We’re doing “Ask the Agent” for the entire month of April, so you have a chance to send in that question you’ve always wanted to discuss with a literary agent. The other day someone sent this: “What does it take for a book to transition from being self-published to being picked up by a traditional publisher? If an author wanted to make that transition, what would you recommend? Do I take down the manuscript and pitch as fully revised?”
Great questions (and there were a bunch of other questions asked by this author, which I’ll try to speak to in my answer). Let me try and cover some important ground with ten thoughts…
First, just to be clear, I am very supportive of indie publishing. We represent more than 100 authors, and all of them have heard me say that I think they need to at least consider self-publishing as a means of helping to make a living in a competitive and changing publishing environment.
Second, I don’t believe that indie publishing is second class citizenry, and that traditional publishing is necessarily the preferred means of making a living. I think authors need to look at all their options. (For the record, I also don’t believe in the myth that all you have to do is post your book on Amazon, and watch the Publishing Fairy show up and sprinkle you with golden coins. Both traditional and indie publishing can work — but both can also fail. Making a living writing is a lot of damn work.)
Third, if you’re successfully self-publishing, selling books and making money, you’d have to think long and hard before transitioning to a legacy publisher. The benefits they offer include giving you potential distribution in stores, more marketing muscle, and obviously taking on the production, warehousing, and order fulfillment of your books. But you’ll make less per book, and have less control over things like cover design. Traditional publishers also tend to be far less nimble than you doing it yourself. But, of course, there’s the rub…
Fourth, when you’re indie publishing you’re doing it all yourself. So it’s all on your shoulders, and you may not have the experience, knowledge, time, or money to run your own company. I always tell authors they have to treat their writing as a business. In essence you are setting up your own publishing company, with all the attendant issues to be faced.
Fifth, if you’re not successfully self-publishing (that is, if you’ve posted a book and it’s not selling), then you face a hurdle with publishers: You’ve done your own book, and demonstrated that you can’t help them sell many copies. That’s the danger of self-publishing a manuscript you want to take to traditional publishers. If it tanks, you’ve basically told the world “I can’t really sell this.”
Sixth, if you want to make the transition from indie-published to traditionally published, I think you need to show the publisher you have the ability to help them sell copies. Again, this can be complicated. If you’re selling a bunch of copies of your indie title, you have to ask if it’s worth giving that up to someone else; and if you’re not selling copies, you have to ask if the publisher is going to see it as worthwhile and valuable. So in approaching a publisher, you have to find that balance.
Seventh, for these reasons, it’s my opinion that you take down the self-published book you’re hoping to land with a traditional publisher, unless it is doing really well. Let the publisher feel they’ve got something fresh and strong.
Eighth, understand that it is really hard to “rescue” a failed indie published book by going with a legacy press. Sure, we all know about someone who did it — but that’s the exception, not the rule. Most of the titles that started as indie-published books but then sold a bunch with a traditional publisher (that list would include The Shack, Fifty Shades of Grey, Hunger Games, Divergent, etc) were doing well as indie-published titles.
Ninth, to find success you focus on building your platform, so that you can help yourself sell more copies no matter where your next book is published. To me, this is the key to succeeding in this area — build your readership, so you can tell a publisher, “I have this big platform to help us sell copies.”
And tenth, this person asked if I’m seeing this happen more and more in publishing. The fact is, I’m seeing a lot of authors try to move their indie-published titles to traditional publishers, but I’m not seeing it work very often. Frankly, I’m seeing much more success when an author brings a strong platform and a new book to a legacy press.
Let me know if that’s helpful. Happy to answer any questions you have of a literary agent — just drop your question into the “comments” section below.