In talking with authors, I always enjoy hearing how their novels came to be. Especially the rags-to-riches stories in which an author didn't give up on their book, even when the odds were stacked against them.
How many times can an author hear "I'm sorry but your novel is not a good fit...." or "I can't back this one up..." or "There isn't an audience for this type of..." before they give up, tuck tail, and chuck their manuscript in the bottom of a desk drawer, where it will never see the light of day?
What if the author believed in his novel so strongly that he wouldn't let those naysayers derail him. What if he took all of that feedback and made it a better novel, and then self published it? What if the book, in its initial "indie" form, sold well.. so well, in fact, that a publisher finally turns around and requests to re-release it under their name? Well, then that author might look and sound a little bit like Ryan Quinn.
Ryan describes his novel's difficult journey - from seeking out an agent and a publisher to making the decision to self publish, and the wonderful, rewarding things that came out of it all:
The term “published” used to have a very narrow definition. It meant that an author, usually a writer with social or professional connections inside the publishing industry, was offered an advance from a corporate publisher in Manhattan, who would then edit the manuscript, design a cover and the interior, and print anywhere from a few thousand to hundreds of thousands of copies, depending on some educated guesswork about sales expectations. The publisher ensured that the book was reviewed in newspapers and magazines as it landed in bookstores across the country, where the author was sent to give readings and sign copies.
That formula might still work for well-known authors and surefire bestsellers, but for everyone else almost everything has changed. Newspapers don’t review books anymore, advances are shrinking, and many bookstores are facing an existential crisis. To the publishing establishment these might look like symptoms of a problem. I think they’re symptoms of progress.
My debut novel, TheFall, was published this month. I’m not well known, and The Fall’s chances at bestseller-dom are far from surefire, at least from the perspective of a traditional publishing house. The simple truth is that a book like mine might never have had a chance to be published in the publishing world of five or ten years ago.
It has always been the case that any literate person could write anywhere. What changed so dramatically for writers in the last decade is the relationship between writing and publishing. The old model of publishing was built, by necessity, around a chain of printers, distributors, and brick-and-mortar booksellers that presented prohibitively high barriers of entry. Only a big publisher with industry relationships and capital to invest could afford to pay authors an advance and then print books and ship them around the country to bookstores where they could then be discovered by readers.
The basic process of getting a book from an author to a reader no longer depends on that particular distribution chain and all the middlemen that prop it up, thanks to the rise and convergence of four disruptive technologies: the Internet, the e-book, the e-reader, and print-on-demand book printing. This doesn’t mean that the old model is dead. In fact, it still accounts for the bulk of sales at the “Big Six” publishers. It simply means that there are now alternative paths a book may take to be published.
That "publishing" is now more accessible to more people than ever is a wonderful development for the democratization of reading, writing, and—at the most fundamental level—ideas. It gives life to super-niche books of high quality but low commercial viability; it keeps books in print indefinitely; and it allows readers to discover authors who might never have had the opportunity to win the approval of the traditional publishing gatekeepers in Manhattan.
And, perhaps most significantly, the new indie publishing scene serves as a sort of farm league for cultivating and discovering up-and-coming talent.
That’s how my debut novel was discovered.
More than five years ago, I sat down in a coffee shop and wrote the first chapter of The Fall, a coming-of-age campus story about the fateful relationship between three friends whose lives become intertwined during their final year of college at a university with a dark past. It took me about a year to write the first draft, which weighed in at a not-very-reader-friendly 500 pages. At the time, I worked in book publishing in New York, and having one of the “Big Six” publishers publish my book seemed like the only way to go. So I started to send out query letters to literary agents. First I targeted well-known agents at the big agencies, and then quickly widened the net I cast to include young and unknown agents, some who even (gasp!) resided off the island of Manhattan. The rejection letters came back by the dozens.
Eventually, one agent saw something promising in my writing and we started working together on revising the manuscript. It was a grueling process. I revised the book, then got more feedback from her, then revised it again, then put it away for several months, then came back to it and revised it again. Like any good agent, she was a talented editor and helped me to slash away over 100 pages of excess backstory and tangential plotlines. After many months of revisions, I felt good about the book and wanted to take the next step: submitting it to editors at major publishing houses to see if we could land a deal.
Then I received an e-mail from the literary agent. She was concerned that publishers might not see enough commercial potential in a coming-of-age campus novel written by a first-time author. She was sure I was a promising writer, she said, but she wasn’t prepared to take this book to market with her own reputation behind it.
I was devastated. I knew how subjective publishing could be and that with my improved manuscript I had a good chance to secure representation elsewhere. But I was emotionally drained. I had written and rewritten and revised and cut and re-revised the thing so many times that I was sick of it. I wasn’t sure I could face that process again. I went on with my life, and the manuscript sat on my hard drive—untouched.
When I opened that Word document ten months later, it was mostly out of curiosity. Time had given me some distance from and perspective on the book and I wanted to see if it was writing I could still believe in, or if it was something better left buried in the cemetery of old documents on my computer’s hard drive.
I started reading. I did not made it past the first paragraph before I reached for the mouse and keyboard to make a small revision. A few pages in, I was still making changes. I realized I wasn’t going to stop. I was going to revise this book again. Was I a masochist? Maybe. It didn’t matter. I was a believer. This book could work. I just knew it.
One thing I came to understand while working in the book publishing industry is just how mysterious publishing success can be. Every day, publishers have to bet on the future sales records of many books, and more times than not, betting on an unknown, first-time author who’s not writing formulaic genre fiction is not a confidence-inspiring business decision. The risk that it will tank is high, the likelihood of a big upside in profits is low.
On my second go-around with The Fall, I believed more than ever that I could get an agent who could sell the book to a major publisher. But, Then what? I thought. My book would be on a list of dozens of other books, some written by successful authors whose profitable track record would naturally make them a priority when it came to allocating the publisher’s time, money, and enthusiasm as the list was pitched to booksellers.
My gut told me to do it myself—to self-publish. Or to publish it independently. Whatever you want to call it. There are several names for it, and all of them are derogatory to most people within the traditional publishing establishment. I wouldn’t be impressing anyone in
Manhattan, but at least it would have a
chance to be discovered by the people who really mattered—readers.
I asked more people read the manuscript and give me feedback. I had the final draft copyedited. I designed a cover. I made sure every single page was in the best shape it could possibly be. I made a website. I worked my connections (and plenty of cold calls) to get some modest review and publicity coverage.
Then I made The Fall available in both paperback and e-book formats everywhere.
The book sold dozens of copies. Then hundreds. Once the number had grown well past the number of friends and relatives I had, it kept selling. Not at a bestseller clip, but steadily. People were discovering it, and they were leaving good reviews on Amazon and Goodreads.
The book was out on the market for about six months before a senior editor at Amazon's AmazonEncore imprint noticed The Fall’s sales and the positive reader reviews, and reached out to me to say that they wanted to publish the book.
This is the main point of this article: I think this is how publishing is supposed to work. Just like an indie band or an indie filmmaker, it makes sense to embrace a model that encourages first-time authors to take charge of their career, to write and revise and edit and promote themselves until they’ve built up a following that demands to be noticed.
Much like an indie band who is picked up by a major label, I was thrilled to sign with Amazon and work with them to get the book into the hands of more readers. This month, The Fall launched with a stunning new cover, some editorial improvements, and some marketing help from the data wizards at Amazon.com. I couldn’t be happier with how things have gone so far.
There is no inherently right or wrong path for a book to pass from author to reader, which, perhaps, is the new, broader definition of “published.” Whatever the book, there are more options, and it’s clear that certain types of books now thrive where they otherwise never would have been given a chance.
Indie authors might not yet be thought of as cool in the way that indie bands or filmmakers are. But we are a new—and significant—force in book publishing. Don’t take my word for it, and don’t hold your breath waiting for approval from the publishing establishment in Manhattan. Just ask the readers.
Ryan Quinn grew up in Alaska. He attended the University of Utah, where he was an NCAA champion and an All-American athlete. After graduation, he worked for five years in New York’s book-publishing industry. His debut novel, The Fall, was originally self-published. This month it was published by AmazonEncore. Quinn currently lives in Los Angeles and can be reached at www.ryanquinnbooks.com.