For a while now, the way to get a book published has been to submit query letters to literary agents and hope to find an agent who will make your case to a publisher. You can’t submit directly to publishers—they don’t accept submissions. You have to go through a literary agent if you want a shot at a commercially successful book.
Query letters are evil. They consist of a description of the plot of the book and a blurb about the author. Agents read thousands of these every year and decide, based on these letters, which books to read. The vast majority of query letters are ignored or result in a rejection. Think about what this means: it means that books are being rejected by agents without the agent ever having read the book. I understand that agents can’t read every book that everyone submits to them, but a query letter is a feeble tool for understanding what is in a book. A book is its text, not just its plot. The fact that agents rely on query letters to select books tells you something about what they value in a book. They value the book’s salability based on market trends. Is this book enough like other commercially successful books in terms of subject matter? They do not value the writing itself—or they would request a writing sample (the first page for example).
Feedback from literary agents is frustrating. When they deign to respond, they often say something like, “We like this but couldn’t publish it in today’s climate.” This is a common theme in my rejections and the rejections of my author friends. Tell me this: if you like a book, isn’t that the book you should be backing? Isn’t the job of the literary agent to champion an author whose work they like? Apparently not. Literary agents also want to rewrite your book. I’ve had agents tell me that they could publish my book if only it had a different ending. My book wouldn’t be my book if I let others write the ending! I don’t contact an agent to get advice on how to write. I contact them seeking representation for my book, which I wrote. Yet another thing you’ll hear from agents is that your book isn’t right for “their list.” They’re looking for particular books that fit their wish lists, instead of reading the books that are actually being written and picking the best of those.
To make matters worse, if you do publish a book with a traditional publisher, the publisher will take 90% of the money. That’s right. The author creates the product—and gets %10. The author develops, over a lifetime, the sensitivities and skills needed to write a book, and produces a rare product that people want to read. What does the publisher do? Have a connection with Barnes & Noble? The publisher offers editing assistance and a way to get your book onto the right shelf in a bookstore. Is that worth 90%? I don’t think so. Those percentages should be reversed.
I had a book published, my novel Things Said in Dreams. It was published with a small press that treated me well and gave me a slightly higher royalty percentage than usual. I was very excited to get my book published. But after a year or so, I developed a moral objection to the basic arrangement. Even if it’s a small amount of money, I just can’t feel right about someone else getting the bulk of the proceeds from my books. I’m not writing my books to make money. I’m writing because I love the process of writing, the act of writing—and because I love reading books. But the money is important. It reflects where we think the value lies. And to go along with a system that suggests that the value lies more with the publisher than the author is wrong to me.
So I got out of my contract with my publisher. I was already giving away all my unpublished books for free on my website. This was just that final step towards giving away absolutely all my books for free. I had heard of Radiohead giving away an album with a pay-as-you-want model, and that example inspired me. I put a donate button on my website and started submitting my books to free book sites on the internet.
I stopped thinking in terms of reaching agents and publishers, and started thinking in terms of reaching readers. People write books so that people can read books, and with the internet, I can reach readers everywhere. This has been a major shift for me. I sent query letters out for ten years. I got into the mode of thinking that in order to reach readers, I had to first reach agents. Agents became more important in my mind than they should be. I never wrote to please agents, but I did want to please them. With giving my books away for free, that has all shifted. The most important person for me to reach is the reader. The agent is irrelevant.
Giving my books away hasn’t been without hiccups. One editor of a free book website rejected all of my book submissions. He said, “If you ever find yourself writing anything a little more ‘mainstream’ please feel free to email me.” As if it’s the author’s job to write to the editor’s specifications.
The author’s job is to have a vision. A singular vision, that only they could have. And to write based on that vision. It is not the author’s job to write commercially successful material, or mainstream material, or to please literary agents and editors. Writers do something that neither literary agents nor editors nor publishers do: they write books. They go into the wilds of their imagination and observation and they construct something that can be read by others. A person who does this earns, on their journey into those wilds, the wisdom to know what to write and what not to write. A literary agent has not made this journey. A publisher has not made this journey. It is the author’s place, and the author’s place alone, to decide what to write. For agents and publishers to act like it is the author’s job to cater to their whims is nonsensical.
When it comes down to it, it’s not about agents and publishers. It’s not even about authors. It’s about books. People love to read. As writers, I think we need to aim to increase the amount of reading that happens. For me, right now, that means giving my books away for free. That way people with no money can read them and people who can and want to can donate. Take as needed, give as able. I think that maximizes the value I can provide through my writing, and that is why I’m doing it.