Concerning Literary Agents and Self-Publishing: Part 2

Note: This is an ongoing series about both self-publishing and literary agents. See the first post here.

This past weekend at a writers’ conference, I heard a lot of good information from fellow presenters regarding why many books are self-published, as well as the realities about how self-published books that tell a writer’s personal story almost never get picked up by big houses.

Both writer Bob Mayer and literary agent Chip MacGregor said that writers’ first books are often about their personal stories. Many people draw upon unusual or “rough” aspects of their life: their father was a traveling inventor, they have a loveless marriage, they were abused as children, they dealt with a parent who was addicted to drugs, they went to 16 different schools as a child because their mother was paranoid of alien abductors, etc. These writers then take their personal stories and make them into books—either nonfiction accounts of their life, or as novels, with the characters based on real people.

The problem with these stories is: There are way too many of them. It’s not to say that your story doesn’t matter and isn’t tremendous, it’s just that there are too many personal stories out there for yours to stand out. I know that, to you the writer, it’s demoralizing to think that your life story is one of countless others flooding the self-published book pool. Writers believe their story will be of interest to many; that’s why they self-publish. The feeling is, as Jack said in Sideways: “Publish it yourself. Just get it out there; get it reviewed. Let the public decide.” But the reality is that almost no publications review self-published books. There are just too many. Following the book’s printing, writers may try to get an agent to take on representing the book and selling it to a large publisher. This is a difficult task.

First of all, remember that many, many people self-publish their personal stories—so the world is full of such books. Also, it makes little difference to an agent whether your story is told through so-so writing versus those that are told through good writing. The reason: “Personal story is dead,” says MacGregor.

According to MacGregor, the best (only?) way to deal with a powerful personal story book is through BOR sales—”back of the room” sales. If you have the opportunity to speak to various groups of people and give a presentation that relates to your personal story, you can sell your books at such events. “The fact is, it probably works better as a self-published book that’s sold ‘BOR’ than it is at a regular royalty publisher, because without you there, the book won’t sell,” MacGregor says. “They are buying you and a piece of you, and consequently, those books are better self-published.”

If you’re writing a book about (or based on) your personal story, ask yourself: Who is the target audience? Friends and family? College students? Can you reach the target audience yourself? If you can, you’re in business. If you can’t, and your goal is to get it reviewed (and noticed!), then you’re fighting a tough battle. Very, very few self-published books are picked up by agents because very, very few self-published books will sell well in the general market.

Agree? Disagree?

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2 thoughts on “Concerning Literary Agents and Self-Publishing: Part 2

  1. R.L. Tipton

    P.S.: I should have also said that I do *not* intend to self-publish. It’s self-destructive, in my opinion, regardless of the genre of the book.

    Or at least it would be in my case… I’m pitiful with complex numbers. My calculator has to do all the hard work while I punch around on it, trying to get the thing to either come up with a decent answer or shut down completely. Too many buttons…. A sharp business person, I ain’t. 😛

    ~ R.

  2. R.L. Tipton

    Hmm. James Herriot, aka Alfred Wight. Robert M. Miller. I could go on beyond these two veterinarians, both with books still in print. One need not be a veterinarian, either. The problem is to tell the story in a way that brings the reader in close, fireside and intense.

    What’s a memoir, vs. narrative nonfiction, creative nonfiction, or a fireside teaching story? If it’s not boring, it’s readable. Please don’t tell me about the personal story being dead… blog pages put the lie to this.

    I see blog friends who get hundreds of hits per day, on pages *not made widely public*. For example, my own blob page got so many in the first days of its activation that I locked it down TIGHT to just a few very close, long-term friends — my reader’s/writer’s circle. Despite this, I get multiple hits per day per person (average) from those few among my friends-list who can actually see my entries (not all can, and I set it up that way deliberately).

    What do I write about? My own experiences, working with animals. Context, it would seem, and voice, can carry the written word far beyond mere ‘memoir’. I make them laugh, I make them cry, I make them think about the world around them, and the readers love it.

    No, I dare not open my blog page up again. I simply couldn’t handle the flow. I tried, and I had plenty of time, being home all the time due to multiple disabilities! What I have to do now is manage to come up with a way to get some agent to see what I have to offer — not an easy feat for someone living on a budget so tight that it squeaks.

    Your blog is interesting, and I’d like to thank you for your rich sources of information. Rest assured that I’ll do my best to make time to visit often. We’re moving, at present, to a new home. For now, that’s about all I can handle on a daily basis, heh.

    Y’all have a good day, you hear? :o)

    >->->—————> R.

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