Why I Self-Published

Man, I’ll tell you – trying to find a literary agent is about as much fun as a hot shower after a raging sunburn. I think there are certain things in life where you have to be a little willfully delusional going in, and trying to sell your book is just one of them.

You might stumble into dumb luck, of course. Or (and it pains me to think this might be true), you might just be that good that everyone wants to get their hands on your book. Or maybe you just timed it all perfectly. But if you’re an unknown author with no connections, most likely it’s going to be a painful slog through waist-deep mud trying to get your book published.

There are many, many blogs out there telling new authors that finding an agent is crazy hard. Yep, I saw and heard all of you. I received the message and chose to ignore it. After all – my book was going to be really good. I’d seen some pretty god-awful self-published stuff and comforted myself that I was either a better writer or was going to put the time in to edit, re-edit, and re-edit again to make it marketable. Either that or I’d get lucky because hey, it’s me, right?

I don’t have a total count of how many queries I sent out, but it was a lot. Querytracker.net (which I recommend btw, even if it is a bit clunky) says I sent out 78 queries. It was probably more than that, but I think I tracked most of them there. And I was thoughtful. I’d gone through multiple edits and beta readers (try Fiverr, I can recommend a few). Once I was ready to query, I took my time, only sending out a handful per week. I subscribed to Publishers Marketplace and researched each agent, making sure they were accepting manuscripts and that they’d be interested in my genre. I tried my best to personalize the queries, though that isn’t always possible. I even paid for a few sessions with agents at The Manuscript Academy (which for me wasn’t worth the money) who gave me some pointers on my query letter. I think I had a really good query letter.

But alas, after 6-8 months, I got just two manuscript requests. One never got back to me (James, I’m still waiting on that response). The other, strangely, gave me a customized rejection (After 3-4 months) that made it clear she hadn’t ever actually read it, but wasn’t going to admit it. No doubt the victim of an inbox purge.

As the months dragged on, I started to lose heart. I’d been warned, of course. But why weren’t they seeing my brilliance? I’d told myself early on in the process that self-publishing was not the route I wanted to take. I wanted validation. Maybe even adoration. I needed someone else to tell me that what I’d done was great, and they were going to help me sell it. And who knows? Maybe that 79th (or whatever number) would have been the one? That’s the problem with querying agents. There are a lot of them, and even after you’ve contacted the ones that seem like the best fit, more keep emerging. You can just keep sending, and sending, and sending those queries out. And you just have to get lucky once, or find that one who recognizes your genius and is ready to take your hand and go on that journey with you.

Other than my two requests, most of the agents never wrote back at all. Those that did – all of them, to a person, sent me form letters. I never got one little scrap of constructive criticism. Once, in frustration, I wrote one of the agents back, asking to please just tell me why you said no so I can do something useful with that information! She ignored me of course. Which ok, that’s fair. I didn’t play by the rules. But the rules sucked and made me sad. I started to hate the whole thing, and to hate my book too. Maybe it’s just a piece of shit and I have to accept it, I thought. I stuck it away and forgot about it for a long, long time.

If I shut off the willful self-delusion setting for a minute, there are any number of reasons my book wasn’t interesting to the literary agent community. It’s long, for one. Around 127,000 words. Many smart people out there tell new writers to keep their books to a trim 80k, or risk it never seeing the light of day. I think they’re probably right. It’s also a mystery/thriller, but doesn’t follow the traditional tropes, meaning it’d be a risk to try and sell because it would need to find an audience. I get it. I wrote what I wanted to write, and the end product was a little weird looking, like a misshapen watermelon you’re not going to take a gamble on at the supermarket.  

As the months went by, my resistance to self-publishing started to break down. I’d spent a lot of time on this damned thing, and the only way it was going to see the light of day was if I got over my silly pride. Reading it again, with the type of objectivity that can only come with time, I officially declared it “definitely not terrible,” but in need of a professional editor. That was my biggest expense, but it was well worth it. I found a great editor who solved a lot of the problems I’d been unable to fix myself, and got the book into a shape that made me comfortable hitting the publish button and after three years, calling the damned thing “done.”

I’m still no expert, but if you’re a new writer who has their heart set on going the traditional route, I wish you godspeed. Some people are getting contracts, right? Some people win the lottery, too. Give it a swing. I think if I were to do it over though, I’d have been more open to self-publishing from the start. It doesn’t have to be a badge of shame. One thing I’m still delusional about now is the common advice you get that every writer’s first book is really practice for the next one. I’m still too attached to “The Backfill” to think of it that way. But it’s true that I learned a ton in this process, and I know the next book will likely be better, more polished, and perhaps a little more likely to catch someone’s attention.

Thanks for reading my book and my blog. I’m happy to answer any questions you have, or if you’re a writer, I’d love to hear how your journey went!  


4 thoughts on “Why I Self-Published”

  1. Dear Michael, I’ve read about a third of ‘The Backfill’ and I’m completely absorbed in it. My reason for coming to your website was to check when your next book was coming out. I couldn’t believe the obstacles to publishing that you faced..
    Please don’t lose heart and keep writing. You are a great writer and the world will eventually discover your talent. Rest assured that I know what I’m saying, I’ve been reading thrillers for the last 50 odd years.
    You’ll make it to the top.

    Take care,

  2. Michael McKain

    Thank you Asad! You don’t know how much your encouragement means to me. I am working on a second book (also a thriller) and hoping to share some details here soon when I’m a little more confident in the story. I hope you enjoy the final 2/3 of “The Backfill” as much as the first. Let me know what you think and do sign up for my newsletter so you’ll know when the next one is ready!

    1. Well Michael, I’ve finished “The Backfill” and have thoroughly relished it. Do hope you bring forth your next book soon.
      My enjoyment with The Backfill was much enhanced by the fact that I’m quite familiar with Seattle downtown and techie environment of the city.
      Have already subscribed to your newsletter.

      Take care,

      1. Michael McKain

        Thanks Asad – I’ll be sure to keep you updated. My next book is in the works but is also set in Seattle. If you get a chance, consider leaving a rating/review for “The Backfill”… since I’m a new author and self-publishing every one counts!

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