Self-publishing has its risks

I began representing authors late in 2008, shortly after self-publishing suddenly had become incredibly easy and no longer required an up-front contribution of cash. Optional, carefully considered investments in the editing, design, and marketing of a self-published book were likely to improve its popularity with readers and increase sales, but at the time, few eager self-publishers were thinking that far ahead. There were no barriers to entry and no obligations to understand the market’s demands. Making a book available to readers was thought to be, by definition, the only truly necessary element of publishing. The outcome was up to consumers, who would decide what they liked best. And they did.

For about a decade, self-publishing expanded exponentially and matured. Successful, entrepreneurial indie authors generously began to share their expertise online. Self-published and reissued out-of-print titles flooded the market, which, as expected, had unfortunate economic consequences for individual authors attempting to profit from their written works.

In 2008, plenty of aspiring authors believed that digital self-publishing, which sometimes incorporated a crowdsourcing component, would destroy the traditional, established trade book publishing industry. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but the acquiring editors with whom I discussed technological innovation back then weren’t feeling threatened or concerned. Today, the predominantly East Coast trade book publishing industry has adapted to the extent it was forced to, mass market paperback editions face extinction, and crowdsourcing has been usurped by crowdfunding—or, put your money where your mouth is.

The past decade began with writers asserting they no longer needed literary agents or traditional publishers and is ending with some of the same writers searching for literary agents or publishers who they hope might be persuaded to help reissue their self-published titles so the books can find a much larger readership. Of course, I don’t hear from the self-published authors who apprehend the demands of the market or the ones who are satisfied with the results of their efforts. A self-published author who had mastered entrepreneurship would realize she’d be asking me and a potential publisher to invest thousands of dollars worth of labor and capital in a market-tested book that had already publicly proven its value as an investment, and she wouldn’t waste her time trying to interest me in a book if it hadn’t sold phenomenally well. I can’t champion an author whose past performance doesn’t meet the expectations of the publishers with whom we’d be trying to collaborate. Doing so would benefit no one.

Queries from self-published authors are trending now in a sudden, stark shift. As a literary agent, I’m invisible and, nevertheless, a convenient bullseye. I understand how unfulfilled dreams can turn certain writers bitterly indignant. No one enjoys being judged when the standards are severely high. Fortunately, the ill-mannered are serendipitously counterbalanced by unrewarded yet still gracious writers who I know will continue reading, researching, practicing, experimenting, and improving in order to progress as far their talents and skills can take them on their chosen paths.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. As ever, regardless of how much variety they are offered, consumers gravitate en masse to read, discuss, recommend, and eagerly anticipate the screen adaptations of books written by a tiny fraction of a percentage of authors—the ones all authors would like to be and all agents would like to represent.

Book and target concept

What living in the South has shown me

Middleton Place, Charleston, South Carolina
Middleton Place, Charleston, South Carolina
I lived the first fifty years of my life north of the Mason-Dixon line in two blue Ohio counties surrounded by red ones. When I moved to South Carolina in 2012, I had to recalibrate my bullshit detector, which takes a lot of trial and error. I’m still disconcerted by the deceitfulness of people who have tried to befriend me and by the self-confident warmth of those who, in the North, automatically would have doubted me and frozen me out until I proved myself trustworthy. I had been expecting the opposite, which is to say, Northern stereotypes are useless in the South.

It so happened that I moved during 2015 to the coastal town of Beaufort, South Carolina, midway between Charleston and Savannah, a few weeks before a young, self-proclaimed white supremacist shot and killed nine African American congregation members in the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston. I hadn’t been oblivious to the existence of the alt-right in America. Neither had I assimilated into the Southern culture beyond accepting that it was compulsory to express a greeting when passing someone on the sidewalk. That summer after the church murders I wondered where, exactly, I had planted myself. Or more precisely, among whom?

In the days following the hateful attack on innocent churchgoers, part of the Southern African American culture that had mystified me was articulated straightforwardly: “Wrong Church! Wrong People!”

I remember fumbling to explain to anyone who cared or at least listened that the African American people I encountered in South Carolina were not hostile, militant, deferential, or even avoidant. Their interactions with me were remarkably different than what I’d been accustomed to in the North. Particularly here in Beaufort, where some of the African American citizens are connected to the Gullah Geechee culture, their relaxed self-assurance is beautiful. I admire it.

After the racially motivated killings in Charleston, the members of the Emanuel AME Church congregation automatically lived their creed of peace, nonviolence, and forgiveness—Christians behaving exactly as Christian doctrine had taught them to respond to hate. It was an inspiring moment in the wake of unspeakable evil. It also placed into context the manners of my black neighbors in the South, which until then had puzzled me. Without saying anything, all along they had been demonstrating, “You can’t drag us down into the gutter. We’re better than that. We’re better than you.” I am a proud, incorrigibly idealistic child of the ’60s, and it makes me deeply happy to have them as role models.