agent is in place and a contract is obtained. You will not need to front any of your own money, and your book will be the highest quality it could be. But, it is a hard road to walk with a lot of rejection inherent in the process.

Wheeeeeeeeeeeeeew. That was a long answer to a brief question, but there’s a lot to still discuss–such as, once you pick your path, how do you know which POD businesses or agents are worth their salt and which ones are there to waste your time/money? Or what can you expect from the self-publishing process or the traditional book publishing process? Or what constitutes a strong platform? So ask away. And I’d love to hear from others who want to talk about their experience with the publishing process or why they chose the path they chose.

I will admit that due to my background (MFA degree where going the traditional route is drilled into your mind) and the fact that I had a decently strong platform, I went with traditional publishing as my Plan A. My Plan B was self-representation for a limited amount of time. And my Plan C was self-publishing. This book was getting out there one way or another…

No really, the beauty of a blog advice column is that you get to weigh in with your two cents too. Let the questioner know if you support the advice, add to the response, or dispute it completely.

Leave a comment in the reaction box below–only keep in mind that conflicting advice is embraced and rudeness is not. Want to ask your own question? Click here to see what you need to send in order to be included in a future Tuesday’s installment of Barren Advice


1 Eve { 05.05.09 at 8:19 am }

Wow. Incredibly imformative post, and answered a lot the questions that have popped up in my head seeing your book and Tertia’s book recently!

Congats again on the birth of your new book!!!!! I know it’s going to be fabously successful!

2 Kate { 05.05.09 at 9:48 am }

Excellent post! Anyone who’s interested in the self-publishing route should check out lulu.com. I haven’t used it myself, but know several people who have and are happy with it. There’s no upfront fee or minimum number of books to purchase (I think they make their money off the additional services offered).

3 Shannon Des Roches Rosa { 05.05.09 at 4:59 pm }

For the POD crew, it is actually upfront cost-free to use services like Lulu.com and Createspace.com (the latter is Amazon owned and therefore Amazon-enabled without paying the consignment fee required by non-Amazon POD publishers like Lulu). They don’t take out their cut until the books are ordered.

We used both services for the Can I Sit With You? books and have found CreateSpace’s product to be of high quality, and much cheaper than Lulu.com.

There are more details, of course, like ISBN #’s (free if you want the POD house to be your publisher, not free if you want to setting up your own publishing house) etc.

Obviously we are big POD fans, as we’ve had much success that way. But getting the word out and getting people to buy is a hurdle, certainly.

4 Anonymous { 05.05.09 at 5:28 pm }

Hi. You don’t know me, but I’ve created a “infertility group” blog. I love chatting with other who have been though what I have and wanted to let you know about it.

5 Anonymous { 05.06.09 at 10:52 am }

I am a book seller and I’ve also been intimately involved in a dear friend’s self-publishing experience, which was heart-breaking for her. People choosing to self-publish need to take into account that there is a huge stigma associated with it due to the _huge_ percentage of self-published books that are not up to popular standards. Your book may be a gem beyond value, but you will encounter many people who will not even look at it, because it is self-published. Correctly or not, they will make the assumption that you tried to get an agent and couldn’t, and that means it’s homemade by an amateur. Many book stores do not carry self-published books as a policy. And that’s not because of some collusion with publishers or distributors either. There is none; there’s no reason for there to be. Publishers, please believe me, are not threatened by self-publishing authors. Book sellers want to sell any book that their customers want, and many will take a couple of copies on consignment, but they do not move against books that are marketed by publishers. They just don’t. This is compounded by the fact that POD books tend to cost more than average, which makes people reluctant to take a chance. For success at the book store counter you need a store employee to read and love your book, and hand-sell it. Which could happen. But you are on the pile with galleys of every other new book this year, and again, fighting the assumption that it must suck, or it wouldn’t be self-published. And you need it in every store, because their opinions are not being distributed by the incredibly powerful and efficient publishers’ marketing machine.

You (or the experienced person/company you hire to do your marketing, which is a _very_ good idea) will find it an incredibly uphill battle to get any attention for your book. You will want blurbs from recognized names, people who receive dozens of books a month from authors hoping they’ll read them and offer a quote. You will have a very hard time getting them to take a self-published book off the pile. It’s not fair, it could change, but it could be too much of an obstacle for you.

And please, please believe me: Your book needs an edit. Every books needs to be edited by a professional, in addition to a thorough copyedit (these are two totaly different things). Even if you have edited professionally, you cannot edit yourself.

And do read POD-dy Mouth, http://girlondemand.blogspot.com/ She has really got the goods.

(c) 2006 Melissa S. Ford
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