To writers who ask if I can interest traditional publishers in their self-published books

There’s no question that it takes talent, perseverance, self-confidence, and drive to be a successful author. The qualities are necessary for traditionally published and for self-published writers. As of mid-2010, however, the self-publishing industry hasn’t matured to the point where it provides most of its self-published authors even the very modest rate of profitability that major trade publishers currently enjoy. A relatively small number of independent authors are exceptional examples of entrepreneurship, while others count themselves lucky to sell 300 or 400 copies of their books.

As self-publishing platforms continue to evolve and improve, independent authors will surely benefit. Self-publishing services have already begun to offer add-ons like editing and design assistance, marketing and distribution packages, and help with publicity. If they can come up with a way to provide these extras at no cost to authors, I’ll be surprised. Self-publishing companies charge writers up front for the added services, which a reputable traditional publisher usually performs (though admittedly not to every author’s satisfaction) when it acquires publication rights. In effect, self-publishing simply shifts the financial risk from the publisher to the author. Some writers, having put years of unpaid work into their manuscripts, are comfortable assuming the additional risk in exchange for greater artistic control and a chance at increased profits. But not all writers understand exactly what they’re trading until they’ve been through the experience and can look back on the results.

Occasionally, I receive a query from a self-published author who, a year or two after bringing a book out, imagines that sales might be improved by turning the self-published title over to a traditional publisher. I understand the hopefulness and determination that inspires the question. At that point, the author has been able to examine the return on investment. With hindsight it’s possible to evaluate the success of various marketing strategies and, if desired, do a much better job of avoiding financial risks. However, once the results are in, if a self-published title has been selling slowly, there’s much less reason for a traditional publisher to speculate. A completely untested, unpublished manuscript appears to be a better investment.

I tell self-published authors who ask if I can find traditional publishers to acquire the rights to their novels that, unless they’ve sold 5,000 to 7,000 copies within the first year, a major publisher might not think prospects for future sales are sufficient to be of interest. To a publisher, investing in a title is a carefully calculated risk. Naturally, an existing sales record for a self-published book is an indicator of its potential in the market.

Enthusiastic critical notice and lots of media attention might, in some cases, offset abysmal sales figures. A traditional publisher could become intrigued if the topic of a self-published book suddenly becomes trendy while the supply of manuscripts on the subject remains scarce. Or the author might achieve instant celebrity by becoming involved in controversy, which I can’t recommend.

The most effective strategy for self-published authors whose book sales have been very modest is to write another book, get it published successfully, develop a wide readership, and let fans generate demand for a reissue of the older, self-published title. Moving on to a sophomore effort is the best way to continue to mature as a writer. The best time to become a self-published author is after being a consistently bestselling author, but that’s a topic for another post.

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In a previous post, I linked to novelists who were unusually candid about their sales figures and royalties. They have been generous in their efforts to demystify the publishing industry. Go thank them.

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5 Responses to “To writers who ask if I can interest traditional publishers in their self-published books”

  1. John Overman Says:

    As a hopeful novelist, I’ve thought about the pros and cons of self-publishing too. Since I find blogs like yours so helpful, I’m convinced that pursuing the traditional publishing route is best. The digital age is certainly changing the publishing landscape, but does that mean writers should overlook or dismiss the invaluable insights, support, business sense and contacts that literary agents offer? I have a friend who wants to self-publish now and win over an agent later. I’ll be sure to share your informative post with him.

  2. Robin Mizell Says:

    Well, self-publishing offers instant gratification for those who don’t have the patience for or interest in sorting out the traditional publishing process, which demands a certain relentless graciousness and an infinite willingness to collaborate. If your friend is already widely known as an expert on a topic of interest to readers right now, or if he’s a celebrity, self-publishing could work out well for him.

    Blogging is one form of self-publishing, and I think it’s been an ideal way to let prospective clients know more about me. I’m not knocking self-publishing for writers whose expectations of it are reasonable.

    Quite honestly, I expect self-publishing platforms to evolve rapidly. In the future, we might not distinguish between self-publishing and traditional publishing. In the future, we might only need to gauge the merit or popularity of individual books and authors. It’ll require a reliable system of filters, criticism, and recommendation engines that don’t yet exist. But they will.

  3. Tweets that mention To writers who ask if I can interest traditional publishers in their self-published books « -- Topsy.com Says:

    [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Christina Katz, Stephenie Hovland. Stephenie Hovland said: RT @thewritermama: To writers who ask if I can interest traditional publishers in their self-published book « http://shar.es/m4KyW [...]

  4. Robin Mizell Says:

    For a sense of how and why custom publishing or profit-sharing (also referred to as subsidy publishing) deals have worked well for certain authors, see Mike Shatzkin’s post on the subject at his Idea Logical blog.

  5. Robin Mizell Says:

    MORE ON THIS SUBJECT

    Agent Jessica Faust answers a reader’s question about self-publishing in “Launching Your Career Via Kindle, the Unpublished” and “Launching Your Career Via Kindle, the Published.”

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