I have been an indie author for more than six years. I have seven published books: one short story collection and 6 novels. The life of an indie author is not easy, and I don’t play victim. I like to work hard, and bring stories to my readers that they have never experienced before. This is not a hobby, it’s a job.
Before I was published, I spent most of my late twenties and early thirties pitching my manuscripts to the big dogs: the agents and publishers that are considered the Big Five. Their feedback to those early manuscripts was fairly similar. They liked my writing and characters, but they were not sure they could market the book. I have a stack of more than two hundred rejection letters from that time in my life.
In 2014, I self published my first book, and I treated the project seriously. I hired an editor, a book cover designer. I made a marketing plan. And thanks to the success of that first experiment, I self published the rest of my catalog. Thanks to my efforts in marketing via digital channels and at cons and places where readers gather, I published another one, and another. People bought the books, and I was on my way. I am currently working on two full-fledged series under my name and a pen name. I have a loyal readership for both of my series, and I talk to my readers everyday. They don’t care who published the book, or what the business model runs their financing. They come back to my books because they like the writing and above all, my characters.
9 Lords of Night, my latest novel in my Coil series, is the second volume in a near-future dystopian world where an authoritarian government encroaches, while Aztec gods enter from another dimension. My main characters are queer men, women, trans men. I also wrote How to Kill a Superhero, a series of 4 erotic thrillers that feature a very queer main character who develops superpowers and who is aided in his journey by gay men and a very powerful trans woman.
I am lucky to work full time as an author and to make a living from these books thanks to my own will and resolve to get these books into hands of readers. But I gave up on big publishers years ago.
In late 2016, when 9 Lords was still in one of many drafts, I pitched the concept to a top agent, and also a well known publicist. I did this not because I expected those publishers to pick up my book, but because I wanted to test the market trends of big publishing, to see if their attitude toward new authors and provocative new ideas had changed since the early days when I used to still send query letters.
The responses from the agent and publicist were eye-opening, but not surprising. The agent read my manuscript and asked me to make my trans main character more palatable, less cranky, less embittered by the prejudices set against him. He also acted very confused when he learned the character had dated women all his life but has a sexual encounter with a man in the novel. “I don’t think a trans person would do this,” the agent said. I asked him if he was trans. He said that no, he was cisgender and straight. “Do you have a lot of people who are trans in your life?” I asked, and he couldn’t answer the question. You see, I do have trans people in my life, including close relatives, and none of my trans beta readers bristled over my trans character the way this agent did. He wanted his ideas of what trans people should be to shoehorned into the novel. What I understood then is And that’s a compromise I would never make in the stories I tell.
The publicist who I queried gave me a different answer. She had no interest at all in the gender identity of my characters, and instead took the time to explain that she could not take on indie authors, because there is pressure from the big 5 to support the efforts of more traditionally published authors. She did caution too, that it would be “easier to publicize the book if you had a few more straight characters in there.”
That’s what they said. You can draw your own conclusions.
Neither of these two anecdotes can be generalized to the whole industry. I am not naive enough to think that all agents and publicists are this risk-averse and cowardly. But I need you to know that if you are an author that wants to see your books reach the market place, traditional publishing is one of the least interesting places to attempt to do so nowadays.
I’m not gonna mince words. Stop querying the big publishers and agents. They don’t want you. And I am not telling you that they are rejecting you based on your sexual or gender identity or race (though that is also possinl). What I mean is that if your books don’t fit their current formula for revenue generation in the next two years, no matter how good your writing is, they are going to pass. You don’t fit into their plan for revenue generation, but that doesn’t mean your books can’t succeed.
There’s a lot of talk nowadays in traditional publishing circles about “diversity” and “inclusivity”, but the fact is that the New York agents and editors are part of these corporate publishers, and they are focused on making money. If these professionals tell you they care about stories featuring gay, queer or trans characters, it’s because those novels map to potential revenue streams. The individual politics and viewpoints of individual agents, editors and publishers will vary, and I don’t dispute that. But the industry is not taking on bold new stories. The evidence is right there in the titles that sell best. There more blandness and literary corrupt fiction up on those best-selled lists than you and I care to think about.
I am telling you this because if you are an upcoming writer, I don’t want you to get your hopes up that the big publishers will take a chance on stories of LGBTQ people, your characters of color, or those that don’t fit a certain mold. When agents and publishers represent and purchase a manuscript, they are betting on the book’s chances of succeeding in market forces. And trust me, your ideas of taking a chance on new ideas is not the same as theirs.
Start looking around, look at the tech and startup world, and start thinking of your own books as your startup. And by all means, start hanging out with other startup owners and entrepreneurs. The answers are going to be there.
In my case, Patreon and crowd-funding helped get my books to market as a supplementary means of financing. I am lucky enough to have experimented with Patreon since a few years ago, and what I found is that there are people who definitely believe in new stories. In my case, they want science fiction that includes people of color, trans cops, queer academics, and a host of other characters who you simply don’t see in the best-seller lists today.
Book publishing is a business. Stop telling yourself it is not. But what I am saying is that you can find a market for your books, even if at the start they feel like micro-niches. If you invest the time in marketing and developing your catalog, readers do come to your online storefront, be it iTunes, Kindle, YouTube and Stitcher (in the case of audiobooks), and your own web site’s e-commerce platform.
And yes, I know I excluded brick-and-mortar stores from the list of storefronts. Those stores are not in the position to help you in the long term, and I’ll write a future blog post about how digital, machine learning and the Internet will continue to make it tough for bookstores to really launch your career as an author.
Look around at all creative industries. Look hard. The music business has been hollowed out by the rise of music downloads and streams, and labels lately are even trying to take profits off merch and touring from artists, because the business model has changed. Hollywood only makes a certain type of movie (as I glance at superhero genre films as a main example), and instead, Netflix, YouTube, Kickstarter and Patreon are the real places where filmmaking is taking bold steps forward. The studios don’t take chances on new or transgressive filmmakers and screenwriters.
You see the pattern here? If you believe in your work, you must put on an entrepreneur hat and build your artistic vision and book catalog in new ways. If you write cookie-cutter thrillers, then please, by all means go ahead and query New York so you can become the next thriller writer to fill airport bookshelves. But most writers are not those kind of writers. I never want to be that kind of writer.
Get ready to work hard. Get ready to suffer setbacks and disappointments. But when you self publish, crowdfund and collaborate with other indie authors and small businesses, you will find your readers. And based on market data, you will probably out-earn your traditionally published peers. I know I do.
Stop pretending like things are like they were in the “good old days of publishing.” Being a writer today involves discipline, hard work and talent, but getting your book published and thriving takes something more. It takes courage to step away from the way things have always been done.
Start breaking the rules.