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Why this Author Walked Away from a $25,000 Advance to Publish His Novel Independently

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.

The_Chimera_Sequence_Elliott_Garber copyI 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:

KBoards Writer’s Cafe

The Passive Voice Blog

Hugh Howey’s Blog

Russell Blake’s Blog

Elliott-Garber-Mascot-Dog-AmputationBio 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:

He also shares updates on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+, and he would love to hear from you there.

1 of N does not equal N—Craft Tuesday at Write on the River

Thumb_Nail_Novel_WriterArrghhh. Math. Sorry, but it’s the best way I can explain this concept. What this formula means is that just because you can buy a best-selling book written by so-and-so, the famous writer that does not mean you can write a similar book and get it published.

What I’m talking about is those people who sit there and complain that their book is just as good as such and such and, damn it, they should not only be published but have a bestseller. Also, those people who look at book number 5 from a best-selling author and complain about how bad it is. Yes, there are many book number 5’s from best-selling authors that if they were book number 1 from a new author, would not get published. But the primary thing that sells a book is the author’s name. I’ve always said Stephen King could write a book about doing his laundry and it would be on the bestseller list. Stephen King earned being Stephen King and to misquote a vice-presidential debate, I’ve read Stephen King and you ain’t no Stephen King. Neither am I.

Another thing people do is they see a technique used in a novel and use the same technique, and then get upset when told it doesn’t work. They angrily point to the published book that has the same technique and say, “SEE.” Unfortunately, what they don’t see is that that technique is part of the overall structure of the novel. It all ties together. I’ll discuss book dissection to study various aspects and techniques and I still stand by that; however, I also remind you of the story of Frankenstein. Just because you can put all the pieces together, that doesn’t mean you can necessarily bring it to life. There are some techniques that only work when combined in context of other parts of the novel; thus using it in isolation can be a glaring problem. You can’t take the beginning of one bestseller, tie it in with flashback style from another, and have a similar flashy ending as another and expect the novel to automatically work.

Every part of a novel is a thread connected to all the other parts. Pull on one piece and you pull on them all. Tear apart a novel or a movie and see the pieces, but then be like a watchmaker and see if you can put them all together again as the writer did and if you understand why they go back that way.

For example, Quentin Tarrantino ignored the classic three act screenplay structure with Pulp Fiction. Yet the movie was a great success. So therefore, a number of new screenwriters decided they didn’t need the three act structure. However, what they failed to see is that it was not so much the unique story structure that made Pulp Fiction such a success, but rather the intriguing dialogue. Tarrantino’s structure without the Tarrantino dialogue would have spelled failure.

It is also more important to figure out what is working and why, rather that what you feel didn’t work in a book you read. An attitude that will serve you little good is the there’s so much crap on the shelves in the bookstore. I admit that there are times when I am looking for something to read, and I stand in the local supermarket looking at the paperbacks, that I really can’t find anything I want to read or that sparks an interest. But that doesn’t automatically mean it’s all crap.

I had to do this many times. I’d read something I might not like, but it seems to be selling quite well. Instead of dismissing the rest of the world as stupid, I try to find what it is about the book that people like. That doesn’t mean I’m going to do the same thing, but it does broaden my horizon.

I don’t think there is anything wrong with a little fire burning deep inside believing you are better than those people getting published, but I think that’s the sort of thing that should be used to fuel your writing, not expressed loudly so everyone can hear it.

John Gardner once said that every book has its own rules. Remember that when you examine a book to see what you can learn from it. Look at the parts from the perspective of that book’s specific rules.

backgroundBlack Tuesday finalThe Novel Writers Toolkit, Write It Forward, How We Made Our First Million on Kindle, 102 Writing Mistakes, and Writer’s Conference Guide.

And coming 24 August and available for pre-order: Time Patrol: Black Tuesday


More on Point of View– Craft at Write on the River

Toolkit_TNYou have to consider point of view before you begin your book and before you write every scene, much as a movie director has to. You have to determine the best point of view to get across to the reader the story you are trying to tell. Decide where are you going to place the camera to the best advantage of the story.

Say you are going to write a thriller about a female FBI agent tracking down a vicious serial killer. You want to open your book with a scene that will grab the reader and set the stage for the suspense of the novel so you decide to open with a killing. What point of view will you use? Now, remember, no point of view is wrong—you just have to understand the advantages and disadvantages of your possible choices and make a knowledgeable decision. And remember, you will most likely be stuck with that point of view for the entire manuscript.

First person might be a bit difficult. After all, this would most likely mean your narrator actually witnesses the scene. This isn’t impossible, but it could be awkward. Perhaps you use first person from the protagonist’s point of view and she witnesses the murder but is not in a position to take any action? Using first person from the POV of the victim means the book is rather short, unless the victim survives the attack and swears vengeance. First person from the killer would make for a dark book, but it has been done.

You can decide to use third person from the point of view of the victim. This can build tension well, but also means the chapter will end abruptly.

You can use third person from the point of view of the killer, but remember that the killer knows who he or she is and therefore you have to be careful how much insight into the killer’s head you allow. A technique some use to overcome that limitation is to have the killer think of himself in different terms than his reality. The killer is Joe Schmo, but when he’s in killer mode he thinks of himself as Captain Hook, thus hiding his identity from the reader in third person insight.

Or, you could use omniscient, placing your ‘camera’ above the scene. Here, though, you have to be careful not to show too much and give away the killer’s identity. Much like a director might choose a dark basement where the viewer can’t see the killer’s face, you will do the same.

Another example of considering how to write a scene is if you have two characters meeting in a pub for an important exchange of dialogue. They sit across from each other. How are you going to ‘shoot’ this scene? From third person of one of the characters? That means you get that character’s thoughts and you describe the other character’s reactions—i.e. the camera is on your POV character’s shoulder. Is it important that the reader know one character’s thought more than the other’s? Or is it more important to show one character’s reactions than the others?

Or, do you keep switching the camera back and forth across the booth, going from one to the other? If you’re Larry McMurty and won a Pulitzer Prize you might be able to do that, but for most of us, such a constant switching of POV is very disconcerting to the reader. Or do you shoot it omniscient with the camera off to the side and simply show actions and record dialogue?

Consider this scene like a date. If you were out with someone and you knew exactly what they were thinking, and they knew what you were thinking, would there be any suspense to the date? Taking too many points of view can greatly reduce your suspense.

Black Tuesday finalI’ve written in all the above points of view. I tend to go with omniscient now as it’s the voice that works best for me, but it took me almost forty manuscripts to figure that out.

Coming 24 August: The Time Patrol: Black Tuesday

Six missions on 29 October to six different years, from 999 AD to 1980. Each operative has 24 hours to maintain our timeline or else everything snaps out of existence.


Omniscient Point of View– Craft at Write on the River

Thumb_Nail_Novel_WriterOmniscient point of view. This is also known as authorial narrative. When I first began writing I felt I had to lock in third person on a character for every scene. And that worked. But the more I wrote, the more I wanted to use an omniscient point of view. I also realized that most of my favorite authors wrote in omniscient voice.

I liken authorial point of view to the camera getting pulled back in the hands of the author in order to show the viewer more. There are times you might want to pull back so you can tell the reader more information or show the reader more than the characters who are in the scene might be able to see or know.

For example, a battle scene can be written much better from omniscient point of view if you want the reader to understand the battle. But if you want the reader to see how one specific character is responding to the danger of combat, you might stick with third person from that character’s point of view.

One of the most difficult obstacles for me as a writer was accepting that I could write from the authorial point of view. That I can describe things as they are or were using my own voice as the author of the work. The more I write, the more I find it important to be able to do this. There may be some information that is not going to fit using third person. Also, you may get very tired of writing “he thought” over and over again and the reader may grow weary of seeing it.

Starting sentences with the word THE shifts you up into omniscient quite a bit.


Authorial narrative

Camera is above, all-seeing and all-knowing

Must be the story psychologist

Good for action scenes

Be careful of head-hopping

More authoritative

BURNERS(fist)For more on all of this: The Novel Writers Toolkit.

Coming 6 October: Burners. What is more valuable than money?

“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world!”


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