Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Publish, Self-Publish or Perish

by C. Hofsetz

 In academia there’s a saying: publish or perish. If you don’t publish often enough, you won’t be successful, you won’t achieve recognition or tenure and before you know you are writing a paper about booty calls.

Professors are measured by where they publish, how often and the number of citations, and not just the quality of the work. That creates a publishing industry that feeds on the despair of people trying to stay relevant and, as a result, quantity trumps quality. Sounds familiar?

I’ve been a software engineer and out of academia for a decade, and although I did have fun teaching and doing research, I’m glad I don’t have that pressure to publish anymore.

But then I wrote a book. Goddamn it!

Writing the first draft of a novel isn’t easy, but it’s only the first step of many. Publishing is a big funnel ahead of you with dead ends everywhere. Finishing a novel is a herculean task, but Hercules had twelve labors, and you just completed the first one.

You’ll publish my book or else!
My Strategy

But I’m a special snowflake and not at all like the other wannabe writers out there. Also, I have a plan! And since I’m generous, I’m sharing it with you:

  • Keep editing book.
  • Query agents.
  • Go to 1 until you give up.
  • Self-publish it.

Awesome, right? I’ll wait for you to pick your jaw up from the floor before continuing. You can thank me later. I accept all major credit cards and money orders.

Well, guess what? Everyone else has the exact same idea. The publishing funnel is the same one regardless where you start, although there are few shortcuts (e.g. you’re a celebrity, rich or you steal a couple of boats and airplanes*).

The actual timeline is a little more complicated than that:

After you finish and iterate your first drafts, you start sending queries (A) until you hit the jackpot, find an agent and become the next J.K. Rowling (B)–all published writers are rich, right? Most of us, though, don’t get anything close to an offer and we eventually panic and start submitting directly to publishers (C – I’m still not there, but close). Finally, we eventually give up and self-publish (F) or we let our novel, our dreams and our self-esteem die in a puff of nothingness (G).

Note: if you do want to be the next J. K. Rowling, there’s a how-to guide for that. Really, what are you waiting for?

Is My Book Ready?

In case you just finished your first draft the answer is a resounding ‘no.’ Ernest Hemingway allegedly said that the first draft of anything is shit.

Based on my tiny experience in writing, it’s my belief that a collection of pages becomes a book only after several revisions. The first draft is only the scaffold. This is true even for blogs, but we don’t have much time to iterate on those. Sorry about that!

I see discarded drafts everywhere!
For instance, the big twist at the end of Sixth Sense wasn’t part of the first script. In fact, the movie was supposed to be about a kid who saw the victims of a serial killer. M. Night Shyamalan rewrote the script from scratch ten times, and only in the fifth revision he wrote the big twist (I’m trying not to spoil it here).

But what if you already did several rewrites, and you’ve been working on your book for more than a year? Is your novel finally ready?

Well, the answer here is simple: have you published it already? If not, you’re not ready.

*Based on Shit Rough Drafts Does “The Great Gatsby”

You’re going to be editing it until the printers are spitting out your novel, and probably even after that.

Traditional Publishing

It’s hard to get in traditional publishing, and even having thousands of followers on twitter or other social media platform (not my case yet), it doesn’t mean you’ll get an agent. Your book has to be as good as it can be, and you have to be lucky. According to querytracker.nethttps://querytracker.net/ less than 10% of the queries result in requests, and requests are not offers of representation.

Source: querytracker.net. Data as of 1/22/2017

But wait, there’s more! Or, actually, less. Yes, it’s a numbers game, but the numbers are not that large. The genre of my current unagented novel is Science Fiction. Using querytracker.net as a source, we find 1517 agents (as of 1/22/2017). 1193 of those are in the United States, 907 are open to queries and only 146 (about 10%) are accepting Science Fiction submissions:

Worse, some places have more than one agent looking for Science Fiction, and in most cases if one already rejected yours, you won’t be able to submit it to another one in the same agency: some share the same input query, others explicitly tell you that one ‘no’ means ‘no’ for everyone there (some say to submit to the other agents anyway, arguing that the other agent won’t even remember it, and the worst that can happen is some strangers are mad at you. I wouldn’t do it, though. My skin is not that thick.)

No wonder so many books fall through the cracks.


I’m not going to talk about the several skills you need to self-publish. It’s another set of herculean tasks that’ll take you away from writing, and it’s well documented on the internet. The question here is *if* you should self-publish.

Recently, I had a chat at AbsoluteWrite.com that started as an innocuous question about publishing my first chapters online, but soon it became a soul-searching thread if I should be a blogger, self-publish my novel or query agents. I’ve been at this for about a year now, and some people took almost a decade to get an agent. I met someone at a PNWA writing conference that was trying to publish for 30 years.


Clearly there are marketable books that are shunned by agents, either because of the sheer number of submissions–so they can focus on the best ones out there–or because the book is considered bad by traditional standards. Take The Martian, for example. It uses both 1st and 3rd person, past and present tense and it’s riddled with expletives. It was rejected by agents several times, and he decided to publish it first as a web serial, and later as a free e-book on his website.

Also, consider B.V. Larson. He has more than 63 self-published books, many of which are considered brain candy. Some even say that Steel World is a wannabe Starship Troopers. But readers love his books, and most of his work is also available in audio format.

I’m not saying that my (or your) novel is a diamond in the rough, or that it in any way compares to best sellers. The point is that even books which would eventually be successful are often rejected.

And it’s not the agents’ fault; in their places, we would do the same thing. Many of them go through more than a hundred queries per day, and a well-written query does not necessarily mean the novel is any good–and vice-versa.

Moreover, self-publishing (also called indie publishing) is skyrocketing in the last years, while traditional publishing is losing ground. The chart below illustrates how Amazon Published and Indie Published is taking over. The stigma of self-publishing (sometimes called vanity press in a derogatory way) is slowly vanishing.

Source: AuthorEarnings.com
The downside of self-publishing is that readers never know if a book is decent, or if it was even edited, and this can scare people off from reading them. Some say it’s a mass of mediocrity. So if you take this path do your homework, edit your book and make your story be the best that it can be. Don’t take shortcuts.

The Secret to Publishing

Everyone wants to know the secret to publishing, preferable through an agent.

Do you want to know what is it? Well, me too. I have no idea. As of this blog post, my book is unagented, and I’m at least a year away from self-publishing if it comes to that. Thanks for reading this and please don’t go away!

People say that if you write a good book it’ll be published, and maybe that’s true. But we’ve read so many bad books that are published, and our novels are hopefully somewhere in between To Kill A Mockingbird and the worst-ranked books on Amazon. How did they do it?

As I said, I don’t have the answers. I wish! What I can say, though, is to be patient. Sure, you can self-publish and even have misleading reviews on your back cover. That’s easier to achieve.

No, you should not have misleading reviews on your back cover!
But as anything in life, you need the following to succeed:

  1. Hard work
  2. Perseverance
  3. A bit of luck

Damn. That’s cheesy and cliché. But it is what it is. The truth is most of us will never be famous authors, but if at least a handful of people read and like our work, it’s already awesome.

Anyway, I think I just threw up a little in my mouth.  Please kill me if I say anything like you miss 100% of the queries you don’t send.



Thanks for my lovely daughter for the stick figures!

*Yes, I’m aware that he technically didn’t write the books. But he’s planning to write his own version of events!


C. Hofsetz accidentally wrote a book before he even learned how to write. The novel is awesome (according to him), but the book itself was awful. Now he’s slowly fixing it as he learns the tools of the craft. Check out his blog here. Originally from Brazil, where he was a professor of Computer Science, he has been a software engineer for Microsoft Office since 2007, and tracking changes of his first work-in-progress novel in Microsoft Word since the end of 2015.