Monday, April 25, 2011

Self-Publishing a Book to Snag an Agent? Not Likely.

A follower on twitter asked me to respond to a few different blog posts about self-publishing, querying agents, and “legacy” publishing. The Writer’s Digest article Life After Self-Publishing addresses the possibility of finding an agent for a self-published book, and it's…well, naïve pap. Sorry, but it is. If you’re self-publishing a book because you think it’s a great first step towards New York and traditional publishing success, you’re going to be in for a very rude surprise.

Publishing is a very, very conservative business. You know when agents say they only represent books they love and editors encourage people to write great books to get published? Sure, you can do that, but what they’re really saying is “Write a book I can sell.”
It’s challenging for a self-published book to move on to mainstream success. That’s why, for some authors, acquiring a literary agent to represent the book is often considered the next logical step.
That’s not true. An agent doesn’t want your self-published book. Not even a little bit. There are a few quotes from agents in the articles that indicate otherwise, but I’ve never seen anything to convince me that’s actually the case. Agent sell the first rights to publishers, and if you’ve already published your book anywhere in the world, they can’t sell those rights. The Writer’s Digest article never mentions that very fundamental point, and in many cases, it's a deal breaker.

It's not always a deal breaker, of course. Because agents and publishers want authors who will make money and have a platform. Do you have a blog that gets over one hundred thousand hits a month? Did your self-published book sell over ten thousand copies in the past month? Are you an expert in your field? Are you a celebrity? That’s how you’re going to interest an agent for your self-published book. I actually had a long discussion with an agent at the Romance Times convention about this very topic, so my information isn’t outdated. It’s the same as it ever was.

Then there’s a rather aggressive post from A Newbie’s Guide to Publishing called Are you Dense? which has its own problems. I actually mostly agree with the spirit of the blog, but I do not agree with the tone or the implication that there are only two roads to success.

First, it’s ridiculous to think that if you want to avoid New York you have to do all the work yourself. I get the impression from blogs, articles, and discussions that people think epublishing and self-publishing was invented with Kindle, and until Amazon thought to do it, nobody ever tried. You don’t need to go begging agents and New York publishers to buy your book in order to make a living, and you don’t need to do all the hard work yourself.

By every way you’d like to measure success, I am one and I didn’t choose Path A or Path B.

This is a glorious time for ePublishers, Digital First Publishers, and Independent Publishers. The rationale that keeps agents and the Big Six from taking a chance on your book doesn’t apply to the “little guys.” ePublishing and digital first has a very small overhead, allowing resourceful, experienced, and driven publishers to make a real push into the market. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel, no need to assume the responsibility all yourself unless you want to, and no reason to think that if you want to be a success, you must strike out yourself like a pioneer into the Wild West.

Before you publish your book, research and understand the risks inherent with each of the options. There are no guaranteed steps to success, but you can increase your odds of getting there considerably. I know that ePublishing is the right way for me because I don’t want to write the books New York publishers are selling right now. They keep telling me that there’s no market for gay romance and I keep selling thousands of gay romance novels a year (and I know there are plenty of others in my genre who far outsell me), so clearly we’re incompatible. I’m not wasting my time querying my gay romances to agents right now because they don’t want them. And there are some genres that even ePublishers don’t want—that’s fine. I’ll self-publish them and find the readers who want what I’ve got and those ePublishers won’t make any money off me.

Who is your book for? What's the best way to reach that reader? If you don't know the answer to those questions, you don't have any business self-publishing or querying agents.


  1. I wrote a paranormal thriller, and everyone told me it would be an easy sell--except it's not YA. My MC is a middle-aged woman with teenagers. The rejections have been "It's good, but we can't sell it", and I'm fine with that.

    It's a GREAT time to be a writer. If something doesn't sell through an agent, then maybe small press or even self-publish. The point is, we're not limited in our choices anymore, and I don't see it as 'either/or' situation. I know once I publish this another way, I will never be able to sell it. I'm fine with that. Maybe I can aquire an agent with my next novel.

    To me, I feel it is possible to have both.

  2. Yes, exactly. Once you choose a route, you're certainly not locked in, and the best way to get an agent (if that's what you really want) is to write a new, better book. No novel, regardless of how you ultimately publish it or if you publish it at all, is a waste of time--each one is a lesson and a stepping stone.