Assessing the gatekeepers

Yesterday I dropped two fat manila envelopes off at the post office for the first time in over a year. Yes, I’m back at it: mailing manuscript pages to editors in the desperate hope that one of them will publish my book. (I’ve done plenty of short-story submissions in the meantime, but not a book, and not on paper.)

Things are a little different this time around. The main difference is that self-publishing is a live option, meaning that I’m so confident in this book that if no publisher takes an interest in it, I’m just going to self-publish. The self-publishing marketplace has matured quite a bit, and I have some practice from last time—so I’m pretty sure that I can make things work if I need to.

The major implication of this is that I’m skipping the agent round. I can get an agent after I have an offer from a big publisher, since it turns out that lots of people get their agents that way, and I don’t feel a big imperative to go through the gatekeepers-before-the-gatekeepers this time. I am subbing directly to all of the houses that accept direct author submissions (and some of the ones that don’t), and I’ll wait around for them to get back to me.

The other major implication is that I’m vetting the small presses that I sub to very carefully. My previous experience with a small e-press, while not exactly a negative experience, has made me realize that there’s not a lot which many small presses can do for me which I can’t do for myself. So I’m very carefully going through the small press candidates and weeding out the ones which don’t offer one or more of:

  1. High-quality professional covers
  2. Print editions
  3. Help with promotion
  4. A non-trivial advance (where “non-trivial” is ~$1000)

These are roughly in order of importance. #1 is absolutely non-negotiable, since a big majority of self-pub and small press covers are terrible. I can pay Streetlight Graphics or a similar outfit to do a professional-quality cover for me, so why should I put up with the garbage that most small presses put out? At least half of the small presses that I’ve looked at have been disqualified with the note “Bad covers”.

A print edition is not something that I’d willing to pay for myself (even using the number of high-quality POD services), but it’s something that I consider a positive if a small press offers it. Promotion likewise is something that I can do by myself, but about which I’m largely clueless, and I’ll take all the help that I can get.

And of course, an advance is something which is by definition impossible under self-publishing, which is why I consider it the least important and least significant element of choosing a publisher.

In any case, I’ve time-boxed this process to take no more than a year. Even the slowest of the traditional publishers should have gotten back to me by that point, and if I haven’t gotten an offer by then, to self-pub I will go.


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