It’s a tough decision for a writer to make, one of the toughest. All your life you’ve fantasized about one of the big New York publishers buying your book and its subsequent astronomical launch into the stratosphere. But it hasn’t happened yet in spite of your eating, sleeping, and researching the craft of writing for years.
While the non-responses (don’t) come in, and the polite rejections clog your inbox (and your arteries, or so it may seem), the option of self-publishing hangs out there like a flag unfurling in the corner of your eye, waiting for you to take notice and give it some attention. It’s Plan B and has been for a long time.
Are you on the fence?
When do you decide that it’s time to pursue Plan B? When do you turn off the traditional road and drive the indie path? There is no easy answer to this question, but if you take the time to consider the following, you’ll come that much closer to knowing.
- The agents, by and large, are not responding with feedback or questions. This is not uncommon, as agents sort through piles of queries every day, and the large majority of submissions receive form rejections. Maybe you’ve sent out a significant amount of queries for a significant amount of time (a year or longer), and you’re frustrated with the lack of response. A few agents may have requested chapters or a full here and there, but afterward they replied with a “no.” Or, you’ve had some luck, enough to keep you motivated, but agents/editors all say the same thing in the end: the premise or hook just didn’t grab them enough or your platform needs work.
- You’ve taken your manuscript through the whole nine yards of the editing process, from beta reading to professional editing and the manuscript sparkles. When you read your book, you’re not tempted to make edits. It feels finished. (Learn more on preparing your manuscript.)
- You’ve entered contests, and you’ve either won or become a finalist, or simply received high scores and enthusiastic feedback, such as “great hook,” or “I love the protagonist.” You’ve considered the constructive criticism the judges have posed and made changes when that feedback made sense to you. You’ve taken full advantage of the prepublication contest experience. (More on the benefits of contests.)
- You’ve enrolled in a course on book marketing and promotion, or educated yourself via blogs like this one that provide quality content, because you’ll need to grow your platform no matter how you publish. You’ve built an attractive author website that includes a bio with some interesting facts about you, a page dedicated to your work-in-progress, a professional author photo, and a means for interested parties to contact you. Your site also has a “subscribe to my email list” pop-up or contact form, and you’ve slowly but surely begun to build a following.
- You have a blog or YouTube channel or newsletter featuring the genre or subjects associated with your book, and you enjoy sharing your knowledge and communicating your thoughts and experiences to the public. You’re excited about the prospect of growing your platform by offering helpful content to others. (Here’s blogging advice from Jane.)
- You’re engaged with social media. Though you may not love social media, you do like to quote or recommend your favorite authors on occasion, and you’ve started posting and sharing. Or perhaps you’re an amateur photographer, and you share your amazing shots of the forest on Instagram because that’s the setting of your novel. Either way, you start commenting on the posts of others and building some relationships with people who have similar interests. (Here’s social media advice from Jane.)
- You like the idea of being in control of all aspects of your book: the cover, the page design, the illustrations, the pricing, and the marketing. You like making decisions and feel educated enough to do so. If you don’t know something, you’re confident you can research the subject or reach out to the pros for help.
- You’ve made a “final list” of agents to contact. A couple of dream agents might be on the list because you’ve been saving them until your manuscript was in the best shape possible. Now is the time to send those queries.
- You want it to happen sooner rather than later. You don’t like the idea that even if you do land an agent, it will likely be two years or more before your book appears in print—and that’s only if the agent can quickly find an editor to sell it to.
- You’re a self-starter. A go-getter. You won’t take no for an answer. Or, maybe you’re not this fervent in every aspect of your life, but when it comes to your book, you’re ready to do what needs to be done. You want your dream of publishing to happen. You’ve been saving money for a possible “self-publishing venture,” your Plan B. You believe your book is worthy and that it will find a readership. Do you have the patience to wait for an agent to make the grand gesture? Or are you fired up and ready to move ahead right now?
- You’ve considered your goals for your book, and what you will consider success. Does it have to be a bestseller in order for you to be happy with it? Does it need to make a million dollars? Your goal may not have anything to do with money. It might be something simple like impressing your family and friends with your literary prowess, or even simpler, holding a finished book in your hands (an undoubtedly awesome feeling!). What are your goals, and can self-publishing satisfy them? (Learn about goal setting from Joanna Penn.)
Perhaps my own story will inspire you. I have been writing for thirty years. I love the writing life, so a long time ago I decided that, published or not, I would write because it’s what I love to do. That said, two years ago I arrived at a point where I felt I’d written a novel that other people would enjoy. In other words, I believed there was a market for my book. So I worked on my query with a freelance editor and sent it out—for months—to no avail. Meanwhile, my novel did well in contests and received inspiring feedback from judges, like the one who said, “This is one of the more creative and unique plots that I’ve come across in all media” and another who said, “I really wanted to keep reading.” Such comments fueled my self-confidence.
I decided to move forward on my own—to self-publish.
Two days after I made this decision, my dream agent came through with a request of three chapters. It figures, right? I provided those chapters, and she came back with a rejection without feedback, but that was okay because I was ready to self-publish.
Weeks later, I received my first-ever professional review from BlueInk Review—my heart pounded as I opened the email. To my great thrill and surprise, my novel received a starred review, an honor BlueInk gives only 5 percent of the books reviewed! A positive Kirkus review followed, with an appearance in their print publication (Feb. 1, 2021), an honor only 10 percent of indies enjoy. This was the same book I couldn’t get more than one agent to look at!
The point is, it’s a crowded market, and failure to land an agent is not a determination of your book’s worth, or its potential success. This is why you must believe in your book.
Now, I’m not suggesting that everyone should go out and self-publish. If you want to traditionally publish, I say go for it. But if things don’t go your way, and you are willing to take on the responsibility yourself, there is a Plan B. And it’s a perfectly respectable one.
Kim Catanzarite has been a freelance writer and editor for almost three decades, and she teaches copyediting for Writer’s Digest University. She’s also the author of the psychological thriller, They Will Be Coming for Us. You can subscribe to her self-publishing blog at AuthorKimCatanzarite.com/blog.