Why I Left My Mighty Agency and New York Publishers (for now)

Olivander / via Flickr

Olivander / via Flickr

Note from Jane: Today I’m beyond honored to feature bestselling author Claire Cook (@ClaireCookwrite), who has just released Never Too Late, from which this post is excerpted. Claire has a fascinating story to tell about her decision to leave her agency and traditional publisher, and chase after her publishing dreams.

As the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus said, “The only thing constant is change.”

I was cruising along, represented by a powerful literary agent from a mighty agency that I both liked and respected, published by a series of big New York publishers that believed in my books and helped me make them better, and receiving advances for my novels that were substantial enough to live well on.

And then the publishing world began to get rocky, just like the music world and the newspaper world and so many others had before it.

I was one of the lucky authors. I had multi-book contracts, I was still being sent on book tour by my publisher and published in both hardcover and paperback, so I was able to put on my blinders and ignore the changes at first. Eventually, I couldn’t help noticing my career stalling out, but I’m a glass half-full kind of person, so I just shrugged it off, and figured if I dug down deep and worked even harder than I was already working, I could make up for the shrinking energy and resources being put behind my books.

And then, after years of stability and support, it was jolting when a single one of my novels made the rounds through three separate editors, because the first two left the publishing house. I lost count of the in-house publicists disappearing through the revolving door—even their names began to blur. But the good news was that this was my final book under contract with this publisher, so I’d just find a better home for my books and myself when I was free.

When the time came, my agent and I made the rounds, meeting with editors at the big publishing houses. I signed a two-book contract with the one who promised they’d put all their resources behind me to grow my readership and to get my career moving again in the right direction.

It didn’t happen. I think they tried hard with the first book, but the things that used to work for traditional publishers trying to break out a book weren’t working so well anymore. I wrote the second book I owed them. And then I found out that their entire plan for this book was to do all the things that hadn’t worked for the first one. Even I couldn’t find the glass half full in that. So I spoke up, verbally, and then in writing, and then in writing with lots of detail, even some bullet points.

Let’s just say it didn’t go over so well. And then my editor went off on a three-month maternity leave that would end just before my book came out, leaving her assistant, a very nice young woman a couple years out of college, responsible for the care of my novel. Less than a month before my publication date, I received an email from this very nice assistant telling me she was leaving publishing to start a takeout food business with a friend.

What a coincidence, I almost wrote back. I’m leaving publishing to start a takeout food business, too!

And now no one was in charge of my book.

Oh, it was such a low point. I’d spent thirteen years trying to be the hardest working author in the universe, and I felt excruciatingly let down by the institution that was literally feeding me. And paying my bills.

It gets worse. Around this time I started receiving emails and calls from booksellers telling me they were having trouble ordering my backlist books that had been published by my last publisher. And then that last publisher went under and was bought out by another publisher who inherited all their titles. So in another huge bump in the road, these five backlist books went from being ignored to being part of a fire sale and were now owned by a new publisher that quickly demonstrated they had absolutely no interest in them.

One day right around this time it hit me: I simply can’t do this again. I cannot let another publisher break my heart.

It gets better. Independent self-publishing had taken off and grown into a viable alternative. Authors in situations similar to mine were becoming hybrid authors—both traditionally and self-published. And in this new world, there was little of the cloak and dagger stuff I’d experienced in traditional publishing where everything from money to marketing was kept secret. Indie authors were generously sharing everything they learned to help others on the same path. Via message boards and blogs and conferences, a great support system was bubbling up.

I’d already dipped a toe in this new pond, back when I first began to feel the changes. Ebooks were taking off like crazy and my readers were embracing them. Since I owned the rights to Must Love Dogs, I reformatted it and uploaded the ebook on Amazon. I gave it away on Mother’s Day to thank my readers for their support. No advertising, just an email blast, a post on Facebook and another one on Twitter. It had 32,000 downloads in that one day and reached the No. 1 spot on the Amazon free list, right next to Fifty Shades of Grey on the paid list. And now a whole bunch of people wanted to hear more from these characters. Amazing.

So the pieces of my new dream started to come together. I would find a way to get the rights to my backlist books reverted, and then I’d republish them with my own publishing company, which I’d call Marshbury Beach Books after the fictional town in my novels. Then I’d turn Must Love Dogs into a series—my readers wanted more, series were becoming more popular, and it would be fun to have a new kind of writing challenge since I’d never written a series. After that, I’d just keep writing, maybe even that nonfiction book about reinvention I’d wanted to write for years.

I hired a lawyer to help me begin the arduous process of getting the rights to my backlist reverted. But this time I did it the smart way. I reached out to a wonderful organization I belong to, Novelists, Inc., which has a legal fund for its members I could apply to for help subsidizing my efforts. NINC had a list of lawyers, and once I’d chosen one, they even made the initial contact for me.

I finished writing a draft of Book 2 of the new Must Love Dogs series. My agent not only read but also gave me helpful editorial advice. We seemed to be on the same page in terms of the steps I needed to take to get my career back on track. I’d already self-published Must Love Dogs and Multiple Choice with her full knowledge and support. It seemed to me that if I could get my career moving again, it would only benefit us both down the road.

And then one day on the phone my agent informed me that in order to continue to be represented by this mighty agency, I would have to turn over 15% of the proceeds of my about-to-be self-published book to said agency. Not only that, but I would have to publish it exclusively through Amazon, because the agency had a system in place with Amazon where I could check a box and their 15% would go straight to them, no muss, no fuss.

There was no deal, no sale. There would be no self-publishing assistance, no special treatment from Amazon to give my books an extra push, no marketing. Why would I pay 15% of my profits—forever—simply for the privilege of being represented by a big name agency? And this might well turn out to be representation in name only, since it was made clear to me that the mighty agency’s subagents could not be expected to devote time and energy to selling rights to works that were not traditionally published.

It was wrong, ethically and financially, and I just couldn’t do it. I Googled and searched message boards and was introduced to the term revenue grabbing.

To say it rocked my world would be an understatement. I was stunned, in part because I had several author friends traveling the same road, whose agents were supporting their indie journeys to get their careers back on track in a big way, and only commissioning the sales of subrights like foreign and audio.

A lawyer at another organization that I’m a member of looked over my breakup papers furnished by the agency, and told me to look on the bright side: They never would have bothered if they didn’t smell money. I was hardly a big fish at this agency, so in my mind it was more about getting caught in the crossfire as agents and publishers alike try to reinvent themselves and stay relevant in these quickly changing times.

I cried. A lot. At one point, I remember Googling Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s five stages of grief and realizing that I was cycling through them all, from denial to anger to bargaining to depression to acceptance. And then, once I finished wallowing and being pathetic, I shook it off and got back to work, more determined than ever.

As much as this whole thing totally, totally sucked, as much as it felt like my entire support system had been pulled out from under me, I never once questioned that I would continue writing. And I never once questioned that my readers would want to read my next book, no matter how it was published.

I tell this story not to point fingers or to badmouth anyone, but in the spirit of those indie authors who have so generously shared information to help others coming up behind them on the road.

Onward and Upward

I loved having a savvy, formidable literary agent advocating for me, and a connected group of terrific subagents going after foreign and film rights. I loved working with publishing teams made up of smart people who knew how to help me make my books better and had the clout to get my books much wider distribution than I could ever get on my own.

If the right literary agent comes along, one who gets where I’m going and can support my new journey in a meaningful way, that would be great. But I’m in no rush, and it’s been both good to take a break to think about what I’ll need moving forward, as well as empowering to take control of my own career.

I consider myself a hybrid author, both traditionally and self-published. If the right traditional publishing offer comes along, especially one that would get my paper books into bookstores in a more widespread way than I can on my own, I’d absolutely work with a traditional publisher again. As Guy Kawasaki, the former chief evangelist of Apple, said about his own hybrid author career, “I’m not for sale, but I am absolutely for rent.”

But the magic for me is that I don’t need it anymore.

Jumping off the traditional publishing treadmill I’ve been on since 2000 has meant making some short-term sacrifices, the biggest of which was letting go of the money it provided. But my self-published checks come monthly, not twice a year, and I get much higher percentages of sales without sharing a percentage. The income gap is closing.

I now own seven of my twelve books. I control pricing and promotion, and I can balance my need to earn a living with making my books available to my loyal readers at the best price I can offer them. I can add fresh content and switch excerpts and change covers any time I want. By the time I have ten indie-published books, I think Marshbury Beach Books and I will be doing just fine.

But already I’m happy. Instead of waiting for the next thing to go wrong, instead of feeling like I can’t get close enough to my own career to move it in the right direction, I wake up every day and get right to work. I’m ridiculously busy, but I’m learning so many new things about writing and publishing and connecting, and I spend all day (and often a chunk of the night) doing the work I was born to do.

Never Too Late by Claire cookIf it’s time for you to reinvent yourself like Claire did, be sure to check out Never Too Late. You can also stop by Claire’s website, ClaireCook.com, to download your free Never Too Late workbook, and to sign up for her newsletter.

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Claire Cook
Reinvention is the story of Claire Cook's books and her life. She wrote her first novel in her minivan at 45. At 50, she walked the red carpet at the Hollywood premiere of the adaptation of her second novel, Must Love Dogs, starring Diane Lane and John Cusack. And she's just reinvented herself again by writing her first nonfiction book, Never Too Late, to share everything she's learned on her own journey that might help you in your own. To find out more, visit her website.
Claire Cook

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Posted in Guest Post, Publishing Industry.


  1. This is very inspiring for those of us who waiver between the two worlds. That said, I have to add that it’s unrealistic to expect an agent to work for free. Yes, what this agency wanted was outlandish, nonetheless there should be some payment because like writers agents need a paycheck also and in this ever-changing environment they too are trying to find their way.

    • This is pure silliness.

      They don’t need a paycheck if they are not adding value. Maybe they should go into the take out food business.

      Nobody gets a paycheck because they need it.

      Writers need agents like a fish needs bicycle. I figure you must be an agent :)

      I have no agent and I sell my books, on my own, to traditional publishers.

      • Here is what the author wrote: “My agent not only read but also gave me helpful editorial advice. We seemed to be on the same page in terms of the steps I needed to take to get my career back on track. I’d already self-published Must Love Dogsand Multiple Choice with her full knowledge and support. It seemed to me that if I could get my career moving again, it would only benefit us both down the road.” I interpreted this as the agent working for/with the author. I don’t agree that there should be a fee without work, but it appears that the agent did do work and that the author wanted to continue to work with the agent albeit in a different way. It doesn’t seem fair for the agent to be expected to work with the author if there’s no payment. Everyone who contributes to the success of a book deserves to share in the reward.

  2. Thank you so much Claire and Jane for this inspiring post. I’m on the road to self-publishing my first book, after decades of sitting on my writing. Some of these past years have been spent trying to find a road into the traditional publishing world. I wasn’t lucky enough or maybe not good enough, who knows. I’ve kept going, heartened by stories like yours and also by stories of well-known authors who’ve faced multiple rejections. It’s the nature of the industry. Good luck with this new phase in your life.

    • Thanks, Diana! That’s exactly why I wrote Never Too Late, to share everything I could that might help other writers on similar journeys. As I look back over 14 years and 11 novels, the smartest thing I did was to build my readership, reader by reader, which is something we can all do.

    • Thank you, Robyn. At the start of a career, I think traditional publishing has a lot to offer. I learned so much by being a part of that process, skills that I took with me when I went out on my own. So if you get that choice, consider it seriously. If you don’t, then you go to Plan B. Lots of ways will get you there, the important thing is that you go.

  3. Thank you for this honest post, Claire. It’s always interesting to hear what writers a little further up the ladder have to say about the myriad changes happening in the
    publishing world, and it’s effect on their writing careers. As I read this, and
    posts by other writers, I cant help but think about the fact that your
    self-publishing career has come along after years of building a solid reader
    base with a large traditional publisher and agent. The fact that you have been
    able to build this platform after years of hard work means you already have a
    launch pad for your self-publishing efforts. Those just starting out on the
    publishing road with only a few, or no books under their belt would find a very
    different landscape in front of them. Every writer worth his/her salt knows
    that gaining readers is key to success, no matter whether the books are print
    or e-books. Having worked with a very small publisher for my first two books, I
    know I’ve learned so much I wouldn’t have on my own. I also know distribution
    and discoverability are huge issues writers deal with. You’ve already crossed
    that threshold, which is a huge bonus for you. As someone with a background in
    commissioned sales, I also find myself attracted to the idea of indie
    publishing. However, I continue to struggle with the idea that I would like to gain the exposure and experience of working with a larger publishing house and possibly agent, as you did, before launching out on myown as a self or hybrid writer. I’m also enough of a business person to know that both sides must continually come to the table with more than promises. Contracts have to be fair and equitable to all parties, otherwise they are bound to fail. Make no mistake, I’m glad you and other writers like Jane are speaking out about your writing and publishing journey. You give many of us a beacon of light to follow. The fact that, for the first time in
    publishing history, writers have so many more options available to them is exciting.
    You are forging new paths, and that’s exciting. You are leading by example. I
    don’t know what the continued future of my publishing path will look like, but what
    I do know is that, if I have to, I will self-publish this next book. Writing
    isn’t the question, how to publish is. Thanks Claire and Jane.

    • All good points, Debbie. And I feel lucky to have started my career before things got rocky. And as I said in a comment above, I think there are definitely benefits, especially distribution, to working with a larger house. And you’re so right—it is all about building a readership, though I think there are many ways to do that, and in some ways it’s much easier in the days of social networking than it was when I started out in 2000, back in the dinosaur days.

  4. Great post. It’s always instructive to hear about as many stories and paths as possible. While I’ve never worked with an agent, and only published one book with a small traditional publisher (several years ago), I find the stories from trad, indie and hybrid authors informative for the journey.

  5. I take the vehemence with which some top authors oppose Amazon more a sign that their royalty statements aren’t as rosy as they once were. Five years ago a #1 NY Times bestselling author asked me if she had to worry about this ‘digital thing’. Since then several have asked, but the reality is many are highly paid indentured servants locked into contracts with their backlist held hostage.

    It takes guts to break free and start over, but I predict more and more will follow this path. The bottom line is that the author isn’t valued very much in traditional publishing as this blog post shows. They’re commodities. But now the commodities can walk away.

    • When the system worked, and if you were lucky enough to break in, it was a great ride! But I think it’s important to realize when it’s not working for you anymore, and that’s when it’s time to step away, and be grateful that we have other options.

  6. This is a really great post – thanks for sharing Claire! I adore hearing tales of other peoples journeys – warts and all. I turned down a traditional publishing opportunity last summer and even though I consider that opportunity “closed” I still constantly second-guess this decision. Your experience helps me feel less panicky that I’ve made a terrible mistake :)

    When I was looking into it I reached out to a large number of published authors, some of them NYT/USA Bestsellers like yourself. Their stories and advice largely mirrors your own. Nobody was bitter or patently unhappy but there was generally a sense of discontent or maybe a lack of delight in their feedback. And if best-selling authors aren’t delighted in their experience, what chance does a small potato like me have?

    Anyway I wish you all the best in your new hybrid adventure!

    • That’s another reason I wrote Never Too Late. As writers, it’s easy to think that other writers have had these perfect journeys. So I thought it was important to look back and share my mistakes as well as the strategies that worked. As for second-guessing, I know how hard it is not to do that, but even if you made a mistake, and I’m not at all saying you did, that’s okay. Just move on—there are always new opportunities.

  7. I met Claire Cook at an Atlanta based writers conference a year ago. For me, she was the highlight of the conference and the reason I turned away from my scattered writing and focused on finishing my first novel.

    At the conference she told us how she wrote Must Love Dogs in her minivan at five in the morning while waiting for her kids to finish their swimming lessons (I may have take creative license with some of that.) Anyway, so I started waking up at five in the morning so I could finally finish my novel. I remember being amazed at how someone who’d already “made it” was still hustling the way Claire was. Congratulations, Claire. I can’t wait to grab Never Too Late. And thanks, Jane, for sharing things that encourage and motivate beginning writers like myself.

    • Thank you, Grace! So nice of you to say, and I remember meeting you. I’m so glad my advice was helpful. And that you think I can still hustle!
      Thanks so much for reading Never Too Late—hope you find some inspiration in it!
      And I agree—Jane Friedman is such a gift to writers everywhere.

  8. Go, Claire! It’s inspiring for the mid-list author who’s getting jettisoned into the backwash. But it’s not quite a “gee whiz, any author can do it too” story. Claire had already built a solid name and readership through traditional publishing and a Hollywood movie. She launched into self-publishing from a solid base. Good for her! But new authors take note: unless you have a built-in market and know how to reach it, trad publishing remains the place to start.

    • Thanks, Mary! I agree, traditional publishing has much to offer in the beginning. But if that’s not a choice that’s open to you, and you’ve got a good book and an entrepreneurial spirit, then I think we’re really lucky to live in a time where we don’t have to get past the gatekeepers to go for it!

    • I wasn’t able to connect with trad publishing back in 2009 when my first books were ready, so I went it alone. I now have 15 novels out and a solid base of readers. I did it day by day, answering email and chatting on Facebook with readers and traveling to meet them whenever I could, and I love it. Trad publishing remains “a” place to start, but it is not the only place. Self-publishing isn’t easy, no question about that, but I don’t ever want to have a trad deal at this point. I love what I’m doing and how I’m doing it, and being turned down by agents is the best thing that could ever have happened to me.

  9. Read this through tears. Thanks for an informative, honest, classy post. Can’t wait to get my hands on Never Too Late.

    • Oh, Lisa, your post just made my eyes tear up! As a novelist, I’m used to hiding behind my characters, so being out there with my story was a big leap, but writers like you are absolutely why I did it. Hang in there. I wish you huge joy and success. And thanks for reading Never Too Late—I really appreciate that.

  10. Claire, Thank you for sharing your inspiring story. I wandered through a very similar labyrinth myself– multiple agents, multiple editors, and despite my several books with excellent reviews, etc, etc, that awful realization that the system itself just isn’t working anymore. It isn’t that the carrot of traditional literary “success” isn’t moving, still and always just a little bit ahead… it’s that the carrot got yanked away, and stomped on.

    To use another metaphor: After more than 20 years in this business, four agents, and publishers as varied as University of Georgia Press and Random House-Mondadori, I feel I am looking onto a landscape I do not recognize. But I am game for the hike into adventure!

    So for my latest book, Metaphysical Odyssey into the Mexican Revolution: Francisco I. Madero and His Secret Book, Spiritist Manual– definitely niche in the US market– I didn’t even bother with agents and all that; I went ahead and did it myself. My answer to the standard question: no, I haven’t bought my yacht, yet. But it certainly is satisfying– yet another metaphor– to have the ball in MY court, to not feel that agony of uncertainty– what are they doing for my book (if anything at all)? Best of all, I don’t have to worry about whether or not people can buy the book. It’s on amazon, 24/7, round the world. (And shortly, also on Ingram).

    One of the biggest hurdles for beginning writers is that they so strongly desire some sort of affirmation– and getting an agent and a publisher does that for them. It is true that an agent and a publisher can often do far more for an author and her book than the author can do on her own, but not always, and less often now than in the past.

    But it’s not an either/or situation, as you say. Sometimes it might work to go with an agent or publisher, sometimes not. Interestingly, people used to talk about writers as if they were horses, in certain publishing houses “stables.” Glad those days are past.

    • Biographer Ken Ackerman has an interesting story along these same lines. He had published several very well-regarded biographies with major publishers and ended up, in his disappointment with their inability to properly manage their backlists, buying them back and republishing them himself. I think he did a magnificent job. You can see what they look at his website http://www.kennethackerman.com

    • I think it’s always been a pretty elusive carrot, C.M. Even when you grab it for a quick bite, success is fleeting. And I think other writers’ lives tend to look more successful than ours feel! That being said, I think it’s important to look at the reality of what’s happening today and take control of our own careers when and if we need to. And it sounds like you’re doing just that—good for you!

  11. may i ask how you market your books? it’s easy to find cover and editing on the internet, but i always thought the value of a publisher was in marketing your book to potential readers

    • That’s the million dollar question. Even the publishers aren’t sure what works anymore. It used to be that getting reviewed in the right newspapers and magazines could break out a book, but now most of them have gone under or at least the book sections have. It used to be that being sent on book tour worked. But now not as many people go to bookstore events because they’re all on Facebook. What has worked for me is connecting with my readers, letting them know how much I appreciate them, and keeping an email list. Also being accessible via my website and on social networking. A publisher can’t do that for you.

  12. Claire, I left my BIG NAME agent at BIG NAME AGENCY for similar reasons. I indie published my last book and was very happy with the experience. I’m not making a lot of money but there are SO man positives. Good luck on your journey — I think you’ll be very happy, too. (And I appreciate your honesty.)

    • Thanks, Judy! I’m glad things are going well for you. The money will get better the more books you have out there. Never Too Late is my second new release, but I have five backlist books, too, which makes a huge difference.

  13. My first novel was traditionally published this year by a small publishing house without much author support. I’m basically The Marketing Machine. Is it practical to be traditionally published without support for marketing, getting my book into stores, or pushing it before the public eye? You have the benefit of being known and already having a readership. I am new and unknown. What is best at this stage of the game? Your article is enlightening. You’ve given me lots to think about.

    • I don’t mean to be discouraging, Melinda, but it’s very much becoming the norm. Often the author is now expected to bring both platform and following to the table. So I tell authors to pretend they’re on their own, and if their publisher jumps in with anything good then it will be a pleasant surprise. Yes, having a readership is absolutely a benefit, but you don’t have to do it all at once. My first novel was with a tiny house, and I started by reaching out to my daughter’s huge swim team parents, because that’s all I had. Fourteen years later, most of those parents, and lots of the kids, are still on my mailing list. Just think reader by reader and do what you can do. And start watching other authors learn from them.

      • Great advice, Claire! Thank you. I’ll keep plugging along, forming my first small following, welcoming any help that unexpectedly comes my way. I’ve sold around 500 books in these first three months. Writing and publishing are NOT for the faint-hearted!

      • I have to agree with Claire. I’ve been down that same road–I recently went indie after 28 years of being traditionally published–and have seen a gradual erosion of publisher support for all but the uppermost-tier authors. It’s basically DIY unless you happen to get a smart, savvy person or two at the publisher end who goes the extra mile.

  14. Your post came at the perfect time for me. I lost my literary agent back in the fall before we submitted my publication. I’ve been debating the traditional-indie route and your story helped give me more much peace to DO-IT-MYSELF. Thank you!

    • I’m sorry that happened to you, Marcy, and I’m glad my story was helpful. If you do decide to go it alone, make you’re you find a support group. Their are a couple of good self-publishing loops on yahoo. Just google around for them.

      • Thanks so much for responding, Claire. I appreciate your encouragement and will definitely check out the Yahoo loops for more wisdom if that’s the path I choose. Thanks.

  15. Great post. Thank you. Favorite line: I tell this story not to point fingers or to badmouth anyone, but in the
    spirit of those indie authors who have so generously shared information
    to help others coming up behind them on the road.

    • Thank you, Nancy. I am so grateful to those indie authors, and I really felt that it would be wrong to learn as much as I have from them, and not pass along the pieces of the puzzle that I have that might help someone else in my book. That being said, it was really hard to do. I had many wonderful years in traditional publishing and my agent was my rock for so long. I don’t blame individual people in this—it’s bumpy all around.

  16. Claire Cook is one gutsy writer! If one thing rings clear here, it is the love of writing which sustained her. I find that inspirational and god knows, writers need inspiration in this crazy, changing world. Kudos, Claire, and thanks to Jane for sharing her story.

    • Michele! Thank you—it takes a gutsy writer to know a gutsy writer! Yes, if you don’t love writing, I’d say it’s a helluva good time to get out! And yes, I’m so grateful to Jane for giving me this opportunity.

  17. Pingback: Why I Left My Mighty Agency and New York Publis...

  18. Thanks to Jane and Claire for sharing her story. It’s a great time to be an author. I just hit publish on my tenth book last night. Going directly to your readers is work, but very rewarding. I shared this post over at the Writers’ Cafe at kboards dot com. Quite a few of us self publishers hang out there, for our coffee or chocolate breaks.

    • I agree, Lisa, and congrats on your tenth book! Thank you for sharing this on Writers’ Cafe. I lurk over there once in a while. I’ll look for you next time!

  19. I’m glad she has been reading – and impacted personally by the many inspiring stories, blogs, and collaborative sharing of the indie authors . . . authors (as well as self publishers) who are the true pioneers in the new publishing dynamic.

    • I so agree, Susan! Indie authors are changing the publishing world, and I’m so grateful to learn from them every day.

    • Thanks, Yona. I give more detail in the book, but it took me about a year and a half to make the jump. I spent lots of time researching and testing things out. The info is all out there, but there is definitely a learning curve. I’m really proud of what I’ve learned though, and I love the creative control. And it’s totally empowering!

  20. Hi Claire, we met at the Missouri Writers Conference a couple of years
    ago when we were speaking there. I admired your pluck then and I
    still admire it. I turned in my last traditionally published book in
    2011 under similar circumstances as you mentioned — publisher leaving,
    editors leaving, revolving door publicists, and much lower advance.
    Since then publishing has only increasingly pulled income away from
    authors in order to insure their survival. I said no to my
    publisher’s suggestion that I write another book under similar
    circumstances. On a book-to-book contract with my agent and publisher, I
    have not abandoned traditional publishing, but I do believe that
    traditional publishing has abandoned the reasonable treatment of
    authors…at least for the time being. Will it change? Can it change? I
    believe that the more writers empower ourselves and build ownership in
    our own careers, the more we help to create a more equitable future for
    all writers, whether we choose to become traditionally published again
    or not. I work steadily to support my own creative work and the creative
    careers of those nonfiction writers who work with me, and I have never been happier or more secure in my career.
    And if an author like you is willing to take this stand and share her
    story in this way, then it seems to me like authors have come a long
    way in taking care of our own fates, instead of waiting for someone else
    to do the job for us. Bravo, Claire. And thanks so much for sharing

    • Christina! Of course I remember meeting you at the Missouri Writers Conference, and I admire the way you’ve taken control of your own career. The world is changing, that’s for sure, but there are also so many exciting opportunities, and if we continue to stay open to them and work hard, I think we’re all going to be just fine!

      • I could not agree more. And I’m thrilled about your new nonfiction book which I just purchased and joined for a free workbook. Can’t wait to dive into both! Go, you!

  21. Thank you for sharing your story, Claire, and congratulations on what you’ve achieved!

    I went the indie route for my first novel in my series last fall, and have definitely benefited from the advice of indie colleagues. (In turn, I’m doing my part to promote indie authors on my website.) it’s a vibrant, collaborative community, and I’m happy to report my book is doing well.

    Several months ago, I was approached by a publishing house who was interested in my series. I checked with several of their US and UK authors, who nearly all were very pleased with the publisher. And then an international bestselling author asked one question: “Why would you give up being indie?”

    And I realized that, as much as it delighted me that a prominent publisher would be interested in my work (yup, definitely fed my ego!) I was not willing to relinquish control of my career. I wished them success in their work and even suggested a few authors they might want to consider, and went happily back to the business of being an indie author.

    And now I’m off to buy a Claire Cook book!

    • I’m glad things are going so well for you, Susan! And I think you hit the nail on the head. It’s nice to be wanted, and easy to get sucked in to all that. So it’s important to step back and think things through. Good for you for doing that. I also think it’s important to stay open to opportunities, so I plan to do that.
      And thank you for buying one of my books! There are excerpts of all of them at ClaireCook.com if you want to scroll through and see what jumps out at you.

      • Claire, considering what I write, I think your Must Love Dogs is the right one for me! (Interesting price point you picked, by the way. Maybe that’s a topic for another post…I know it’s always a conversation topic among indies!)

        • Thank you and I hope you enjoy it, Susan! As for price point, I’m not sure I’m qualified to write a post on that. I’m still watching and learning and experimenting. Now that I’ve begun turning Must Love Dogs into a series, I know the conventional indie wisdom is to make the first book of the series free or 99 cents. But Must Love Dogs is, in a way, my cornerstone book and I think the value is there and 4.99 felt right. When I released Book 2, Must Love Dogs: New Leash on Life, I offered it to my awesome readers for a limited time at .99 and right now it’s at 2.99. When I release Book 3, I’ll try some things and see what feels right. The wonderful thing is that if something isn’t working, we have the power to try something else!

  22. Am always impressed and inspired whenever I hear of an author taking the road less travelled –often the scariest road, too in this wild west that is the publishing industry today– good for you! Thank you for sharing your story. And congratulations on the success of your latest works.

    • Thanks, Christina. It is such a wild west! And yes, scary, but for me making a decision is always the hardest part. Once I start moving, I’m fine and I don’t look back!

  23. Your story is so inspiring. After writing and agent shopping for over a decade, I finally got an agent who I thought really “got” my writing. A few years later, it became apparent that we were on totally different pages (pun intended). Since then, I dissolved that relationship and self published the two novels. It’s been an awesome process! Figuring out how to connect with readers has been both exhausting and fun. But the best part is that people buy my books. It’s still kind of amazing to me that every day, people are reading my stories. There’s nothing better than that.

    Hearing your story somehow validates my journey even more. Cheers to getting your work out there – however you choose to do it!

    • Good for you, Suzanne! It sounds like you’re making really good choices. And even 12 books in, I feel exactly the same way. There’s nothing more exciting than having readers discover your books!

  24. What an inspiring post! Thank you so much for sharing your journey. It does sound life shattering (at times), but also quite empowering. I’ve established my own indie press for my upcoming children’s picture book. I wanted to control this project and learn about publishing independently. It certainly is daunting, but with each post I read (like yours!) and every person I share my stories synopsis with, I feel more and more confident and excited. Thank you again.

    • That learning curve is absolutely daunting, but it sounds like things are going well for you, Tilly, and I’m glad the excerpt was helpful.

  25. Great article Claire. Writing is an at and publishing is a business and an oft broken business and we must keep these two things separate so we don’t lose our ability to or desire to create art. Your line about another publisher breaking your heart, broke my heart. I know how you feel. There is so much change going on right now that its chaos in so many ways. I hope this all works out for you! Off to buy your newest!

    • M.J.! You’ve done so much to help other writers, so your comment means a lot, and I’m touched and thankful for your book-buying support. You are so right about separating the business from the art, and yet, I think the sensitivity that makes us writers means it’s often easier said than done. It all feels so personal and matters more than it should. So, for me, taking control of my career has made all that go away and I’m really optimistic moving forward.

  26. Thank you, Claire. As a new author, it’s important to see how the industry has treated more established, successful authors, especially with the entire industry in flux. I appreciate your insight.

    • Thanks, Sandra. The advice I would give you is to realize that, even as a new author, you have power. Treat your readers well. Learn as much as you can from authors who are out ahead of you. And don’t panic. There are lots of challenges out there right now, but also lots of opportunity.

  27. Great post, Claire. You may not remember me–we were on staff together a few months back at a small conference in Blue Ridge. GA. If you ever want a small-potatoes, no-name agent, give me a buzz. :) I have in my agency agreement that if my clients self-publish, or even get contracts with small publishers, I take nothing. The only thing they have to do is clear things with me so their release dates don’t cause them to breach contract with publishing contracts I’ve negotiated.

    To the person who said agents need to be paid, yes, they do. They need to be paid for selling authors’ works to publishers. That said, if any of my clients expected me to offer editorial advice on books they were going to self-publish, I’d promptly send them a bill for freelance editing services. It IS a changing climate and we can’t be expected to put in editing time on books the client isn’t going to let us sell to publishers.

    • Thanks, Sally. Of course I remember you, and I loved Blue Ridge Writers Conference! Thanks for your kind offer, and it sounds like you’ve worked out a great way to deal with all the changes by offering freelance editing services to your self-publishing clients.

  28. Thank you so much, Claire, for sharing your story, and to Jane for publishing this post. It’s so inspiring! I, too, am a hybrid author — and I’ve only published one novel so far! My debut is published traditionally in Canada, and will be published traditionally in a few foreign countries, however, I am partner published by She Writes Press in the U.S. (although the U.S. audiobook will be published by Blackstone in November). I am fortunate enough to have an agent (April Eberhardt) who is truly an author advocate and who wholeheartedly supported my decision to indie publish. She has helped me navigate this new landscape of publishing, and has opened doors that would have otherwise been closed to me as a new author. For example, in two weeks, we’ll both be speaking at the Writer’s Digest Conference in New York about hybrid publishing and all the different indie versions of publishing now available for authors.

    I have loved my traditional publishing experience with Harper Collins Canada. The developmental and copyediting support they offered, and continue to give on my second novel, is stellar. The cover design and interior are gorgeous. Plus, I like the people. I’m very happy to be working with them.

    However, by indie publishing in the U.S., like you said, I enjoy more control (and more upfront costs), but will reap a higher percentage of the profits.

    We new authors truly benefit from the wisdom of your experiences. Thank you for sharing them in such an honest, thoughtful way!

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  30. Love this! Bravo! As someone who has been involved in book marketing and author platform building for 13+ years, I applaud any author who takes the initiative to do what you have done. It’s not easy but it’s not fair the way the industry has changed. Drives me nuts every day to see the lack of resources publishers are putting to books and when they do put resources ($) to it, they usually do it in ways that are a complete waste. Your line above nailed it:

    “I think they tried hard with the first book, but the things that used to
    work for traditional publishers trying to break out a book weren’t
    working so well anymore.”

    Old strategies don’t work. Publishers need to reinvent, and many agents do to. Everything is changing and it’s time to build a new mouse trap. ; )

    • Thank you, Daniel. I agree that the old strategies aren’t working anymore and that publishers need to reinvent, but I personally haven’t seen many signs of it happening. I remember feeling the same thing about the music and newspaper industries. By the time they saw the need to change, it was too late. I hope that’s not what happens to the publishing industry.

  31. Like many of you, I read this post and my first reaction was knee-buckling despair. “If this can happen to someone as wonderful as Claire Cook, what hope is there for other writers–established and aspiring?” I have spent the past four years working with authors, some of them NYT bestsellers, who needed additional marketing and PR support because traditional publishing houses offer fewer and fewer resources and small presses often provide no in-house support. Claire’s story is 100% true and representative of so many others’ stories. But here’s the big message that I take away from Claire’s account: do the work. There are more opportunities than ever before available to writers as long as you are willing to educate yourself and approach your writing as your business; your book is not your baby or your pet or your hobby. As Claire has mentioned in the comments here, for writers who have never been published, I think it’s still worthwhile to pursue the “traditional” route of querying agents and looking for a publisher that will help you establish name recognition and editorial credibility. But even then, you have to do the work. Claire has been doing the work throughout her career, with all its twists and turns, establishing authentic connections with her readers and staying true to her storytelling and brand of reinvention. So I leave this post with renewed optimism about the possibilities that are available to those who follow in her footsteps and do the work. Thanks, Jane and Claire for sharing.

    • Thank you for your kind words, Alison, and I know lucky the authors you work with are to have your support. Doing the work is a big part of why I wrote this book. All too often an author doesn’t learn those essential skills, and it’s really jolting when you catch on to the fact that the publishing resources you’d imagined aren’t working, or simply aren’t happening. I’m glad you feel optimistic moving forward—that’s how I feel, too!

  32. Thanks for this post, Claire! As a reader, I don’t care who publishes my favorite authors’ books (don’t even bother to look in many cases). And if self publishing lets my favorite authors publish more books than a traditional publisher can get out, so much the better for me! As an author, I’ve self published two books and have another on submission by my agent (at super big name agency). But while that submission process works it way through, I’m finishing up another book that I plan to self publish this fall. I don’t see any reason to wait on traditional publishing. If I do end up with a traditional book contract, that book will only be helped by my already having readers.

    • So smart of you, Julia! And I totally agree that it just doesn’t matter for readers, especially if they already know your books. And I love being able to offer my books to my readers at lower prices, so that’s an advantage, too.

  33. This feels heartbreaking, that you worked hard and proved yourself, and still got no support because the world was shifting under everyone’s feet.

    “One day right around this time it hit me: I simply can’t do this again. I cannot let another publisher break my heart.”

    I haven’t even gotten to the publisher level yet–but I’ve had four agents, all of whom dropped out at various publishing milestones like the closing of Borders bookstore. My fourth agent is now reading the second book I’ve sent her–because publishers wanted “a thriller right now” from a debut author, not historical fiction. I’m wringing my hands and pulling out my hair. So you have my sympathies and understanding.

    • I had a great run for a lot of years, Savvy, so I’m grateful for that and I have no regrets at all. The important thing is to stay open and flexible and make the best choice you have at the time.
      I’m sorry you’re having such a bumpy ride. My advice would be to do as much connecting as you can while you’re waiting and learn everything you can possibly learn. And hang onto that first book—you’ll put it to good use one day!

      • Thanks! I’ve been doing all that. I’m lucky to be a managing editor of a small literary magazine, and I’ve gotten to interview a few of the greats, which has been enlightening! I’m so glad you’re finding your niche in the new world of publishing.

      • I’m doing all of that. I’m lucky enough to be the managing editor of a small lit mag, and I’ve been able to interview some of the greats, which is always enlightening. Some of my friends have taken the traditional route, others self-pubbed. I’m glad you’re finding your way through the modern maze!

  34. Thank you, Claire! A number of years ago, I read an article about how you wrote MUST LOVE DOGS in your minivan–I think it was in the Boston Globe–and as a mother of two babies at the time, found it so inspiring. Back then, I was just starting to write seriously again after taking a long post-college break.

    Anyway, I wrote two novels and self published one in the spring of 2013. It got good reviews–both editorial and from customers–but I found the marketing exhausting and confusing. Then, I was fortunate enough to meet literary agent April Eberhardt at the Grub Street conference in Boston. April is a generous and exceptional agent who understands the evolving market much better than most, and after reading my unpublished novel–titled LEAVING THE BEACH–she became my agent and submitted the manuscript to Booktrope, a partner publisher in Seattle. Booktrope accepted the manuscript, and published it recently.

    Here’s a link to an interview April did on my blog just last week. http://maryrowen.com/2014/07/14/publishing-advice-from-literary-agent-extraordinaire-april-eberhardt/

    I can’t tell you how happy I am working with April and Booktrope. Both are embracing new ideas and new ways of publishing that can be significantly more beneficial to authors–both financially and emotionally–than traditional or straight self-publishing models.

    Best of luck as you continue on your journey! I look forward to reading NEVER TOO LATE!

    • My minivan story got a lot of play! I’m glad it was inspiring to you, Mary.
      I’m also glad you found a wonderful agent and things are going well for you. That’s so great, and I wish you all the best on your journey, too. And thanks so much for reading Never Too Late!

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    • It felt great to write the whole book, Rachel! It was time to tell the truth and share what I know that might help others in their own journeys!

  36. Good for you Claire,
    Each time I hear a “traditional publishing” horror story it saddens me. As a hybrid as well I think there is room for both, and as you said, when traditional publishing works it can be a great thing. I’m just glad that self has become so viable that there truly is an alternative.

    As an aside, I help some authors with agency contracts, reviewing them before they sign, and I see more and more terms that essentially do give them a % of self-published income…which of course I indicate have to be revised before signing. A prolific writer can put out enough to keep their agent paid WHEN they place a work, but for those things we go it alone…keep your hands off!

    • I agree, Michael. We’re lucky to have so many choice available to us now.
      As for agents, if there isn’t a sale, it just doesn’t make sense to me to let that work be commissioned. I think there are lots of ways to work it out, and I think sub right sales like foreign and film and audio are compensation for the agency, even though they’re split commissions. And I would certainly have been open to an editing fee, though at that point I’d have to wonder if it would make more sense to hire an editor instead. It will be interesting to see how this all shakes out!

  37. Claire, thanks for this. I love reading posts such as this one. Not, of course, for the distress that some traditionally published authors have been put through by their publishers–no, that makes me so angry–but because there are now options for authors, and these stories don’t have to end here. And because, selfishly, these stories validate my choice to go in a different publication direction myself. I am lucky to have an agent, April Eberhardt, who embraces the changes that are taking place now, calling herself a “literary change agent,” and a publisher, She Writes Press, that has merged the best of traditional publishing with the best of indie publishing to provide a professional, transparent and fair experience. I am also grateful for the community of writers whose support is genuine and generous. It’s a new experience for sure, one with a high learning curve, but so far for my debut novel Faint Promise of Rain, it has been positive on all fronts. Good luck to you, and may the glass always be at least half full.

    • I’m glad things are going so well for you, Anjali! And April certainly has happy authors—so nice to hear!

  38. Thank you Jane and Claire! Claire your flexibility and adaptability is amazing! I think those two qualities are so necessary for all writers these days and your story is both astounding and eye-opening!

    • Thanks, P.J.! I agree with you about flexibility and adaptability being more and more important. And knowledge is power!

  39. I’m glad you posted this. I’m very curious to see how this will apply to future authors, especially in light of the almost constant need for online and social reinvention that takes place in our digital world. I’m glad you weren’t afraid to take the reigns on your career. But, I suspect it will happen a few more times as the players change roles?

    • Thanks, Heather. I was definitely afraid, but I did it anyway. And I think there will be lots more changes ahead for all of us. Which is why I wrote a book about reinvention—I’m fascinated by it and love sharing what I’ve learned.

  40. Great post! This is the most comprehensive backstory of a traditional author going indie and the reasons behind it I’ve ever read. Thank you for sharing!

    • Thanks so much for swaying that! I didn’t really plan it, but as I wrote the book, I realized I had to tell this part, too. Scary!

  41. OMG. I have chills. This is the story of my life, almost exactly. Claire and I even shared the same publisher (Penguin) at one point, as I recall. I, too, am a hybrid author (which makes me sound either like a genetically-altered plant or an energy-efficient car) launching my own indie series, after similarly disappointing experience with traditional publishing. I’ve never worked harder in my life, but it’s wonderful having control after so many years of having a total lack of control over my career.

    • We had the pleasure of meeting at the Atlanta Writer’s Conference. Great job both on the article and on your chosen path. It’s a jungle out there, but you seem to be negotiating it beautifully. The upset in publishing has created many more opportunities for writers…I think it’s the new golden age:) I think the traditional publishing houses are completely oblivious that they have created this great tornado. Instead of becoming MORE transparent to prove their relevancy, they seem to be getting more opaque and even less desirable. I mean, who is OZ really? Who is that guy behind the curtain pulling the levers that determine who is worthy? Turns out, maybe we don’t need him after all:) Just courage, heart and a brain:) Loved the post!

      • What a great conference that was! I agree, there are so many great opportunities out there now, especially if you’re nimble and like change. I’m learning so much and I love that. I had many wonderful years in traditional publishing, and I think for many writers it’s still a good choice. But when something’s not working, you can either whine about it or step away, and I’m glad I chose the latter. Thanks so much for your kind words. The post is an excerpt from my first nonfiction book—after 11 novels!

    • I think there are lots of us out there, Eileen, but when you’re in it, it can feel like you’re the only one. One of the joys of writing this book is that I no longer feel so alone, and I really hope other writers/reinventors start to feel that way, too. So great that you’re a hybrid, too—and yes, we might need a new word! The creative control is great, isn’t it!

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  43. Claire, I’m so grateful you wrote this article and the new book. I went the way of a vanity press and won’t bore you with the details. Needless to say, between sound advice from a couple of writer friends and your article, I’m looking into making a change. I love your books and wish you much success!

    • Thank you so much, Marilyn. You’re smart to do your research and make the decision that’s right for you. The great thing is that we have more choices than ever before. Good luck!

  44. I appreciate your writing your experience. It helps to hear all stories positive and negative, Claire.

    I just have to say, that when reading this I read in paragraph 18 “My DOG not only read but also gave me helpful editorial advice…” – which I thought quite creative and unique. Heehee

  45. Inspired and motivated. Thanks Claire for sharing your journey and experience!! I’m learning to trust my instinct and you confirmed that I am moving in the right direction with my writing career.

    • Thanks, Minolta. When I started out, I used to think everybody else had the magic answer for me. It’s taken me years to realize how much I know about who I am and where I want to go. So follow that instinct!

  46. I haven’t read the comments, so I’m sure this will be just an echo of the many, many people commenting below, but this happened to me. (Not the book tours. That would have been fabulous.) But the revolving door, the maternity leave/assistant out-to-lunch, the marketing that is so out of step it’s funny. Then I left my agent, went to self publishing and realized that being paid every month is a whole new kind of wonderful. I’ve recently signed another traditional book deal, but I see the negatives in the bright light of hybrid authorship. Last week I had to contact my asst editor and remind them to send me a check for a portion of the contract I fulfilled. Of course, there were apologies all ’round… but I’ve never had to remind Amazon to deposit my funds in my bank account. And that pretty much says it all.

    • I’m sorry those things happened to you, Virginia. I was very lucky to have such a nice ride in traditional publishing for so long, and I’m grateful for that. What I love now is the creative control, and yes, those monthly checks are awesome!

  47. One huge problem with New York is that their formulas have narrowed so much, entire categories of works are now being declined, regardless of their individual merits.
    An even worse situation is when N.Y. proposes changes to manuscripts that remove the distinguishing elements that made them special enough to get to N.Y. in the first place.
    Potential #1 best-sellers have always slipped through New York’s fingers, but we now live in a world where those same rejected books can become #1 on Amazon.
    So, if you, the author, found yourself in a situation where N.Y. wanted to make major changes to your story to fit their formulas, why would you bother taking the risk? Especially when the content of a chart-topper like Fifty Shades of Grey is the polar opposite of N.Y.’s “success” formulas. All N.Y. could do in that case was to cash in on what was already successful, in spite of its non-adherence to N.Y. formulas.
    Some agents and agencies have adjusted well to this new era, but YOUR tale proves not all agencies “have a clue.” 15% for nothing in return? NO WAY! In my case, assistance with sales of film rights would be the last remaining ‘carrot’ an agency could offer me (and many other agent-less authors who are traditionally published), so I am frankly shocked they dropped the ball on that one.
    Thank you for a great post, Claire, and I think you will find your new path most satisfying!

  48. It is very difficult for writers in the current book publishing downsizing environment. Since my memoir with Algonquin back in 2003, I’ve been depending on indie presses to put out my short story collections––seven to date. This genre is little admired by publishers in the first place, and if one writes speculative fiction as I mostly do, it’s even harder. I’m currently prospecting for another indie to put out my newest collection. The idea of self-publishing is not appealing to me, even though it is becoming an increasingly popular approach by established writers. It takes all my energy to write, so there’s little left to take on the production, editing, and marketing side of publishing. I do use social media extensively to assist my indie presses, and that is time-consuming enough. I have always admired your energy, Claire, and continue to do so. http://www.michaelckeith.com

  49. Thank you for sharing your experience with us! It’s so radical how the publishing industry has changed in just a few short years!
    Your post also made me wonder if I self-publish my novels, will I need to create my own publishing company?

  50. My heart’s racing. Two agents at the Midwest Writers Conference (Ball State U., IN) okayed my sending “chapters and synopsis” to their N.Y. offices. I researched both their agencies, preferred genres etc., and only my direct interaction with the individuals leads me to submit material to them. And it’s my first go-ahead nod, and serious attempt to publish–feels better than throwing my work into Amazon ozone. So this is scary, Claire, and welcomed. Bless you. And amazing Jane (also at same conference, yay!) continues to enrich the world, deep thanks to you both.

  51. Thanks for this. I am going to link to it in a blog post. Best wishes. Looking forward to hearing or reading about your next chapter in the publishing saga.

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  54. Great story. I can’t wait to read the follow up to this in six months or a year where she’s deliriously happy and wealthy and wondering why she didn’t do this years ago.

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  59. Thank you for sharing your experience. Stories like this reaffirm that I chose the right way to publish my books.

  60. This is the sort of article that warms my heart.

    I’ve written and self-published seven novels and one non-fiction over the last four years. I’ve never considered going the traditional route because of stories like yours.

    The community of Indie authors is amazing. (Especially the G+ Writer’s Discussion Group). It has a team feeling where we all share what works and what doesn’t.

    It isn’t an easy road (for those without a fan base), though, and one must accept that it takes years to become an overnight success, but it does get easier with each month that passes.

    I’ve just reached the point where I make more from monthly book sales than at my job. A year ago I cut back to two-days per week and I imagine I’ll be down to zero in the next six months. My first novel is currently being translated into Spanish and an audio version is being recorded by Michael C. Gynne.

    Everything that is important can be figured out by the Indie author. It just takes tenacity, patience, and time.

    Thanks so much for sharing your story. I hope you love the Indie world as much as I do.

  61. Blogging about the then unheard of ‘hybrid author’ back in June 2011 it’s great to see so many people taking charge of their careers and moving forward. The tale you tell is pretty much what many experienced with traditional publishing. All the best moving forward!

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