Monday, July 29, 2013

Are Self-Published Books the New Query Letter?

Erin Kern is the author of the Trouble Series of romance novels. Like many of my writer friends, she began by querying agents and ended up going on her own after several rejections. I hope you're as inspired by her story as I am, especially if your dream is to eventually sign with a large publishing house.

I wrote my first full length novel when I was 24 years old. And like every other aspiring author, I typed “the end” and sent out a handful of queries, to which only a fraction of agents even bothered responding. Instead of letting that monumental disappointment get me down, I moved on to my next book.

I didn't have any luck with that one either.

In the spring of 2008, I started writing Looking for Trouble, the first book in my Trouble series. After finishing it I thought, “Okay, someone in the industry has to at least give me the time of day with this one.”

They didn't. Well, not exactly anyway. 

A year after I started writing the book, I gave up on finding an agent and started querying editors. Instead of getting that standard form “While your work sounds interesting…” (and you all know what I’m talking about), I got a few hits. Meaning a small handful of editors requested to read the first 5 chapters.While that is progress, it really only delays that inevitable form rejection that always comes.
“While the first 5 chapters were interesting…”

By then I’d become desensitized and learned not to take it personally. In fact, I even stopped reading the entire letter. I’d scan the first line, then toss the thing in the trash.

After all, the editor is only doing their job. The letter they receive from you is one out of hundreds, or even thousands, per week. Could you imagine having to read every single one of those? And most of them are probably gag worthy at best.

Now, I’m not saying there aren't talented authors who get lost in the shuffle of the standard query. It happens all the time. It sucks, but it happens. But that’s not the end of my story. It’s not even the beginning. I’d say it’s more of a prologue.

After receiving my final rejection (this one was more than just a standard form, blah blah), I thought of moving onto my next book.

Then I started hearing whispers on the internet of a strange phenomenon: Self-publishing. For some, the phrase alone triggers a full body dry heave, sort of like watching Elaine on Seinfeld dance.

Only talentless hacks who can’t cut it in real publishing self-publish their own work.” 

I know some of you out there have heard something similar to this said by someone in the past. I certainly have. In fact, I was one of them. But a little company called Amazon blew all that out of the water.

You mean we can upload our work directly to Amazon, to be sold on e-readers, and we don’t even have to type a query letter? We can just upload our stuff, watch it sell thousands of copies and pocket all the profits?

For some, the absence of the dreaded query was reason enough to give the option a try. And I’ll get to the selling thousands of copies in a bit. Some authors embraced this option with open arms. I wasn't one of them. At least, not at first.

 My goal, when I first started writing, was to see my books in print. To hold a paperback with my name on it in my own hands. To land that coveted book deal with one of the Big 6.

Why in the world would I want to publish my own book? I’d have to find my own editor, my own cover designer and figure out a way to market the thing. 

I don’t know about you, but the word marketing triggers a bigger gag reflex than the word synopsis. But that’s an entirely different blog post.

Back to the self-publishing thing.

My decision to self-publish wasn't because I wanted to work independently. It wasn't because I wanted to do all the work on my own. It was a lack of options.

And even after I self-published Looking for Trouble, I still wasn’t convinced I was doing the right thing.

Without a major publisher backing me up, or the resources to market myself, would readers even take me seriously? And that’s assuming readers would even know who I was.

After all, I wasn't the only one uploading my work to Amazon. At the time, the KDP platform was being flooded by other writers in the exact same position as me. That’s a lot of competition.

I had no marketing plan, not to mention I didn't even have the budget to market. I had no backlist to build from and no reader following. Sounds kind of desolate, doesn't it? Well, it is.

 And, not only are you going up against other self-publishers, but you’re going up against traditionally published writers who have the backing of the NY giants. No, I don’t mean the football team. 

So back to the subject at hand (because getting noticed as a self-published author is yet another entirely different blog post).

So, when I uploaded my first masterpiece to Amazon, was I happy?


Did I have an explosion of sales? I’d say more of a trickle.

Actually a slow drip is a better term. A very slow drip. It took 2 weeks to sell my first copy after I uploaded it. And that was to my husband. It’s okay, you can laugh. It is kind of pathetic. It’s also typical.

The first month Looking for Trouble was published (October 2010) I sold about 10 copies. The next month I sold 12.

And that was with lots of marketing. And when I say lots, I mean some reviews from romance websites, and the occasional feature.

Okay, that’s not a lot. But, like I said, I didn't have a lot of money to spend, nor did I have the time. Besides, what writer wants to spend hours a day marketing? I don’t know about you, but I’d rather spend that time writing.

Because that’s what I am. A writer. Not a publicist.

But that’s what you have to do when you self-publish. You shoulder all the responsibility of getting your name out there. It’s a daunting task. And, at times, depressing. Because you can spend hours a day and hundreds of dollars getting your books into the hands of readers, and most authors barely see a huge surge in sales.

And, I know some writers who barely break even with the money they spend on marketing. But my sales did eventually take off. In April 2011 I started seeing a steady uphill climb in ranking. By then I’d all but quit marketing and was basically working on my next book. In fact, the only change I’d made was the price of the book.

I lowered it from $2.99 to $.99.

To make a long story short, Looking for Trouble was on the Amazon top 100 for 4 months. Sometime in June, the book peaked at #6 in the paid Kindle store, and #1 on three different lists. In that month alone, I sold 38,000 copies. What was I doing to sell all these books? 


The higher ranked your book is, the more exposure you get. Readers brows the bestseller lists all the time to see who they should read next.

So do publishers. And agents. It’s their job to know who’s selling, and that includes the indies.

You write a great book, have a professional looking cover, hit a bestsellers list and gain the notice of the big guns in New York. Of course it’s not as simple as a 1-2-3 step. But you get the basic gist.

One might even say the self-published book is the new query letter. Actually, I have heard some people say that. I know some authors might have a big problem with this statement. Some people look at it like, “Sure, the Big 6 wants to step in and take over after we've done all the hard work.”

That’s certainly your prerogative to look at it that way. I don’t necessarily agree.

Publishers are aware of what’s going on. So are agents. They wouldn't be very good at their jobs if they didn't stay on top of the changing industry. And it is a rapidly changing industry.

Just within the past few years, Amazon has changed the game so much that authors are now opting to self-publish without even trying to nab a publisher. Or even an agent.

I’m not sure that’s all the smartest choice. Of course, people need to do what they feel is best for their careers. I have nothing but respect for self-published writers.

It is a ton of work, trying to juggle everything that comes with managing one’s writing career.

So, how did I go from being self-published to accepting a 3-book deal with a top New York publisher? And, more importantly, why? Well, the why is simple. I want to be a writer. Not a publicist, or an editor, or a book designer. 

Just a writer. 

Some might say, “But you don’t need them. You can do it all on your own.” True. But the key word there is can. Sure, I can do it all on my own.

However, I don’t want to do it all on my own.

Marketing alone is incredibly overwhelming. And I, with my limited resources and budget, was never able to fully market myself the way I needed to be marketed.

And, ebooks may be on the rise, but they are still only about 20% of the market. Okay, maybe 25% of the market. Despite what some people say, paperbacks still dominate book sales. How could I possibly reach that wider audience on my own?

The bottom line is, I can’t. And even if I could, I would spend all my free time trying to tap into every single promotional opportunity. When would I have time to write? When would I have time to outline my next story, or even enjoy the fruits of my labor?

Now, I’m not saying that traditional publishing is any less work. I’m sure it’s not. But, I can leave the little details to my publisher and my agent to negotiate the best deals for me that she can.

I never would have gained the interest of Grand Central Publishing (a house within The Hachette Group), and another top New York publisher without her. And I certainly wouldn't have had those two publishers going back and forth with each other, competing for the rights to my books without her negotiating skills. I know nothing about contracts or legal terms. If you’re going to take on a top publisher, you really need an agent who knows the industry, knows book contracts and has the contacts that you don’t have.

I know there are people out there who think I’m insane for signing on with a publisher. Publishers are evil. They are the new vanity press. They are only out to screw over authors.

I've heard every version of these statements said by many people. I don’t begrudge people their opinions. But I feel like I made the right business decision for my career.

Grand Central publishes some of the top romance writers in the entire industry. I feel very confident they know what they’re doing with me, and quite frankly I feel honored to listed among the likes of Roxanne St. Claire, Lori Wilde and Christie Craig.

The moral of the story is, I am living proof that it is possible to get that coveted book deal with a top publisher. It certainly won’t happen overnight. Mine has been 7 years in the making.  

You just have to write a great book (actually more than one would be helpful). My second book, Here Comes Trouble, was in the Amazon top 100 2 weeks after I published it.

And always bear in mind that the head honchos in New York always have their fingers on the pulse of the industry. You never know when that one e-mail is going to change to course of your career.


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Keep on running!

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