So here’s the thing. This is not going to be a damning indictment of traditional publishing, nor will it be an ad for why self-publishing is the only option. Self-publishing is more simple than that: It’s nothing more and nothing less than a means to an end. A tool in your writerly grab-bag. A way to tell your stories in a way that will be heard. The literary equivalent of putting your short movie on Vimeo, or your web series on YouTube, or your album on SoundCloud. As an approach, self-publishing has pros and cons, and we’re going to take a deeper dive into what they are. You might find that you want to try it; you might be like, uh, no.
It’s all good.
But this is the first step — deciding if this is the approach for you.
If you’re writing, or have written your story, you need to know several things. Firstly, what the hell is that thing? Is it a short story, a novella, a long short story, a novel, a mighty word-beast of several hundred thousand words? The reason we’re asking is that if you’re thinking of going the traditional publishing route (you get an agent, the agent gets you a publisher), you need to know exactly what you have, and what part of the bookstore it would be shelved in. You also need to make sure that your work meets the current accepted word length for whatever it is, e.g., YA novels are usually in the ballpark of 70k-80k, literary novels around 80k-90k, and fantasy novels more like 100k-12ok (on account of all that awesome world-building). These are just broad outlines, and they tend to change over time (only a few years ago YA novels used to be closer to 30k than 80k), but literary agents often won’t consider a novel if it’s too far away from the appropriate total. If you want to go the traditional route, your book must fit the traditional categories with all their requirements. Which is cool. You just need to know that as you’re writing and editing. If your book does match up with the traditional requirements, that’s great!
That doesn’t mean that you have to go traditional. It’s a necessary requirement if you do, but doesn’t force your hand. Traditional publishing has many advantages—marketing, distribution—but some disadvantages too, e.g. everything happens extremely slowly (it may take upwards of a year to find an agent, the same to get a publishing deal, and your publication date will likely be 18 months to 2 years after that), and, the kicker, it’s pretty challenging to get through the slush pile. Think of it from the agents’ perspective. Every single day opening their inbox to look at queries feels like this:
How are they supposed to really know which of all those super brief blurbs will turn out to be mighty-mega-bestsellers? It’s hard being an agent. If an agent gets thousands of queries a year (and most of them do), your chances of standing out from two paragraphs in a query letter are very slim. Not impossible, but on average, an agent may take on only a handful of new clients each year. That’s single digits, out of thousands.
But that could be you. And you should damn well believe that it will be you. you’re awesome!
None of this is to discourage you; it’s just to let you know what you’re up against, and what you’ll need to be ready for. Still up for it? That’s fantastic! Write yourself a knock-out query (there are plenty of reputable sites and services offering query critiques, and Writers Digest has a great series analyzing successful query letters)[link], select your list of literary agents (making sure they handle the type of book you’re submitting), and get at it!
If that’s not for you for whatever reason (your book is unconventional, you don’t want to wait that long, you just HAVE TO GET THIS STORY OUT THERE RIGHT NOW DAMNIT), or you’ve been down that road and have amassed a collection of rejections and want to try something else, then self-publishing might be worth a shot.
Making that decision carefully and thoughtfully is step 1.
We’ll take you through the next steps in part 2!