by Sherry Jones
If publishing a novel were easy, my ex used to say, then everyone would be doing it.
I took heart from his words as I pondered my thirtieth "no, thanks" from agents regarding my first novel, "The Jewel of Medina." It's hard to imagine a more dispiriting time: all that hope, all that work, all that rejection. And yet, I thank my lucky stars every day that self-publishing wasn't an option for me then.
If publishing were as easy as pushing a button -- as it is today -- I might have bypassed all those tedious revisions (seven in all). Readers would have had to slog through my shitty first draft (Anne Lamott's phrase, not mine) which I, demonstrating a combination of dazzling self-confidence and ignorance, sent to a big literary agent. She did me a favor and sent it back. "Failed to sustain my enthusiasm," she wrote.
And rightfully so. It. Was. Awful.
Not only didn't my first draft have a protagonist -- I'd wanted to write about all twelve of the Prophet Muhammad's wives, alternating between their points of view - it also lacked a plot, consistent characters, and good writing. Plus it was 650 manuscript pages long -- twice as long as it needed to be.
What inspired me to keep working on my novel, to weather rejection after rejection, to revise again and again until it was just right? My belief in myself and my work, yes, but something more was at stake. I wanted to be read. I wanted to be published. And in 2006, when I began the search for a literary agent, self-publishing was regarded as a last resort, an act of desperation by writers whose work wasn't good enough to merit publication by even the smallest press.
Today, the reasons for DIY publishing (I resist the term "indie," for independent publishers are not the same as self-publishers) are myriad. For established authors, self-publishing might offer more control over one's creative work, or higher earnings. Too often, though, the newbie author is simply impatient. I can understand that feeling. After all, it took me five years to write and revise "The Jewel of Medina" before I landed an agent at last - and then she made me revise some more. It seemed as though I would never finish it. But in retrospect, I'm glad I revised that seventh time.
I took heart from the late, great John Gardner, who said that if your book is good, someone will publish it. The inverse of this is, if it's not very good, you're going to have a hard time getting it out into the world. This, I think, is as it should be. Unfortunately, it's not true anymore.
Here's the elephant in the room: A lot of self-published work is not very good. Not because the talent isn't there, but because the writing isn't ready for publication yet. I see spelling and punctuation errors, flabby dialogue, flimsy plots, inconsistent characters. I see books crying out for revision.
When an aspiring author asks me if he should self-publish, I instinctively say "no." Now, with the rise of agented self-publishing networks, I might amend that advice. Self-publish if you will, but get an established literary agent first, I say. My agent is an indispensable part of my literary career. Be relentless: Send out ten queries every week until you've asked them all. If you can't find a single one who wants to represent your work, find a good freelance editor to help you revise again.
Believe in yourself and your abilities, I say, and be willing to do the work required to produce a book that's beautiful and true. Reach for the stars! Believe in yourself. Don't sell yourself, or your precious book, short. Push the "publish" button only when you know that your work is the very best it can be.
Sherry Jones is the author of the internationally best-selling novels The Jewel of Medina and The Sword of Medina, published by Beaufort Books. Her novel Four Sisters, All Queens is scheduled to debut in May 2012 from Simon & Schuster's Gallery Books. To find out more about Sherry and to buy her books, visit her on Red Room.