One of the Many Author Sins I'm Most Enjoying

I seem to have put myself in a sticky spot: I want to be represented by an agent and sold by a publisher, but I’ve committed the cardinal sin of self-publishing. All I can say to defend myself is that if I were to have waited for an agent to say “yes” to my book, it would still be sitting un-read as a stack of paper rather than being read and enjoyed by readers. Still, I continue to query agents for this very novel. Foolishly? Naively? Just plain stupidly? Maybe. But I have to believe the meager sales I’ve been able to make haven’t ruined the book’s overall market, and that not all agents will have a prejudice against self-published work. There’s nothing I can do about it, anyway – it’s already self-published. I can’t un-self-publish it. At this point, it is what it is. All I have to lose by querying is a little bit of time, really. The time it takes to write the query. They may all say no. But, you never know – one of them may some day say yes.

In the meantime, I continue to be my own indefatigable publicist. In the time since I’ve self-published, I’ve been interviewed on WNPR’s Faith Middleton Show (she talked more about me than she did about the book, so if it were to be published by a real company, it would still have a shot at being reviewed on her books show), been the subject of features in four newspapers (two of them free papers, two of them the area’s primary newspaper), been reviewed by such online venues as Feministing.com, Literary Kicks, Storyglossia Magazine, here at SPR, the PODler, and others, and more are forthcoming from places I don’t want to name until they post, lest I jinx myself.

The reviews have been good, but as has been mentioned on this very website, reviews don’t necessarily translate into sales.

Well, okay. But what they can translate into is encouragement for, say, bookstore owners, to take the time to read the book before determining whether they want to place it in their store, on their very tangible and not at all virtual shelves. I know from experience that such people may need not-so-gentle coaxing in the form of other people’s praise to do this.

My first attempt at getting my book placed on a shelf was when I applied to Barnes and Noble’s small press department. Here are their guidelines:

Please submit a finished copy (no manuscripts please) of the book along with marketing and promotion plans, trade reviews, and a note describing how the book meets the competition (what makes it unique) to:

The Small Press Department
Barnes & Noble
122 Fifth Avenue
New York, NY 10011

I did all of that, and I was almost certain they would take it. I had already been a tireless marketer, and I had big plans for the future: radio shows, postcards, newspaper features, book signings, places I would send my book for review, etc. I also had plenty to say about what made (and continues to make) my book unique. It took hours to write all of this, because of course you can’t just write it; you have to sell it. So I did. And I sent in my little marketing and promotion plan packet with my book. And I waited to hear from them.

When I received their letter, it said something like this: “We didn’t read your book, but we know it’s not right for our store because the cover isn’t gripping enough and you have no blurbs from famous people.”

I realize it’s difficult to trust a paraphrase, but it’s true – the two things mentioned as their reason for rejecting the book were its cover and lack of blurbs.

Well, covers are expensive (read my upcoming SPR interview with Book Cover Express owner Cathi Stevensen to learn more about hiring book cover designers), and redistributing the book in a revised format costs an additional $100. Even if I could afford the new cover, I didn’t have famous-people or known-reviewer quotes to copy onto the back cover.

Don’t misunderstand: I completely get the importance of a good cover and the value of a blurb. I used to not buy a book unless, on the first few pages inside the front cover, there were at least ten good review blurbs from various magazines or other review sources.

Anyway, I tore up the letter (hey – I can understand the value of a cover and blurb and still not like the fact that it’s considered more important than the book itself) and started hunting down blurbs, and also reviews that could be snipped into brief blurbs.

I’ve since collected quite a few I would be proud to print on the back of my new cover, if I could afford a new cover. But, I can’t.

So I decided to do the next best thing while I try (not very hard, I admit) to save enough money to hire a cover designer.

After attending a reading and Published Author book-signing at Davis-Kidd Booksellers in Nashville, I remembered the Barnes and Noble where I used to live in Rochester, NY would sometimes host local authors – even the smelly, self-published ones. So I went up to the counter and asked the guy standing at the register if Davis-Kidd did the same, and he said, “Oh, sure! Just call [the woman] who handles those things.”

I called her, and she said that in order to be given the space to do a reading, they’d actually have to have my book on their shelf, first, and that to get it there, I would have to fill out an application and explain why my book would be a valuable addition to their “local writers” shelf.

Great. That again.

I did it anyway. I filled out the form, gave them the multi-blurb-and-review write-up that said “This book is AWESOME!” I’d already put together even though they didn’t ask for it, and gave them a copy of the book for review.

I’d pretty much forgotten about them after a few weeks passed, but then, one day last week, I remembered that, hey…yeah…they still haven’t gotten back to me…

I considered calling them to find out whether they’d rejected it. (I have a hard time accepting silence as a rejection; I must be rejected outright. Is it so hard to say “no”? Do people not know how much hope authors will cling to when given something like silence? The whole “no news is good news…” thing?)

The next day, I received a letter from Davis-Kidd.

No one sends letters unless they’re rejections. I used to hope I’d get an envelope back from a literary agency that would have a contract inside, but I eventually let that fantasy go after never receiving an envelope fat enough to be a contract. Also, the one time an agent was very interested in my book, she called to tell me how much she loved it – only to follow that up with a rejection she explained as having to do with trying to market a literary novel coming from an “unknown.” I figured, then, that any acceptance would probably come by phone or email.

(I’ve since become less “unknown” by being a Women’s eNews correspondent, a newspaper reporter whose articles have been picked up by the AP and published online in the Boston Globe, editor of a respected fiction journal, a widely reviewed and highly praised author, and did I mention the Faith Middleton interview? I’m not horn-tooting, I’m just saying. If someone reads this who feels the same way about publishing an “unknown,” I’ve earned creds!)

The Davis-Kidd letter said this (yes, I still have it, and probably always will):

“Thank you for submitting a copy of your title, Homefront, for review. We feel that this title will make a great addition to our inventory. Copies have been ordered from our distributor. We wish you the best of luck.”

I realize this is only one store in one (kick-ass!) city, but you have to know this to understand my excitement: my dream, my goal, was to have my book on a real bookshelf in a real store. I even brought my book into Target one day, set it on the shelf under the “best sellers” sign alongside the other books, and took a picture. (I would attach it here, but it’s on my old phone.) It wasn’t important that Homefront be a bestseller – just that it be on the shelf with the other books that had made it there, because I know it’s more than good enough to be there. And now, it’s there! It doesn’t matter that it will be on a “local authors” shelf – the store’s buyer read the book and thought it good enough to be sold in their very cool store. Without an agent, without a publisher, I got my book on a bookstore shelf, even without a fancy new cover. (For the record, I really do want a new cover.)

“Um” you say, “so why are you still querying if you’ve accomplished your so-called ‘dream’?”

Because I want it to be in more than one store, that’s why. It’s a timely story about the effects of war, the likes of which haven’t been explored the way Homefront does it. It’s an important story, and an important aspect of war. I wrote the book for it to be read by as many people as possible, particularly by people who have never been touched personally by war, who have never known a soldier, and who have never told time for a year by looking at current time, and then automatically adding nine hours.

I need an agent and publisher because I don’t have the money or the finances to market Homefront the way a big publishing house can.

In the meantime, as I collect what will likely be more and more agent rejections, I will certainly make the rounds to all of the local, independent bookstores, and hope to have as much success with them as I did with the absolutely fabulous Davis-Kidd. (Where, if I haven’t already told you, you can buy a copy of my novel, Homefront.)

  • A great post, thanks for taking the time to write it out. It captures so well the dilemma facing strong authors in the current environment. I just self-published my first mystery novel, and the reviews have been very strong (“masterpiece” and “not to be missed” are just some of the kind words that have been thrown around). Meanwhile, friends with unpublished manuscripts, with or without agents, actually seem proud of their status while dubious of mine. It’s as if they’re “preserved potential” trumps my “real reviews.” That said, I’m still open to publishing the traditional route. What self-publishing has shown me includes, a) my work is very viable, b) a lot of the ins and outs of the business, c) readers respond well to my writing and like the characters I’ve created, and d) if an agent does become interested in a subsequent manuscript, I probably have achieved a better bargaining stance with what I’ve learned and what I know I can do solo.

    Again, thanks for the post, and good luck. Either way, we’re in a better position for having published!

  • Randall Radic

    A wonderful post. I enjoyed reading it, and as I was reading it, I wished I was an agent so I could have the honor of trying to sell your book to some kickass publisher. Since I’m not an agent, all I can say is good luck and stick with it. Never give up.

  • Funny, your response from B&N is almost exactly the same as the response I got from them — and this was for “Flock of Crows” when it was still in print from an actual (small press) publisher, and it had a blurb on it, too. I think B&N’s “small press” department exists mostly to keep people from bothering the folks who buy “real” books.

    I said it already, but congratulations on placing the book with a store!

  • Thanks. Randall, I wish you were an agent, too!