Traditional or Independent Publishing

Chapter 5 – Traditional or Independent Publishing?

This post describes which publishing route the author chose for Cornerstone.

October 2019 was a rough month for me. Two weeks after Robyn died, I had another major panic attack that forced me to go to Howard University’s ER. When I returned to Raleigh, I began my last week of work at Caterpillar. I was riddled with anxiety as I drove to each factory. When I arrived, I tried to calm down to say farewell to colleagues. For those I missed, I wrote an email saying goodbye, with a line from The Office as a postscript: “See you on the flippity flip.”

At this point in the writing journey, I didn’t feel completely alone because Courtney was virtually beside me, but losing Robyn was a major blow. For two years, we spoke occasionally over the phone as I had shared my dream with her, and she became excited, hopeful, and confident I would sign with an agent. She recommended agents and walked me through the negotiation process. Months before I left Caterpillar, she wrote me this:

“I believe you are right to get the first book published before leaving. Especially, if it's such a great job. That can happen fast. With a great agent, within two or three months the book can be sold to a publisher. It happens fast. After that, within a year the book can be on store shelves. A three-book deal can bring you anywhere from $30,000 to $60,000 advance. The advance has to be paid off before you start earning royalties. Many standard contracts offer a year for a second book to be written. There are a lot of edits required by your editor. They are called content changes. Then you have to review for typos, meanwhile, the sales team is on board, the publisher is writing copy for the publisher’s seasonal catalog, writing the jacket copy, to (hopefully) generate enthusiasm among the sales team for the project, and to help shape marketing plans. Several months before the book’s publication the sales team will be coordinating with bookstore buyers and other “accounts” as they place their orders, which helps determine how many copies of the book the publisher prints. The agent usually keeps tabs on this process to make sure everything is happening according to plan.”

Considering independent publishing at first felt like a betrayal to the traditional publishing plan. However, I’m an analyst by nature and nurture, so I attended a workshop in Durham to learn more about the independent publishing process. The workshop host presented useful information and gave me the confidence I could go the independent publishing route. But I wasn’t healthy yet. Perhaps it was better to only write and leave the business portion of authoring to a publishing company.

This desire to pursue traditional publishing remained throughout 2020 as I updated the Cornerstone manuscript and prepared it for submission to agents. Most importantly, my health began to noticeably improve during the summer. Like the spiraling downward, where one distressing event led to another one, my mind and body were now spiraling upward.

I was ready to start writing book two and let the traditional publishing process play out. I asked Lynn to edit my query letter and synopsis. I also paid Scribbler to read my query letter and provide feedback. Meanwhile, I reviewed guidance from several online sources including Jane Friedman. I searched available agents in the fantasy and historical fiction genres on Manuscript Wish List, Publishers Marketplace, and Query Tracker. I made a list of forty agents. Once the edits were in and I made changes, I was ready to query.

I queried from late December 2020 to early January 2021. Like the rejections in 2018, the five rejections I received were polite and professional. I assumed that after four to six weeks without a reply, I wouldn’t receive a response from additional agents.

I began to doubt the traditional publishing path in January 2021. I returned to my room on base after working military duty and considered the pros and cons of each publishing option. My gut told me that neither the writing quality nor the story quality was a problem. Timing would be the issue.

I share the frustrations with many unknown writers who must sell an agent on the quality of their work in a short elevator pitch. It’s like love at first sight. The agent must fall in love with the beginning of the manuscript. Additionally, the agent must be a good fit, a story the agent can champion to a publisher. As nearly every agent wrote to me, “fiction is very subjective, and just because this wasn’t a good fit for me, that doesn’t mean that someone else won’t feel differently.”

Maybe I was too impatient. Maybe I could sign with an agent after spending more time researching potentially the right agents for my book. Maybe I could find an agent by traveling to workshops or conferences or events during a COVID environment. All of this indicated lots of time, and finding an agent was still a great unknown. Then the agent would need to sell my story to a publisher. When the publisher had my story, they would likely recommend plot changes, or title changes, or thematic changes.

Was this length of time worth a potentially large advance or a faster growth in sales because of the publisher’s marketing and advertising reach?

I didn’t want to change the title. I didn’t want to change the story. If I had approached writing this novel differently, considering the business aspects of it, I would’ve written a shorter book. I considered telling the protagonist’s story as a child rather than showing his complete coming of age, but I felt the story had more impact If I showed Jeremiah’s transformation in one book.

Could I be an independent author? I had registered the domain name for my website and the limited liability corporation as Michael Paul Author. I had made business cards and given them to people throughout 2020 when they asked me what I did for work. On one occasion I was talking with a group of lawyers, and when asked where I worked, I stumbled slightly. I gave the man my business card, but I didn’t know what to say. Am I an author? I didn’t have a book published yet. I gave him the tagline for the book and said the book would be published at some point. Conversations from that moment onward haven’t been as awkward, but I lead with saying writing is my job, then I transition to discussing Cornerstone. 

Thankfully, though different, my mind had been restored, and my confidence was beginning to return. I use a daily devotional to pray, and several times throughout January, Isaiah 30:21 kept appearing. This, coupled with the analysis and a gut feeling, confirmed I should independently publish.

 It took me a while to figure it out, but I’ve always been a writer. It comes naturally to me, I enjoy doing it, and I’m willing to put in the hours improving my craft. I have five books written on my heart, and I’m committing to transferring those books onto paper over the next five years or so.

Cornerstone was initially planned as a trilogy, but we’ll see if it goes longer. I plan to write a novel from the perspective of a boy that tells my childhood traumatic experience. Lastly, I want to write a novel the partially tells my grandfather’s story during World War II. I don’t know if this will be a thriller or historical fiction, but I will use my military intelligence experience to support the story.

With increased confidence and better health, I’m now excited for the challenge and adventure of independently publishing. Having made this decision in late January 2021, I began to draft a marketing plan.