Why Literary Agents Won’t Shop Your Self-Published Book

  • By: Jessica Faust | Date: Dec 16 2015

A reader sent in this question after reading my post on An Agent’s Thoughts on Self-Publishing:

“Keep in mind, this is when you’re coming to us with a brand new project and not the one you’ve already self-published. Those are two different things.”

Interesting blog but this comment of yours is a problem for me.  I have self-published ten books on Amazon but because of my poor marketing skills have only sold a few dozen downloads.  Why couldn’t I then go to an agent with one or more of these books?  None of them have been “shopped,” that is, attracted many readers (although the few who read my books generally gave me five-star reviews.)  So they’re not old stuff to the reading public.  I just haven’t spent the money or time to publicize them.  I’d like to hear more about this.  Thanks.

You can come up with all the excuses in the world about publicity, marketing, lack of money for a good cover, or even bad timing, but in the end all that really matters are numbers. That’s the way for a book, whether traditionally published or self-published, just like that’s the way for a new brand of soda, a new car, a politician’s career, or a cupcake bakery. When it comes to business it comes down to numbers.

We could say that you didn’t spend the time publicizing the book which is why it didn’t sell well (because publicity is about time, marketing is about money), but then the publisher will wonder how hard you’ll work to sell the book when they publish it. Also a negative.

Whether or not the reading public has read the book isn’t what makes it old stuff. The fact that it’s already been in retail “stores” is what makes it old. To the publisher it looks like you tested the market and failed. No matter how you look at it, the book(s) just didn’t garner a readership.

My best advice, if you really want to catch someone’s eye, write something new and use that to grab both an agent or a publisher. At that point, one of two things could happen. The publication of the new book could find an audience that then searches for everything you’ve ever written, launching your older books. Or, the publisher could love your work so much, he decides he would like to also buy your older books and give them the new life they deserve (that’s probably more of a longshot these days).

You ask why can’t you go to an agent with those books. You can. Go ahead, I’m just trying to give you perspective on why an agent might not be as interested in those books as she would in something that hasn’t yet been offered to the reading public.


10 responses to “Why Literary Agents Won’t Shop Your Self-Published Book”

  1. Avatar Midnight_Writer says:

    Thanks for answering this question for us. Happy holidays!

    • Avatar c. smith says:

      my question is … why don’t publishers or agents include a publicity or PR department?? this could only make more money for them or professionally promote the books that they themselves believe in.

  2. Avatar Hollie says:

    I’m not an agent or a publisher, nor have I ever worked for either.
    But I have been in and around the marketing/review/online author event side of things since 2007.
    Yes, I understand the whole publicity and marketing can be difficult and time consuming. But then so is writing.
    I don’t understand, why someone would spend so many hours writing and perfecting their work. Spend the money to self publish and then do nothing else.

    • Avatar Andy Wright says:

      I spend nothing to self-publish. I do everything myself, and cannot afford marketing. I self-publish so I have a way to let friends and family enjoy what I’ve written. Now, after 15 years of doing this, I find out that my whole back-catalog is useless, and that’s pretty annoying.

      I’m going to continue writing stuff, but now I have to make the decision about whether I should hide my book in a drawer, waiting to see if agents will be interested, or if I get to actually share it with people. This is even more annoying.

  3. Avatar Elissa says:

    Sometimes it’s hard for creative people to grasp the realities of the writing business. Many of us writers don’t want to even acknowledge there’s any “business” involved. We’re artists, and crass commercialism has no place in true art.

    Except when we want to make some money.

    I have a writing acquaintance who makes a comfortable six-figure salary off the sales of her self-published books. She works harder than any writer I know. Marketing, publicity, connection with readers, you name it, she does it. She’s constantly analyzing numbers to determine which strategies work for sales and which don’t. And she’s continually releasing new books (as many as four a year)–which are well written, professionally edited, and have professionally designed and illustrated covers.

    I mention this because too many writers think self-publishing is the easy way to go, and when they discover it’s not, turn around and think the same of traditional publishing. Why should they have to write something new when they have all these other barely-read titles? The answer is, of course, if you want to make money writing, you have to keep writing EVEN WHEN YOUR BOOKS ARE SELLING.

    Another example is Stephen King, who has published something pretty much every year for forty years, and often multiple titles per year. You might think, “Well, of course, it’s Stephen King. He can get anything published.” My point is still that he has to write it first. And he does.

    In my opinion, anyone who thinks writing something new to catch an agent’s eye seems like too much work isn’t serious enough about their writing. Harsh, but there it is.

  4. Isn’t there also the whole issue of second publishing rights? You used up your first publishing rights when you self-published and trying to sell second rights for something that’s not a runaway smash like FIFTY SHADES OF GRAY is a tough row to hoe.

  5. Avatar Sangeeta says:

    Super helpful post! One thing self-published authors might keep in mind is that, even if their book didn’t sell well and therefore didn’t attract the attention of an agent, the very process of writing and trying to sell a book will help their writing career in the long run. Sometimes we need to write several books and learn about the business before we’re ready to write the book that breaks out.

  6. […] hurt you anymore–but it won’t necessarily help you, either. She then expands on why she won’t shop a book that has already been […]