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  • Writer's pictureJ. M. Sawyer


Anyone who has ever contemplated writing a novel for commercial sale in the modern age, with few exceptions, has asked: “Should I self-publish or go the traditional route?”

For the uninitiated, the traditional route means writing, completing, and polishing a novel, securing a literary agent, and having that agent submit the work to a publishing house that might then purchase the publication rights. In that case, the author may receive an advance against future royalties to live off of until the book is published. The agent handles the negotiations and the publisher edits and formats the novel, provides the cover art, arranges distribution, and, to some extent, promotes the book. The author pays nothing out of pocket. Doesn’t sound like a bad deal.

So, why self-publish? There are pros and cons, and while a more comprehensive review of each method is unnecessary for our purposes, it would help to have some basis for comparison. Authors who choose to self-publish through a print-on-demand company like Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) will have two major advantages over their counterparts in the traditional publishing world.

The first is time. While authors from both camps will spend considerable amounts of time planning, writing, and editing their works, the self-published author doesn’t need a literary agent. And anyone who has entered the aptly named “query trenches” knows that securing representation from a literary agent can take longer than it took to write the book—sometimes many months, or even years. But let’s assume the author has already secured an agent, and the agent has worked with that author to polish the manuscript so that it’s ready for submission to publishing houses. Getting an offer from a publishing house can also take several months, provided the author and the publishing house can agree on the final product. This brings us to the second major advantage self-published authors enjoy over their counterparts: creative control.

A self-published author has 100% control over the content and appearance of their book, whereas a traditionally published author’s final manuscript and cover design may be subject to the publisher’s approval. That might become a problem if the publisher seeks, in the author’s opinion, to alter the tone, themes, or message of the book. If the parties cannot come to an agreement, the deal falls apart, and the burden shifts back to the agent to find a new publisher for the book. That means more time.

I can admit that I was once lured into the query trenches by visions of giant advances and a team of professionals working to facilitate the worldwide publication and distribution of my books—visions that included quitting my day job and writing full time. I would argue that is the dream for all passionate writers who seek to earn a living from their work. But I could never stomach the idea of taking years to publish any one book or giving up any significant level of creative control over my work. The alternative was less money up front, a delay in quitting my day job, and fronting all the expenses and doing all the work necessary to bring my work to life—to bring it to my readers. Nevertheless, it seemed (and felt) like the proper course of action. I knew it was the right path, but, for reasons I couldn’t understand at the time, I chose to remain in the dreaded query trenches.

The rejections did not deter me. Any author on a best sellers list might have been rejected three dozen times before finally landing a literary agent and receiving an offer of publication. Stephen King said he used to hang his rejections on a nail on the wall until the nail finally succumbed to the weight of the rejections and fell. His solution: get a bigger nail. So, I continued sending out query letters, hoping that my two-paragraph “blurb” would be enough to entice an agent to read my work, but was sickened by the thought that an agent might actually offer representation. So, what the hell was I doing in the query trenches if I didn’t really want to be traditionally published?

Maybe I knew the answer the whole time and just didn’t want to admit it to myself. There is a commonly held belief that literary agents are the “gatekeepers” of the traditional publishing world. A writer needs a literary agent to submit his or her work to a large publishing house like Penguin Random House or Harper Collins—publishing houses that do not accept unsolicited works from unrepresented authors. In that sense, literary agents are the funnel that books must pass through to see light at the end of the tunnel—ensuring that the overdone, low concept, cliché, and unpolished never make it through. So maybe that’s all I really ever wanted from them.

Was it as simple as needing an affirmation? A longing to have just one agent to opine that I was good enough to pass through the dreaded tunnel that strangles hopes and dreams. Having one industry professional who believed my name was good enough to appear on the bookshelf beside some of the greatest authors in the world. For me, that was tantamount to an invisible five-star review from which I could draw the sense of confidence and personal empowerment necessary to publish my book in a world of harsh opinions and fierce public criticism. Could it be so simple?

In the end, I believe it was. A moment of realization and personal fortitude was all I needed to escape the query trenches and run from that damned tunnel. I would bore my own tunnel, and I alone would pass through it. I just had to admit two things to myself. I am a talented writer, and I am an excellent storyteller. In the end, it will be the readers who shall judge my fate as an author. And that’s how it should be.

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