This post, by Martin Lastrapes, originally appeared on his Inside Martin site on 1/17/12.
(This is an extended and revised version of the article “A Self-Publisher’s Manifesto,” which was previously published in Self-Publishing Review on 7/27/11)
I am an indie author and this is my manifesto.
If you’re a reader, a simple lover of books, someone with no aspirations of ever writing or publishing, then there is a very good chance you’re unaware of the culture war that has been going on within the world of publishing for what feels like forever. The war is between the large publishing houses, primarily found in New York, and indie authors. For almost as long as the publishing industry has been a relevant cog in the entertainment machine, publishing houses have served the purpose of finding, publishing and, essentially delivering to the literary world the best authors they could find. But they didn’t do this alone. Literary agents—who not only represent authors, but also serve as gatekeepers for the large publishing houses—helped them.
Most any writer who has ever aspired to get published has learned the hard way that finding a literary agent to represent you is, arguably, harder than actually getting your manuscript accepted for publication by a large publishing house. And this is not by accident. As gatekeepers, the literary agents weed out the “bad” talent and wrangle in the “good” talent, making it easier for the large publishing houses to pick which handful of writers they’ll be publishing during any given year. As someone who has been rejected by more agents than I care to count, I have a pretty good grasp on how the system is intended to work.
First, the author writes a manuscript (i.e. a novel, a memoir, a collection of short stories, etc.). Once they finish, the author writes a query letter, which is, essentially, a one-page pitch to a literary agent. In the query letter, the writer should not only tell the literary agent what their book is about, but also why anybody would bother reading it or, more importantly, buying it. This last part is important, because agents earn money on commission, which means they only get paid if they can sell your book. So, even if they personally love the book, but don’t think they can sell it, they aren’t going to represent it.
If the agent likes what you’re pitching in the query letter, then they’ll likely ask you to send them the first 10-15 pages. If they like those pages, then they’ll likely ask for a partial, which are the first 50 pages. If they’re still satisfied with what they’re reading, then they’ll ask to see the full manuscript. After looking at it, they will either decide to represent your book or reject it. There is also the possible middle ground where they might ask you to make revisions to the book that will, in their estimation, make it more attractive to publishers. And even if you’ve gotten this far and the literary agent decides to represent you, it’s going to take nearly a year (sometimes longer) before you come to that agreement.
Of course, getting a literary agent is no guarantee of getting published. They still have to try and sell your manuscript to a publishing house. There are plenty of authors who have secured literary agents, only to find out that the agent couldn’t sell their books. But if you are one of those rare authors who have cleared all the hurdles and have had your book published by a large publishing house, one of the first things you will learn is that you’re going to be on your own when it comes to promoting and marketing the book. Publishing houses have limited budgets for marketing their authors and first-time authors aren’t likely to get much support. Ironically, if your book doesn’t sell, then the publisher will be less likely to buy your next book.