What Makes a “Real Book?”

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When I was at the Historical Novel Society Conference at the end of June, an agent reportedly told a room full of writers that when querying him/her, authors should mention any previously published books, but only if they are traditionally published because “self-published books aren’t real books.”

*Facepalm* In a world where traditional (especially “Big 5”) publishers and agents are making getting a traditional book deal more and more difficult, especially for first-time and newer (read: lower-selling) authors, what else do we have to do to convince those in the traditional industry that we are just as serious about our careers as our traditional counterparts and that our books are just as real?

What makes a book “real,” anyway?

  1. Well, obviously it needs to exist. That means any book offered in print, ebook or audio form is a real book. If I can read it in some way, it is a real book.
  2. For the publishing industry, it makes sense the book would need to make money, which means it needs to sell. Okay, those of us who have sold a few copies have real books. I know authors who are making in the five- and six-figure range each year with self-published books. Sadly, I am not yet one of them. But that makes my books no less real.
  3. Maybe it needs to have fans? Indie books have those as well. Ask their authors and they will show you fan mail. Those fans will show you their ratings on Amazon. Yep. Real book.
  4. Beyond that, the only other thing I can think of is that it needs special fairy rainbow unicorn dust.

In fact, I would argue that our books could be seen as more “real” because we invest our own money in publishing and marketing them. That doesn’t make our books any more high or low quality than those traditionally published, but it does give us a financial skin in the game that doesn’t come when you are paid for your writing.

What a comment like the one the agent made appears to come down to is the argument that in order to be a “real book,” it has to have passed the approval of an agent and then an editor. So under that logic, only the books they consider worthy are real. What makes them any more qualified to determine that, given many of the stinkers they have published? Any avid reader should be able to make that choice in an informed manner, and with self-published books, those readers have an even wider array of books to choose from, not only the few topics the industry thinks are “hot.”

Around 4th of July I saw a meme that showed The Declaration of Independence. Beneath it were the words “This was a self-published document.” That is so appropriate because this whole argument is kind of like saying only the king and queen can say which books get published. Well, now the people are rising up and saying, “no, we don’t need you to make every decision for us. We’re going to take power into our own hands.” Like every revolution, the indie movement has its supporters and its detractors. But like the bid for US independence, the horse has left the barn and there is no going back. Call indie authors rouge colonists all you want, but we’re here to stay whether you approve of us or not.

Now I know not every agent or editor feels this way, and I’m glad for that. I have nothing against the traditional publishing industry. What I do have a problem with is the “be-all-and-end-all” attitude inherent in the idea that only traditionally published books are “real books.” All we’re asking for here is equality, plain and simple. You don’t have to like that our books exist. Just acknowledge us and our ability to produce our own work. (Hmm…does that sound like the suffrage movement to anyone else?) And let us include it in our query letters. You can still turn us down if you don’t think our books are valid or our sales are high enough.

But please, don’t tell us our books aren’t real.

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6 thoughts on “What Makes a “Real Book?”

  1. To me, this just reinforces all of the reasons I actively chose not to go the traditional publishing route to begin with. I really don’t need to share 10% or more of my earnings with an agent who represents an industry in which I would make only a fraction of what I earn on my own, and where my work is not valued. They can turn up their noses at self published books all they want, but in a world where those books earn authors like me a solid 5 figure salary, they fail to grasp that we are not the ones who need to audition for them. They are the ones who need to convince us that their services add value. So far, I’m unimpressed.

  2. LivRancourt

    OMG I would have left the room! What a terrible (clueless, tone-deaf, downright rude) thing to say. I would argue trad publishing in its current form is an invention of the last couple hundred years, and I would give a hard pass on querying an agent who showed so little understanding of the current state of publishing.

  3. Shauna Granger

    A comment like that makes me think that agent isn’t a real agent. Every agent I’ve ever talked to has said they want to know if a writer has self-published other works and, if so, they’re probably going to ask for sales figures. Wow. Just wow.

    1. I have my suspicions as to who it was. And if I am right, that person is very old school, and based on my experience with them, mean. If I’m right, this is a person who will not ever keep up with the times. But it is also a very well-known and influential person.

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