I sometimes sneak in my opinion about how self-publishing is the wrong path if done for the wrong reasons. Today, I’m going to talk about when I think it’s the right path. This is because I recently self-published my first novel: Sifting Out the Hearts of Men (I won’t promote it anymore than that—you can read the description by following the link if interested).
For context, I started writing this novel in 2010. I was in grad school, so it happened sporadically. I finished the first draft in late 2014, and I had it fully edited (professionally) and submitted to a slew of agents about a year ago. For the past year, I’ve submitted to a ton more agents with pretty much no reply.
Back to the post.
Publishing is a business. Businesses have to make money or else they will cease to exist. This means the traditional publishing industry isn’t interested in difficult or complicated or literary books.
There are, of course, exceptions. These exceptions are almost exclusively in the form of name recognition or knowing someone. I want to reiterate here that I fully understand their predicament. They have to make money. This isn’t a value judgment or moral condemnation. It’s just a fact about the world. You can’t buy books you don’t think you can sell or you will go out of business (this applies to agents as well).
There are a few things that an agent or publisher will look for to determine if it will sell. The first is a hook. Does the first page hook the reader into wanting to read more. This trend is fairly recent, and my guess is that it has to do with being able to read the first few pages for free on Amazon. The first page is part of the advertisement for a book nowadays.
If you look at something like the Modern Library’s 100 Best Novels, half of them wouldn’t be signed in today’s publishing world based on the hook: Ulysses, The Sound and the Fury, The Grapes of Wrath, etc.
I think my novel actually has a reasonable hook, but it doesn’t happen right away. This means most agents won’t make it to the hook if they only read the first three pages. And I didn’t do it merely to break this “rule.”
I hate books that start in the middle of some action. I find it patronizing and condescending when an author feels the need to start with: Jack double back flipped through the air towards the nuke that would go off in thirty seconds and destroy the world. Start at the beginning. This obviously isn’t the beginning of the story.
Another thing an agent or publisher will look for is an easy summary and pitch and conventional plot that fits into pre-existing bestsellers. It’s easy to sell a book when you can say it’s Superman on Mars smashed with Fifty Shades of Grey. It doesn’t matter if the book is good or deep. Everyone wants to read that book, so it will sell.
I did come up with a reasonable sounding plot summary, but it’s pretty misleading (as any agent would quickly find out by reading it). The novel is highly symbolic. There are tangents on things like the Gettier problem in epistemology that, at first, seem to be irrelevant, but end up playing important roles later on.
This, in turn, gives the novel a bit too complicated of a structure to be easily grasped from the first chapter. Recall that I used to blog a lot about Barthes and postmodernism and critical theory and Lethem and people who valued this type of writing (I’ve changed quite a bit since then).
Needless to say, I’d be scared to take a chance on the novel if I were an agent as well. Again, they need to make money, so I don’t blame them. Also, I don’t think many of the greatest novels would be published today for these same reasons. What’s the two sentence plot summary of Les Miserables?
All of this can be overcome if you already have a following, because if you’re famous, you can advertise your book and your followers will probably buy it. Alas, I am not famous.
This brings me to why I decided to self-publish. It seemed I had two options. It’s pretty clear to me that no one will publish the book in the traditional sphere for the reasons I gave above. I could gut the whole thing and rewrite it in a more conventional way.
I’m confident I could do it (I’ve published a few genre novellas under a pseudonym, so I think I’ve got a grasp on what they’re looking for). But I’ve moved on to several other projects now, so I didn’t want to put those on hold to sink more time into something that had already taken up many years of work. This rework option was not a real option, and it still would have no guarantee of selling.
The other option was to self-publish. I wrote the book to be read, so if even one person reads it, that’s better than languishing indefinitely in fifty slush piles for the next three years being read by no one. This is a good reason to self-publish; the novel doesn’t conform to what traditional publishers want.
My next novel, which should be through edits by the end of the month, does fit the traditional publishing mold much better. It has a pitch. It starts with a hook. It has a normal story arc. It has some cool speculative fiction ideas in it. This means I haven’t given up going traditional. I’m going to try again with my next one.