Why I Waited for a Traditional Publisher for my First Novel

It was tempting, with the exponential growth in self-publishing, to burn my rejection letters and pull my VISA card out of my purse. Especially when the first rejections arrived. After all, I’d spent a year doing research and another two years writing and editing, without making a cent. I’d even paid money for creative writing courses to improve my style. What could be wrong about paying to see all my hard work in print, as a book?

Everything. Since I was about eight and discovered Wisconsin and Minnesota through Laura Ingalls Wilder’s perceptive eyes, I wanted to write memorable books that would transport readers to other places, to see different cultures, meet inspiring people. Inspired by my grandmother’s courageous journey from Russia to Shanghai to escape vicious riots against Jews, I started writing. By the time I started querying agents and publishers, I’d written it in first-person, then changed it to third-person, changed the point of view from one Jewish girl to a Russian boy as well, work-shopped pieces of the manuscript at my writing courses and I’d paid a professional editor for her critique.

Convinced it was almost perfect, I sat back and waited. After a couple of rejections, one agent sent me a detailed e-mail telling me it had potential, but that I needed to work more on character development. She included two pages of remarks. I wanted to scream (maybe I did); I wanted to take her remarks and flush them down the toilet. I sulked for a few days, took another look at the agent’s comments, and realized she actually had some good suggestions. It took six months to revise the manuscript, to get inside the characters’ heads, to make them real and unforgettable. In the end, I had a much stronger story. Rachel’s Secret was sold to my publisher, who had another round of revisions, and published in April. By the beginning of June, the first printing had sold out, there were several excellent reviews including a starred review in Booklist, and it had been chosen as an iTunes book of the week.

Looking back, I know that if I’d given in and self-published Rachel’s Secret without the benefit of third-party editing and endorsement, I’d be amongst the majority of obscure self-published authors. And my book would not be as well-written without the help of sharp-eyed editors with much more experience than I have.

Granted, there are exceptions, authors who do well with self-published books—Fifty Shades of Grey comes to mind—and Amazon.com co-founder, Jeff Bezos, said in a May 19, 2012 New York Times article that 16 of the top 100 bestsellers on kindle today were self-published. Sounds good but in 2011, more than 300,000 books were self-published, making those 16 bestsellers a rarity. And as Alan Finder points out on August 15, 2012, in the New York Times, “The Joys and Hazards of Self-Publishing on the Web,” “most self-published authors sell fewer than 100 or 150 copies.” At an average cost of $5,000 to self-publish, that would mean you’d have to charge $33.33 a book just to break even if you sold 150. More importantly, you wouldn’t have the credibility offered by a respected publisher which leads to genuine reviews that can impact sales.

In fact, false online reviews have become a big problem for self-published books, detracting from their integrity as a whole. In the fall, 2010, Todd Rutherford set up a site where people paid for book reviews—www.gettingbookreviews.com. Charging $99 for one review, $499 for 20 and $999 for 50, Rutherford was soon taking in $28,000 a month. But one year later, when the credibility of his reviews was questioned, the site came down.

Still, there continue to be false reviews posted anonymously by authors; Bing Liu, a data-mining expert at the University of Illinois, believes that a third of customer reviews on the Internet are false. I’d rather have a handful of honest reviews than hundreds of fake ones. I’d rather have some negative reviews from legitimate publications like the New York Times than phony positive comments from unknowns in cyberspace.

I understand that self-publishing is growing and here to stay, a fact made evident with the sale of Author Solutions Inc., a self-publishing services company, to Penguin Group for $116 million this summer. But I’m not willing to sacrifice the quality that experienced editors and publishers add to manuscripts, and the marketing plans they have in place to get books and authors noticed. And I’m definitely not going to pay to publish my own work. Instead, I plunked down my VISA to pay for a writer’s conference next month where I’ll have the chance to hone my craft and pitch my next manuscript—Repentance—to mainstream publishers.

About Shelly Sanders

Shelly (represented by Amy Tipton, Signature Literary Agency) is the author of THE RACHEL TRILOGY--Rachel's Secret, Rachel's Promise & Rachel's Hope (Second Story Press).Rachel's Secret received a Starred Review in Booklist and was named a Notable Read from the Association of Jewish Libraries. Rachel's Hope was shortlisted for the Vine Awards for Canadian Literature in 2016. Before turning to fiction, Shelly was a freelance journalist for the Toronto Star, National Post, Maclean's, and Canadian Living.
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