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Self-Publishing vs Traditional Publishing: When One Door Closes, Another Opens

Guest post by Donna Scott

So, you want to know my journey to publication. How much time do you have?

Defining Moment

I awoke one morning with a vision of two people arguing in a ship’s cabin. The walls were planked, and the clothing they wore was from the late 18th century. I had no idea why they wouldn’t leave me alone, so after my sons went off to school that morning, I sat down and wrote the scene.

As a former professor of English and education, I had never written anything other than research, so this was an unfamiliar path I had ventured onto. Before I knew it, it was three o’clock and I had to pick up my children. While on the drive, I realized not only had I not changed out of my pajamas, but I hadn’t eaten lunch. I’d been so entrenched in my story that there was no space left in my head for mundane routines. And that’s when I knew I wanted to be a writer.

I never queried that novel, but it was the catalyst for subsequent novels.

Local Writers Group

There, I met some wonderful people who were at various stages of their own publishing journeys. The monthly meetings offered all kinds of workshops on craft, querying, contracts, marketing, editing, etc.

I also attended national conferences—the Historical Novel Society and Romance Writers of America —where I continued to network and learn about the craft of novel writing. At first, I resisted the idea of attending the RWA conferences since I don’t write romance, but that organization is top notch.

You will learn everything you need to know about the industry, and how to successfully include romance in your novels, regardless of your genre.

The Second Coming

I took everything I learned from those experiences and sat down to write my second novel. Once I thought I had a polished manuscript, I gave it to my beta reader—not for editing purposes, but for an overall general impression of plot, character, pacing, etc.

You may or may not agree with all of your beta reader’s suggestions, but take a breath and listen. You might find many of them are worth exploring. After I considered and employed her remarks, I gave it to a highly trusted friend who writes in another genre to line edit and offer suggestions for improvement. After that, I queried.

Reality of Landing an Agent

I was lucky and, within a few months, I signed with my first agent. I thought that was it. I was now on my way to becoming a published author! And then reality set in.

Once you land an agent, understand that there are no guarantees to publication. I had high hopes, probably unrealistic ones, to be honest. No, I never thought I’d be a bestselling author, but I thought having an agent meant I would get picked up by a publisher. My first agent was a real dynamo. She was sharp, knowledgeable, connected, and honest. To this day, I could pick up the phone and give her a call, and I know she’d make time to speak with me. She’s just a fantastic person.

I Even Won an Award

I happened to be in Scotland at the time researching my third book when I received an email that my novel, Shame the Devil, won a coveted award. My agent and I were hopeful that this news would generate added interest with editors. It went to acquisitions several times, but for one reason or another, editors couldn’t get the publishing houses to take a chance on a debut author, citing that “the historical fiction market is too difficult”. (I can practically see some of you nodding your heads in agreement. You’ve heard this before too.)

She represented me for two novels over three and a half years, and then she left her agency to join another and represent other genres. I was heartbroken. Not simply because I lost her and was thrown back into the querying world, but because the two books she submitted to editors were now dead in the water.

Basically, once a book has been shopped, you can’t query agents with it again. You have to write a new book. So, that’s what I did.

Ding Ding—Round Two

It wasn’t long before I landed another agent. She tried for a year to sell my new novel, The London Monster, and although it, too, went to acquisitions and received glowing feedback, it was followed by rejections including those dreaded words--“the historical market is too difficult for debut authors”. Disappointed, and without another book under my belt, we severed our relationship and for the first time, I found myself considering self-publishing.

Overcoming the Self-publishing Stigma

Over the years, I had attended writing conferences and the term “self-publishing” was thrown around here and there with a certain stigma attached to it. I admit that at the time, even I assumed that only flawed books ended up being self-pubbed.

At one of the last Historical Novel Society conferences I attended, I noticed that the sessions offering information regarding self-publishing were always full. I had an agent at the time, so I never considered attending one of the classes, but I wish I had. They were taught by people who really know the ropes, people who have published multiple novels successfully through KDP (Kindle Direct Publishing) or other programs. Some of them were traditionally published at first and then, for whatever reason, decided to self-pub.

At the next conference, you can be sure that I’ll be sitting front-and-center in as many self-publishing sessions as I can.

Invest in Your Book

If you’re going to self-publish, it’s going to require a financial investment. Everyone has his or her limits, so you need to figure out what is best for your budget.

  • If I had to pick and choose where my money was going, I would say get a really good editor, one who specializes in historical fiction. I use Jessica Cale of Historical Editorial, but any one of the editors there is revered and accomplished.

  • Second, I would invest in a quality book designer. I use Jenny Quinlan (also at Historical Editorial), who is super talented, knowledgeable, and professional in every way. Those are the two big monetary investments self-pubbed authors make.

  • After that, buy your own ISBN from Bowker. Ebooks don’t require a barcode, but paperbacks do, so you’ll need to purchase barcodes from Bowker also.

Do not use the free one that Amazon gives you. You want to own the rights to your work.

Writer Karma is Real

I have made plenty of mistakes along the way, but I’ve also learned a lot and made some wonderful friendships and connections with people I hope to have in my life for a long time to come. It has been less than a year since my last agent and I parted ways, and I have two books out now. I’m pretty happy.

Oh, and one last thing . . . Always help other writers—karma is real!

Donna Scott is an award-winning author of 17th and 18th century historical fiction. Before embarking on a writing career, she spent her time in the world of academia. She earned her BA in English from the University of Miami and her MS and EdD (ABD) from Florida International University. She has two sons and lives in sunny South Florida with her husband. Her first novel, Shame the Devil, received the first place Chaucer Award for historical fiction and a Best Book designation from Chanticleer International Book Reviews. Her newest novel, The London Monster, was released in November 2020.

Connect with Donna: Website - Twitter - Facebook - Instagram


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