You Want It When?

Does self-publishing still have the stigma it used to have? Thanks to the digital revolution, it’s certainly easier and less expensive to produce dreadful books than it used to be, so there are a lot more of them. On the other hand, the world of conventional mainstream publishing has become so log-jammed that here or there a few decent writers are likely to say, “All right, then: I’ll do it myself.”

I seem to be one of those writers.

I have a very nice historical mystery on my hard drive. I’ve worked hard on it. Three beta-readers have gone through it and made some useful suggestions. I’d certainly like to see it in print from Penguin or Minotaur. But no matter what tactics I deploy, that’s not likely to happen. First you need an agent. And an agent only wants to see books that she thinks she can probably sell. My lovely mystery has an unfortunate feature: It’s 155,000 words long. That’s too long for the market — and I’m just plain not willing to disembowel the story in order to get it down to 110,000 words. When I submit it to agents (and yes, I’m pitching it to a few of them), they’re going to look at the word count and send the query straight to the reject pile.

I don’t blame agents for this, not really. A literary agent is in a 100% commission business. If they agree to represent a book and then can’t line up a publisher, they earn exactly nothing for all the work they put into it. That being the case, they have to be ultra-sensitive to publishers’ needs. A publisher will be reluctant to take on a long book both because of the higher cost of production (paper, shipping, and so on) and because they feel, rightly or wrongly, that their customers won’t want to pay the higher price for a longer book.

But let’s say after a few months I find an agent. And then after a few months the agent finds a publisher. And then we spend a few weeks negotiating a contract. And then the publisher wants some rewrites, so that soaks up a couple more months. And then the publisher puts the book on their list, where it’s queued up behind a bunch of other books. If everything goes exactly right, the earliest I could possibly see the book in print would be in the publisher’s spring 2022 list. More likely, fall 2022 or even spring 2023. And that’s if everything goes exactly right. If it takes me a year to find an agent and the agent then takes six or eight months to find a publisher, we could be looking at fall 2023, three years from now.

Instead, I could hire a proofreader and a cover designer, have their work in hand within a month, spend a couple of weeks laying out the book in InDesign, and have the book up on Amazon before the end of 2020.

Is there a downside to this?

The catch-phrase is “market penetration.” According to some theories, the book will sell a lot better if a New York publisher is behind it. And that may be true. On the other hand, the publisher will still be insisting that I roll up my sleeves and get active in the publicity effort, and my profit per copy will be more like 5% of the cover price, as opposed to 50%. If I’m going to walk up and down on the sidewalk wearing a signboard that says, “BUY MY WONDERFUL BOOK” (or the genteel digital equivalent thereof), maybe I’d rather rake in the medium bucks myself.

Waiting two years may make a lot of sense if you’re a young author hoping to make a career out of (as Lawrence Block puts it) telling lies for fun and profit. But I’ll be 72 in a couple of weeks. I may or may not be able to continue writing for another 20 years. Hell, I may not be able to continue writing for another 20 minutes! Probably somewhere in between, but when you get to be my age, building a career is not something you worry about. Whereas, on the other hand, seeing your book in print has a certain visceral appeal.

There’s also something to be said for not having to make editorial changes that you find distasteful. I want to tell the story my way, thank you very much. Not because I have an ego, though of course I do. My reluctance is because there are certain subtleties embedded within the story. I don’t want them disturbed — subtleties of character, tricky little plot relationships, or just taking the time to set a scene properly rather than rush into it like the proverbial bull in the proverbial china shop. I want my published work to be something I can be proud of.

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