A few weeks ago, my editor and I finished the content edits on my debut novel, CAMBION’S LAW (City Owl Press, Nov. 9, 2021). My book is now headed to copy edits and things are really kicking into gear. I recently got a sneak peek at the cover, and it is looking gorgeous. I’m planning a cover reveal to coincide with pre-order links and starting to think about marketing and publicity.
After I announced my release date and teased my cover reveal, several fellow authors had questions for me about publishing with a small press and my experience going forward with an unagented book deal. I’m always happy to answer questions about this because I think publishing can feel very mysterious and arcane. I know it did for me when I first entered the querying trenches about a year ago.
One Year Ago – What I Wish I Knew
One year ago, in June 2020, I had never sent a single query.
Yep, that’s right–I had been writing novels for years, but I didn’t dare to dream of publishing them. However, I was sitting on a finished, revised manuscript of CAMBION’S LAW and didn’t know what to do with it next. I had gotten some feedback on the first few chapters from an online critique group and revised accordingly. I’d also, in an act of extreme boldness, asked my then-fiance (now spouse) to read the book. He was the one who spurred me to take my writing seriously enough to try to sell it.
Ladies and gentlefolk, you heard it here first–if you find a good alpha reader, marry them. (Assuming they are into that kind of thing.)
Real talk: I had no idea what I was doing. I didn’t really have a writing community at the time. I did a web search for “how to query” and in July 2020, I started yeeting the book at a couple agents whose lists seemed to fit. I tried out a Twitter pitch event and got some interest from a couple micro-presses. I started to take my chances a little more seriously after that, but not as seriously as I should have.
Without further preamble, here are the things I wish I knew one year ago.
1. Plan for success.
There are many paths to publication and which is best for you depends on what you want out of publishing, what you want for the specific book, and what you want for your writing career. It’s a good idea to start thinking about your goals in all of those areas before you start querying.
For example, is it your goal just to be read? To publish this book in particular? Publish a series? Publish something, but not necessarily this book? See your book in bookstores and airports? Have a career as an author? Quit your day job and write full-time? Become a “bestselling” or famous author? Do you want to write in just one genre, or many? Do you want to write “commercial” fiction or literary fiction?
Your goals should inform your strategy for querying and selling your book. There are no right answers, though some goals are easier met than others. Most authors do not become famous or hit bestseller lists. Most authors cannot make a living as a writer. For some reason, many people think writers are rich celebrities, but most book advances are relatively small and no one is recognizing our faces as we walk down the street. If you’re in publishing for fame and not love of the game (i.e. writing) you’re probably not in the right business.
However, when you query, plan to succeed. Because when you do succeed, you don’t want to then have to hustle to figure out this stuff after the fact.
Ask me how I know…
When I sent those queries last summer, I didn’t expect to get an offer. I did it because it seemed like the next step in my writing journey. I didn’t have a plan. I threw myself into the deep end and learned how to swim along the way.
2. Query agents and publishers separately.
Be strategic when you query. Don’t query agents and publishers at the same time. I heard this advice when I started querying, but I didn’t know why.
The reason is that agents want to have the first crack at selling your book, and they want to maximize their profits and yours. If an agent knows you’ve shopped your book to publishers and those publishers have said no, those are options you’ve closed off. You only get one chance to submit your book to a publisher. Generally, you get one chance per publisher or agent per book.
Some people might advise taking an offer from a publisher to an agent. This can work, but it doesn’t always. If you get an offer from a press that accepts unagented submissions, and then try to leverage that, you only have about two weeks to accept or turn down the offer. Agents may pass on your work because they just don’t have time to make a quick decision, or because they know the publisher who has offered doesn’t give large advances.
Additionally, the agent’s main role is to get you a book deal and negotiate the terms. For that service they take a percentage (usually 15%) of your advance and royalties. If you got a book deal yourself, you already did a big part of the work. (Caveat: if you are unagented, do your research and make sure you have a professional look over your contract for you. Not all small presses have your best interest at heart.)
If your career goals include representation, I suggest limiting your first round of queries to agents only and keep the option of direct submissions to publishers in your back pocket. It’s definitely possible to build your career as an indie author first and get an agent later–it would just probably be with a new book, not with books you already sold.
3. You don’t need an agent to get published.
When I queried CAMBION’S LAW I knew nothing.
I could have queried more agents before I started querying small presses. But if I had sought representation before querying my publisher, I would probably be on sub right now. I wouldn’t be debuting. And according to Publisher’s Marketplace, urban fantasy isn’t selling to big publishers right now…but it is still a solid genre for small presses. So I might have signed 15% of my profits to an agent, and then gotten a similar deal to the one I got on my own.
So why get repped, if that’s the case? With an agent, you have someone in your corner who knows the industry, knows editors, and can get your book to people with big purses. Many big publishers do not accept unagented submissions, and most small presses do not offer large advances or sizable marketing campaigns. If you want that big advance, that bestseller, that Big Name Author life, you probably want to settle in for the long game and seek an agent.
But big advances come with their own challenges. An advance is an advance on your royalties. If you get one of those six-figure advances, but your book doesn’t sell well enough to recoup the advance for the publisher, you might have trouble selling your next book–and you will not see a penny in royalties.
This is where knowing your goals and your market comes in really handy. If you have a book in a niche genre or market, if it won’t bother you to get a small (or no) advance, or you want to get published sooner rather than later, but don’t want to self-publish, a small press may be the right path for you. Small presses may also offer more leeway and more control over your content. You will probably have input on things like your back cover copy and your cover, decisions that a larger publisher may hand over entirely to their marketing department.
With a small press, you are primarily your own marketing department. But even larger presses expect authors to do a lot of self-promo these days.
4. Publishing is a long game.
I think this gets said a lot, but it bears repeating: becoming a published author takes time. It’s a learning process. Some people query for years, so plan accordingly. Sure, some people get instant results, but that is the exception. Expect that most agents and publishers will pass on your work. That’s normal. Keep going, keep writing, and keep improving your craft.
Send queries in small waves of 5-10. If you don’t get any interest from your first wave, hit pause to rework your query and pages. Find a writing group or a few trusted beta readers and/or critique partners with a sharp eye for detail and no qualms about giving honest feedback. For whatever reason, it is far easier to figure out how to pitch a book that you didn’t write.
If you get an agent, the next step is going on submission (“on sub”). This can also take years. Going on sub is a whole new round of rejections and waiting, much like querying. Books die on submission all the time. But the agenting relationship (in most cases) goes beyond that book, so you can write a new book while you wait and then go on submission again. And once you get an offer, it can take a really long time to get the contract negotiated. I know people who have waited over a year between their offer and signing their final contract. Publishing–especially traditional, big-house publishing–is slow.
(On the other hand, I got my contract within a few weeks of my offer, turned it around within the month, and ended up with a release date just one year in the future. Score one for small presses.)
A writing career is a marathon, not a sprint. Actually, it’s not a race at all. It’s a journey. There’s no finish line and no prize for hitting your milestones before anyone else.
5. There are many paths to publishing.
I think this is the most important advice I would give any author trying to navigate the publishing world and the querying trenches. The conventional path of agent to submissions to a “Big 5” (now Big 4!) publishing contract is not the only way. Getting an agent doesn’t guarantee publication, and the Big 4 publishing monoliths come with their own limitations on what they are willing to publish, what risks they are willing to take, and what voices they amplify. Small presses can’t afford as much in the way of advances, but they can help you reach niche markets (as with my publisher City Owl Press), generally have a faster release schedule, and often are more open to diverse narratives (for example, some high-quality small SFF presses specifically seek queer stories). I haven’t mentioned self-publishing here much because I don’t know as much about how it works, but if you have the money to put into formatting, editing, and cover design, it can be a great option as well–especially if you want complete control over your work and a 100% share of the profits. Many authors are choosing a hybrid path these days (self-publishing some work while traditionally publishing others) for exactly those reasons.
If you have questions about publishing with a small press, unagented submissions to publishers, or anything else I’ve mentioned here, please feel free to leave a comment, contact me here, or send me a Twitter DM!