We live in a wonderful world of publishing options. There are more routes available to finding successful publication than ever before. That includes traditional publishers, who hey still exist, or publishing the darn thing yourself.
But what if you self-publish first but still want the cachet that comes along with having a traditional publisher? What if you struck out with literary agents but hope your next book catches their eye?
In this post I’ll cover:
- Is there a self-publishing stigma?
- What agents look for in self-published authors
- What to do with your self-published series
- Your best approach for maximizing your chances
The self-publishing stigma
Let’s get this one straight out of the way: Does self-publishing kill your chances of finding a traditional publisher someday?
No. Not by a long shot.
The days of literary agents and publishers sneering at self-published authors is long gone. There are plenty of extremely successful authors who started through self-publishing, extremely successful authors who started traditionally and now self-publish, and extremely successful hybrid authors who do a mix of both.
There is not a self-publishing stigma.
HOWEVER. There is still a self-publishing skepticism.
As in, literary agents and publishers know that many books that are self-published landed there because they did not meet the threshold of quality and craft that lends itself to traditional publication. They will consider self-published authors, but you may have some convincing to do that your books are diamonds in the rough instead of, well, just rough.
What literary agents look for
So what do literary agents look for in an author who previously self-published?
It’s tough to generalize across all agents and book projects, because situations differ so much. But in my conversations with literary agents I keep hearing three main factors:
Agents don’t just want to see that you self-published a book and maybe sold some copies. They want to see if you self-published well.
Were you a great “Book CEO” and assembled a solid cover, interior design, and marketing plan? Did your book attract genuinely good reviews, were you able to gain some local media attention, and/or have you parlayed it into a strong social media presence?
An author who has demonstrated great taste, determination, and grit is the type of author a literary agent wants to work with.
The right level of sales
When considering taking on a previously self-published book, agents and publishers want to know that an author has untapped potential. Have they done great relative to being an unknown but haven’t “tapped out” their book’s potential?
Here’s an inexact and not-to-scale illustration demonstrating this concept. Your chances increase the more you sell, then there’s a bit of a “tapped out valley,” until you’ve sold so much that you’ve reached “phenomenon” level and your chances go up again:
Why does this exist?
Because publishers need to feel like they can legitimately do something to increase your sales. As you approach roughly maximizing your potential reach within your genre (which you can absolutely do while self-publishing), it may appear that you’ve done just about as well as you can and there’s not that much additional a traditional publisher can do for you.
That is, until you begin to catch fire outside the hardcore readers of your genre, a la Fifty Shades of Gray. How do you know you’ve reached “phenomenon” status? Well, by that point publishing people will probably be approaching you rather than the other way around.
(Also by that point you may well wonder why you need a traditional publisher entirely).
But even apart from this curve with an existing project, it helps to have…
A new project an agent can take to publishers
As agent Sarah LaPolla told me:
“If you already self-pubbed 100 books and you’re approaching an agent, be prepared to send them a project that’s all-new, never-been-published that they will be able to send to traditional publishers while helping you manage your previously self-published backlist.”
Starting fresh with a new project can be a helpful way of breaking out from self-publishing to traditional publishing.
And yes, that often doesn’t just mean a new project, it also means steering away from a self-published series. That’s because…
Self-publishers and series
Let’s just be clear off the bat: It’s ridiculously difficult to convince a publisher to take on a sequel to a self-published book.
There are lots of reasons for this, everything from publishers wanting to make as much of a splash launching a book as possible to the inevitable series sales drop-off effect: Every installment of a series tends to sell less incrementally less than the first book.
There are exceptions to this, but in general: If you really want to make the leap to a traditional publisher, it helps to be starting fresh with a new world.
Don’t get so caught up in one series that you stop believing you can create another.
How to maximize your chances of finding an agent
So… ready to start querying literary agents? Here’s how to maximize your success:
- Be clear in your query that you previously self-published and state your sales up front. (This should be in the 1,000s at least).
- Mention any media coverage you received or anything notable you were able to drum up.
- You don’t need to be overly detailed as you describe your previous books. That’s because you want to…
- Keep the query focused on your new project. You want to get an agent genuinely excited about your next project. Even if you’ve done very well self-publishing, you still have to make your next project sound as awesome as possible.
- Write a really good query letter.
There are so many different paths authors can take these days, and it can be difficult to decide whether to go traditional or self-publish.
But at the end of the day, if you self-publish first and still want to be traditionally published: self-publish well and write another good book.
Need help with your book? I’m available for manuscript edits, query critiques, and coaching!
For my best advice, check out my online classes, my guide to writing a novel and my guide to publishing a book.
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Art: Leaping Carp under the Cherry Tree by Iijima Koga
JOHN T. SHEA says
Interesting points, as always, Nathan! Large-scale offset printed books sold in physical stores remain a very big part of the market and still require traditional publishing. And an agent can sell other rights not easily self-managed.
Kathy Nickerson says
This is helpful. Thanks. I love how the publishing world is changing. Endless possibilities.
Theresa Lee says
“There are exceptions to this.” Could you elaborate more on the exceptions? For instance, what about a series in which each book is a standalone but a couple have already been self-published? Would agents be interested in the other standalone books that have never been published?