Updated: Sep 30, 2020
Zach and Katie finished writing their final drafts.
Both have the goal of publishing their books, ideally by the end of next year. But neither one feels all that confident, or excited, about the publishing road ahead.
"I think what I'm gonna do is find the top 10 book publishers, send my manuscript to each one," Zach said. "Probably an email, right? Like a job application?"
Zach's book consists of 20 short stories. He also has a few poems and illustrations. His goal isn't to be a bestseller, but he'd love to see a copy in the local bookstore. Maybe submit one of the short stories to The New Yorker. This isn't a "quit the day job, write full-time" mission for him, but he does like the sound of being an official "published author."
"You can't send it directly to the publisher," Katie said. "Especially not the big ones. They throw all of the 'unsolicited manuscripts' in their slush pile. And once you're in the slush pile, it's never getting looked at."
Katie's book is a sci-fi thriller she's been working on -- off and on -- for nine years. She's done about six different "final" drafts, but feels like this time is finally it. She started working on a sequel and wants to get the first one out to build momentum for a full trilogy. She's not very vocal about her dream, but deep down she wants to write a mega-bestseller and have movies on Netflix. Her main character would be played by Keanu Reeves.
"The big publishers really call it a slush pile?" Zach asked.
"Yeah. Makes you feel all warm and fuzzy doesn't it?"
"Something like that," Zach said. He let out a sound that was part laugh, part sigh.
"So then who do you send it to?" Zach asked.
"Well, the smaller, independent publishing houses sometimes accept manuscripts directly, but because there are so many authors and so many manuscripts out there, most traditional publishers rely on people called 'literary agents' to sort through all the submissions and find which ones have potential to be a bestseller, or win awards, or whatever," Katie said.
"So the agents are kind of like recruiters then?" Zach said.
"Exactly. And that's the thing, you don't even send them your full book. They ask for a 'query letter' which, yeah, it's like a cover letter for your book and also some highlights about you as a writer."
"That doesn't sound so terrible."
"Yeah... if you're willing to wait around for months and get rejected a bunch of times."
"Hmmm, I feel like maybe you've tried this before? Sensitive subject?"
"Ah, I remember it like it was yesterday," Katie said, looking off in the distance. "I set out on my quest at night, packed 10 PB&Js in my backpack. I walked 500 miles through the wilderness."
"Let me guess, it was snowing and the climb was uphill both ways?" Zach said with a smile.
"Yep. Twenty degrees below zero too. And so I finally make it to New York City and there it is, the big literary agency."
"But before that, I had to climb a mountain and there was this rickety old bridge with boards missing. There was a pit of lava below. I slowly made my way across, almost falling to my death at least three times. I sprint to the haunted house, manuscript in my trembling hands. There to greet me at the front door is a fire-breathing dragon."
"Alright, now I feel like you're just reciting Shrek."
"The dragon was the easy part. I tip-toe upstairs to the attic and there's the literary agent. He slowly spins around in the chair like that scene at the end of Psycho. I hand him my query letter. He skims it then reads the first page of my book. With no emotion whatsoever he shakes his head. 'Nope.'"
"Did he say what was wrong with it?"
"Not really. I asked him and he said it had potential, but I don't have an audience yet since I haven't been published before."
"But that's what the agent's supposed to help with, right?"
"Exactly. That's what's frustrating to me. It's like applying for those jobs that say, 'We need 10 years experience.' But how am I supposed to get 10 years experience if all the jobs ask for 10 years experience?"
Zach sat in silence for a second, looking down at his stapled manuscript.
"It's just such a letdown, you know?" Zach said. "We worked so hard on these books and it sounds like the publishing stage is even harder than writing the damn thing. Or at least more tedious. I don't know. It doesn't sound very fun."
"And that's the thing," Katie said. "Even if you get a yes from the literary agent, it can take months, years even, for them to get a yes from a publisher. Then the publisher has edits to make and that takes a long time. You're looking at a 2-3 year process, at best."
"But at least you're getting paid for your work after all of that."
"Well, that's tricky too. So the publisher pays the author an advance. They say, 'Here's $5,000.' When you sell a book, let's say the price is $20, that goes against the advance. So it wouldn't be until your 251st sale before you start making new royalties since those first 250 go toward the original advance (250 x $20 = $5,000). And the literary agents wind up with 10-20% of the deal, kind of like sports agents or real estate agents."
"Well, they've gotta feed the dragon."
"And repair the bridge."
"Right," Zach said. "But the advance is much bigger than $5,000 right? Didn't Michelle Obama get paid like $50 million or something?"
"Well yeah, so Michelle Obama, Stephen King, JK Rowling, publishers know they're gonna sell millions of copies of those books so all of the publishers are competing with each other. It's like a famous athlete, every team is throwing big offers at them. But for the vast majority of authors, that advance is in the $2,500 to $10,000 range. If you land one of those big publishers you were talking about earlier, sure, that'll be closer to $10k. But a small, independent press, you're looking at under $5k."
"Wow, that's it? So my only option is to pitch my book to an agent and hope for the best? And two, three years from now I maybe make $5,000? Ten thousand tops? I'm sorry to be such a downer today, but it feels like such a letdown. And I mean, I was never in this for the money or anything like that, but - well, why can't I just get my book out there myself? Why do I have to wait for the green light from an agent in New York City?"
"You don't have to wait," a voice said from the back of the library. "It's not your only option."
"Gandalf?" Zach asked.
"Come again?" the man replied.
"Sorry. Um. Well, I'll just go ahead and ask. Are you... a wizard?"
"No," the man replied. "Just a librarian. But I did stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night."
"Don't worry about it. The name's Cal. Here, come with me."
The old man waved them to a bookshelf at the back of the library. He pulled an old rare copy of East of Eden off the shelf and looked around to make sure no one else was watching. The bookcase slowly swung open and Zach and Katie looked at each other before walking behind the wizard librarian.
They stepped forward and all they could see was a white fog. It was like staring at a huge blank sheet of paper. They could barely see Cal's blue blazer up ahead.
"Go ahead, start thinking about your books. It's feeling pretty empty in here."
Zach and Katie looked at each other.
"I mean, I feel like we should probably follow the wizard's instructions?" Zach said.
Slowly the left of the space started to fill with streets from Zach's hometown. His short stories were coming to life. The right of the space was filling with flying cars and an intense lazer gun shootout on the street below. Katie was amazed, her book had never been this clear even in her imagination. They saw Cal standing right in the middle of their two landscapes.
"When you think about it, you didn't write your books to get published," Cal said. "You wrote because you love your stories. And you didn't have a business plan, you just wanted to write. Get the ideas down on paper. That's what a writer does and you two are brave for going after it. Look, it's daunting to write a book. But it shouldn't be daunting to publish it."
"Yeah, tell me about it," Zach said.
"Happy to," Cal said. "Here, take a seat. So, for starters, you have at least three other options instead of the traditional, literary agent publishing route. The first and most famous would be using Amazon's self-publishing option called Amazon KDP."
"Isn't that just for ebooks?" Katie asked. "I'd be putting mine on a Kindle, right?"
"They have the ebook option, yes," Cal said. "But they also do paperback books. And both are really easy to use once you have the formatting right and have your cover design. Just upload your book like you're attaching a document to an email and, couple days later, your book is for sale on Amazon.com."
"Wow, couple days instead of a couple of years?" Zach said. "Surely you can't be serious?"
"I am serious," Cal said. "And don't call me Shirley. Now, one of the challenges with Amazon KDP is there are millions of other titles out there, I think last year alone there were 1.6 million new self-published books. It's hard to stand out in the crowd and, I just want to be transparent, don't want to get your hopes up, because most self-published books on Amazon sell less than 100 copies. It's definitely not a 'retire early' plan."
"Wow, you're kind of depressing for a wizard."
"Sorry, quick question" Zach said. "Won't people look down on me for doing the self-publishing route? I mean, then I'm not really a published author."
"Of course you'd be a published author," Cal said. "You'd be the author and the publisher. Let me ask, do you know who the publisher is for Stephen King's books?"
"Um, maybe Penguin Random House?"
"Or how about James Patterson? Gillian Flynn? Who published Where the Crawdads Sing."
Zach and Katie were quiet.
"And I'm not trying to make you feel bad, I have no idea either," Cal said with a smile. "And I'm saying that as a librarian, I should know this. But if I don't even know who publishes who on the most popular books, what do you think most people shopping in the bookstore or on Amazon think when it comes to the publishers? So writers spend all this time landing a publisher and the reader never even thinks about it."
Cal grabbed an ice cream cone from the little shop in Zach's short story world.
"Plus there are examples of books that started out on Amazon and went on to be published by big publishers. Fifty Shades of Grey, The Martian, Wool, all three of those started out as self-published titles. I really don't think there's a stigma to it at all. Honestly, the most critical group of self-publishing has always been the literary agents, and that makes sense because they're kind of competing with each other. It reminds me a little how the taxi drivers used to fight against Uber."
"You said there were other options too?"
"Yeah, so, especially for you, Katie. I want to share with you an option called Wattpad.
Cal led them down the street into Katie's sci-fi fantasy land. Zach and Katie ducked to avoid the lazer fight.
"It can't hurt you," Cal said. "It's just your imagination."
The three took a seat in an abandoned coffee shop.
"Back in 2006, this new company up in Toronto had a great idea, they said let's make a site where authors can publish their work and build a following of readers. It's kind of like a big blog site but for books. Or, maybe a better way to describe it, it's like YouTube for books. Anyone can be part of it, no rejection. They steadily grew their reader base to the point where now there's 80 million readers using the platform."
"Wow, I've never even heard of it before," Katie said.
"For as big of a following as it has, it's still flying relatively under the radar," Cal said. "But you ever see ads for The Kissing Booth on Netflix or the movie After? Those actually started as stories on Wattpad, believe it or not. Wattpad has partnerships with publishers like Macmillan and Penguin Random House UK. Recently, when they raised $400 million of investment, the headline on Forbes referred to them as the new literary agent."
"Interesting," Katie said. "And why'd you say it'd be a good one for me vs. Zach's book?"
"If you go on Wattpad, they have a bunch of different categories, but the genres that tend to do the best are romance, thriller, sci-fi, young adult, and fantasy. One of their main selling points is the ability to build a big audience and maybe lead to a big book or movie deal. If you're chasing that bestseller, blockbuster, maybe like Keanu stars in the Netflix movie, this might be the way to go."
"How'd you know those were my dreams?" Katie asked. "You sure you're not a--"
"Just a librarian. Now Zach, I want to show you one more option, something I think might be best for you."
Cal led them back over to Zach's side of the street. They went back to the ice cream shop, grabbed a table.
"So there's a new site, and by new I mean only 2019, called Long Overdue Books," Cal said. "And the setup is similar to Wattpad's approach, authors can publish their chapters and connect directly with readers. But a big difference is when you go to Long Overdue Books, the authors are front and center rather than everything sorted by the different genres. The whole site is designed to support authors first."
Zach pulled out his phone, went to the site.
"It kind of looks like my old Myspace page," Zach said.
"Yeah, they describe themselves as a social network for creating and recording stories," Cal said. "So the focus isn't so much on creating the next blockbuster or bestseller as it is helping authors go from rough draft to a great final version. You'll see they also have a section with different editors, proofreaders, and cover designers. These are talented folks who you can reach out to for your project. Long story short, you're never on an island when trying to self-publish your book."
Zach looked closely at Cal's nametag and noticed it said Long Overdue Books above his name.
"Wait, are you the librarian for Long Overdue Books?"
"What are you talking about? I'm a wizard," Cal said with a wink. "But yes, I am."
"So are they paying you to promote them?"
"I may receive a small stipend for my referrals, yes," Cal said with a smile. "But I promise that has nothing to do with my unbiased enthusiasm."
"What's this Family Stories tab at the top?" Katie asked.
"That's a story for another time," Cal said. "But in short, that's for families who want to record their parents or grandparents' stories and turn those into a book. Long Overdue helps with those types of projects too. And see, that's the thing, it doesn't matter if your goal is to be tradtionally published, hybrid published or self-published. It doesn't matter if your goal is to sell a million copies, put some at your local bookstore, or just have a few copies for friends and family. No matter the end dream, Long Overdue Books is a great starting point. And, at the end of the day, you really can't go wrong with this site or Wattpad or Amazon KDP. Or doing some combination of the three."
"And to think, I thought I was stuck in the slush pile," Zach said.
"I want you to remember one word," Cal said. He took a dramatic pause for effect. He went back and grabbed East of Eden off the library shelf.
"The word is 'Timshel.' It means 'Thou Mayest.' It means you have the choice in what comes next with your book. Look around at all of this scenery. You two wrote this! You write because you love to write. You care about these stories. You shouldn't love the writing part but then be miserable with the publishing part. Why not make both enjoyable? I mean, think about it, what's the worst-case scenario with self-publishing? You get your book out there and it sells three copies? Isn't that still better than having your work forever stuck in the Slush Pile?"
The library shelf swung open and the three walked back into the library.
Zach and Katie looked up and Cal was gone. They looked on the shelf next to East of Eden and there was Katie's book to the left, Zach's book to the right. They rushed to their books, marveled at the covers and then flipped through the pages.
"It's finished!" Katie said in excitement. "This is it!"
Zach flipped through the pages of his book. He was speechless, looked like he was ready to cry. He closed his book, looked out at the library.
"Yeah, he's totally a wizard."