Should you find a literary agent or self publish your novel? (Pssst—there’s a third option)

Pros and cons of self publishing

By David G Brown

Should you get a literary agent? How long should you query before you quit? Is it really better to self-publish these days? What’s your best path forward to publication and book sales?

All good questions, and of course the answer is, “it’s complicated,” but it’s worth considering the pros and cons of each publishing path. It’s likewise important to recognize that querying and self-publishing are not the only options available to you. In fact, the third path—the small press—is an ideal route for many authors.

What is indie publishing?

Indie or independent publishing used to mean a small publisher that wasn’t owned or controlled by a corporate entity. Then people started to use it to describe publishing services for self-pub authors. Imagine a company that helps you get your manuscript from a Word document into an e-reader format and listed on Amazon. More and more, indie is being used interchangeably with self-publishing.

For the sake of this article, let’s forget about the term indie. There are three main publication paths a writer might take:

1) finding a literary agent to represent a manuscript to the major publishers,

2) finding a smaller publisher directly, without the help of an agent, and

3) self-publishing.

Benefits of self-publishing

Self-publishing gives you the most freedom and the biggest cut of your book sales. You have complete artistic control. You will never have an editorial committee demand that your title change or a character be killed off. You get to decide what the cover will look like. And every sale represents a success of your story as well as your marketing prowess.

Drawbacks of self-publishing

It’s much “easier” to self-publish a book than it is to land a publishing deal, at least initially. However, when you self-publish, you need to master a lot more than writing an immersive and engaging story. You need to be adept at marketing and networking. You also need a reliable team of trusted readers and/or professional editors to help ensure your manuscript is the best it can be.

Worst case scenario? If you rush to self-publish, you may well end up with a book that doesn’t sell and that, with time, becomes a stain on your writerly reputation. Here at Darling Axe Editing, we’ve worked with many clients who have come to regret a hasty self-pub novel, so they pull it off Amazon and start the editing process from scratch.

Benefits of “traditional” publishing

The term traditional publishing often refers to the scenario involving literary agents and the Big Five publishers (soon to be Big Four?), but there’s no reason to conclude that small publishers aren’t part of that same tradition. So instead of traditional, let’s call this agented publishing.

It’s great to have an agent—if you can get one. The truth is, there is a horde of writers querying out there and an agent’s roster tends to grow slowly.

But if you can get one, an agent can be a powerful addition to your team. Many of them are excellent editors who will help you sharpen your manuscript before sending it out on submission. They will champion your efforts and offer their industry expertise along the way.

Drawbacks of agented publishing

In our Book Broker interview series, we often ask agents, “if there was one thing you could change about the publishing industry, what would it be?”

A common complaint is that the Big Five publishers have a stranglehold on the industry. Every year, there are fewer imprints and thus fewer acquisitions editors that agents can send submissions to. On top of that, the Big Five's current marketing approach is a large initial advertising spend when a new book comes out, but when the sales don’t come back strong enough, they slash the marketing budget.

This means you can nail your query submission, land an agent, accept a publishing contract, and then… nothing. You get dropped, and your poor sales may directly impact the size of your next advance or whether the publisher will even consider the sequel you were working on.

Another scenario is that your agent believes in you and likes your manuscript, but they don’t manage to convince any publishers to take a chance on you. Landing representation does not guarantee that your manuscript will be published.

Can you get an agent after self-publishing?

While it’s generally not possible to find a literary agent to represent a novel that’s already been self-published, there’s nothing stopping you from landing representation for your next manuscript. In fact, having a self-published novel or memoir with decent sales and reviews can go a long way toward convincing an agent and publisher that you have a ready-made platform.

Benefits of a “small press” publisher

A small publisher is… small. They are often run by a handful of people, and they might only come out with ten or twenty titles per year. They aren’t beholden to the directives of a corporate overlord or their fickle marketing formulas. That generally means small publishers are more flexible, more personable, and they are more likely to take a chance on something that would not pass muster with the gatekeepers of the Big Five.

Also, you don’t need an agent to submit your manuscript to a small publisher.

Drawbacks of the small press

As noted, a small publisher is small, which means they don’t have a lot of money. Author advances tend to be lower than those of agented authors. However, small presses are more likely to keep promoting a book even if the initial sales are lower than expected. Also, the royalty percentage from small publishers tends to be more generous, and authors who want an active role in marketing can often negotiate for a better rate on sales they drive themselves.

But keep in mind that not all small publishers are created equally. They can be excellent, but they can also be fly-by-night operations with a poor track record of getting their authors noticed. Before agreeing to hand your manuscript over, you need to do your homework. What other titles have they published? Have any been successful? Are their books well edited? Do their books have quality cover art?

If you aren’t sure, ask to speak to one of their clients so you can get a sense of their experience. You can also find feedback about publishers (and agents) on some forums. One good one is the Absolute Write Water Cooler.

The small press is on the rise

The Big Five is trying to consolidate into the Big Four—whether the US government will allow it to happen will be decided in the next few months. Even if it doesn’t come to pass, the corporate publishing industry has been tightening its belt for years. Almost every agent we’ve interviewed points to this troubling trend, and the end result is fewer gatekeepers, less diversity, and rampant turnover.

Meanwhile, the small press is on the rise, both in terms of proliferation and prestige. As the big publishers focus purely on profit, we’re seeing more small press titles nominated for esteemed honours like the Man Booker Prize. If the top continues to stifle itself, it’s reasonable to assume the rest of the industry will rise to the occasion.

So should you self-publish or find a literary agent? Maybe neither! To help you consider the third path, here’s a substantive list of small publishers in the United States. And here’s a list of small publishers in Canada and one more for the UK.

Good luck in your search!

David Griffin Brown (Septimus Brown) is the founder and senior editor at Darling Axe Editing

David Griffin Brown is an award-winning short fiction writer and co-author of Immersion and Emotion: The Two Pillars of Storytelling. He holds a BA in anthropology from UVic and an MFA in creative writing from UBC, and his writing has been published in literary magazines such as the Malahat Review and Grain. In 2022, he was the recipient of a New Artist grant from the Canada Council for the Arts. David founded Darling Axe Editing in 2018, and as part of his Book Broker interview series, he has compiled querying advice from over 100 literary agents. He lives in Victoria, Canada, on the traditional territory of the Songhees and Esquimalt Nations.

Immersion & Emotion: The Two Pillars of Storytelling

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