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.

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Suzanne Roberts is the author Animal BodiesOn DeathDesireand Other DifficultiesBad 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.

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