By Elliott Garber
I wrote the final words of my first full-length novel just over one year ago, closing my laptop with a dramatic flourish and breathing a deep sigh of relief. It was done. A major life goal complete.
I could already picture hardcover stacks of The Chimera Sequence—a bioterrorism thriller that one reader described as Michael Crichton meets Tom Clancy—lining front tables of Barnes & Noble bookstores around the country. Who knows, maybe my name would even make an appearance among the lower ranks of a coveted New York Times bestseller list?
That was the dream, at least, even though I already had a very realistic understanding of the rapidly evolving publishing industry. Alongside my novel writing, I had spent the previous couple of years reading everything I could find about the publishing process.
I even conducted a little experiment of my own with a short story. Much to my surprise, No Dog Left Behind has already earned me a few thousand dollars in its two years of life on Amazon. That represents a lot more money and readers than I ever would have found through almost any traditional route for a short story.
So I began the post-book writing phase with my eyes wide open, knowing all along that I would be okay doing things on my own if I didn’t find the right traditional publisher to work with through the process.
After going through several rounds of editing with the help of a diverse group of friends and family members, I was ready to begin. I sent out query letters to about 20 well-known agents, gleaning their names from the Acknowledgement pages of recent bestselling thrillers. Simple Google searches led me to their submission guidelines, and I personalized each e-mailed message based on the other authors represented and any shared personal interests I could discover.
I was fortunate to hear back from about half of these agents within a few days, and almost all of them requested that I send the full manuscript for their review. Woohoo! First hurdle, complete. I attribute this initial success to the fact that I developed a catchy blurb, but probably even more to my own online platform and unique professional background. The agents were intrigued enough to find out if I could actually write.
Within a few days, I received a phone call from one of my top choices. It was actually a voicemail—due to the secure environment of my workplace I’m not able to use a personal cellphone inside. The message was short and sweet: “Loved the book. Give me a call when you can.”
Needless to say, I called the agent right back and received my first offer of representation. The agent had recently helped a couple of other former military guys launch their own successful careers in the thriller genre, and he was convinced that he could do the same for me. No guarantees, of course, but he was fairly certain that we could be looking at a six-figure offer for an initial two-book contract.
It was tough not to say yes right away, but I did want to give the other agents a chance to at least finish reading my book before making a final decision on whom to partner with. As it turns out, the decision was made for me. Although a couple of the other agents expressed a tentative interest, none of them felt strongly enough about my manuscript to offer representation without further modifications first.
The next step was submission of the manuscript to editors at all the big traditional publishers. This was tough for me, as I was really at the complete mercy of my agent’s previous relationships and professional connections. I was expecting to get responses from these editors within a week or two, but instead it stretched into a month, then two months.
I felt as though the whole process had lost momentum. I knew in my head that this was normal—that the traditional publishing process takes time—but in my heart, I still wanted to be one of those lucky few authors who get so much immediate interest that a competitive auction is held within days. Sadly, it was not to be.
The rejections slowly began trickling in. “Sorry, loved the story, but just don’t see where it would fit in today’s market.” Huh?
“If I had gotten this book last year we totally would have gone for it, but the virus threat has been done too often already.” Not what I wanted to hear.
“Unique plot and captivating characters, but the action simply builds too slowly for a modern thriller.” At least this one contained feedback I could use for the next time around.
We finally got some bites after moving on to the next tier of editors just outside the “Big 5” publishing houses. At this point, I was already disappointed in myself, the book, and the process, but I wasn’t ready to close the door on a traditional option yet.
After several weeks of negotiating, my agent was able to present two final offers. Two books for $25,000—take it or leave it. This works out to $12.5k for each book, of course, and those payments would be split and stretched out over about three years. The contracts were pretty much boilerplate for a new midlister like me, with no special provisions that would make them more author-friendly in today’s rapidly changing publishing environment.
The publishers could not guarantee anything in the way of initial print run numbers or marketing budget, and my first book would not be released until sometime in 2016. Not exactly a proposal to get very excited about.
But I would be a REAL author, right? Wasn’t that worth it? I might get to see those stacks (of one? maybe two?) of my books at Barnes & Noble! I could be one of the select few who successfully made it past the proverbial gate-keepers and begin turning up my nose at all the independently-published authors I had learned so much from over the last few years.
No, thank you. Based on everything I had learned, I knew that this level of advance did not represent a very significant investment on the part of the publishers. I was confident that I could do almost everything they could with the book, on a tighter schedule and with more long-term potential for success.
It was one of the hardest decisions of my life, but I decided to walk away from these $25,000 offers and continue with the back-up plan to publish my thriller independently.
Fast forward six months, and here I am! The Chimera Sequence has been on the market for almost a month already, and I’ve been pleasantly surprised to have some affirmation of my choice. No New York Times bestseller lists yet, but I’ve already sold a few thousand copies of the book. More importantly, I’m steadily gaining readers and fans who are asking about my next book.
Was it easy? No, as my wife will tell you, neither of us could have imagined how difficult the whole publishing process would be. But I did it, all while working full-time and enjoying life with two young children at home. It was difficult, yes, but not impossible.
It’s too early to know for sure if I made the right decision. Who knows, maybe my book would have taken off in print, and I would have seen many more thousands of dollars in royalties than that initial five-figure advance represented. It’s possible, but unlikely. Especially in light of this week’s new report from Author Earnings, it’s clear that indie publishing is a better choice for many authors who desire ongoing financial success.
I’m grateful to all my fellow authors and readers who have helped me through this process so far, and I’m excited for the opportunity to continue sharing my stories with the world.
Here are some of the best resources I’ve found for other authors interested in learning more publishing in the 21st century:
Bio Page: Elliott Garber is a veterinarian and military officer currently assigned on active duty with a special operations command. He has lived in India, Egypt, Mozambique, and Italy and traveled to over 50 other countries around the world, including a recent deployment to Iraq. You can often find him under the water, up in the air, or out in the woods. Elliott lives with his wife and two young children in Coronado, California.
Elliott blogs and produces a podcast at: