Tuesday, June 09, 2009


I get a lot of questions from authors about self-publishing through places like iUniverse or AuthorHouse. Usually the question is generally what you can do next. Does it hurt your chances of finding a traditional publisher later and how do agents look at such a work?

I am going to discuss the marketing/sales ramifications of self-publishing, but first I want to address something I think few authors consider. When receiving a manuscript on submission I’m allowed to use my imagination and see the possibilities. For example, if I think it’s an absolutely fabulous book but needs some editorial work, I know I can probably work with the author to get that done. A bound, self-published, previously published work makes it difficult for me to see possibilities. The book is already done, and presumably since the author had it published she also thinks it’s already done. I might be alone in this and I’m sure there are other agents who feel differently, but every book needs some editorial work, and I think we all assume that once a manuscript is made into a book that work is done. Of course that doesn’t mean the work can’t be done from self-published to published with a traditional house, it just makes it harder for me to envision.

The second answer to this question, and really the most important topic, relates to sales. Sure there are those who think that agents are old-school and traditional publishers are a waste of time, that in today’s age of do-it-yourself technology why waste your time. Go straight to a POD (print-on-demand) publisher or Amazon and get it done yourself. And you can do that. I guess I’m old-school. I like to think that the editorial work, distribution, marketing, design, cover art, etc., that a traditional publisher provides still do make a difference. It might not be the wave of the future, but for now I still think it’s important.

There are certainly stories of authors that have found success self-publishing. What’s interesting though is how much that success is called success because ultimately they were picked up by an agent and a traditional publisher. The thing to consider is that those books typically had amazing reviews and unbelievable sales. Sales that rivaled and beat many traditionally published books. What also makes those successful books so notable is that they are rare. Take a look on those POD sites and see how many books are published each month, then consider how many POD books each month are picked up by traditional publishers. I’d say the numbers speak for themselves.

If you’ve published through a POD publisher and now want to go the traditional route, all I can say is give it a try. It’s going to be a little more difficult, but that certainly doesn’t mean it can’t be done. I think you need to address the POD publishing up front, in your query (agents do have access to Google) and just see what happens. I have requested more than a few self-published books in my time and have gone on to sell one to a traditional publisher. I am also in the process of working with an author to revise and update a self-published book in the hopes a traditional publisher will pick it up. Both of these books happen to be business titles and both sold a substantial number of copies on their own—between 10,000 and 25,000.



Angie Ledbetter said...

Great and helpful information once again. Thanks for hosting this blog.

Carol Doane #pearlofcarol said...

I attended a Write to Publish conference and it was noted that, after family and friends, during the lifetime of a self-published book you can expect 10-20 sales. That's a lot of time, effort and expense for little effect on the book reading public. To omit the editing part is disaster.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for putting this post up.
I personally struggled with the decision to go self-published. The stigma that it "just ain't good enough" still haunts me.
I sent queries for my ms to approximately twenty-five agents which resulted in one request for partials, and a subsequent no thank you. The genre is very limited (fictional memoir--of someone totally unknown, so who would care to read about him), so I decided on the self-publishing route. Did a ton of research on the internet and chose a small publisher (about fifty titles). They are local and I found them through a writers group. I have no expectations of grandeur for this book. My sole objective in writing the story was simply to put a crucial and traumatic episode in my life "on paper." It is for family and friends and so far word of mouth has provided some unexpected readers (sales).
The only advice I would lend is to do your research, edit the #*&^ thing over and over and over again(which is not fun) and if possible, hire a genuine editor and listen to her advice.
I was very lucky to work with an on-line writers group with an editor on board. I thought I had a pretty good finished product when I sent my first chapters. Wrong. She turned my little story into a pretty good book and made me a better writer. I can't thank her enough.
If I ever intend to "take it to the next step", well, marketing is a whole 'nother issue.

Stephanie said...

Thank you for your opinions on this!! Self publishing or POD were never an option for me. Bottom line...tons and tons of work and probably next to no money. At one point it did start to look like an option, but then I would read articles or blog posts just like this...and remember that it's just not what I want.

I actually came across a blogger who reads and critiques self published books- http://theselfpublishingreview.blogspot.com/
He or she starts the book and gives the author 15 mistakes before it's put down...most only make it a few pages. Only one has made it to the end.

I do have to say though, self publishing/POD may have it's place in the world of poetry. I know many poets and getting a publisher to pick up a book of poems is near impossible. Many of my poet friends have self published.

Kimber Li said...

There are good reasons to self-publish. For example, the book is only of local interest. In this economy, a lot of great stories are also getting passed over simply because the perceived audience would be too small to make it financially worthwhile. Totally get that and I'm not the only blogging book reviewer who will read and review self-published books. It's a great way to escape Trend Hell.

What I don't get is why an author would try to snag an agent and/or regular publisher AFTER self-publication. I assume, perhaps mistakenly so, that the book was already passed over by paying publishers.

P.S. There are so many options out there a self-publishing author really needs not spend anything (eBooks only) or much at all.

Anonymous said...

I enjoy reading your posts and find them informative and helpful. But today's post made me groan because I see yet another instance of an industry professional lumping all POD books into the self-published crap pile. This is the misconception those of us who are published by an e-publisher, who also puts out print books, have to face and battle everyday. Most readers/bookbuyers think ALL POD books are self-published, unedited crap and refuse to buy them. There's no way we can educate the reading public about the difference between self-published and small press published when nearly every industry pro, like yourself, keeps lumping them together. Sorry for the tone, but this is a huge sore spot with me. I'm tired of peeking in on reader forums and seeing, "I'll never buy a POD book because they're all self-published." I'm tired of seeing blogs by industry watchers and others such as yourself referring to self-published books as POD. I don't know the numbers but there are a LOT of POD books on the market that aren't self-published. I had no idea I would be facing such a stigma when I contracted my book with a small press. Again, sorry for the rant.

Anonymous said...

Jessica: What about the POD author who wants to move up to traditional publishing with a 'new' project? Does it make any difference to you when that is the case? Do you look at that 'new' project as simply another potential book you may or may not want to rep? Or are you going to be a bit more hesitant because of the author's previous POD?

BookEnds, A Literary Agency said...


I think you make a good point and I should have clarified self-published POD v. those that are with epublisher. I apologize. I do think however that many industry professionals know the difference. Without even thinking about it I can name five authors on my own list who came to me from POD houses, some of whom I resold originally epublished books to major houses.

I think the above answers the next question too. One thing to consider though, no matter the size of the house, if your book is in print in any form and has ever been in a bookstore those sales are going to reflect on your next book.


Anonymous said...

Of course industry pros know the difference. That's what is so upsetting. They know the difference, yet they don't differentiate when they talk about vanity press and small press. More and more, self-published books are being referred to as simply POD. That's what bothers me.

Thank you for responding.

Anonymous said...

Now THIS is a post that speaks to actual reality (vs. the twitter/facebook delirium which seems to have overtaken most book / publishing related sites.)

Often, I feel really DUMB for slogging away with what many might described as publishing 1.0: writing a new novel, touching base with my agent about the m.s. on submission, reading (books).

DUMB because the process you outline for a book that's been acquired is exactly what I'm working towards & what I happen to believe works, albeit not that great, but a great deal better than POD.

The latter seems like an exercise in narcissim: if "anyone" can do it and the benchmark for success is set so low (basically, the same as printing your own business cards ... free!), what's the point?

This instant (everything) belief that's glossed much of what passes for culture sidesteps the basic issue that good stuff often (mmm, always?) takes effort, time / patience.

I'm glad to see you affirming the traditional book publishing model. It is limmed with limitations (and alliteration) but - but - you cannot fake a well produced, well edited, well presented piece of fiction.

Laurel said...

The other thing to consider with regard to self-publish vs. traditional is marketing. If your book is published traditionally you will be supported by people who understand the sales aspect of the business. I am sure that there are some self-published books out there that are pretty good but languishing because the author, who writes well, has no idea how to sell her product. It's not just an editorial issue. There are some bestsellers that could probably have used more aggressive editing.

Shelf space, product placement, covers, font choice appropriate for the target reader, and a myriad of other details that an author would never consider impact the sales of a book.

The self pub authors who have been successful took on the marketing aspect of the business as well: working the internet to their advantage, approaching bookstores, and setting up their own events. Not many authors have the organizational/sales skills to do this. For the ones that have the time, inclination, and ability, however, it might not be a bad option.

Aimlesswriter said...

I've heard of some regular smaller publishers who do ebooks first and then maybe you go to real book form.
What do you think of books that are only ebooks? Or that start out as ebooks?

Laurel said...

Aimless Writer,

I have a very dear friend who has had success with just that. She is now publishing her second book which will skip the ebook phase.

If you want to ask her about the press and process, just click through to me and shoot me an email. I'll forward to her and I'm sure she would be happy to tell you about it.



Anonymous said...

Valid points: here are some others.

I'd urge people not to judge all self-published books by the worst self-published books. You wouldn't dismiss a traditionally published book you love because you thought another one was trash.

Also, these are people going it alone. If they were making a film or a record we would herald them for their risk taking and trailblazing. But a book? Well, clearly they're no-talent hacks who are looking for an easy way out. Give them a break, as you would others.

And don't forget the beauty of doing it yourself: No one else can screw it up for you. The two traditional authors closest to me were both knocked back years, one a decade or so, after their first-fictions were released with horrible covers. Trust me, you would agree.

Few would argue traditional publishing isn't the way to go, but DIY has its consolation prizes.

WRG said...

I've done some research about POD, both with Lulu and Amazon's CreateSpace. Lulu can do a hardcover or paperback, and CreateSpace does only paperbacks, and neither will be cost competitive with books from industry publishers. How many people will buy a paperback that cost $16-$18? It appears, though, that CreateSpace is getting costs down to a more competitive level.

The costs to go this route aren't too high. You'd probably want to use software like Acrobat, InDesign, or Photoshop. If you want your own ISBN, you'll have to purchase that up front. CreateSpace will get one for free for you, but if you ever decide to publish in another format, you'll need to get a new one. The ISBN in that case belongs to CreateSpace.

Publishing through Lulu will get you into Ingrams and Bowkers, but that doesn't mean that bookstores will order from them. Bookstores are leery of POD books since there isn't a return criteria like there is with publishing houses.

Publishing through CreateSpace will get you automatically listed on Amazon with an active buy button and it qualifies for their free shipping program and discounts when paired with other books. Creating a Kindle version of the book is relatively easy. But your books are only available from Amazon and the CreateSpace web site.

If you're willing to spend the money to have your book professionally edited before publishing it, willing to spend the up front money for POD, and are willing to do a whole lot of marketing and publicity, you could sell hundreds of copies and maybe make your investment back. The advantage of going the traditional publishing route is that the advance puts most of the risk on the publisher. With POD, the writer assumes all the risk. At the same time, you don't need an agent.

The fear I've seen from many authors considering self-publishing is that going that route gets you blacklisted with agents and publishers. Agents and publishers receive no revenue or compensation when someone goes the POD route. It's a direct threat to their business plans. I suspect this is overblown, but I can understand that fear.

There are more books being self-published now than via traditional publishing. Most of them are probably inferior quality and there's still the stigma associated with them. There are also entities in self-publishing who prey on unpublished authors' egos and desires to see their works in print.

The day may come, though, where self-publishing in a viable alternative that threatens the current status quo of the publishing world. It's not there yet, but competition is always a good thing.

Sarah J. MacManus said...

I keep running into this confusion and it's making me a bit nuts. I've seen a lot of industry professionals refer to POD as "self-publishing", and it really needs to be acknowledged that "POD" is the name of a printing process, not a business model. Self-publishers and small publishers and ePublishers all use POD printing processes. The main difference is in distribution and marketing and of course, editing. On the other hand, I read a VERY well-known book by a VERY big publishing house over the weekend and the "dust moats" are still making me kind of insane.

I think self-publishing can be fun if kept in the right context. And of course, non-fiction is going to do better in that format if you're looking for sales. I think it really just depends on what you're trying to get from the experience. I watched my mother spend tons of money on canvas and oils over 40 years and she never sold a painting. I don't think she ever had any regrets about it. :)

Anonymous said...

Fawn Neun, you articulated the point I was trying to make much better than I did. Thank you! Instead of perpetuating the misconceptions and confusion about POD by lumping it all into one, all of us who have an interest should be trying to educate the general public of book buyers about the differences. That includes editors, agents, and industry watchers who blog or otherwise inform the general public.

Laurel said...


Too funny! I know exactly which book you are talking about because I read it last year and "dust moats" continue to plague me. Heehee.

Still, it happens. To everybody. We can hope it will be corrected in reprints.

Christina said...

I just wanted to let you and your readers know that Writer Beware has kind of flagged Author Solutions, Inc (ie. AuthorHouse, IUniverse, Xlibris, and Traford)as something a little fishy. Maybe not illegal but certainly something to take with a little more caution.


The other thing is that I have heard a great many blogging agents say it is damn near impossible to sell a book to a publishing house after it has been self-published by the author...no many how few copies sell. Just a thought

Sheila Deeth said...

Thanks. Great information.

Genre Reviews said...

As a book reviewer, I'll sometimes read self-published nonfiction (especially if it's aimed at a niche market).

However, self-published fiction books, in general, need more editing. They tend to have at least one major storytelling flaw and lots of minor errors. Some of these novels are still enjoyable, but they'd be even better with more editing and author writing experience under the belt. I would hope the author understood this and would be open to editing if they're now trying to submit their self-published book to an agent.

Would it help for the author, in this situation, to send the agent an unbound manuscript and tell the agent they are open to editing?

Anonymous said...

"However, self-published fiction books, in general, need more editing. They tend to have at least one major storytelling flaw and lots of minor errors."

This happens in traditionally published best-selling books all of the time also. My daughters are constantly poing out major flaws in them. The deal with self-published there is more trash to sort through.

Kimber Li said...

Genre Reviewer, so true, and, like I said, I'll review self-published books too.

I can overlook a lot of mistakes just to get at a great story. And I do realize the self-published author often cannot afford to pay for professional editing. However, I would expect her to have availed herself of all the free help she could get!

Sadly, there are a lot of authors who are self-published because they refused to accept constructive criticism and editing from anyone. Then, they expect to sell their books for the same price or more than a hardback by a NY Times bestselling author at Barnes & Noble.

They also can't handle reviews, even exceptionally polite ones.

The thing is what an editor doesn't catch a reader will and she'll be mighty ticked off if she spent good money on that book.

This happens with regularly published authors too, just not as many because by the time their books reach B&N they've already been through the editing wringer a bazillion times. In the past three years, I've only encountered one.

T. M. Hunter said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
T. M. Hunter said...

As this post tends to cover trying to get a traditional agent for the same book that was already self-published...

Another commenter asked about going the agent route with a new project, and I'd also like to see whether that has any impact on how you as the agent see the author.

I'd also be interested to know whether an author with previously self-published or POD-published books would face difficulty getting an agent for future works in the same vein (same MC, different story, for example).

moonrat said...

thanks for weighing in on my blog today, jessica. i appreciate it.

i often get daunted when i log in and see that there are already 6,000 comments up (which ALWAYS happens on your blog!) so i wanted to say i really appreciate knowing you're "listening" and take the time. :)

Liana Brooks said...

To... one of the Anon....

E-publishing is different than POD and self-publishing. There are quite a few e-publishers and they are good for their genres. Not every genre does this. But some do, and some people love it.

That said, I do consider POD or book binding for some projects. Like letters between myself and my spouse while he was overseas. They're saved on the computer and I'd like to have a hard copy.

I don't want to share those with anyone else though so a simple POD for one book, no ISBN, would work.

For everything else, 25 queries isn't nearly enough. I'll do 100, and then see if I need to query something new or edit some more.

Jeff said...

We regularly see self-published books that are well edited. The authors make the effort to acquire freelance editing services as well as book design services. In these cases, the authors are functioning more as a small press. Of course, there is a cost to all that and, most importantly, the author MUST put real effort into marketing and distribution. Of course, these days, even traditional authors must be effort into their own marketing.

In some cases, the 'self-published' book works as a platform for the author's other services, e.g., consulting, speaking, photography, programming. Securing a deal through a traditional publisher may or may not be part of an author's goals.

As far as POD providers, I'm surprised no one has mentioned Lightning Source, which provides great quality printing at low cost. It's not typically geared towards the mass crowd of self-publishing, but works well for those launching a niche-focused small press.

Heather Wardell said...

AstonWest has the same question I have:

If I self-publish novel A and then attempt to get an agent for novel B, does the previous self-pub influence how they will look at B?

And I know I don't necessarily need to tell them, but I figure at some point it will come up.