J. Michael Gonzalez

To Self Publish or Not To Self Publish

One of the more difficult decisions I've had to make as an aspiring new writer is whether or not I want to self publish. It's kind of a lengthy topic of consideration, and my own experience with that decision is probably best broken up over several posts.

Here's the fundamental dilemma; do you go the traditional route and write a query letter, find an agent, then (hopefully) land a contract with a big New York publishing house, or (slightly more realistically) a smaller specialized publisher? I've been through the arguments most new writers probably go through: with an agent and an established publishing outfit, I get the weight of a big organization behind me; the company will do the marketing for me; I can potentially get advances to help subsidize subsequent work; I can get editorial assistance (which anyone that's ever written more than 100 pages of prose probably dreams about). Or do you pursue independent press and self publish?

It's an agonizing decision. I mean, on one hand, it would seem like you're tapping into an industry that already has a ton of money behind it as well as established pathways for getting things done; self publishing is essentially tossing all that over your shoulder and taking ownership of everything. But self publishing has some pretty sexy ideas behind it as well; you don't have to deal with writing query letters or deal with serial rejection that can leave your work in creative limbo. You also don't have to make pitches to a small set of people that definitely don't have your best interests at heart and subject yourself to their subjective judgement of worthiness and financial potential -- the only judgement of merit is your audience.

That's the idea anyway.

My own experience began with the decision to try and pursue traditional publishing. I wanted the perceived legitimacy that comes with traditional print (as opposed to the sort of ad hoc, anybody-with-a-pen-can-play-regardless-of-talent-or-work-ethic perception of self-publication). That's the way I first read it, at any rate.

So, I went to the trouble of researching how one writes a query letter, and with the excellent editing assistance of Jane Friedman, began the process of researching agents which might share literary interests with me. I probably spent hours combing through the various agent profiles on Publisher's Marketplace until I had a list of about 15 or so, at which point I began sending out my letters 2 or 3 at a time (reasoning that sending out all my letters at the same time wouldn't give me much chance to course correct if I received feedback suggesting I was making some kind of systemic mistake).

Looking back, it's hard not to laugh at myself: Feedback on query letters? Seriously, Mike? The reality is that you're lucky to get a form letter refusal. Some of the agents I queried didn't even bother to respond, some took upwards of six months to send me the form letter. I will say, though, that the most pleasant and professional interaction I had was with Sara Megibow at K Literary. She took the time to actually correspond with me (though she was still tersely professional) and write a peronsalized rejection with a brief explanation why.

Nevertheless, after six months of silence, it was clear that I was doing something wrong -- or setting my expectations incorrectly...