Back Story: Less Agent, More Agency


Timothy A. Pychyl photographed by Beth Rohr.

When I first began writing Solving the Procrastination Puzzle: A Concise Guide to Strategies for Change, I received an intriguing and flattering call from a literary agent. I was excited. Someone was interested in my writing. Not just someone: This was a major agency. Real writers have literary agents, right? I was going to be a real writer.

As I began to discuss my book ideas with one of the vice presidents of the firm, I learned a number of things from their perspective. Publishers don’t speak to authors. Ever. Authors need agents. Agents know how to position the book. I also learned that market forces would begin to affect my writing immediately. I would be writing counter to other current or forthcoming titles.

By the end of that phone call, my enthusiasm had faded. Neither the flattering attention nor their dire warnings of being neglected convinced me that this was the route I wanted to take. I didn’t want to be on anyone else’s writing schedule and writing for a particular niche in the market. I didn’t want someone else dictating my choices. I knew that I had to shape the writing through my own process, through my own personal sense of agency, so I made a commitment to publishing my book independently. I would do it my way.

Yikes, did I just write that? Ever since Frank Sinatra popularized the Paul Anka song “My Way,” I’ve been reluctant to say, “I did it my way.” However, that’s exactly what I have to say about my publishing experience.

Of course, publishing independently didn’t mean that I was working alone. I hired a good friend who works as a technical writer to be my editor. I hired another friend who is an artist to design a book cover. I was an author and manager of a project. I found it very engaging and rewarding.

A finished manuscript is not a book, however, particularly when you’re self-publishing. I needed a self-publishing company that would put together what I wanted for a fair price. Xlibris offered me these services at a competitive rate, and most importantly, they let me set my own price for the e-book version. This was something that took a fair amount of negotiation. I wanted to take the “app-pricing” approach to the e-book. In fact, I insisted on it before I would sign any agreement. We finally agreed on an e-book price of $2.99. They set the paperback price, which I accepted given the costs of printing.

The Xlibris team worked quickly with me, and I was impressed. Within 48 hours, we moved from a Word manuscript to a formatted book. This was made easier because I was well-prepared with carefully edited text, appropriately formatted illustrations and cover art all complete ahead of time.

Every self-publishing company that I know of also offers marketing services. These were not for me. Once again, I wanted to do it “my way.” In this case, that meant promoting the book through my already well-established blog and podcast. At the time of publishing my book, my blog had over 2 million views and my podcast nearly a million downloads. I also was doing regular media interviews throughout North America based on my research as a psychologist. Further marketing was not where I wanted to invest. In fact, I would argue that anyone who is considering self-publishing should first think carefully about who is already interested in reading what they write. 

It’s important to establish some credibility as a writer in other domains before a book project becomes your writing focus. Given the widespread use ofpychyl cover social media, this has never been easier, at least in terms of getting your writing “out there.” Of course, in a world that is based so much on the economics of attention, there is still the issue of getting people to notice your writing. For each writer, this will be a different process. I think the key question to ask yourself is, “Why would someone want to read what I’ve written?” When you come up with an answer to that question, you have some direction for where you might want to post your writing online.

For example, I began writing my blog at the request of the Psychology Today editors. They knew my research on procrastination, and they thought that their readers would like to read my thoughts about how we become our own worst enemies with needless delay. To my delight, they were right. Along the way, I also learned that I enjoyed writing more popular pieces in addition to the scholarly writing I do for scientific journals. A book project evolved from there.

I think the most important thing that I did as an author throughout this process was to keep my focus on the goal of writing the book, to get my perspective down in a book-length format, not to write a best-seller (which is what I felt the agent I spoke to was focused on, for obvious reasons). With my focus on meeting my goal of writing the book, I was happy with this achievement. The journey was as important as the destination. In addition, I didn’t lament slow sales or get overly excited about larger royalty payments. I did what I set out to do, and that was good.

This spring, when the vice president and publisher of Tarcher/Penguin contacted me expressing an interest in acquiring the rights to my book, I learned that the literary agent was wrong: Publishers do speak to authors. There is more than one way to publish a book.

To be honest, I don’t know what to expect now. That’s nothing new; I never have. I suppose that’s all part of what I wanted when I decided to do it “my way.” I’ve learned that my “way” isn’t just about maintaining my autonomy and agency as an author. It’s also about the direction of my journey. It’s been a journey from independent to interdependent, and I’m ready for that with Tarcher/Penguin. I’m also ready to invest my renewed sense of agency into a new writing project. I certainly won’t procrastinate.

Timothy A. Pychyl, Ph.D., is the author of Solving the Procrastination Puzzle: A Concise Guide to Strategies for Change and lives in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.


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