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Moving Your Self-Published Books to Traditional Publishers

A Reader asks:

I’m curious how you feel about working with an author to publish a “selfie” as it were, in mainstream publishing.

This is just a small part of the email the reader sent, but to keep her anonymous I’ve left out the specific details concerning her book. What she is ultimately asking, is what are the possibilities of taking your self-published book and moving it to mainstream or traditional publishing.

The answer, as with everything, is that it depends. If a book has been published in any form at all publishers are going to want to know the numbers. They want to know if its sold enough to prove that it could benefit from wider distribution and still reach readers who want to buy it. It has to sell a lot, thousands and thousands and thousands.

Of course, sometimes its better if it hasn’t sold very many at all. Maybe it’s an absolutely amazing book, but the author hasn’t done anything to promote it and the publisher really believes in it, has a passion for it, and wants to find that audience for the author (this is less likely).

My best advice is that if you really want to go the route of traditional publishing, try that first. Query agents (and editors if possible) and get the book out there. Once you self-publish that process becomes immensely harder. So instead of focusing on the self-published projects to get published, write something new and pitch that to publishers.

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7 comments

  1. This post has come just at the right time for me. I’m getting lots of advice and opinions from readers about sequels I should finish (I’ve written thousands of words on two of them) and a new manuscript I’m writing which I’m loving. And I really appreciate it when people feel strongly enough about my work to comment, even if it’s not what I want to hear. Last week I felt very brave, and made a decision which would be a big leap for me, with which this post chimes. Now, I’m not so sure. I’m wobbling. I hate Mondays!

  2. Most writers cringe at the words, “Write something new.” They’ve put so much work in their current (and past) projects that it feels like giving up if they move on to something else.

    I constantly remind myself that no writing is “wasted”. All of it helps me grow as a writer. Plus, once I “make it”, I may well be able to go back to those previous projects and polish them up for publication (or decide that it was just as well they never got much exposure).

    If writing is to be one’s career, writing multiple books is a must. It’s best to keep growing and moving forward than to cling to an old project and stagnate.

  3. I was talking over lunch one day at Bouchercon with someone who had gone into self-publishing both for herself and others. She said for traditional publishers to take an interest in a self-published book, it has to do well, but not too well. Well enough to demonstrate market viability, but not so well that it already has market saturation. In other words, if the book has sold a few thousand, a traditional publisher might be convinced there’s a market for the book and be willing to take it on. However, if the book has already sold hundreds of thousands, a traditional publisher may think the book has already reached it’s sales potential, so there would be little to be gained by taking it on.

    An interesting perspective I hadn’t considered. Does that ring true with your knowledge/experience, Jessica?

    1. Colin: Sadly I don’t think its that simple. I think that makes sense in experiences everyone has had, but there’s no magic number.

  4. Ah, the self-publishing beast. While I admit to self-publishing, it’s all things I didn’t care enough about to stick with for the long road towards traditionally publishing. When I decided I wanted to go the traditional route, I began writing something new. I had hoped that having self-pubbed, it would make me more attractive to agents or editors, but as it turns out, I know nothing about marketing and so my numbers are low. I think that when the time comes to query, I’ll just sit on my self-pubbing past, at least until I’ve got some real cred behind me. The New York Times best seller list seems like a good benchmark.

  5. Amy, while the NYT bestseller list is definitely something to aim for, I don’t know that it is the be all and end all if you are looking for ‘cred’. Jessica is obviously a much better person to discuss the NYT list, but I thought from a post she did earlier (or maybe it was Janet Reid) that it is based on sales from a selection of booksellers. If you are self-published than you might not have your book in the right place, so your sales numbers might be great and still not get you on the list. I know there have now been self-published authors make the NYT list, but I believe they were quite recent and that there have only been a couple to do so. Aim for NYT, but it’s only just one gauge of how well you are doing =)

  6. I’ve thought a lot about this subject over the last few days. I’ve self-published three books, and when I made the decision to do so I was very happy with that decision. I’m still happy with it, but my feelings now tell me that I’m still looking for validation from someone who has experience of the industry, who thinks enough of my work to offer guidance and expert advice. Self-publishing can be a lonely business because every decision made is your own. Some have been good, some not so good. It’s really not the easy route, but it has made me appreciate the work that goes into a novel towards its publication. Elissa is correct when she says nothing is wasted. I’ve learnt new things with each book I’ve written. I think that’s a good thing, but I haven’t stopped wishing I was part of a team working towards the same goal. So I will forget the sequels to my self-published novels for now, and continue with my new manuscript. When it’s as good as I can make it, I’ll begin querying agents again. I’m looking forward to it. I’m not giving up.

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