Help! I am my own worst critic and doubter! How do I know if my book is good enough to publish? How do I know if my story is good enough to sell?
The answer shouldn’t be surprising coming from a lawyer: it depends. It depends on your goals, your purpose, and what you hope to accomplish.
For writers seeking to call themselves published authors, the availability and ease of self-publishing means anything is good enough to publish if someone is willing to pay for publication. But just because a book is published doesn’t mean it’s any good. And it doesn’t mean it will sell. For many who wonder if their book is good enough, the challenging road of traditional publishing will be the path the best suits their goals and dreams.
Many people have a story the world should hear, but they may not be equipped or inclined to personally write it. If you have a heck of a story to tell, and someone should write a book about it, you can always hire a co-writer or ghostwriter. Many already have substantial ties within the publishing world.
For those who are more entrepreneurial whose goals for their book are specific and not necessarily a good fit for traditional publishing, self-publishing may be a good option to meet their goals.
Before you can truly find out if your book is good enough to publish or if your story is good enough to sell, the first step is to recognize that you can’t successfully sell a book on your own. At some point along the path to publication, you will need to engage others to assist you in making your book available to the public.
The second step, then, is to find the right people at the right time in the process to make the manuscript the best that it can be at each step in the idea-to-publication process. Identifying and consulting with a literary lawyer would be a wise step to learn the best type of arrangement for your goals, the different types of rights at stake, and where to go to get connected to the right people to get your story on paper and on bookshelves.
Finding the right people to meet you and your project where you are is the key to changing the question entirely. Once you find the right people to help you through the publishing process, you’ll likely stop asking “How do I know if my book is good enough?” Instead, you can confidently ask, “What’s the next step we need to focus on to get my book good enough to publish?”
It’s so hard to get an agent, and most publishers won’t accept manuscripts from unrepresented authors. Can’t I self-publish instead?
Of course. Technological advancements have thrown open the gates to self-publishing in the same way the Internet has thrown open the gates for people to have their voices heard by the masses. But the benefits of technological advancements also come with drawbacks.
Readers have more content to sift through than ever before. There’s a lot of garbage on the Internet. And there’s a lot of garbage being self-published. And writers and dreamers beware: the world is full of schemers who won’t think twice about grifting on your dream, promising you the world, delivering little of value, all while laughing their way to the bank with your money.
That doesn’t mean that if a book has been self-published, it’s not any good. It doesn’t mean all professionals and companies offering services to help authors, writers, and others achieve their dreams are all swindlers. It does mean that self-published books enter the marketplace at a great commercial disadvantage to books that have been traditionally published. And it does mean writers should do their due diligence and be pragmatic on the business side of their artistic pursuits.
People want to read good books. People don’t want to waste money and time on bad books. But people who read books often want to spend their time reading books, not scouring the internet reading bad reviews of bad self-published books in a quest to find a diamond in the rough. Traditional publishers have infrastructure, economic incentives, marketing, access to distributors, and relationships with booksellers in a way that self-publishing outfits do not, all of which are essential to give potential book buyers both visibility and access to your work.
Librarians, bookstores, trade publications, reviewers, newspapers, periodicals, literary conference organizers, teachers, school systems, influencers, and readers of all kinds are far more likely to spend their money on books that have been traditionally published. Readers still trust professionals to get it right more often than amateurs.
I wrote a book. Can I get an agent or publisher if I already self-published my book?
It is far more difficult to traditionally publish a book if it has already been self-published. Most traditional agents will not even consider a book that has already been self-published—in any form—which means most traditional publishers will never have the chance to consider the book for publication.
Most traditional publishers only accepted manuscripts by authors who are represented. By self-publishing, you’re closing—or at least barricading—many doors that would otherwise remain open.
But as with most things in business and the law, it depends. It depends on genre, goals, size of the publisher, success of the book after self-publication, and many other factors.
Many publishers will not consider a book “previously published” if it has not sold above a threshold number of copies. Some publishers may want to capitalize on a wave of popularity when a self-published book catches fire, snatching up the rights to a self-published book that has sold significant copies and proven its market viability.
Even for those authors whose self-published books prove themselves to be such a unicorn, those authors need to seriously consider all their options and all contracts and licensing provisions during negotiations. There are far more numbers and factors to consider when analyzing the potential profitability of a book than simply the number representing the author’s percentage of royalties or profit-sharing.
Why would I need a lawyer when self-publishing my book?
“Self-publishing” is often a misnomer, as the self-publishing author spends outsized time and attention coordinating contractors and services to conduct the commercial activities that would otherwise be conducted by a traditional publisher. Self-published books require the work of many professionals to turn an idea into a manuscript and then turn a manuscript into a product for sale. A better description for the self-publishing phenomenon is self-financed and self-managed publishing. It’s typically not a process one can successfully undertake alone.
Many self-published authors may need business, marketing, and legal support that’s far different than what a typical literary agent offers. Connections with distributors, promotional assistance, liabilities, contracts, and intellectual property concerns with everyone the author works with—from cover designers to printers to retailers to…you name it.
Intellectual property protection, liability considerations, copyright, marketing. As you know, these are all tasks and responsibilities you take on yourself in addition to the actual writing of the book when you decide to self-publish. Self-publishing requires undertaking the entire start-to-finish project of creation to commodity. When undertaking a non-traditional publishing journey, you likely won’t be best served with a traditional agent, even on the unlikely chance that one accepts you as a client.
I have an agent, so I don’t need a lawyer, right? Can’t my agent review my contracts?
Perhaps. Perhaps not. It depends on the agent. Traditional agents help develop a manuscript, pitch it to editors, attempt to sell it, negotiate to price, and then they take their cut…forever. There are no educational, training, or licensing requirements to be a traditional literary agent. It’s often an apprenticeship type system where people learn on the job from established agents. It’s often a job more focused on relationships with editors and publishers and about closing deals than it is about protecting legal rights of authors.
Even many of the most phenomenal and high-powered literary agents are not qualified to properly review your contracts to protect your legal interests. A literary agent is essential to put your manuscript in the right editor’s hands, to sell the manuscript, and to negotiate the best price for your work. However, unless an agent is a licensed attorney, they are not qualified to explain to you the full-scope and legal significance of contract provisions that will have serious financial and legal consequences for a long time to come.
Lawyers can be agents, but agents can’t be lawyers. Non-lawyers are prohibited from giving you legal advice about your options, contract terms, or any other decision you need to make regarding your legal rights and how you want to exercise those rights. Non-lawyer agents need to stay in their lane or else risk legal action or even prosecution for the unauthorized practice of law.
A licensed attorney is the only person legally authorized to provide you legal advice and counsel on your contracts, intellectual property, potential liability of what you intend to publish, and many other issues that may be relevant to your situation. Even if a licensed attorney is legally permitted to provide you legal advice and counsel on your book deals or other contract or publishing related quest, the vast majority aren’t the least bit qualified because they lack any experience in the publishing industry.
If you want to protect your legal rights as an author or want assistance turning your literary dreams into a reality, your best bet is to find a literary lawyer or team of entertainment lawyers with experience and understanding of the commercial literary market, publishing process, intellectual property, literary contracts, business, and the interaction between the industries that makes a good story a commercial success.
Matthew J. Hefti is Counsel at Parlatore Law Group. Motivated and informed through his own military service, Matthew focuses a significant part of his practice on military law, including military appeals and military writs. He enjoys working on creative, cohesive, and highly effective teams to give his clients the best holistic representation possible. Additionally, he is the author of A Hard and Heavy Thing (Gallery / Simon & Schuster 2016), which was named one of the Top Ten Books of the Year by Military Times, one of the Top Ten First Novels of the Year by Booklist, and one of the Great Group Reads selections by the Women’s National Book Association. His shorter works of fiction, nonfiction, scholarship, and poetry have been published in books and periodicals in print and online. Mr. Hefti is an editor at the long-running online literary journal Wrath-Bearing Tree and a co-founder of Wrath-Bearing Tree, a charitable, literary, and educational Texas Nonprofit Corporation.
He can be contacted at: Matthew.Hefti@parlatorelawgroup.com and 832-916-3052.
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