Agency Lessons: Why an agent self-publishes

Agency Lessons is a weekly post that gives authors and readers an inside look into the mind of a literary agent and a peek behind the curtain of how books are made.

Today's question comes from the mailbag.

Hey Sarah, why did you choose to self-publish over seeking representation/publication the traditional way?

I feel like I've answer this a million times before, but I still get asked all the time. Since I'm about to self-publish the third book in my series, it's probably a good time to hash it out again.

So, let me give you the quick rundown of how I ended up self-pubbing my first book. I decided to self-pub for several different reasons (I'll get to that) so I did the whole hire an editor, cover designer, proofreader thing. I got my book in top notch shape. And then I accidentally got an agent which is a long story and a really backward way of doing things. Any who, my agent shopped the book and we got an offer, but I ultimately decided to decline. End of story.

Now for the highlights which I think are important for everyone.

1. Know what's selling
My trilogy is a dystopian. I love dystopians, readers love dystopians, they are great. My book was ready to go in late 2013. Dystopian was all over the place. Except editors were done with it. They had spent the last several years up to their eyeballs in the genre and, reasonably, didn't want anymore.

I knew this. I sent out a few queries, but wasn't surprised when everyone said they just couldn't take on another dystopian project. Over two years later and it's still a genre that is hard to sell. But...I knew that readers were still really digging the genre.

So I had two choices. I could sit on the project and wait, probably another five years, until the genre came back into the swing of things. Or I could self-publish. While you should always write the story that speaks to you, you should also know what the market is like. It doesn't matter which route you go if no one is reading your genre anymore.

2.Turning down contracts
This is something that no one really talks about, but I think we should. I was offered a contract and politely declined. You are allowed to do that. The offering publisher was perfectly lovely and I'm sure they would have done a fantastic job with the book.

By the time they offered, I had already invested in my own editors and cover. Again, this is the backward way of doing things, but it's the place I was in. So for me, I really wanted a publisher that could give me what I couldn't do on my own...print distribution. My agent and I agreed that this publisher wasn't particularly strong in print distribution.

So as hard as it was to say no to someone who wanted my work. I did. But I could do that because I knew what I wanted. Before you agree to anything in publishing, make sure you know what you want and that you'll get it with that deal. If I hadn't been clear in my goals, I might have signed that contract and then been unhappy when it didn't provide what I belatedly realized I wanted.

3. Screw the path
Everyone talks about the path to publishing as if it's the yellow brick road that will lead you straight to the NYT Bestseller list. If you stray from the path, flying monkeys will carry you away to midlist purgatory.

THERE IS NO PATH. There, I said it. There isn't a path to publication. It's more like a dirt road with lots of detours and the destination is a hologram that fizzles out every time you get close to it. Stop worrying about making mistakes and getting off the right track. Publishing is not a one size fits all model that scoops everyone up and spits them out the same as if they're an American Eagle catalog.

These days there are a million different ways to publish and a thousand different visions of success.

So, really, why did I self-publish?

Because it was the best decision for me, at that time, for the book I had. If I was just starting with that book right now, I might make different decisions. I'll certainly be looking carefully at all my options for my next project.

Should you self-publish? Heck if I know. But if you do your homework, set clear expectations, and believe in what you're doing, you'll be alright.