4 Tips for Transitioning From Self-Publishing to Traditional Publishing: How I Found Writing Success After a DIY Start

Mystery novelist Robert McCaw shares how he went from self-publishing his novels to getting an agent and traditional publication, including why the transition made sense for him.
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In 2015, I self-published Death of a Messenger, my first novel in the Koa Kane series of murder mysteries set on Hawaii's Big Island. In the ensuing six years, a lot has happened! 

(20 literary agents actively seeking writers and their writing.)

I found a terrific agent in Mel Parker of Mel Parker Books, LLC, with whom I embarked on my relationship with Oceanview Publishing. Oceanview has released two subsequent books—Off the Grid and Fire and Vengeance—and has agreed to publish the fourth volume in the series in 2022. Oceanview will also reissue an updated version of Death of a Messenger early in 2021.

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IndieBound | Amazon

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Many agents and blog writers will tell you of the many difficulties in transitioning from self-publishing to a traditional publisher. They are right, but it is possible. I've found that there are four major requirements for successfully making the transition.

Make it Marketable

First, your self-published book needs to be more than just an engaging manuscript. The book has to be marketable, meaning that there is an audience for it. A good editor also adds value. Some authors resist editing, but I've always found it enormously helpful to get a second or third perspective on my work. 

Careful proofreading is also essential, as is the proper formatting of the overall book, chapter headings, and the pages. You also need an eye-catching cover and jacket, with blurbs from recognizable authors, if possible.

Give it Distribution

Second, if you are planning more than an e-book, you need a distribution arrangement. That typically means a wholesale book distributor, who can get your work into book stores and deal with returns if the books don't sell. 

(18 ideas for a successful book launch.)

Unless your distributor is printing on demand, they will also stock inventory. Your distributor may set up arrangements with the major online sellers like Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Indies, etc. Otherwise, that responsibility will fall to you.

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IndieBound | Amazon

Create a Marketing Plan

Third, you need a marketing plan that should include social media, an active writer's website, and frequently updated Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram sites. Since reviews are critical, it will also help to develop relationships with Goodreads, Bookbub, BookTrib, and similar connections (such as book blogs, webcasts, newspapers, and other outlets). 

You can also hire a publicist. There are dozens of them. I've tried several and with one outstanding exception—FSB Associates, LLC—never found one that did much for sales.

Roll Up Your Sleeves

Fourth, if you have to promote the book yourself, you will need to devote yourself to selling the book through social media, visiting book stores, speaking at book clubs, writing blog posts, and hawking your book to friends, neighbors, and strangers, who can review your book on Amazon, Goodreads, BookBub, BookTrib, and other similar sites. Some companies will review books for a fee, but they are expensive, and you never know what you’ll get.

How to Make the Transition

In short, although some publishers want to see a strong track record before taking on a self-published author, if you believe you have a book that's really special, and you can convince a traditional publisher that you have both the ability to write a marketable book and sell it, you can make the transition to traditional publishing. 

On the other hand, if you have a runaway success with your self-published book, you should think about continuing to do what has worked for you. You may not need to share your earnings with a traditional publisher.

(5 Truths About Starting Your Own Self-Publishing Imprint.)

But if you've had a modicum of success and want to move up to the next level, you will probably need to write a new book and find an agent. That's the path that worked for me. I wound up at dinner with Mel Parker, who agreed to read my first self-published book and then my new manuscript, Off the Grid. He became my agent.

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IndieBound | Amazon

I've often said that success requires 70% hard work and 30% luck. I was lucky to connect with Mel, who is everything you could want in an agent. He's knowledgeable, well-connected in the publishing world, a great adviser, and a terrific editor. Mel found a fine publisher for me in Oceanview. He also negotiated a fair contract—one where I was able to keep the film, television, and foreign rights while granting US print and audiobook rights to the publisher.

Why Use a Traditional Publisher?

Working with a publisher opens a whole new world. A publisher does many things that the DIY author must do for him or herself. These include proofreading, layout, cover and jacket design, printing, distribution (including returns), creating e-book and audiobook editions, and some marketing. A publisher may also introduce you to other authors who can review and endorse your work.

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That said, in today's book market, a large portion of the promotion effort still rests with the author. You are still responsible for most of the social media resources, book talks, interviews, and other marketing techniques necessary to generate sales.

Those sales from your first traditionally published book generally determine whether the publisher will offer you a contract for future books. And thus, the cycle toward success starts anew. Once you've made the transition to traditional publishing, you'll still need to produce another quality manuscript, have excellent distribution and a good marketing plan, and a lot of personal energy to devote to selling your books.

*****

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You don't have to spend crazy sums of money to get crazy good results. Even on a shoestring budget, you can take your book sales to a higher level. Learn how in "Sell Books on a Shoestring Budget."

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