Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Two perspectives on publishing

There isn’t a right way or a wrong way to get published. Both traditional and small press publishing environments offer different benefits/drawbacks to authors. I’ve got my good friend and writing buddy, Cat Hellisen (author of When the Sea is Rising Red), blogging with me today about the differences in the two methods. We’ve approached our publishing careers from two very vastly different paths and I thought it would be nice to compare our journeys.

Nerine—un-agented, indie-published author
Why would you want an agent?

Although I’ve several small press and self-published titles behind my name, I still try for a literary agent because I’d be able to get an “in” with one of the bigger publishing houses. A reputable literary agent would have a vast network available to me, and would be able to negotiate a better deal for me. Essentially, I’d entrust someone who’s got a grasp on the nitty-gritties of contracts with selling my writing to the right publisher, leaving me free to concentrate on my creativity. While I’m not bemoaning the fact that I don’t have an agent, I’m not losing sleep over it either while I home my titles with reputable small presses. Remember, no agent is better than a bad agent.

How would you choose an agent?

I always run a background check on any literary agent I submit to. To this end, the Absolute Write forums are worth their weight in gold (http://www.absolutewrite.com/forums) and I always stop by Preditors and Editors (http://www.pred-ed.com). This is, naturally, a time-consuming task but I’m adamant I only want to deal with people who are legit. Another thing I make sure of is that the agent I’m approaching does, in fact, represent the kind of fiction I write. It’s no use submitting a dark fantasy story involving a half-demon vampire to an agent who represents mostly Christian inspirational fiction. Let’s repeat that mantra: “No agent is better than a bad agent”.

What are some of the benefits of small press publishing?

Many of the small presses allow a lot of freedom for authors to experiment with their writing and the direction their stories take. Some (not all) also offer faster turnaround from date of acceptance to release day than what one would get in a traditional environment. In my experience, dealing with a reputable small press marries the best aspects of self-publishing with traditional publishing, giving me, as an author, access to cover artists and editing expertise, with an established administration system to deal with vendors and royalties. I don’t want to still play publisher, so all the belly-aching is removed from the process. Point is, I could do this all myself, but I don’t want to.

What's the downside of small press publishing?

As a small press/indie author it’s often very difficult to make my voice heard above the absolute flood of other authors in the same boat as me. Also, I am reliant on royalties, so I often see very little return for my investment. I don’t write specifically in the “best seller” niches of erotica, and genres such as dark fantasy and/or horror still have small readerships in an electronic market. Not all my books are available in print. Some are only available in ebook format. There’s no nice advance and I won’t be quitting my day job any time soon. The only time that I have to write is during my lunch hour or over weekends. Also, I’d love to have the kind of editorial feedback a good agent would give an author, and also have the opportunity of working with more hardcore editors, which will only help improve my skills in the long run.

Your advice to authors?

Remember why you’re writing in the first place. If it’s because you want to make lots of money and be the next Rowling or Meyer, stop right there and step away from the computer. Like any other author, I’d love to get that elusive, six-figure book deal, but I’m realistic about it. I write stories because I enjoy writing stories. I’m grateful that a number of small presses have faith in my abilities by extending contracts to publish my writing. I’m even more grateful to the people who buy my books then tell me how much they enjoyed my stories. If, at some point, I reach that mythical number of a thousand true fans, that’s also peachy keen. Be prepared to do a lot of self-promotion, and be active on Twitter, Facebook and with your blogging.

Primarily I remind myself I’m a storyteller. That’s why I do it. I read widely and outside my genre. I listen to the critique offered by my writing partners. I aim to improve each novel I write. Every time I submit, I aim high. I try not to take rejection personally and I keep revising and resubmitting as I go along. There are very few overnight success stories in publishing. It’s ten percent raw talent and ninety percent hard work.

* * * *

I'm Cat Hellisen. When the Sea is Rising Red is my first published novel, and it took me many years of dreadful first drafts to get here.
Why would you want an agent?

While there are still a few big spec fic publishers who accept unagented manuscripts (Tor springs to mind), I didn't want to limit my chances of being read. An agent has more connections within the industry, and a better knowledge of which editor is more likely to be interested in what. They also deal with contracts, with foreign rights, movie rights, and a host of other things that I do not want to deal with. A good agent is also your first fan. They're the person in your corner.

An agent is also likely to score you a better advance and friendlier contract than you'd be able to on your own.

How would you choose an agent?

There are many people out there doing an excellent job of watching out for scam agents and agencies (http://www.sfwa.org/for-authors/writer-beware/agents/ is a good place to start.) But ultimately, you're going into a business partnership with someone, so you need to do your research. If you get a bad feeling about certain business practices, there's a damn good reason for that. Agents charge their clients (generally) 15%. That's AFTER they've sold your work – the 15% comes out of the cheque your publisher cuts you. They don't ask for money up-front, reading fees, editing fees, and other strange things. And a good agent is worth every bit of that 15%.

Know what you want from your agent, and ask to speak to some of their clients before you make a decision. If they don't want you to do this...be wary. Do you want an agent who gives editorial feedback? Mine does, and it really helps me, but other writers want less input. Do you want an agent who is communicative and keeps you in the loop about submissions and progress? Not everyone wants that level of communication, but others need it or they go insane (Hi. *waves*)

My agent, Suzie Townsend, is wonderful – she takes no nonsense, but she's also sympathetic to the fact that all writers are insane. Also she knows how to score me amazing blurbs. Fantastic person, and I am so glad I signed with her.

Sometimes things don't work out. Whatever you do, don't let that make you think you're a failure. Don't feel that if you part ways with an agent that your writing career is now over. I know very few writers who are still with their original agent.

What are some of the benefits of traditional publishing?

Massive amounts of editing. (In my case, anyway). I'd already done a number of revisions before my book sold, but my wonderful editor, Beth at FSG, took me through another three pretty substantive edits, and that was before we dealt with nit-picky things in several rounds of copy edits. One of the best things about my editor is that she doesn't read the way I do, so she brings a different perspective to my books - she's the one asking me the hard questions and not letting me coast. And like your agent, your editor is your fan – he or she bought your book because they loved it. That's a pretty awesome thing in itself.

Big publishers also have marketing departments. I'm not quite sure what people normally expect from their publicists, but I wasn't expecting anything at all because I'd heard horror stories about how unless you were a big name no-one actually cared. So I was happy to find out I have perfectly lovely people helping to promote my book, sending out arcs and setting up awesome opportunities for me. So that part rocks.

What's the downside of traditional publishing?

I am not Patient Bunny.

So I can guess you see where this is going. Those edits I talked about earlier? Yeah. They don't happen overnight. When the Sea is Rising Red sold in May 2010. It comes out in February 2012.
This is something that you just have to learn to deal with. No matter how frustrating it is.

Your advice to authors?

Read everything you can. Write and keep writing. Write with the intention of improving. Write with the intention of having fun.

If you're ready to start looking for an agent or publisher, make sure you've done your homework and that your novel is the best it can possibly be.

Don't give up. I wrote (I think) eight complete novels before I sold my first one. Like any art, writing is not something that happens overnight. When you start, your work will most likely fall short of that goal in your head. It might have potential but it will still be the work of a beginner. Good writing comes with practice.


  1. Excellent advice, and I enjoyed reading both of your perspectives! :)

  2. Very helpful insights all the way around, resource links included. Thank you for taking the time to share this!

  3. It's a pleasure. Cat and I thought it would be great to make a comparison. We've certainly discussed this topic a lot.