The Great Debate: Query Hell vs. The Self-Publishing Gamble

I have a confession to make: I am exceptional. No, wait! Don’t think I’m too full of myself. Here’s what I mean: Often, a new author with no previous professional experience has to go through the fictional land of Query Hall. A “query” is a brief letter an author writes to a potential literary agent or publisher, introducing both themselves and the work they’re attempting to publish, in an effort to snag the recipient’s interest and request to review the work in greater depth. This is a grueling process, and it’s not uncommon for an author to send out 100+ queries on any particular work and have little to no interest from agents/publishers. For a first time author, that’s expected.

And here’s how I’m exceptional: I had never sent a query for novel to anyone, ever, when I sent out my first query on my first novel, 12.21.12. And my very first query resulted in a contract within three weeks of submission. Needless to say, it skewed my perceptions of reality a bit. When I began querying my second novel in the fall of 2010, I thought it would be no problem. I didn’t expect to strike gold twice, but I did anticipate positive reception from the first batch of 20 queries I sent out. Percentage of requests to see additional material from that round: 0. A second round of 25 queries resulted in one request for a full submission, and a third round of 30 queries grabbed a second, but ultimately neither agent upon review of the full submission felt they connected with the work. Finally, feeling I had no place else to turn and refusing to let go the manuscript I had spent 3 years researching, writing, and perfecting, I did what many authors are doing these days.

With a great deal of trepidation, I formed my own line, Tulipe Noire Press, in the fall of 2011, and released my second novel under its label. Self-publishing wasn’t something I would have considered prior to that time, as the stigma was too great for my comfort. However, I had spent months leading up to the anticipated publication promoting the book, and felt I owed it to my fans to make the work available in whatever way that I could. I went through a crash course introduction to self-publishing, and no one should ever think it is an easy route when pursued with thoroughness. Yet, while the burden of every aspect of the book’s release fell to me, I can see no way that A Love by Any Measure would have been anywhere near as success as it was under a publisher’s custodianship. Though I still do not sell in big numbers that are life changing, the sense of ownership and pride I feel for having taken the initiative and being able to only have myself to blame if I fail (or congratulate when more often, I don’t) has been an uplifting experience for me. I’m so, so happy that this was the fate for Maeve and August, and wouldn’t have it any other way.

So it might surprise you to hear me say that, for my next work (Pure & Sinful), I find myself debating whether or not to release the book on my own. I’m in no rush to return to Query Hell. The process is tedious and often discouraging. Yet, there is something about having a publisher I, as yet, have been unable to replicate: marketing prowess. As many of my fans know, I am not full time writer. I hold down not only a full time job, but a part time job, all while trying to write and raise two kids. On a typical weekday, I only can devote 1-2 hours to the business of writing. Mind you, that’s the “business” of writing, which includes far more than the writing itself. It also means following up on emails, contacting bloggers and others to solicit or respond to interest in reviewing my works, editing, formatting, arranging events or finding conferences I might attend, producing the podcast, and of course, trudging through the social media milieu. Though every writer, even those traditionally published, must make such efforts, the self-published author does so only by the merits of their own labor. While my experiences putting out Tallis, A Love by Any Measure, and the re-issue of 12.21.12 have been rewarding, I don’t know if I have it in me to dedicate to going through that process again and again en perpetua. At least, not until such time as my writing generates enough income to allow me to at least forgo the need of the second job, if not the first.

I’m not trying to reach a conclusion with this post. I’m just putting it out there for consideration. I welcome any thoughts you may have either way.

4 Comments  to  The Great Debate: Query Hell vs. The Self-Publishing Gamble

  1. Hi Killian
    As always you are so brave and insightful. I have decided to publish my first novel independently and just finished writing a blog about it, myself. It is way more than a notion and I’ve got no good advice either way as I am way behind your knowledge and experience in this respect. But I want to encourage you. You are an inspiration to me. I know whatever you decide will be just right.

    Cerece aka LittleWing2

    • Cerece,

      I’m delighted to hear of your progress, and am proud of your determination. That’s the way the industry is going these days. I think it’s wise of us to embrace it.

  2. James says:

    Hi Killian,
    I am also traveling through query hell, taking the slow path. I’m sending out just a few queries at a time and seeing no interest.
    The self publishing route may be in my future, and I am getting constant advice from people to do just that, but I am still wary of the stigma. Also, I am a bit confused by all of the ‘success’ stories. Some seem to be content just to be able to say their book can be purchased. Others actually get sales when they devote their lives to marketing it and have time for nothing else.
    I have no hopes of being able to give up my regular paycheck for an income from writing, but I would like to see some measure of published success.


    • Killian says:

      I think the stigma of self-publishing is disappearing. It’s a much more viable route than it was even a year ago. In fact, some well-established authors are doing it by choice. But there’s something to be said for the might of a big publishing contract, and I can understand why one would consider that as the preferred outcome. Best of luck in whatever direction you go, James!

Your two cents appreciated: