Why it's so Hard to Resell a Self-Published Book

Well, one of the ways

Hi Friends,

I hope you (US residents) had a lovely 4th of July. Hope you got to read something great near a body of water, whether it was the ocean or the bath.

Always eager to get back to real life after a vacation, I thought I’d dive head first into a topic I’ve been meaning to cover for a while—self-publishing. I’m not going to write about how to self-publish, because I’ve never done it myself and there are thousands of other blog posts about that. I’m not going to write a SHOULD YOU or SHOULD YOU NOT definitive checklist because every book is different and there is not One True Way for self-publishing. I am going to address how to query a previously self-published novel, and how (if) I think you can make the jump from self to traditional publishing. I want to talk about how a self-published book looks in the query pile.

How to Query a Self-Published Novel

  1. Write a query letter. Here’s a whole series of newsletters about that for you!

  2. Somewhere, usually at the end or with your bio, tell me you’ve self-published this book before. Tell me when and on what platform(s). Tell me how many you’ve sold. Yes. The number of total sales. Print and ebook. Get out the calculator if you need to.

  3. Did anything extraordinary happen in the course of self-publishing your book in terms of marketing or sales? Did you get on the cover of your local newspaper? Did it get reviewed anywhere of note? Did you attend any book festivals? Did you have a signing where a lot of people showed up (and you weren’t necessarily related to them all)? If so, put that in there.

That’s it. There is no other difference, to me, in the query letters for self-published and unpublished books.

But, here’s what not to put in your query for a self-published novel:

I couldn’t find an agent so I self-published and now I want an agent.

I didn’t know how to market or promote my book, so now I want a traditional publisher to do that for me.

I want to take my book to the next level with a traditional publisher.

I didn’t realize self-publishing was so hard, so now I want an agent and a publisher.

I mean, those are all real, valid things to experience when self-publishing a book. They are just not great reasons, or enticing reasons to me, to make the jump from self to traditional publishing. Few publishers are able to pick up a book post publication and make it a success, for reasons we’ll talk about in a minute. It’s not wise, for anyone, to get into self-publishing without doing ALL the research necessary to see if it’s right for you or your book. Self-publishing is not the consolation prize if you don’t find a match with an agent or a traditional publisher. No publishing scenario is if you build it, they will come.

The real thing that turns my head when considering a self-published book to take on is:

  1. A+ amazing, stellar, out of this world writing and story

  2. A+ amazing, stellar, out of this world sales on whatever self-pub platform. I’m talking mid five-figures at least.

Yeah, mid-five figures. There was a huge wave of self-pub to traditional book deals a good number of years ago, and it looked like it was a viable way to get past the slush pile and the interminable waiting and all the other junk of traditional publishing. It was! For a hot minute. It’s not the case anymore. It happens, and as someone will surely email me in response to this letter to tell me who it has recently happened for (don’t say Fifty Shades of Grey), it’s not happening now with anywhere near the same frequency. And if you’re selling 50k copies of your self published novel, you might not need or want a traditional publisher. You’re probably making a good bit of cash! You’re obviously doing a good job of getting the word out about your book. It’s not always true that a traditional publisher can do MORE to top that success.

If you’ve had more modest success self-publishing, and still want to make the jump, here’s why I think it’s hard. Say you’ve sold 5,000 copies. This is a LOT! There are many, many, many traditionally published books that sell this many books and everyone is reasonably pleased about it. There were publishing houses that built their whole business model around this! (If you’ve ever heard cranky publishing people lament the death of the mid-list author, this is what we’re talking about). Sometimes 5,000 people is the whole market for a book and that’s that. And if you’ve gotten to that many (or 200 or 3,500 or 1,436) on your own, that’s probably the extent of your personal marketing power. That is the basis of all books’ marketing plans and there isn’t a whole lot more publishers can do that will make a demonstrable difference. Certainly not a difference enough to guarantee they’ll turn a profit. (Don’t forget, publishing is a for-profit, retail industry.)

I’ve said this before, but think about where you learn about books. It’s not from the Barnes & Noble Sunday Circular that goes out with the newspaper. (Could you imagine??) You might read reviews, but publishers can’t guarantee those, or that they’ll be good, or if anyone will see them. You might see a book on a talk show, but that’s one out of a million books published in a year, and yeah, you’ve probably already heard of that author before. How may publishers do you follow on Twitter AND how many of their links have you clicked? Can you think of an ad for a book you’ve seen where you A: didn’t already know the author or B: didn’t see “New York Times Bestselling” or “Now a Major Motion Picture” on there somewhere? Marketing an author from scratch is difficult to impossible. Maybe publishers should know how to do this, but should doesn’t change anything. If you have any ideas that don’t cost a million dollars, we’re all ears.

There is no traditional publishing cabal against self-publishing. There maybe once was a stigma against it, but there isn’t anymore really, in most circles. You have to know what you’re getting into with self-publishing, and if you don’t, you can really hurt your book (but the same is true of traditional publishing). You can’t just brush away the crumbs and see if anyone else wants a bite. Your book isn’t necessarily a debut anymore, if you’ve self-published it first. Self-published is still published.

Personally, I think the best way to make the leap from self-publishing to traditional is to write a new book. That’s not how everyone in publishing feels, but that’s how I feel. I know this can be a hard subject for some authors, who may feel it’s not fair or that they’ve made a mistake or that there’s just not enough information about any of this to make an informed decision. Those things are all true. But publishing isn’t fair; it’s publishing.

Happy Tuesday, y’all! I promise Thursday’s newsletter for subscribers will not be depressing. Send me your Q&A Thursday questions, if you’re a paid subscriber! Want to be one? Hit this button!