Writers making the “should I self publish or go traditional” decision have to face the fact that if you are on the traditional path, you will be paying an agent 15% of everything your book earns from now until the end of time. That’s 15% of foreign rights, movie rights, large print rights, paperback rights. It can be a lot of money. Many writers who believe that agents only make the initial book sale and then step out of the process wonder what on earth agents to do earn that kind of money. I had three clients this week whose interactions show why – and they all have to do with the concept of having strategic partners.
If you want to improve your writing, and improve your odds of success, the single most powerful thing you can do is to bring more strategic thinking into your work.
Strategic thinking helps with narrative drive in memoir and fiction – asking yourself questions such as, What is this character doing in this scene, what is scene doing in this book, what is my reader believing/wanting/feeling at this moment?
It’s helps with the flow of information in non-fiction – asking yourself questions such as, Am I presenting this material in the most logical way, what is this material doing to serve my point, what is my reader believing/wanting/feeling at this moment?
And it helps on the level of a career, as well. This is where agents shine, bringing a sense of strategy to pivotal moments so that instead of making decisions based on emotion (“They love my book! They hate my book!”), a writer can make decisions based on what they want to achieve overall in their career.
Here are some insights into how that played out this week for my clients:
Writer #1 is a scholar. He had an idea for a book based on work he has been doing for decades. He is enormously passionate about it and wants to make this work the direction of his work for the next several years. He also happens to have a professional network and social media presence that would make you drool. He wrote a proposal, landed an agent, and they began to pitch it to publishers. Feedback was lukewarm. It was, the publishers said, too scholarly. They didn’t think they could sell it broadly enough. But they liked the idea and many of them wondered if the writer was willing to re-frame it to be more mainstream. (Interestingly enough, this revising of a proposal often happens more in the publisher pitch process than it does in the agent pitch process. Agents almost never ask a writer to revise an idea. They almost always either just take it or leave it.)
Writer #1 talked it over with his agent and they agreed that this strategy made sense and wouldn’t compromise his vision, so this writer came to me for help in revising the proposal. It was several months of hard work, since the new proposal included new sample chapters of this all-new idea. Over the course of those months, the writer came to love the new idea even more than the original.
The agent agreed. She loved the new proposal – so much so that she immediately called some of her top contacts to set up meetings to show them the new material. Surprisingly, the feedback from this small sample pool of publishers was STILL negative. Now the publishers were saying the book was too much like other books out there.
The writer was understandably freaked out – I can’t win! -- but the agent offered her support, reassurance and counsel and committed to continue to pitch the new book until every option had been exhausted. They also discussed the wisdom of trying to self publish and leveraging all that social media power. ALL of this, mind you, is before the agent has earned a dime from this writer.
Writer #2 had a similar up-and-down experience. She had an idea for a book that was part memoir, part how-to, part self-help – a tricky combination, but one she felt very strongly about. She wrote the whole book, wrote a proposal, and landed a top agent, who was very excited about her idea. He began to pitch right away, and began to amass a series of rejections. Publishers thought the book was neither fish nor foul; the hybrid aspect of it worried them. They weren’t sure they could sell it broadly enough (do you see a trend here? Publishers are looking for books with a clear path to a broad audience.)
A few publishers asked if the writer would tweak the book to make it more firmly in just one camp. The writer talked it over with her agent and decided that this compromise made sense; the publishers making the request were some of the best of the best, and she felt that the chance to work with them was too juicy an opportunity to turn down. She tweaked the proposal to reflect the new direction, and the agent continued to pitch.
Meanwhile, the feedback the writer received got her juices flowing and she had an idea for a completely different book that more directly met the criteria of the publishers who had responded to her work. She agonized about going to her agent about the new idea, because she didn’t want to seem flaky – “You don’t like this book? I have another! You don’t like that one? I’ll write something else!”
She wrote up a short yet very professional proposal, met with her agent, and pitched him on the new idea. He loved it –- and her effort helped him to see this writer as someone who is willing to do whatever it takes to establish a long-term career in books. He is now intent on pitching both projects. And again, all of this is before the agent has earned a dime….
Writer #3 recently had a book come out from a major publisher, and it came out with a big bang, hitting several “best of” lists on amazon. The publisher went back for a second printing within three weeks. (This is very good news. The first goal of any traditionally published book is to go back for a second printing. That almost always means the book has earned out the advance – meaning the writer will now start earning royalties. Every subsequent printing means everyone is making money and everyone is very happy. MANY books never earn out their advance.)
The writer was eager to pitch additional book ideas to her publisher – she has at least four book ideas she has been working on for just such an opportunity – but she was nervous about which book to pitch first, and nervous about when to do it. She didn’t want to seem pushy or ungrateful about what the publisher was doing for her just-released book, but she also wanted to strike while the iron was hot.
She got on the phone with her agent to hash it all out. Her agent validated for her that she was in a great position, since things were going so well with book #1. He also confirmed for her that her new ideas were great and helped her decide which ones made the most strategic sense to write on the heels of book #1. He offered strategy, comfort, and then action: later that day, he got on the phone with her publisher.
The end result? It's looking like a two-book deal....
One of the biggest PROS to the traditional publishing path is the chance to work with a team of professionals, starting with the agent. Writing is solitary and lonely work, and most writers are more focused on the creative aspects of the process rather than the strategic ones. (This is as it should be – although I urge all writers to work on building their strategic thinking muscles. It’s good for the writing and good for the career!)
If you are weighing the traditional vs. self-publishing question, I urge you to think about this aspect of the process. Does the opportunity to have a strategic partner feel like a relief and a value-added bonus to you? Or does it feel like it would be intrusive and unnecessary? If you chose not to work with an agent, do you have other places you can get strategic help? Perhaps a mastermind group? A mentor?
Strategy can be creative!