A Brief Thought on Self-Publishing

I get a lot of queries for self-published novels. Sometimes they get pitched to me at conferences. Once, someone handed me four self-published books at a pitch session and said, "I was thinking you could peddle them around to one of the big six and see if anyone is interested."

This made me very confused. Besides the obvious (that's not exactly how the author/agent relationship works...), there's a big problem with that statement.

I represent two fabulous authors who self published: Cora Carmack and Chelsea Fine. And I'm open to representing more. So that's not the problem.

The issue is that these books are already published.

There are a few important things for you to consider before you self publish.

Really think about your goals. What do you want from the experience? And then think about what you're going to do in order to make that happen. Be honest with how much effort you're going to put in to publicity and marketing and reaching your audience. Then think about what your next step is going to be if the book doesn't to well.

For every success story, there are a lot more stories we don't hear about--the ones where the book only sells about a hundred copies.

Because here's the truth: if you self publish a novel and it only sells a hundred or even a thousand copies, you can't then turn around and query me (or another agent) with it. Whenever a query for a self-published project, there are two questions on my mind:
1. What do you want from me?
2. How many copies have you sold on your own?

Addressing that first question, most people who query me will say that they want to sell more copies. That's what they want me to help them with. They want me to connect them to a traditional publisher who can do more marketing and publicity and ultimately help them get the book "out there" in a bigger way.

Guess what? A traditional publisher doesn't want to put their money behind a book that hasn't sold well. Which means, if you aren't selling a thousand copies a day, it's going to be hard to make that happen. They also don't want the sequel to your self published book that hasn't done well.

Writing is an art form, but publishing is a business. If you're going to do both, you have to take both aspects into consideration.

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Lucas Darr said...

Well said.

The internet is a double-edged sword. One would think it's obvious that self-publishing is publishing, but the obvious gets lost with poorly summarized data, misinformation, laziness and data overload.

I am talking a series of mine indie by forming my own imprint so I can have a degree of independence outside the Amazon ecosystem (don't get me wrong, love me some Amazon).

This was a business decision (and working well), but I would never ask someone else to sell my own book if I couldn't sell it myself! Especially someone whose job it is to sell her clients' books!

What bugs me is that we're all supposed to be in this together in a love books, reading and readers. Someone handing a lit agent her self-pub book strikes me as someone who isn't interested in any of those things, only themselves.

Which is the root, really, of this odd activity on behalf of self-publishers.

Unknown said...

I don't get these types of people. For a while I queried my novel, but stopped after a couple of months when I reevaluated my goals. The more horror stories I heard about bad book covers authors had no control over, low royalties, and having to do most of my own marketing anyway, the more sense it made to do it on my own.

When I decided to self-publish, I did it with the understanding I'd probably never go legacy after that. As it turned out, it was the best decision for me. I'm not up to a thousand sales a day yet since it's only been a few months and it's my first book, but I'm already making a decent income. Plus that money is already flowing in without having to wait years for a much smaller cut. My book cover is exactly what I wanted it to be (though it cost me a quite a bit) and I get all the royalties except the retailer cut.

The thing is, I did have to put a lot of money, time, and effort to achieve those results. Plus a little luck is involved. For those who can't handle that, they should never self-publish in the first place. It's tough when you go on your own but you can't take it back once you start. I don't blame agents for not wanting to handle authors who have low sales. It wouldn't make sense.

Lucas Darr said...

Susan, that's one awesome cover. Love the night sky background. LOVE.

Susan B James said...

Thank you for the post. I am slightly tempted for self publication for my adult novel because of the time factor. But I know I'd have to hire and editor and find a cover artist. That is a bit daunting especially when one ebook publisher has already expressed an interest in it.

Michael J. Sullivan said...

While I agree with your comments, in principle, I think the numbers stated (1,000 / day) - which probably was done for emphasis, and not to be taken literally needs to be addressed.

I've been at conferences where Arielle Eckstut and David Henry Sterry (Authors of The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published) and heard them quote 5,000 copies. Another agent (I think it was on PubRants) used the number 10,000 but really didn't provide much data for where that came from.

I can tell you from my own experience that I was selling 1,000 copies a month (across 4 titles - so 250/month each) when I was signed to a six-figure contract by one of the big-five.

Michael. J. Sullivan
The Riyria Revelations: Theft of Swords | Rise of Empire | Heir of Novron
The Riyria Chronicles: The Crown Tower (Aug 6, 2013) | The Rose and the Thorn (Sep 17, 2013)
Standalone Novels: Hollow World (Jan 20, 2014) | Antithesis (Release TBD), A Burden to the Earth (Release TBD)

Rebekkah Niles said...

Question: Should an author who plans to self publish the majority of her work mention in her initial query that those are her plans? For example, would you want a query to include a sentence similar to, "I plan to self publish this manuscript and all subsequent books in this series, with at least one future series through a traditional publisher to broaden my audience, and seek an agent who can help me establish this hybrid career"?

With so many authors turning to hybrid and self-publishing for the financial rewards, I don't know if it helps to be up front about such plans, or if agents prefer discussing how you should publish after the first call. Is that just wasting query space? Would it make the agent less likely to request a partial?

Unknown said...

@Michael--I would say that sales numbers are going to vary depending on the project and the genre, as well as the price point. In my experience, as the number of the self-published books and the number of them being sold to traditional publishers have risen, that 1000 copies a day has been very true. I'm not saying that number has to be consistent for months, but I've seen self published books with numbers similar to yours (or even higher) not go on to sell to a traditional house.

Rebekkah--Yes, you probably should if it's up for discussion. But if you're not open to discussion, you should also target agents who do that. Because honestly, that might be a turn off for me. My clients who self publish--we always discuss the options and what the certain plans would be. I expect them to value my opinions and listen to me, and that sort of closed off discussion wouldn't appeal to me.

FM said...

New post, please! :-)

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