The Third Way: Publishing Without an Agent
March 3, 2022 § 32 Comments
By Suzanne Roberts
Anyone who grew up around the time I did suffered through a number of school-sanctioned terrors; one such terror was dodgeball. I was one of the weaklings who could not dodge the ball fast enough. The school bullies always aimed for my face to see if they could smash my glasses. Sometimes they did. I have heard this game is now banned at schools around the country.
But even worse was the way teams were picked. Two captains took turns picking their team, one by one, while the rest of us waited to hear our names.
My name always came dead last.
I bring this up because our childhood shame resurfaces when we feel unwanted or rejected as adults, and I’ve watched this play out in a number of writers’ groups on Facebook. There’s a theme among those who are sending agent queries. In a word, these writers are bereft. Querying agents makes them hate writing. Or they’re about to give up and self-publish.
I’m here to say that you don’t have to choose between querying agents and self-publishing—there’s a third way. My writing career has depended on publishing with an independent press. I’ve published seven books with independent presses, and though I’ll never end up on bestseller lists, my experience has been overwhelmingly positive.
Disclaimer: I could never self-publish because I have a severe case of imposter syndrome; I very much need someone else to be the gatekeeper. After publishing four poetry books with tiny literary presses, I queried a memoir, Almost Somewhere to over 100 agents. Ten or twelve requested the full manuscript; I spoke to several on the phone. One said she very much liked my book but couldn’t sell it because I was “untested in the market.” She said, “You know poetry doesn’t count, right?”
Talk about a dodgeball to the face.
For the most part, the agents I spoke to were kind. I could tell they liked my book but knew the market better than I did, and mine wasn’t a book they could sell to a commercial press. Many authors will hear this, and it’s easy to feel rejected, but thinking about publishing as a business—which it very much is—helps. Maybe you have written a very good book, a brilliant book even, a book that readers need. That’s a very different thing than an agent knowing a book will sell enough copies to make it a worthwhile investment for a commercial press.
I sent Almost Somewhere to the University of Nebraska Press, and they agreed to publish it. My advance was zero (which made me laugh when anyone called it a “book deal”). Yet my book sold through the first printing before release, date and 13,481 copies in the 10 years since—not counting audiobooks or translations. For a commercial press, those numbers are tiny. For a university press, they’re excellent.
After Almost Somewhere was published, an agent approached me. I was thrilled. And of course, I already had another book (or two) I was working on. Someone was picking me for her team! But the gap between her and my vision for a second book was too large. She kept calling my memoir a novel (her list was mostly women’s upmarket fiction, which wasn’t what I was writing). We parted ways, and I sent my next two books, Bad Tourist and Animal Bodies, to Nebraska. Every time, it’s been a good fit.
I’m nearly finished with another memoir, one that may or may not have “market potential.” How do I know? That’s not my job, so I’m not thinking about it just yet. If I query agents again, I’m not going to let it make me hate writing. The joy has always been in the process of writing and revising sentences the best way I know how. Sure, it would be nice to have someone help manage my career, another person who is invested in my work (since my mother and my dog are both dead). But I’m not going to stand around on the blacktop waiting for my name to be called.
I won’t let my childhood shame seep into writing life, even though at times, rejection feels like the slap of that hard ball on skin. I’ve been doing this long enough to know the writer’s life is full of rejection. I tell my students that even when their books come out, there’s always something more to lose: not getting reviews, not making “most-anticipated” lists, not winning awards, not selling many books. So the best thing they can do—that we can all do—is to focus on the one thing we control: the writing itself.
Suzanne Roberts is the author Animal Bodies: On Death, Desire, and Other Difficulties, Bad Tourist: Misadventures in Love and Travel and Almost Somewhere: Twenty-Eight Days on the John Muir Trail, as well as four books of poems. Named “The Next Great Travel Writer” by National Geographic’s Traveler, Suzanne’s work has been listed as notable in Best American Essays and included in The Best Women’s Travel Writing.
We can also hope to untangle our threads of memories of childhood cruelty from the matter-of-fact adult business of submission rejections. Reading essays like yours is very helpful in this endeavor. Hearing about respected writers’ rejections helps us build new associations for our own rejections. Thank you for writing and submitting this and I’m glad it did not get rejected!
I’m so glad the essay resonated with you!
This is almost my experience exactly. I am on book #2 with a university press and I am so happy with them. It’s nice to work with people who prioritize ideas and story over profit.
What are your books?
Thank you for this post. I knew my memoir wouldn’t be for commercial presses and took the agent-less road to small, indie presses. (still waiting) Your point about publishing being a business is an important one and well taken.
A wonderful perspective, thank you!
Poetry doesn’t count???? There are scores of publishers who feature just that, but maybe she wasn’t aware.
So glad your work is out in the world, Suzanne. Just followed you on IG–grateful to meet another poetic soul.
Yes, here’s to poets!
Suzanne, I enjoyed your post. And browsed Animal Bodies. I like your voice. Will have to explore further. Have you ever submitted to Graywolf Press’ Nonfiction Award contest? I submitted this year, deadline has passed. They favor adventurous memoir. Prize includes publicatioin by Graywolf. — Dwight http://www.DwightOkita.com
I haven’t submitted to them but love the books from Graywolf.
Brilliant and so inspiring!!! Thank you, Suzanne.
Glad you found this helpful!
Thanks for this encouragement, Suzanne!
Glad it was helpful!
Thank you for presenting small presses as not just a viable alternative, but a smart choice. After querying agents early last year, I switched to small presses and found a home quickly. Another bonus is the one-on-one attention and collaboration afforded while working with a small press.
I’m glad you found the prefect home!
Thank you for sharing!!
You had me at dodge-ball and choosing teams. Thank you. I will reread when I cover from shuddering about choosing teams.
So relatable! I was always chosen last too, and even then it was grudging. Those days last a long time. Your sales now look impressive – a real achievement.
I never played dodgeball. For me it was school basketball, gym class. We were required to have canvas shoes, sometimes called tennis shoes back then (1957, I was 11). Of course I knew why, to prevent slips. But my parents were too poor to get them for us three boys at school’s start. I’d have to wait for a couple weeks. The coach didn’t like this and made those who showed up in street shoes to “run the gauntlet” every day as punishment. This was when the boys would line up with legs spread and the kid without shoes would crawl between those legs while getting slapped on the butt. I couldn’t think of anything more humiliating and would beg my folks everyday to get the shoes. I never mentioned the punishment because I knew dad would go to the school and confront the coach and I’d be in further trouble. So I’d just beg, “Coach says I HAVE to get them or I can’t play… PLEASE?” Thankfully I only had to run it three times. A couple of times I played hooky.
Thanks for your words of encouragement. I’m definitely going to check this out.
O my gosh. I think I remember that “game.” Terrible! It’s a wonder any of us survived!
Congratulations. I think I remember you from long ago when you did well in a Writer Advice contest, though it could have been a different Suzanne Roberts. At any rate, I love the story of your journey.
I think that was me! Glad you enjoyed this piece.
Thanks for writing about your experience with indie presses; I’m glad you found a publishing home. My journey has been similar, and I’m so grateful to the small presses committed to this challenging business. Good to know about your titles; your perseverance is inspiring.
Glad it was helpful! And yes, if nothing else, I persevere!
My experience with a university press and a smaller niche press has been similarly positive. Sure, a big book contract would be nice, but the changes to the book that might be required might no longer make it my book, but something that was partly me and partly what would fit what they wanted to publish. And most importantly, as someone said in a movie but I can’t remember who, “Honey, we just don’t have that much time.”
Time is everything, isn’t it? (Says one person who skied this morning to another who probably did as well!)
Yes I did ski this morning and yesterday morning. Balance is key for me.
Ha! Balance (as in skiing)!