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Find a Literary Agent or Self-Publish: How to Decide

Find a Literary Agent or Self Publish: How to Decide
by Fern Reiss, CEO,

You’ve decided to publish a book. You’ve done the hard part—you’ve finally got the manuscript written. Now all that’s left is to publish it—and that’s the easy part, right?

Welcome to today’s new world of publishing, and the options that await you. In the old days (we’re talking 15 years ago) there was really only one choice for writers who wanted to release their words to the world: You sent your manuscript to a publishing house, and then you prayed. (Sure, even then you knew you were supposed to find a literary agent first, but that seemed a harder quest even than nailing down a publisher.) Six, eight, twelve, sometimes 24 months later, you’d get that sinking feeling in your stomach when your familiar, brown-wrapped manuscript turned up again in your mailbox. Sometimes it would be accompanied by a scrawled, “Sorry, not for us,” or a day-brightening, “Try us again!” More often it would come with a form letter, explaining politely that they get a lot of manuscripts and they publish few. After attempting in vain to remove the coffee stains from your once-virgin pages, you’d type the thing up afresh and start all over again.

Today’s publishing world is radically different—and that’s very exciting for us as authors.

First of all, there are many more outlets today to which to send your work. Twenty years ago, there were a handful of top-notch literary agents. Today, there are several hundred good literary agents across the country. (Partly this is because the large publishing houses have downsized and been gobbled up in recent years, and many of the former publishing house editors have now hung out shingles as literary agents.) Regardless, there are many more outlets for your work, and many more opportunities to capture a literary agent than ever before. (There are also more venues in which to meet a literary agent. With writing conferences popping up all over the country, you can pretty much pre-select your agent of choice and then track down the conference where you can most easily meet him!)

There’s also the new viability of self-publishing today. Although there have always been self-published books (Ben Franklin and Mark Twain are among the literary forefathers who supposedly self-published) the technology has now become accessible and affordable for all. You can print a 250-paged paperback book in quantities of 1,000 for just $2 per copy today—making self-publishing a truly viable option for many. And there’s the new buzz word in today’s technology, print-on-demand, which promises to pave the bumps in the road even further for authors. Although I don’t recommend print-on-demand publishing for most situations (see my article on POD) there are circumstances in which POD is an affordable, easy alternative for authors seeking to publish.

So given all the options, how do you decide? What are the tradeoffs? What are the caveats? I give all-day Publishing Game workshops on these topics, but here are just a few things to consider:

Cachet. Being able to refer to your literary agent and publisher is now, and probably always will be, more impressive than publishing yourself. When someone at a cocktail party asks what you do, if you can say, “I’m an author, Harper-Collins published my latest book,” that’s classy. When I say, “I’m Peanut Butter and Jelly Press,” it’s just cute. So it depends on your goals; if you’re in it for the prestige, the traditional literary agent/big publisher route is probably best for you.

Control. If you want to control the details of your book—the editing, the cover design, even the content—you need to self-publish. Although the best publishers give you some input, you’re never able to control all the details unless you’re publishing yourself.

Profits. If you have a clear sense of who your audience is, and how you can reach them, you might be able to generate much more income from your book by doing it yourself. When you work with a large publisher, you make only 10% of list price (and the agent takes 15% of that.) So the book that sells for $10 retail is netting you—85 cents. As a self-publisher, you keep all those profits—so that same $10 book, once you’ve paid off the middlemen who sell to the bookstores and libraries, will generate at least $3 to $4.50, or even more for books sold back of the room at talks or directly over your website. You can be just 10% as successful as a large publisher—and make the same amount! (The downside is that you’ll also incur all the financial risk. With a big publisher, you may not make money, but you won’t lose it either.) Still, there are an estimated 50,000 small publishers in the US today, and we’re generating over $14 billion annually in book sales. You can be one of us.

Speed. Mainstream publishing is painfully slow. Even after you find a literary agent and publisher, the time lag between their acceptance of your manuscript and the final publication of your book could easily be as long as two to three years. Be sure your topic won’t wither in that period of time. (My book, Terrorism and Kids: Comforting Your Child came out one week after 9/11. All the big publisher books on 9/11 came out nine months later, way too late for the market—and most of those books ended up being remaindered.)

Shelf Life. With a big publisher, you have no control over the shelf life of your book. Most books today—even those which receive huge advances of money—have a bookstore shelf-life of only eight months. So if you want your book to be around for longer, you need to consider self-publishing. (I turned down a six-figure advance for my book, The Infertility Diet: Get Pregnant and Prevent Miscarriage, because I was concerned that it would be yanked from shelves prematurely. By self-publishing, I was able to ensure that it stayed in print—and on bookstore shelves—forever. That book has now been selling for six years—and it still sells like hotcakes.)

Business. If you like to write, but you have no interest in business, leave the publishing to someone else. Self-publishing is a business. To make money at it, you need to like those sorts of business things. (You may, on the other hand, find that you love those sorts of business things—I have!)

Publicity. Finally, no matter which way you ultimately decide to publish your book, remember that you—and you alone—are responsible for your book’s publicity. No matter how much money the big publisher throws your way, it’s unlikely that they’ll be doing any publicity for your title. (In fact, several large publishing houses are now buying my small press book, The Publishing Game: Bestseller in 30 Days and giving it to their authors to encourage them to do some publicity on their own!) If you want your book to sell, and sell well, you’ll need to learn how to do book promotion. Fortunately, it’s a learnable skill, and with a little practice, you’ll get good at it.

Finally, remember that publishing is a game. Whichever way you decide to publish, sit back, relax, and enjoy the experience!


Fern Reiss is CEO of ( and ( and the author of the books, The Publishing Game: Find an Agent in 30 Days, The Publishing Game: Bestseller in 30 Days, and The Publishing Game: Publish a Book in 30 Days as well as several other award-winning books.  She is also the Director of the International Association of Writers ( providing publicity vehicles to writers worldwide. She also runs The Expertizing® Publicity Forum where you can pitch your book or business directly to journalists; more information at  Sign up for her complimentary newsletter at

Copyright © 2011 Fern Reiss


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