Birds eye view of a market table lined with books and prospective browsing buyers.
Photo credit: Maico Pereira.

Self Publishing wasn’t the first publishing path that appealed to me. Nor were small presses. Like many writers, I figured I’d need a literary agent, because they’re the gatekeepers of middling to large publishing companies and because I didn’t know much about book marketing. Then I worked with multiple critical readers, discovered how difficult it is to know when you’ve finished editing, and figured an editorial agent would do nicely. But when I really thought about it, I was facing down all the usual querying obstacles, plus a couple of large experience-related and some personal ones. The following are the factors I weighed and measured before deciding to self publish my first trilogy.

The Early Querying Journey

It was fine at first. As anyone whose pitched an 80+ thousand word novel will tell you, writing 280 character tweet pitches is HARD. As is writing a query pitch. And a synopsis. All were challenges. I like challenges, and learning. I quickly found these things worked better when people helped each other. So I created a query letter critique group, which quickly became five Twitter DMs, each with five writers trading query letter feedback.

I made a Twitter DM for discussing querying, and another for tweet pitch critiquing and supporting each other in pitch parties (there were 3 of those at one point!) Then I consolidated query package feedback and query discussion onto a Craft & Querying Discord. I met fellow querying writers, we shared our journeys, helped each other hone our querying craft, and encouraged each other with the uphill struggle that is querying.

By the time I made my first foray into the querying trenches, I’d spent three months talking to querying writers. I was well aware I may need to send out 50 queries to get a few full requests. Later, I realised I could send out 100 queries and still get very few full requests, and no offer of an agent contract.

I saw friends write entertaining stories, with well rounded characters, querying till they ran out of agents to query (over two or three years), shelve book that book, write the next and query it. Yes, a very small minority did sign with agents and a few with a small press, but over a two year period, the vast majority didn’t.

Killer one: Time

I spent YEARS writing and more YEARS editing. I was studying full time and am still teaching full time. I’ve lived and worked overseas and generally done a lot. It doesn’t leave much time for writing.

By the time I’d pantsed a trilogy, re-written it, read up on writing craft and worked with critical readers -and completed a structural edit based on a manuscript critique- I was TIRED. It had taken 20 years for a series of novellas to become a fully drafted, near query-ready trilogy (with a second trilogy not far behind). So how did I feel about waiting years before someone else let me publish? Not very motivated.

If not for lockdowns bringing most things writing related to a grinding halt for me (yes, I queried in 2020), I’d intended to query at least 50 agents, over 6 months to an absolute maximum of two years, then move on. But the pandemic hit, lockdowns dragged on and it took me 1.5 years to query 19 agents and 14 presses. It was taking too long. I’d worked too hard, I just wanted my books published already!

Killer two: Interest

By this stage, I’d critiqued over an estimated 200 tweet pitches and probably around 50 query letters). I’d learned loads about what makes a good pitch. As much as I could from querying this particular novel, and I had a second ready. So I started pitching wip two in pitch parties and continued to hone my skills. But the issues I had with my pitches and queries now weren’t about general pitching skills. They were how best to pitch, in one case, a multi-pov, portal, epic fantasy in which writing only one pov in a query or synopsis felt like pitching a (misleading) book fragment. Compared to the first three months of query writing and critiquing, I was learning next to nothing. And because of that, I was losing interest.

Killer three: Patience and Tolerance

Here’s where my querying story differs. In my state one year teaching contracts are FAR more common than ongoing positions. So, almost every year, for 8 years, I’ve filled in the same bloody paperwork. I’ve updated the same six, single page mini essays, updated the same interview notes, and spent HOURS looking at potential jobs, schools etc. How does this relate to querying? Its a LOT like searching for agents. Do we have the same goals? The same work ethics? Will my style of teaching go well with this school/ my personality and writing style match this agent?

Querying is a numbers game, but so is continuing to have a job as a teacher. I forget how many jobs I applied for before getting my first. 50? 60? It was similar the second year and the third. By the forth (year in a row), I reached burn out after applying for 80 jobs that year alone. I went from enjoying reflecting on my teaching practice, to fed up. From hopeful and curious about where the next job was, to stressed about facing potential unemployment every year, while writing student reports, because job application season coincides with the busiest time of the teaching year.

Burnout and Swearing Time

In year four of job re-appling, I thought, fuck this shit, I want to go the Europe and travel. I calmed down, thought it through and moved to England, which has a serious shortage of teachers (understandable, given their system is brilliant at chewing teachers up and spitting us back out again). I went through agencies who found schools for me, and didn’t have to apply for as many positions.

When I returned to Australia, I applied for around 20 positions. In my eighth year of reapplying (yep, my eighth year in a supposedly professional job of proving I’m worth continuing to employ), I realised I was beyond burnt out, and past caring. I had so little interest in the reapplication process that I seriously considered leaving the profession, despite that I love and am just as passionate about teaching as I am about writing.

I didn’t leave teaching. Instead, I moved to New Zealand, where an agency asked my criteria for schools and handed my resume (yep, just a resume!) to four schools, the first offering me a job. This is when I began querying. The process of endlessly trying to make teaching application paperwork perfect, of spending countless hours researching who to send it to annually, the enormous investment over a period of weeks (usually 2 to three months) over eight years of teaching, was day one of querying for me. So my tolerance for doing the same shit over and over and getting the same results was low from the outset.

Killer Four: Marketability and Motivation

I may be wrong here. It may be that my YA Fantasy Manipulator’s War is sufficiently ‘fresh’, and ‘unique’ and ‘stand out’ enough for a literary agent and sizeable publisher to think it will sell. (Getting an honourable mention in the YA category for Pitch It may indicate so.) Maybe my writing craft and querying skills don’t do the marketable idea of my novel justice, and that’s why all 19 agents (yes, that’s not many) gave me form rejections. Maybe that’s why I had to pitch in around 15 pitch parties before getting my first (and second) literary agent like. But setting aside that YA Fantasy is very competitive, and visibility at pitch parties is almost winning the lottery in itself, my gut always said ‘prince’ (even a nonbinary one) + ‘war’ =’insufficiently original and marketable’ to appeal to a literary agent or sizeable publisher.

Yes, the right literary agent for it may exist. Yes, if I send enough queries, I may get lucky enough to one day query that agent. But in the face of waning interest for the process (a point I’ve reached with teaching twice, and overcome), with my impatience to have a book out, my intolerance of monotony and potentially endless waiting, doubt and lack of motivation tipped my scales for this trilogy well onto the side of ‘nope’.

Killer Five: the Need to Achieve

If you’re querying and plan to do so longer, I recommend also pursuing writing related things that let you experience a sense of achievement. Write a short story (and submit to anthologies!) Start your website, or a blog. Kick off your newsletter! Whatever you choose, make it something writing related you can point to and say: see? Finished! Because a novel without a literary agent or publishing contract can feel unfinished, and can make you feel like you aren’t achieving anything.

I didn’t set out to develop my author platform for this reason. Having moved back to Australia to spend lockdown with family, my personality clash with remaining indoors and extreme cabin fever made me so restless and unfocused that I couldn’t focus on wips. Building a website? Easy! Writing blogs? -perfect length! As for an author newsletter, I figured I needed to develop my voice in speaking to people as an author, and getting used to writing one would help me overcome imposter syndrome. So being me, I took on the website, blog and newsletter all at once (NB: don’t be me. Do one thing at a time -its much easier!).

Developing my author platform was fun, and engaging. It was new and novel and most importantly (as a former technophobe) it was a challenge which involved learning to do lots of new things. I was motivated and happy again, just as I’d felt when I began querying. But for me, the sense of achievement at having developed a blog, newsletter and website made me question. I wondered, why should I spend more time, effort and energy querying with (likely) no book to show for it, when with my blog and newsletter established, my next big step could be self publishing and having books to show for it?

Personality Factors

In considering which publishing path is right for you, I think personality is an important factor. The first time I considered that, I immediately thought: I’m adventurous, impatient, restless and a very sociable person. My personality is perfect fit for self publishing. My love of challenges and learning positions me well to learn to self publish, and book marketing clearly poses challenges and opportunities to learn new skills. In January 2021 I was thinking, is traditional publishing the right path for me on personality grounds alone? No. I’ll need to get lucky, because I have no desire to stick around for the numbers game of querying.

Industry Factors

What I say here is my personal -and not hugely informed impression- which is that the pandemic seemed to throw a spanner in the works of traditional publishing. I saw one agent talk at a conference where he said his agency quietly shut their doors to queries while editing with existing clients in 2020, then remained closed while putting those clients on submission in early 2021. I wondered, is this a shit time to be querying?

Then there are the issues of labour and supply shortages, (more details in this blog by Kathryn Rusch), which again make me think now is not a good time to debut in traditional publishing. In a few years, after I’ve self published my YA Fantasy trilogy? Then I’ll sniff the air, see what’s happening and maybe reconsider.


Alternatives? Small Presses?

Back in January I thought: let’s give small presses a shot. From conversations I’ve had with many people who enjoy fantasy, my YA Fantasy does have reader appeal. Perhaps a small press focused on fantasy and more willing to take a risk on a debut book than literary agents and big publishers, was a good idea. If I signed with a small publisher, I would still have an editor (and wouldn’t have to pay them out of my own pocket). I’d get to work with people with more editorial and marketing experience than myself. I assumed those conversations could be invaluable as a newbie author. And as a sociable person whose worked in close collaboration with colleagues in my varied teaching roles, I liked the idea of working with a small team to bring my book into the world.

How many presses did I query? At final count, 14. Why? Well, I was busy moving house, starting a new teaching job, then learning to teach students via video call over multiple lockdowns, which became a second big lockdown. It was exhausting, it was all consuming and 2021 wasn’t the right time for me personally to query.

The return to teaching on site was so hectic I figured I might as well throw out a final round of queries while I waited for the school year to end, and the time, headspace and energy to self publish. The summer school holidays (January) would be the best time to self publish my first book. If I didn’t do it then, I’d have to wait another YEAR to take control of when my book FINALLY became available to friends, family and colleagues I’ve been telling about it since FOREVER.

Do I Self Publish?

It would be a LOT to learn. LOTs of work. But I like learning. And challenges. I find them stimulating, interesting and energising. Everything that querying no longer is to me- self publishing is likely to be. Sure, I’ll probably make hardly any money and most likely won’t sell many books. I don’t care. I understand that you need a good back catalog to make money self publishing and that takes years, spending money and serious work. I’m prepared to tackle that. And I love teaching too much to give it up, so I’m not relying on writing to pay my bills or put a roof over my head. (I’ll be relying on teaching to pay for covers and editing very soon).

The thing that appealed to me most about self publishing, was that after two years getting my books and then query package to the best standard I could get them, self publishing is efficient. It moves fast. I could choose to make my book available in a matter of months, instead of waiting unknown years, over which I have no control, for other people to make that happen. After all the uncertainty covid brought into our lives, having the ability to make the decision to publish -and when- had more appeal to me than ever.

But what about the two years I spent honing my pitch craft and supporting other writers to hone theirs? Well, it should put me in good stead to write book blurbs, and advertising copy for my books. No skills will go to waste! (And yes, maybe I’ll query another trilogy/ series in future and have a head start in writing queries for them).

If I Self Publish, am I Quitting?

I once had this idea that I ‘wasn’t a quitter.’ The things is, we don’t always choose what’s best for us. I slogged through a job once, for as long as I could stand it. The day I handed in my resume, I could not stop smiling! I was so happy! Only then could I admit how much I hated working there!

Why did I ‘quit’? Because staying on would have meant killing myself trying to please people I believed were holding me (and everyone else) to ridiculous standards. They seemed to expect that we overwork ourselves (8am to 10pm Mon to Fri or spend all weekend working too), to the point we were under constant stress, always tired, didn’t have the energy or time to enjoy life. tI at least, was putting my mental health on the line for that stupid job.

Having had that experience with non-writing work, I don’t see choosing an alternate publishing path over querying as quitting. I tried a path for a particular trilogy. It wasn’t for me or that trilogy. Now its time to move forward on the path that lets me do just that.

Conclusion

For me, for my first trilogy, at this point in time: self publishing is the option I feel happiest and most motivated about. I can’t wait to dive in! (and probably will have by the time you read this.) Will I query something else in future? I’ve also written a MG Fantasy that’s high concept, and I feel is much more marketable. It will take time to hone its pitches (the one thing I haven’t done is paid critiques or querying workshops- which I would like to attend).

But in a couple of years, having brought closure on a trilogy I’ve worked on and off for over twenty years by self publishing it, and finished editing the SciFi Fantasy trilogy I’ve worked on, and off, for the same length of time, maybe I’ll query again. If, with rest, closure and the achievement of having published my first trilogy balances the above factors above the right way, and querying books appeals in future, yes, I’ll consider it.

Choosing Your Publishing Path

If you’re debating publishing paths, I suggest talking to other writers. Find out which personality factors, motivations, experiences and book goals led (or are leading them) to a particular path. Consider which of those factors do or don’t apply to your personality, skill set, lifestyle, book and goals, and to what extent. When you weigh everything up, which publishing path do you feel will best meet your needs? Your books needs? Is it one path for now, different paths for different books, or do you lean strongly to a single publishing path for everything?

2023 Addendum

Its been two years. book #1 and #2 are out in the wild, and book #3 (War in Sorcery’s Shadow) is set to join them in April 2024. Since going indie, I’ve seen a lot of anecdotal evidence of marginalised authors being gate-keeped out of traditional publishing. I’ve heard of the Great Resignation hitting editors at major publishing houses and seen literary agents posting about taking on a third job because agenting and their second job isn’t earning enough to pay their bills. The latter two seem to mean that manuscripts need to be close to publishable standard at the time of querying, requiring less input than in previous years from agents and editors alike.

Yes, a few more of my friends have signed with literary agents over the past two years. For the rest, it still seems an exceptionally competitive, soul destroying time to be querying, and traditional publishing still seems to be in a state of crisis, or at least a huge mess. With the death of Twitter seeing pitch parties suspended, post-poned or leaving the platform (updates on those in this post), even my idea of pitching my more marketable MG contemporary fantasy has little appeal.

Having heard mostly very bad news about the state of traditional publishing since before the pandemic, this queer, neurodiverse author currently feels that the best publishing path for their future books is indie. I’m now planning to self publish my middle grade Fantasy and YA SciFi trilogy, then review the state of trad publishing again in 2027/28, when I hope to begin writing a new series (I suspect I’ll be fully committed to staying indie by then, but never say never.)

Total Page Visits: 3148

Related Reading

Querying Your First Novel (a suggested querying process)

Publishing Paths Interviews

Halla Williams #Pitmad Success Story

Signing with an Indie Publisher

Indie Authors on Indie Authoring