Sunday, July 22, 2007

Self-publishing is not the way to go

An email I received today:

I loved your website and was very impressed with your bio and all the awards that you have received. What a wonderful life you must be enjoying. Great!

I have written a mystery novel. The book is already in print, but I need an expert to tell me my next move. The book has been advertised on, but without an agent, I'm having a problem knowing what to do next.

If you could give me some tidbits of how to make this dream a reality, I would love to hear it.

My reply:

I wish I could give you some positive words of advice. If you'd asked me earlier, my advice would have been not to self-publish your book. In terms of interesting a traditional publisher, especially for fiction, that's the worst possible move you can make: sure, if you'd self-published and been a success, selling (at a minimum) tens of thousands of copies, a commercial publisher might become interested. But you haven't; your Amazon sales rank is 4,000,000+ -- meaning a single copy of your book sells now and again.

Yes, you've got seven positive reviews on -- but of those, six are by people who have only reviewed your book and no others, and of the five who say where they live, four are local to you. Again, I'm afraid that's not much help.

Sadly, by self-publishing, you've established a track record for your book, and it's a poor one. I'm trying not to be harsh here, but the sad truth is that you decided to take a shortcut, and, like many shortcuts, it's ended up getting you lost. Self-publishing is the end of a book's life, not it's beginning.

Your only hope for a traditional publisher at this point is to do the standard procedure (well documented in any number of books on the writing game that you could have read prior to choosing the route you took) of submitting (by paper mail) sample chapters and outlines to appropriate publishing houses -- and doing so without mentioning your self-published edition. If a publisher likes what you're offering (and note that the bar is high in commercial publishing, and most people don't manage to clear it simply because their manuscripts aren't good enough), then come clean at that point about the self-published edition (which you'll need to immediately pull from the marketplace).

As for getting an agent at this stage, it's virtually impossible. Most authors who have an agent to sell their first book (including myself, way back when) landed their agents on the strength of professionally published (bought and paid for) short work in their chosen field. It's easy to get an agent after you get an offer from a publisher, but without real publishing credential (that is, without having paid your dues as a writer), your chances of landing one beforehand is a virtually zero -- and I can guarantee will be zero if you start your query with, "I have self-published my novel and now want to find a commercial publisher for it."

I'm so sorry I can't be more encouraging.

The Robert J. Sawyer Web Site


At July 22, 2007 2:29 PM , Blogger Joel Kelly said...

It's worth noting that John Scalzi recently said that he's too lazy to have gone the traditional way and, in fact, published his novel "Agent to the Stars" online, which is how he was noticed by Tor.

He more-or-less refuses to submit anything that can't be done by email. He's stated, though, that this only works if you have a significant web presence already, and I believe he'd been a published writer for some time before "Agent."

At July 22, 2007 3:15 PM , Blogger RobertJSawyer said...

With all due respect, Joel, John Scalzi is an aberrant data point. He is by far, far, far, the exception; he is not a new paradigm, not the new route, not the sure-fire path to success.

John is a wonderful writer, and I think of him as a friend. But what happened to him has been replicated hardly at all, if ever. And it is hugely significant, although your gloss over it by mentioning it only in passing, that he had a GIGANTIC web presence before hand, and was a substantially published writer (making his living as such) before he sold his first book.

(The other aberrant data point people like to truck out -- although, again, as with John, it's hardly even related to self-publishing through a vanity press, which is what's under discussion here -- is Cory Doctorow; Cory, too (an old friend of mine, by the way), was widely published before he sold his first novel, and had a gigantic web presence beforehand, too. His experience and John's have no bearing on the experience almost everyone else will have. You know the old Internet shorthand YMMV, for "your mileage may vary"? In this case, your mileage WILL vary, by orders of magnitude, guaranteed.)

So, if your point here was to say, no, Rob, you're wrong, people out there are becoming huge successes self-publishing genre fiction (and that absolute beginners should go around submitting by email), then I'm here to tell you you're full of beans. And if that isn't your point, then what exactly was "worth noting," please?

At July 22, 2007 3:42 PM , Blogger RobertJSawyer said...

I'm going to go a bit further here. My blog posting we're commenting on is a public service announcement. I get letters like the one I posted today all the time, and they are heartbreaking.

(I get such letters because my website is one of the most popular on the net for writing advice, especially for science fiction -- put "how to write science fiction" into Google, and I'm on the first page.)

The person who wrote me, and people like her, dream of being professional writers and have already made a horrendous, career-crippling mistake, a mistake that will almost certainly relegate their first novel to obscurity and ensure it never is commercially published and widely available.

I'm trying to prevent that from happening to other people, and those who saunter by to say, "Oh, no, wait, I know a guy who knows a guy who ..." or "No, really, once upon a time someone did ..." are just ensuring that others will have the same sad fate as my current correspondent, because in the flood of online come-ons for vanity publishing there are very few places telling the truth, and if you dull that truth, you give the wide-eyed innocents out there a chance to dismiss it, and go down the wrong route (after all, they don't want to hear that making it as a professional writer is a long and hard process; they want to hear that it's easy and all they have to do is write a check or get introduced to the right person).

So don't gainsay what I've said here, unless you can back it up with many directly comparable examples of real success (and you can't; they don't exist) -- and remember, please, it's people's careers you're screwing with; make sure you're really helping before you wade in.

At July 22, 2007 10:01 PM , Blogger Joel Kelly said...

"So, if your point here was to say, no, Rob, you're wrong, people out there are becoming huge successes self-publishing genre fiction"

I'd hoped that my last sentence was more clear. I was merely pointing out that there have been exceptions to what can, I agree, accurately be described as the rule.

"And if that isn't your point, then what exactly was "worth noting," please?"

If an interesting story that illustrates someone's success by taking a different path (however aberrant a data point it may be) doesn't strike you as notable enough to mention, than I suppose nothing.

Perhaps my eagerness to contribute to the conversation led me to type before forming a comment with more substance.

At July 22, 2007 10:08 PM , Blogger RobertJSawyer said...

Hi, Joel. Thank you, and please accept my apology for being testy. I did mean it when I said it's heart-breaking for me when I get these letters from people who have screwed up so badly. I mean, I know what it is to be a beginner in this field -- to want it so badly you can taste it -- and it just tears me apart when someone makes a mistake that's going to be very hard to recover from. I'm just trying to prevent other people from having the same problem, and this was about the third person this week who had written to me AFTER wasting a pile of time and money (one of the other ones had commissioned the cover art for his book he wanted to sell to my imprint, Robert J. Sawyer Books, and, yes, was making the mistake of shot-gunning publishers with attachments including his text, the cover painting, and the cover layout he'd hired a graphic desinger to do). I just feel so badly for these people.

I owe you a drink, next time we're in the same province. :)

At July 23, 2007 8:42 AM , Blogger Joel Kelly said...

No worries, Rob. I get what you're saying, and trying to help people out requires no apology.

At August 05, 2007 3:30 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Rob, I'm glad I found this conversation, I have written a science fiction novel like the million other hopefuls out there.I thought about self publishing very hard after reading about the success of G.P.Taylor.
How ever I really feel I that my nvel would be more well placed if I get an agent/publisher the traditional way, Ive been on your site and used as much of the info as possible.
I would like to ask one thing,
Do you not suggest I send my illustrations or cover art with my Manuscript when looking to land an agent as you call it shot gunning.
Thanks Ryan

At August 05, 2007 3:37 AM , Blogger RobertJSawyer said...

Hi, Ryan.

Send only the manuscript. The cover art will be at the discretion of the publisher; once the book is sold, you can politely inquire of the editor if you can make suggestions. Normally, there are no interior illustrations for adult novels. So: just send the manuscript. It's a writers job to do the words only; other specialists do the other parts. :)

At August 05, 2007 3:57 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for the advice, I will try not sending the cover art and illustrations, (even though they are fantastic)if that will help my chances of landing an agent/publisher, after all you know best.

At August 05, 2007 4:26 PM , Blogger RobertJSawyer said...

Good luck, Ryan. You have to remember that the definition of "fantastic" as regards to cover art isn't "really well done" or "accurately captures a scene in the novel." Granted you might be a good judge of both of those. But the real definition of "fantastic" is "will cause the buyers for Barnes & Noble and Borders to place big orders for the book," and that's something that only a specialist -- the art director at a successful publishing company -- has the experience to judge.

Best of luck.

At August 06, 2007 7:49 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Fantastic" is how I describe the work of award winning illustrators in a blog, if i were to put it more expressively i would call it captivating beyond expectation, maybe if I emailed you the cover you would see what I mean

At August 06, 2007 12:58 PM , Blogger RobertJSawyer said...

You're missing my point, then, and I thought I was quite clear: UNLESS YOU KNOW the tastes of the people at the bookstore chains who will decide the fate of your book, YOU ARE NOT COMPETENT TO JUDGE the appropriateness of any piece of art that might appear on the cover of your book IN SO FAR AS actually getting that book widely distibuted is concerned.

Regardless, it is WRONG, INAPPROPRIATE AND COUNTERPRODUCTIVE for an aspirant writer to submit cover art or cover art suggestions along with a prose-fiction manuscript going to a commercial literary agent or commercial publishing house.

Best of luck.

At August 07, 2007 9:39 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I do get your point you were very clear, I just feel you do not consider that an aspirant writer such as myself, would not take in to consideration the publishers views on artwork, this is why I hired an award winning illustrator with a well known name in the industry so the proposed agent/publisher would instantly recognise the initiative and quality of the work.
Please excuse me if I come across abrupt, but I am a
Leo and an athiest (Not a good combination apparently)
Regards Ryan

At August 07, 2007 1:20 PM , Blogger RobertJSawyer said...

Fine. Do it your way. Good luck.

(The other thing that you are missing, Ryan, is that it is important to have the whole team at the publishing company take ownership of your book and think of it, in a way, as THEIR book. The editor obviously can and must feel that he or she has really contributred, but so must the art director, the publicist, the marketing manager, and so on. When someone comes charging in saying, "I know how to do your jobs -- I don't need any of you!," that person will certainly not have their support. But, like I said, you do it your way; it's your book and your (hoped for) career. We'll compare notes if five years and see how your strategy has paid off.)

At August 07, 2007 1:31 PM , Blogger RobertJSawyer said...

(And, what we have here, is the standard song of the self-published: But, but, but I've *already* spent the money! You *have* to tell me that wasn't a mistake!)

At August 08, 2007 6:59 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I fully understand your point, the money I spent on the illustrations was worth while if only for me. I am not going to send them based on your advice which I cannot deny sounds plausible, based fully on your experience which I intend to emulate, If one does not head advice from those who have been there, then one shall fall at the same hurdle as the naive.
"Moral indignation is jealousy with a Halo" H.G.Well's

At October 09, 2007 10:14 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree that self publishing is tantamont to shooting oneself in the foot.

And I can almost go along with your rather brutish aproach to disuading anyone that might wander down that path.

I even somehow perversely understand about the artwork bit.

I appreciate how you have set yourself out here to help others in a sort of self promoting way.
What I don't understand is that I have been reading SciFi now for over thirty five years and I have never, until I googled, heard of you. I know that you said that that means that I don't have a twit of a chance of understanding this genre until I have and I asure you I will soon rectify that.

I do think that every reader eventually has an obligation to give back what they have received.
And again I agree they should go the more torturous route and publish with a real publisher when they do that but I do think somewhere along the line encouragement and understanding and tact might actually help.

Although there is the arguement that you are introducing young writers to the system before they become personally devistated. There are probably some things best left to the professionals.
In this case the real publisher.

At November 19, 2008 3:00 PM , Blogger Matthew said...

"Reading Sci fi for 30 years"

The reason you've probably never heard of him is because you're reading Sci Fi and not sf.

At November 19, 2008 3:32 PM , Blogger Matthew said...

Also, please don't use google as a verb.

At November 29, 2008 8:46 AM , Blogger DBain said...

Rob, you said nothing about the ebook authors (and trade paperback) who have made minor names for themselves in the science fiction field, such as me.
While I'm not getting rich, I am earning more than 5K a year doing what I like.

At March 24, 2009 3:26 AM , Blogger Elzoog said...

I don't get some of you guys. What is the point in telling Robert Sawyer something like "Well, Joe Smerdley broke into the market by publishing with Lulu, printing 100 copies of his book, and then giving it to friends and agents."? Unless you can name A LOT of people who have done this AND have become successful writers (and not just one odd guy) how is this going to be impressive?

Basically, Mr. Sawyer has made a website about how to get into the science fiction market. If you guys think there is a better way, then do it your way, become famous and then make YOUR website telling people how you did it.

Otherwise, why waste Mr. Sawyer's time?

At August 24, 2009 7:24 AM , Blogger Arondevine said...

Dear Robert,

I have finished writing a fantasy book, after going through it many times its starting to get to a point it is ready to be introduced to a publisher. I have let some people read my story, and there was a tad bit of confusion due to the names of places. I have drawn a map because of that to give readers something to fall back to if they are confused. I saw your discussion with Ryan and I now understand your point about the cover art and why I should not submit those things I have worked on, but what about the map? Do you think I should include it with the manuscript or leave it aside until asked for it?



At August 30, 2009 3:58 AM , Blogger RobertJSawyer said...

It's perfectly fine to include the map with your manuscript submission.

At October 29, 2009 8:50 AM , Blogger Jonathan Ball said...

It's a testament to the usefulness of this site as a resource for writers (and writing teachers -- I'm both) that the comments on this post have covered such a long time period.

I want to add something in support of Sawyer's screed against submitting cover art. One thing that Robert could have made clearer is that it is simply not professional. Robert has chosen to explain WHY, but I've found that this kind of advice, though more useful than other forms of advice, is not effective when talking to new writers. They don't understand why because reasons "why" things are done in publishing are based in tradition and/or business practices which seem arcane. The head of a new writer isn't in that space, and they have a hard time getting there. So you get all these "yeah, but..." answers, which just make you want to smash in your own skull because (from the "insider's" perspective) they make no sense whatsoever.

The simple fact of the matter is that professional writers, whether they are full-time, well-paid writers like Sawyer or part-time, poorly paid authors like myself, do not submit cover art to publishers. There are many reasons why they don't. But the fact is that they don't. If you submit cover art with your manuscript, regardless of its quality, you are associating yourself with amateurs, many of whom are crazy as hell. You don't want to signal with your manuscript that you are an amateur. You want to be considered as a professional, even if you have never published anything. So do what other professionals do -- do what guys like Sawyer tell you to do, even if it makes no sense to you and seems pointless. Do what publishers say (in their guidelines) even if there is a better way to do things.

As Robert notes, you will often be asked for your feedback regarding covers. If not, you can contact your publisher and ask for the opportunity to present your input. I selected the cover image for my first book and directed the redesign of the cover my publisher put together. For my second book, I was asked (by another publisher) for cover ideas, and have provided a possible cover that the publisher likes so far (we'll see what happens later, the book is still in press). If you are seriously concerned with having input on the cover image and overall design, I recommend dealing with a small press. But in NO CIRCUMSTANCE should you ever submit cover art with a manuscript!

The reason Robert says that submitting a map is fine is because it is an example of an interior illustration that is common in that genre (fantasy). Other interior illustrations, like cover art, are taboo, generally.

At November 13, 2009 1:08 PM , Blogger Snippily said...

I self-published two novels with Lulu three years ago. Other than the bulk-order special, I never sold one print. Fifty of the hundred books I bulk-ordered ended up in the dumpster behind my building in North Vancouver. I rushed into publishing them, following the lead of several other Lulu writers who knowingly dumped their "novels" into the marketplace with hundreds, if not thousands, of typos and grammatical mistakes, and god-awful exteriors and interiors. My two books are now at the bottom of Amazon's rankings (6,500,000) where they belong. I wanted to have the books deleted from the site, but was informed that I would need a court order. If you're serious about your writing, then avoid print-on-demand rackets like the plague and/or influenza virus.

At November 13, 2009 2:55 PM , Blogger RobertJSawyer said...

Hi, Snippily. Thank you so much for sharing your experience. For what it's worth your hard-won knowledge may indeed help others avoid the same fate. THANK YOU.


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