Chapter twelve in a series on Book and Art Business 101 wherein I show how the solid logic of art business sold me on self-publishing. If you’re too busy for the whole series, download your copy of my Cheat Sheet for Book and Art Business 101.
If you want to succeed as a writer, you must take the path that’s yours alone.
I never give up on people. It’s a defining characteristic of my life, for better or worse. It’s better because I’ve had the privilege of playing a small part in some of the greatest turnaround stories in my network. It’s worse because sometimes you’ll dump your heart and soul into another person and they will respond by habitually letting you down, breaking promises, and flaking out. Those are the moments you have to reassess and establish some boundaries.
At this point in the journey, most of my old beliefs of traditional publishing had faded when faced with persistent, logical rebuttals. But one remained: an agent. I had searched for an agent before with lesser works, but this time was different. This time the only two reasons I had for searching weren’t connected to the levy of sound business choices, the lumber of a sustainable career, or the leverage of legal counsel. This time, I was trying to succeed for others first indirectly through a quest for prestige and then directly through giving others a leg up.
Indirectly, I believed that saying “I got the agent I’ve always wanted and they represent this author and that author” would lend legitimacy to the things I’m doing. For one, that may or may not be true since, as we showed in this series, more and more agents poach authors from the self-publishing bestseller list. For another, is my work somehow diminished, somehow illegitimate without an agent? Well, no. But the fear that others might think me illegitimate almost drove me to make a bad business decision (we’ll get to that). I cared more about having my name attached to another name, in the moment, than I did about building a sustainable career to the extend that it even needed legal council after a long history of sound business decisions. Indirectly, I was cutting off my own legs and their capacity to power clean my work to a higher altitude.
Directly, I believed that others depended on me. It’s a classic first-born (of a first born of a first born) fallacy. Others depend on you, therefore be dependent for them. In reality, had I taken on a traditional track at this stage in the game, I would be crippling the budding young authors who would like to meet the people I’ve met. I would be living a lie, pretending as if I could get them connections that would help them even though these very connections may not help me as much at my dependents assume at this point in the game. I would cripple them by setting a bad example: the best way I can help those who depend on me is to show them what independence looks like.
What I mean to say is that on the one hand, I have many unpublished and underpublished authors in my life who have said, “Lance, the only way I’m getting in is if you get an agent.” I also have family members in my life who said, “Lance, I’m depending on you to take care of me. Get an agent and sell a big book through that agent and do it again and again because I’m not going to make it without you.” Whether or not either of these categories of people will make it may or may not be up to me (psst, Lance: you may take responsibility for someone, but the burden of worlds falls not on your shoulders — you’re only a man). What is up to me is whether I trust the methodology they weld to their need. Is their plan really the proper way to meet their need? I do want to help young and budding authors. I do want to provide both for my immediate family and extended family.
I doubt, at this stage in the game, that getting an agent will help me towards that end.
Let me recap a few things:
Throughout this series, I have tried to show how the times and circumstances of my formation into a professional writer biased me against making the logically sound business decision to self-publish prior to now. And how art business logic persuaded me otherwise. What really changed my mind was a clean line of sight:
- I wanted to bring people into other worlds and blur the lines between fantasy and reality.
- I wanted to tell the truth.
- I wanted to sell these things I had written, rather than writing to sell. That’s a key distinction.
- I wanted to let rejection reform me. Over the years, it has — I’ve improved markedly.
- I wanted to be considered a pro and having made money at this, both in my desired path and in shadow careers, people consider me an authority on the subject within my network.
- I wanted to the writing to challenge me rather than simply write for the money, write for regular assignments, or write to please.
- I wanted to use all of this to advocate for others and bring others along on this journey.
- I wanted to sign a contract for a single book, not my entire career.
- I wanted to make a steady living off of writing through the exponential interest of a backlist and I really didn’t care how that came about.
The last piece came in submitting my recent novel Faceless to agents. Several requested the manuscript and gave compliments about the premise, certain pieces of the writing, and specifically how it stuck with them and made them think (that’s a big priority for me: culture change). These are people I respect. I look up to these people and cherish their opinions and insights.
Overwhelmingly, however, they hinted at or directly called out my need for a freelance editor. I’ve hired editors before, but here’s where my mind went:
- At best, I’ll get a $2,500 advance against a 7.5% royalty that may or may not earn out.
- I’ll spend $3,900 on a freelance editor to get this novel in shape.
- Which means I’ll be in the hole $1,400.
- And have sold away several career rights rather than simply rights connected to that one book.
How did I figure this out?
I learned very quickly that by taking on a little more risk (roughly $800 for a book cover and formatting) I would retain all of the assets to the book I created and the career I’ve been building. It’s a Berkshire play, a chance to set up shop at my own bottleneck, a monopoly on my own backlist of intellectual property.
It’s the choice between breaking even with a 70% royalty and losing money with a 7.5% royalty. It’s a pretty simple decision.
But it took a long, long time to admit that because the two are so intermingled, the dependency of my dependents and the preferred methodology for meeting their needs as dependents.
You see, writing isn’t some fluffy Care Bear power you pull out of the ether.
It brings with it just as many troubles as swinging a hammer and sweat staining your blue collar, just as many apprentices and just as many mouths to feed.
But hunger for learning and hunger for food can make someone ravenous enough to eat a boot.
It’s my job to take away the boot and bring home the kill.
And at this stage, I doubt if an agency’s the way to go. If it works for you, great, but I need a freelance editor and there’s only one way to earn back that money with some margin of safety built in.
Succeeding for others, in the end, assumes that you can succeed at all. And sometimes others assume a lot of things about success that are flat-out wrong.
Don’t have time for the whole series?
That’s okay, I made you a…
Here’s our outline for upcoming posts:
- The Gateway Drug: Poetry
- Does Fiction Lie? — The Liar’s Club
- Where and How to Sell What You Write
- From Daydreams to Written Dreams
- Rejection Slips
- Any Money Makes a Professional Writer
- Regular Writing Assignments
- Making Good Money… in a shadow career
- Kinfolk and Advocates or “How to Build a Platform”
- Draconian Contracts
- Author Earnings
- Succeeding for Others
- Blaze a Trail All Your Own
cover image from Justin Connaher