Over the past few years, my experience of the publishing world has greatly altered the perceptions I had as a fledgling writer 15 years ago. Back then, as a first time, self-taught writer, I didn’t have any connections in the business: I hadn’t studied creative writing for my undergraduate degree and therefore didn’t benefit from having a tutor, cronyism, or access to university associated literary prizes. I had two friends who dabbled in writing, but not enough to give me any feedback. I had an aunt, and another family friend who politely offered to be my beta readers. Apart from this, I was on my own. And what would any writer do if they found themselves alone?
A good starting point for me was to pick up the Writers and Artists Yearbook for the year 2002. I systematically went through it and made 2 lists: one of publishers and one of agents. As my first novel (finished in 2001) was a fantasy for young adults, I decided to approach publishers first. After 6 rejections, I got a request for a full ms; no easy job for a newbie writer. Eventually I was given a non-form rejection letter and, with a good dose of confidence instilled, I put my publishing goals temporarily on the side in 2002 to focus on competing my university degree (Archaeology, not literature).
Fast forward 10 years and my adult literary novel ms was finally ready to go the rounds in the publishing world. As before with my children’s novel ms, I bought a copy of the Writers and Artists Yearbook for 2012. But this time, the content was quite different than the 2002 version.First of all, instead of pages of advice suggesting that debut writers should get a literary agent first and foremost (as in the 2002 version) there were more sections dedicated to self-publishing your work. With the rise of online ebook publishing, Kindle sales and Amazon, this didn’t surprise me. However, I couldn’t help but notice that the number of publishers accepting unsolicited submissions had significantly decreased. In fact, more ominously, the total number of publishers had declined – by a third of the count in 2002. I put this down to the 2008 recession, which had hit the publishing world just as hard as other businesses.
Despite the rise of online self-publishing (which, for the record, I have ventured into previously with both poetry and shorter fiction), I wanted to publish my book the traditional way: having the rights bought by a publisher, with a contract and royalties. But with so few traditional publishers left, I asked myself if it was best to get an agent first, or try for a publisher. It might be better to strike out for a publisher who would accept my unsolicited ms first, then get an agent after that. In the case of my debut poetry collection I approached my publisher, Eyewear Books, directly; not via an agent. I currently don’t have an agent.
Other writers that I know professionally seem to have done it this way too. Personally I think there is nothing wrong with either choice: agent first, publisher first, or to truly go it alone and self-publish. I’ll write more about my own experience of this in a later post. As for me, my literary novel ms is still doing the publisher desk rounds; and getting nearer the mark each time. The thought gives me hope for traditional publishing in a world flooded by selfie reads.