Our Main Query Now Is “Why Not Self-Publish?”

It’s that time again. Another manuscript has reached “final draft” stage, and is sitting in relative completion on my hard-drive. Ordinarily I would be in the finnicky stretch near publication, sorting out type-setting and punctuation, and labouring with a kind of soothing intensity over the cover design. When not in a hurry, designing book covers is the best part of publishing after the actual writing part. I ought to be, at present, making sure that 133,500-ish words of alternative fantasy with a political bent and some giant bugs and a heavy science-vs-superstition message has all the smart quotes facing the right way and all the em-dashes are em-dashes and not en-dashes. Making use of a hectic six months of typesetting training which would otherwise have had no use.

Instead, I’m procrastinating on opening a tab for QueryTracker and getting down to looking for suitable agents to query. I haven’t queried an agent since I was 17.

There was a time when the idea of sending manuscripts to agents and editors was an automatic extension of the process of writing: when I was a teenager, still plugging away with my first (unremittingly awful) novel, I read a lot of guides on getting your book published and submitting work. This was the 1990s, and stern advice from agents and editors alike about how to submit and what to submit and how not to address people put the fear of God – or at least the fear of Commissioning Editor – into me, until I had no courage to submit anything other than short stories to competitions. It took winning one such competition to get me worked up to send my manuscript to the editor of the publishing house which ran the contest, and even that was specifically after I’d talked to the editor about it in person and she’d told me to send it.

(I should note: this was a book I wrote when I was 15/16. It was the wrong genre for the publisher and nowhere near good enough, but they were good enough to give me a lot of very valuable feedback about pacing and voice and a suggestion of other places who might take it).

In the intervening years I’ve met quite a few people who write books, some for publishers, and some self-published. There was one author who wrote for publishers, but set up his own printing press (and solicited me for a short story for the inaugural anthology, which ended up never happening due to a lack of funds); there is the very successful Melanie Clegg, who self-published four novels and was finally queried by agents, and has now been commissioned to write a book in one of her many areas of expertise; there is another friend who wrote erotica novels for a publishing house and has since moved on to self-publishing non-erotica work; a friend who has written for national radio and major comics companies and has a selection of contacts which would make most beginners green with envy and yet still chose to self-publish his prose; and one friend who is just beginning, and opted to self-publish her dystopian Young Adult novel. In the press, too, there have been examples of people who self-published and were eventually picked up by larger publishers, the most well-known of which is of course E L James and her Fifty Shades books.

Their reasons are many: dissatisfaction with the strictures of traditional publishing houses, dislike of operating through agents, fear of rejection, a disinclination to remove sections of their work to make it more “marketable” (acceptable to the lowest common denominator), an interest in retaining a specific literary style which isn’t in vogue with publishing houses, work in a format or length which is incompatible with mass markets, or the apparently insurmountable difficulty of breaking the market without prior fame (or indeed with prior form but in the “wrong” genre). There are obstacles to publication: agents or editors who don’t believe the public are interested in a book about Marie Antoinette are proven wrong by Melanie’s success with her first novel; the idea that women aren’t interested in BDSM in fiction are proven wrong by the astronomical sales of the Fifty Shades books (apologies to Melanie for mentioning her in the same breath as E L James!) and then we have books which don’t fit neatly into a marketing profile/genre; books which have niche appeal; books which feature scenes or themes distasteful to a publishing company’s core target demographic (Poppy Z Brite’s Exquisite Corpse, which was very influential for me as an older teenager, was bounced from pillar to post around the UK before Orion was prepared to take it); books aimed at younger readers featuring gender variant or non-straight characters often find it hard to find a publisher, etc.

With all this in mind, it’s almost surprising that I’m even considering “proper” publishing at all. My books typically don’t fit well into one genre at a time (“alternate urban sci fi literary fiction”, “cold case murder mystery litfic”, “revenge tragedy horror”, “political steampunk with bugs”), they usually feature uneasy morals and non-straight characters in major or leading roles whose narrative isn’t a coming out story or a poignant AIDS death, and happy endings tend to be like hen’s teeth.

But I promised a very indignant friend that this book would at least see some agents, and she went to the trouble of drafting a query letter for me so that the inevitable brain meltdown in the face of trying to say something about my book. So, for the sake of not having an angry editor/author/kindergarten teacher beating me across the Atlantic with a sharp stick for letting all her good work go to waste, at some point I have to open that damn tab.


  1. I have made some progress in addressing Vincent’s Problem, by changing the parameters. The goal is not to get my work published or even read, but rather to keep the short stories in continual circulation of editors: all I have to do is keep the ball in the air, send the stories back out the same day I get my rejection notices through, and I’m “succeeding”. Turning failure into a game is an easier way to deal with it.
  2. This blog post came about as a result of a discussion on Twitter with some of the people mentioned in the body, one of whom made the worrying observation that some of the public Twitter accounts of agents and their mentions of books had made her go for self-publishing. I don’t know what to say about this precisely, but it suggests to me that my paranoia about being publicly humiliated and ridiculed for sending in a manuscript to an agent may not be as paranoid as I’d hoped. Part of me thinks that sounds really unprofessional on the part of said agents, but I know that as an unpublished jobbing author I have not even a hint of a hope of complaining about that.

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