Some years ago, even before I’d finished my first novel, I began to think about getting it published. All the advice said, you need an agent, and I dutifully bought the Writers’ and Artists Yearbook and trawled through it for those interested in my ‘genre’, although I wasn’t altogether certain (then or now) what my ‘genre’ really is. Is my work ‘commercial fiction, or ‘women’s’ or ‘literary’ or ‘historical’? I picked out a dozen agents – all based in London, I noticed – studied the various labyrinthine submission requirements, followed them scrupulously, and waited. Suffice to say, all that transpired after many weeks was a series of generically worded negative responses. After a while I found this so discouraging, not to mention the waste of time and money, that I carried on writing, finished the first novel, decided it was the first of a trilogy, and started the second. Should I try again to find an agent? I thought not.
Self-publishing to my own high standard was an enjoyable project. The resulting two books, professionally edited and designed, look good and sell well. I’m proud of them both as ‘objects of desire’, moderately pleased with the content of the first, and much more pleased with the content of the second. But the hardest part of self-publishing has been promotion and marketing. I am an outsider in the book business: looking at the potential avenues for getting my books to a wider audience I now realise how many of them are blocked simply because I published myself.
Many of the fiction awards and competitions do not allow self-published books; it’s almost impossible to get a review; booksellers can be sniffy and suspicious; requests to be part of literary festivals are brushed off. Everyone in the publishing and book business seems to assume that self-published books are vanity projects of questionable merit, which should be kept at arm’s length.
So I return to the issue of whether I want, or need, an agent, not to find me a publisher but to help me promote and market the books I publish myself. Published writers I have asked about this can’t help me as they have never had to think about it. There are occasional examples of successful self-published writers who have been approached by agents, but this is to get them a ‘proper’ publishing deal, not to help them move forward without one. Maybe it’s just not possible: I don’t know enough about it, and wish I understood more.
I wonder this would be easier if I lived in London or a major conurbation. In the rural fastness of West Cumbria it’s hard to find a ‘writerly’ community with advice and experience to offer. And so for the time being I shall finish Part 3 of my trilogy, carry on doing what I’ve done so far, and see what happens. Patience, Ruth, patience.