Between subsidy publishers, vanity presses and print-on-demand companies, plenty of avenues exist for writers to see their work published outside of the traditional route. While writers argue over the pros and cons of self-publishing, one thing is certain: 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.
As inspiring as it is to think about breakout self-published success stories—such as Eragon—getting an agent to represent a self-published book and take it to bestseller status is no easy task. In fact, some agents won’t even consider a book once it’s been self-published. And the ones who will are already deluged in slush, so your submission better stand out. Before you send out any more queries (or worse, the whole book), read on to find out what agents look for—and what they absolutely must see—when considering a self-published book.
GO BY THE BOOK
Let’s go straight to the good news: Many agents are open to representing self-published books and trying to see those books get a contract. “Most agents will at least hear out an author with a self-published book to the same extent that they would hear out any query letter,” says Stephany Evans, president of FinePrint Literary Management.
Make sure, as always, that you follow agency submission guidelines exactly. If the agency says “query only,”
then don’t send the book. Also be certain the rep you’re contacting does indeed handle works in your particular genre or category. If you haven’t defined what your work is, you need to do so before starting the query process.
However, some agents (think highbrow reps with a full list of clients), won’t consider self-published works of any kind. And then there’s also a small number of agents who pass on self-published books because they take pleasure in finding only fresh projects. “A self-published book is already viewed as a ‘used product,’ ” says Andrea Brown, president of Andrea Brown Literary Agency. “There are so many great new manuscripts out there for editors to choose from, so why take one that already has some community?”
Michelle Andelman, an associate agent at the company, echoes Brown’s opinion. “I won’t consider self-published books because they deflate that great sense of discovery for me,” she says. “I always feel I can most enthusiastically champion something brand new to editors, who I think are eager to feel that sense of discovery as well.”
MASTER THE HOOK
When an author sends in a query for a novel, the hook is the crucial element. An agent wants to know what makes the particular book unique. Queries for self-published books have the disadvantage of immediately being scanned for not only a clever hook, but also a promising sales record.
In fact, your sales may be the most important factor in the query, because agents are looking for proof that the book has markets to tap into. When it comes to how many sales constitute a number impressive enough to attract attention, the answer varies greatly; however, a general rule of thumb would be to start querying after you’ve sold at least 3,000 books. Another consideration is that nonfiction is typically an easier sell than fiction. A lower number of sales for a novel would be somewhat equal to a higher number of nonfiction sales. Agent Adam Chromy of Artists and Artisans says he weighs the number of books sold against how long the book has been for sale. “It’s about momentum,” he says. “If it’s been out for two months, has sold 5,000 copies and is getting press, that’s great. If it’s been out for years, the number would have to be higher.”
When Sharlene Martin, founder of Martin Literary Management, considers a self-published book, she’s looking not only for sales information, but also for a mention that the author self-published by choice—not after rejection by agents and editors on previous submission rounds. Agents are looking for authors who self-published before drowning in rejections and who sold enough books to warrant a new life with traditional publishing.
Whether your work is fiction or nonfiction, agents will definitely be looking for a solid platform—meaning all the avenues you possess to sell or market your book to the identified markets of readers who will buy it.
Jennie Dunham of Dunham Literary considers some aspects of a self-published book query that will get an agent interested. “How much of an expert is the author? Really strong credentials help,” she says. “Also, what type of platform does the author have? An author who can promote and sell a book is valuable.”
If the writer’s platform is good and the book is on its way up, rather than fizzling out sales-wise, then the odds are improved. Andrea Hurst, who founded an eponymous agency in Sacramento, came across a proposal from a self-published nonfiction author who had recently appeared on “The Dr. Laura Schlessinger Program.” Hurst signed the client and made a deal. Other writers have successfully signed with Hurst the same way, she says, though the self-published books she represents may need an overhaul before a publisher’s review. “We’ve taken on a few where we had the author add chapters, change the title and update it before it sold,” she says.
In addition to playing up your platform and how you plan to sell the book, include independent praise of your work. Awards, accolades, reviews, press and endorsements can all help stir the buzzstorm. Evans says she took on a self-published project when the book picked up several high-profile endorsements that helped trigger thousands of sales. Diane Freed, another agent at FinePrint, noticed an article in a Maine newspaper about an award-winning self-published book written by a local librarian. The article was enough to get Freed’s attention, and that librarian recently signed a two-book deal.
THE DEAD END
Knowing that agents immediately look for sales, you may be tempted to head right out and peddle your wares at the nearest independent bookstore. But the flipside problem to not selling enough copies of your book is selling too many. Believe it or not, that’s actually a bad thing. “There’s a bit of a Catch-22 here,” says Jessica Regel, an agent at the Jean V. Naggar Literary Agency. “If they haven’t sold many copies and the book was just self-published, then you try to convince a mainstream publisher that the book hasn’t hit its market yet because it had no marketing or publicity. If the book has sold a good number of copies—let’s say more than 10,000—then a publisher will worry that it’s already hit its market, so you need to convince them that there is still an untapped audience out there.”
For example, you printed a book about the history of Mobile, Ala., and after five months you’ve sold several thousand copies to local historians, community members, and your friends and relatives. Impressive, sure, but there isn’t much point in finding an agent or publisher because you’re probably close to maxing out your sales.
Dunham agrees that very strong sales can be a deterrent: “I want to know that the author is off to a solid start. I also have to be convinced that there’s a wider audience beyond that,” she says. “I’ve seen a couple of books where there were strong sales, but I felt like there wouldn’t be many more.”
Memoir is one of the most common categories in which writers self-publish. With memoirs in particular, getting an agent to take on the book is a steep hill to climb, as there are just too many self-published memoirs to compete against. If writing the memoir gave you a new vigor for writing, then set the self-published book aside and start on a new book to query agents with first. Get the first book out of your system and keep writing. “I have only taken on a few self-published books and have sold almost all of them,” Chromy says. “But I’ll often look at a self-published author and see if we can’t just let the self-pub book go and work on the next book in their career.”
THE SELF-PUB STIGMA
Perhaps the biggest reason the odds are against self-published books catching the eye of an agent is this: “Often they haven’t sold well, aren’t professionally edited and have been out for quite a while,” Hurst says.
Self-published books are constantly fighting against assumptions. Agents and editors will assume that the work was turned down dozens of times, even if this isn’t the case. If your work was print-on-demand, they’ll assume it sold the average amount of copies: 75. They’ll also assume the writing is below average and that you have no ability to market the work—even if these assumptions aren’t the case. That’s why a query letter introducing your self-published book must squelch all misconceptions immediately—and that includes the assumption that you, the writer, will be difficult to work with. Books are changed and edited—some drastically—throughout the publishing process. Just because your literary novel has already sold 2,500 copies won’t make it immune to substantive editing suggestions from agents and editors. Don’t feed into the stereotype of the difficult-to-work-with author.
“I’ve found that a lot of self-published writers don’t want to revise their books,” says Debbie Carter of Muse Literary Management. “These projects can be a waste of time for agents and editors who are looking to develop new talent.”
If you’ve decided to go the route of letting your self-published book stay self-published and move on to book two, then how do you address your prior books when crafting the next query?
Previous self-published works can easily be found and analyzed if they have ISBN numbers. Nielsen BookScan allows the publishing industry to search sales records of books and authors. You must mention all your self-published books up front in the interest of full disclosure. If you’re worried because sales were weak, then include mentions of them at the bottom of the query letter in your bio paragraph, but don’t include the titles just yet. This way, you’re honest about your publishing past, but not drawing a whole lot of attention to it. If you mention your self-published books in the first line or two, the agent may stop reading simply because of the stigma. Let the agents see your pitch and get hooked. If they’re interested, your bio details—including a list of any self-published books in your arsenal—should have little effect. And your current work can speak for itself.