When I was in 7th grade, someone asked me for the first time what I wanted to be when I grew up. After careful consideration, it came down to three choices: author, first baseman for the Reds, and teacher. Well, I could never hit the curveball, so the Reds were out. I never stopped writing, but back in my day (hear a grumpy old man voice when you read that), there was only one way to become a published novelist and that was the traditional route of finding an agent. So it fell to plan C. And it’s been a heck of a plan. I love my students like they’re my own kids and I feel like I’ve made a difference in a lot of lives.
But there was always that voice that kept telling me stories. Stories I thought were pretty good. And apparently funny. I’m one of those guys that people say is funny, though rarely when I’m trying to be. So I decided to listen to the voices (that’s not quite as crazy as it probably sounds), sat down, and wrote a book. It wasn’t nearly that simple or short a process, but it’s also not the point of this story. I wrote a book. I think a good book. I had friends read it and they said it was good. I had an editor read it and she said it was good. So I did what every author does, right? I queried agents. And I queried agents. And I—well, you get the point.
Did I mention I’m 51? While I’m young for my age (some say more immature than young), I didn’t want to waste my prime writing years waiting around for an agent to draw me off the slush pile and realize I’m the next Robert B. Parker. I’d read tons of websites and blogs that extolled the virtues of self-publishing. I kept saying that I’d give it one more month and then I’d take the plunge. I said that for about six straight months before I decide that’s enough one-mores. I self-published. And I’m glad.
Have I sold a million books? Nope. Have I even sold a thousand? Not yet, but give me time. I’ll get there. Why am I glad? Because, even though there are negatives, I feel like the positives outweigh them.
A big plus is autonomy. I control everything, from cover design to marketing. And I don’t share royalties with an agent and publishing house. Granted, the company that prints my books doesn’t do it for free, but it’s a two-way split and two is one less than three. You might be surprised to know I’m not a math teacher.
There are drawbacks. Autonomy is another way of saying nobody to help you. Or at least nobody on the inside. I like writing. I think I’m pretty good at it. Marketing is another issue. I was in retail just long enough in college to remind me to graduate so I wouldn’t have to stay in it. And even if I don’t mind it, there are seemingly dozens of avenues for marketing a book, and without an agent who’s been there, I’m guessing which ones work best. Sometimes I guess well. Other times not.
So if an agent offered me a contract, would I consider it? Sure. But I wouldn’t take it automatically. I really do like being in charge and having the feeling that my success has been on the merits of my writing rather than the merits of someone else’s marketing acumen. And that’s a cool feeling.
Joe Stephens has been a teacher at Parkersburg High School in Parkersburg, WV since 1997. He’s a National Board Certified Teacher and a past recipient of the Milken National Educator Award. He self-published his first novel, a soft-boiled detective work entitled Harsh Prey, in October 2014. It’s available to order online in paperback and Kindle formats, as well as from the trunk of his beautiful if somewhat dented Mustang convertible, Ellie. The second book in the series, Kisses and Lies will be out in June 2015. You can read more of his views on the writing life at http://joestephens917.blogspot.com/.