Is print the new vanity press?
As those of you who have followed my blog posts here know, I have recently finished a new novel, and I’ve been trying to find my way back into the publishing world, trying to navigate all the changes that have taken place in the years I’ve been off writing. Though I am intrigued by self-publishing, the lure of a print contract pulls strongly at my heart. So, when I finally finished this book, I decided I would need to get myself an agent.
Some of you may be wondering what the back story is on this. How did I go from publishing novels with with a big New York publisher to trying to find an agent?
I am one of those midlist authors you hear talk about who did not have “good enough” sales on the four books in my series, in spite of all my efforts at publicity. Though I still get wonderful emails from fans wondering when the next Seychelle book will come out, and most of the reviews of the books were positive, I did not sell enough of any of the four books in the series to be considered a success in the eyes of New York publishing. In many ways, that makes me something of a pariah in this business.
Nearly five years ago, when I turned in the final edit on Wreckers’ Key, I sat down with my editor and said, “I have a suspicion that if I turn in an outline and sample chapter for book five in my series, you all are going to reject it.”
He said, “I’m glad you said that so I don’t have to. You’re probably right, but by recognizing that, you’re ahead of dozens of other authors walking around this conference right now who are in the same situation, but can’t admit it to themselves.”
I told him that though my contract said I could submit a proposal/outline, I wanted to go off and write the whole book and try to wow them with the new reinvented me. My editor agreed that it was a great idea. Then I went to my agent and told her what I planned to do. She said, “Okay, if you’re going to reinvent yourself, you need to stop writing about boats.”
“Say what?” I said.
“You could write about anything. If you’re really going to reinvent yourself, change the subject and ditch the boats.”
I hung up the phone and thought about it. I remembered the famous story Tony Hillerman used to tell about the time when his agent couldn’t sell his first novel and she told him to go rewrite the book and “get rid of all the Indian stuff.”
Now, I’m the first to admit that I’m no Tony Hillerman, but like Hillerman, I have to follow my passion — and my passion is for the sea and boats. So, I sat down and wrote a letter to my agent telling her that it was time for us to part ways.
So, here I am now four long years later with this new book and a desperate desire to get it into the hands of readers. I have to start over from scratch.
When I went to the Writers’ in Paradise conference in January, I tried to talk to the agent there, but she kept dodging me once she knew of my situation. I’d join the group she was chatting with, and she’d announce her glass needed filling. Third time was the charm. Remember that pariah word? All the other unpublished authors at the conference were of far more interest to her because they represented unknown possibilities. My rookie card had already proven itself to be worth no more than the paper it was printed on.
So, the next conference up was Sleuthfest at the end of February, and afterwards, I sent the complete manuscript to three agents (who had asked for it). Two have already rejected the book. I’ve not heard back from the third.
I know these agents are smart and good at what they do, and if they don’t think they can sell the book, I trust their judgement. The market is brutal out there as the sales of print books decline. And I write quirky books, not Patterson-esque best sellers.
So, I find myself alone with no agent, no contract, and only the outstanding clause in my last contract that said my publisher has the option to take the first look at my next book-length work of fiction before I can do anything else with it.
The last week of March it became clear to me that I could wait a very long time for these agents to get back to me, and they could still reject me like a couple of very bright ones already had. And my retirement date is only three weeks off — that date when I am following through on the mantra of this blog, and quitting my job to go sailing and to write full time. The paychecks are about to stop, and I don’t have the luxury of time here.
So, I decided to send the book on to my editor myself without representation by an agent. I’ve been thinking of this as a formality, thinking that surely he is going to reject the book, and then I will be able to get on with the business of finding a cover designer and publishing it myself as an ebook.
When I contacted him, I was very surprised when he sounded eager to read the manuscript, and it suddenly occurred to me, what if he does make an offer? And that was when my ego kicked in and I thought, well, even if it isn’t very much money, wouldn’t it be lovely to be back in print? I mean the ideal world would be one where where I have both a print publisher and I write enough books to self-publish some of them like Tim Hallinan does. How little money would I be willing to settle for to once again see reviews of my books in newspapers, to be able to crack open that first box of books and smell the sweet smell of fresh paper? Sure, I could probably make more money by self-publishing like our own Mike J-, J.A. Konrath, L.J. Sellers, Bob Mayer, and Barry Eisler have shown. But wouldn’t it feel good to be back with the “in crowd” and not a pariah anymore? And that was when the question hit me. For someone like me, has a print deal with a New York publisher has become the new vanity press?
What do you think?