Wednesday, March 18, 2009

"my first book was published by AuthorHouse/iUniverse"

My reaction to that sentence in a query letter is not what you hope it will be when you write it. You hope it implies "experienced author with pub credit who has a sales record."

What I infer from it is "book that sold fewer than 200 copies and means author can't be listed as a debut novelist."

Lest you think I'm making up the sold fewer statistic, here's a recent post at How Publishing Really Works blog that elaborates on that. It's drawn from a longer post at Writer Beware on the topic of POD.

When you write a query letter, you want everything in it to be persuasive. An AuthorHouse/iUniverse book is not persuasive. If you've had a book printed there, leave it out of your query letter.


Henry said...

You're thinking about a person's credits and sales figures before the quality of their writing. It's what's wrong with the publishing system. iUniverse or AuthorHouse should matter not at all. Self-publishing can mean the author cares about their work to get it out there - and even if it doesn't sell, this isn't an automatic guarantee that the book has no merit, given the difficulty of marketing and selling self-published books. An author's merit should be based on the writing, not the print technology an author used to release a book.

Janet Reid said...

The quality of work is a separate question, not addressed in this post.

This post is about whether mentioning a book printed at AuthorHouse etc is persuasive.

Henry said...

Well, I think it shouldn't be automatically unpersuasive - and in this environment, where it's increasingly hard to get published traditionally, it shouldn't matter.

I understand being skeptical of people who claim to be "published" writers who put out a book with Publish America, but self-publishing on the whole is increasingly necessary, so I don't know why mentioning it should be a problem - except if what you care about most is sales figures.

Jane Smith said...

At the risk of derailing Janet's post, Henry, you're right that the method of publishing doesn't reflect on the quality of the book; the trouble is that vanity- and self-publishing kills off most books' chances of mainstream publication, regardless of whether they're good or bad. Which is why I caution all writers against it (unless they really know their market, and have good ways of reaching it).

I'll attempt to swing back on track now. The thing is that self-publishing isn't a good publishing credit because there's no selection process involved. Self publishers can't say that their books were chosen for publication because of their great quality: therefore self-publication is not going to be significant to an agent or editor unless the writer concerned has clocked up an inordinate amount of sales for themselves, and can demonstrate potential for even more sales. Which few self-published writers can do, because their sales are usually so abysmally low.

Moving on: if anyone thinks "book that sold fewer than 200 copies" sounds low, then consider this.

If you take the iUniverse sales figures quoted in the 2004 Publishers' Weekly article and remove the 83 books which sold more than 500 copies, including the book by Amy Fisher which sold over 32,000 copies alone, then the mean average number of sales works out to just 39.9 copies sold per title.

Would you be happy if your books sold just 40 copies? Because I certainly wouldn't be. I'll be blogging about that in more detail next week. And meanwhile, thank you, Janet, for linking to my blog--I am just a little thrilled that you did.

Janet Reid said...

I'm not going to debate "should" or "should not". I am going to tell you how things really work.

This is not a persuasive thing to put in your query letter.

Renee Sweet said...

I didn't realize it was desirable to be able to list someone as a "debut novelist" (pardon my ignorance - I'm learning!). How does this help sell the book?

Heather said...

Janet, what if a writer wins a contest and is awarded a publishing package from a POD? Would that change things?

Rick Daley said...

Rule number 1 in sales and marketing: Know your target audience.

A query letter is a sales tool for authors. The market we are selling into when soliciting representation is the traditional publishing industry, which does care about sales figures.

While self-publishing is a worthwhile venture for many writers, a query letter is not the proper place to promote it, unless you are querying because the overwhelming success of your self-published title warrants mass distribution.

Of course, I'm unpublished - traditionally or otherwise - so my $0.02 may only be worth $0.01, but in today's economy what isn't?

Kay said...

What if I said something along the lines of “My first book (which sold 200 copies in the first six months) was published by iUniverse…..”

Or would it be better to just say “My previous title sold 200 copies.”


CNU said...

I'd say my true opinion, but I'd get shouted down like I did last time I actually bothered.... So here's my edited thoughts:

If your POD book has been featured in ACTUAL publications, such as magazines, newspapers, even reputable blogs (such as this fine blog, which I grudgingly disagree with at times, but I nevertheless respect it...) then I'd post that.

The quality of work should stand on it's own. Just because something was published by 'Harper Collins' doesn't make it good... nor does its sales figures. I don't think that Indie or POD books should be ostracized just because of the label. This 'back of the bus' mentality is ridiculous.

Britney spears sold her music good?

Uhh.... yeah... going to go with no on that.

Cutting people down for the medium they used is wrong, however the authors querying should know better than to mention their 'indie' status. Go with the mantra "Don't ask, don't tell" unless you got props from outside sources. (NOT family...or friends...they love you...they don't count.)

Agents want to know one thing: will this book SELL!

Nothing else.

Not quality.

Not content.

Not theme.

Not anything else.

Sorry to sound cruel to the agents out there, but this is the truth.

I know that agents may say otherwise, but they know you can't run a business in the end with out $$$$$$$$. That's very unromantic to the average writer, but always remember that when querying.

Does this sell?

WHO does this sell to?

Why is this better than other books that are similar?

I like the fact that Ms. Reid is honest- like a razor blade that's been outside in subarctic temps. honest.

She basically tells it like it is:

"Gimmie something I can work with and sell. Don't send me junk. Don't send me stuff outside my genre"

These themes have come up in the last two or three blogs and they should be repeated like a buddhist mantra until its sticks.

...Yeah...this is my edited version...

I'm not nice... I'm honest.


Nocturnal Intellect said...

This is tad frustrating. Janet is right, and Henry... well, I agree with you a little, but anyone can pay to be published, but if the quality of work was so great, the author would seek other options of getting out the book, don't you think? Then again, it may be just my sole opinion.


Anonymous said...

I think, Jane, that your point is that you and other agents are simply too judgmental to get past a label. But I suspect that if the author was famous enough you/other agents would find anything they came up with highly persuasive.

Alina said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jane Smith said...

This is Janet's blog, not mine--apologies if I'm out of order here, but I might be able to answer a few of the questions raised in the comments.

Renee: being a debut author is a good hook to hang some promotional work onto, which is why it's a shame to lose that "debut" label by self-publishing (especially if your s-p book doesn't then make many sales).

Heather: if you've won contests then yes, you should usually mention that--so long as they're good contests, and not run by vanity publishers as a way to collect submissions.

Kay: sales of 200 in six months is not something to boast about when trying to attract a mainstream publisher's attention. Those aren't good figures for a book which has to earn it's keep, I'm afraid. So yes, you should still keep quiet on that front.

Podler: Janet is the agent here, I'm a writer and editor. But if I were still acquiring books (which I'm not), then I would definitely take into account a writer's celebrity and fanbase when considering acquiring their books, as they would be likely to sell a few extra copies for us. And publishing is a business, after all.

Alina said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jeremy said...

Nothing to do with this post, but I wanted to think you for the speedy reply to my query.

Sherry said...

I can't fathom how anyone can argue Janet's point here. She's not saying that, simply because your book was self-published, it sucks. She's saying that it's not resume' worthy.

If you were a musician, playing a concert for thousands of people, in a large public venue, contracted by someone in the entertainment industry who chose to book and pay you--that would be a credential. Playing a concert that you chose to put on, in front of a couple hundred friends and family members in your basement, who each handed you a ten-dollar bill as they entered--that would not be a credential, even if your talent is Beatle-esque.

Get the picture?

Eileen said...

What I took from what Janet said is not that self publishing is good or bad- simply that saying you are self pubbed does not have any positive sway in the query.

Queries are short- keep the focus on what will help convince the agent your book is worth reading. Of course if you are famous that is a selling feature. It's not about being judgmental it is about the point of the query.

BJ said...

If you're looking for an agent,you're obviously hoping to sell your work. If all you want is accolades for your 'wonderful writing', you don't need an agent for that. If you're looking for an agent, you want to sell. What's the they can't sell?

And whether your 'sold 200 copies' novel is good or not, it's not going to impress anyone - not an agent, not a publisher, no one (except maybe your friends and family). So don't bother trying.

Janet is NOT saying that she will not accept clients who have published that way. She is saying that mentioning it in your query letter doesn't help you, because anyone can get published that way. Instead, leave it out of the query letter, tell her what your book is about, and let your writing speak for itself.

Anonymous said...

I don't know percentages, but I would guess that the vast number of POD books out there are from people who either had no luck through the main channels of publishing, did it because they just wanted the joy of seeing their writing in print with a cover, or are clueless enough about the publishing industry to think POD is a legit avenue toward success in publishing.

If you are querying someone with the goal of inspring them to read your material, you don't want any of those implications floating around in the agent's head. They only want reasons to say yes, so don't be giving them reasons to doubt. Bad idea.

Alina said...

Sorry for leaving your blog littered with deleted comments. Oops.

Sherry said...

Umm, in case it wasn't obvious by the context of my poorly proofread response above, I meant that I can't fathom how anyone can argue WITH Janet's point... I think she argued her own point quite well.

christine tripp said...

I think, as with any resume, you list only the most impressive (persuasive) and relateable things you have been involved in. If applying for a job in fast food service, you don't mention your lemonade stand you had when you were 8, you DO mention your Summer job at the local burger joint when you were 15.
As an Illustrator I wouldn't mention sales of cartoons to a community paper for a $1.00, I WOULD list publishers that an agent would recognize.

This can only be the same for writers.

christine tripp said...

iUniverse or AuthorHouse should matter not at all.

I'm not sure, but perhaps my last post didn't make it clear that I was quoting "Henry" but now, to be crystal, that quote is accurate, it doesn't matter so, don't disclose it. Anything you are not proud of should not be in a query and if a person IS proud of paying to be published (not technically) then they are not ready to be published traditionally. An agent wants you to make money just like they do, if all you want is to get your work out there for people to read, no matter the numbers, keep on paying.
This is a business, a contractor that wants to build houses just so people can live in them first needs to make enough cash from the sale of homes to get to the point he can afford to give his work and talent away.
(and no, his real estate agent will not be willing to do the same:)

Maggie Stiefvater said...

I've got to say I'm with Sherry here. You do not have to do ANYTHING to publish with PublishAmerica or Lulu or anything of the sort. There is no quality check whatsoever. So you might as well be putting at the bottom of your query letter "My first novel was bound nicely at Kinko's and most of my relatives bought a copy for slightly more than the printing cost."

Folks, we can do better than this. Seriously. Why is everyone here defending the fine name of self-publishing, anyway, while they're on an AGENT'S BLOG!?

Kristen said...


Two reasons, I'll guess: 1. This blog was linked to on a website called "The Self-Publishing Review," and

2. Many people who self-publish have had no luck with agents and are excited to have an agent right here who may be willing to explain some things from an agent's point of view.

Which brings me to my question:

If a book that has been self-published has been featured in newspapers, discussed on NPR, and has received only exceptional critical literary are reader reviews (not friends-and-family readers, but dad won't read it and my sister prefers mysteries), but agents keep turning it down - what is it about the book they're turning down?

Is it just that the query is that bad? Could that be the problem?

If agents want to make money, if agenting a book is about sales and business, and the book has made the rounds with reviewers and readers and has proven to be, in the reading world, a "good" book - and one that would sell - is it possible the agents are seeing "Ugh, war novel," and turning it down simply because they think it won't appeal to them personally?

I'm genuinely perplexed, and the more positive critical reviews I receive, the more confused and - admittedly - frustrated I become. Any insight would be appreciated.

Maggie Stiefvater said...

Kristen, I'm sure Janet will answer too, but I'd imagine that that would be a hard sell for the same reason an already published short story is hard to submit to editors. You've already used up your first world rights -- given up your book's virginity. Yes, your book might still get laid, but it'll never be the first time again, and publishers want that cherry.

Tina B said...

oK so what you all saying is it best to go self publishing or with an agent? Im new to the publishing part, i got the stories on paper but need the next step!!!