The Sixty-Four Thousand Dollar Question

How does publishing independently affect an aspiring author’s chances with traditional publishing houses? This question came to me from a reader recently. I’ve heard it before. It is, my friends, the sixty-four thousand dollar question.

It’s easy to point at examples of those who have done it. Like Brunonia Barry.

In fall 2007 Barry self-published her first novel, The Lace Reader, and printed two thousand copies, which she persuaded local bookstores to carry. (The story is set in Salem, Massachusetts, which just happens to be where Barry lives, so it had regional appeal.) Barry had several other factors in her favor:

  • she had experience as a scriptwriter and a book-packager (she had the skill set and practiced it);
  • she took several years to write the book (she had other means of support);
  • she worked with and was encouraged by a professional editor (she had money to spend on the endeavor);
  • she also hired a public relations firm to promote the book (money, again), which sent it to Publishers Weekly, where it was favorably reviewed (extreme good fortune).

The book got attention, publishers came calling, and in a few months Barry had an agent who successfully negotiated a $2.5 million book deal. I read it after it was published by HarperCollins. It was OK.

The Shack, by William P. Young, followed a similar self-published path to traditional publication around the same time, although with a less experienced author and team. I couldn’t get past the third page, the writing was so bad. (I calls ’em like I sees ’em, folks.) There are other examples I haven’t read at all: Amanda Hocking e-published nine paranormal YA novels, some of which were republished by St. Martin’s Press, who also contracted for four new books. And E. L. James and her Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy, about which I’ve already commented.

Still, these examples don’t really answer the question, do they? Clearly if a book has met with success—that is, it sells well—a publisher is going to be interested. (There are other factors, of course.) But how many self-published books really sell well enough to get a publisher’s attention? Back in May, Dave Cornford and Steven Lewis at Taleist published the results of their comprehensive survey of self-published authors; the Guardian reported their results showed “half of self-published authors earn less than $500.” Hmm. My guess is that barely gets the author’s attention.

And even if a self-published book does succeed—John Locke was the first self-published author to sell one million e-books—that doesn’t always translate into traditional sales. At the end of March Publishers Weekly reported,

Locke made headlines again when he signed a distribution deal with Simon & Schuster to get print copies of his titles in bricks-and-mortar outlets. After one book, S&S’s print outreach has shown that selling one million e-books at 99 cents per copy does not necessarily translate into traditional print success … the first book from the deal, Wish List, has sold just over 6,000 copies, according to Nielsen BookScan, since it came out in late January.

We know what publishers would do. What do other publishing professionals think? This article from Wendy Lawton at Books & Such literary agency might have some answers:

Here’s the problem with the authors seriously seeking literary representation: If you are coming to me to represent a book that is already published, I can only assume the DIY (do-it-yourself) process was a failure. [Because] if it’s going gangbusters why would you want to leave self-publishing?

Bottom line? I’m not sure there’s a definitive answer, although I think respected industry blogger Joanna Penn comes close in this post, in which she notes traditional publishing and self-publishing are not mutually exclusive:

[Sometimes a book is] commercial enough that a publisher will pick it up because they believe it can make money for them. …

So I think authors need to be empowered to consider their choices …

Is this book something a traditional publisher might be interested in?

Is this book something I want to relinquish control of?

Is this a project I prefer to have creative direction on?

It should be noted that Joanna is successfully self-published, but has recently signed with a literary agent in order to pursue a traditional publishing deal for some of her output (UPDATE: see her comments below). And we should note that some traditionally published authors (Stephen King, for example, and Seth Godin) have chosen to self-publish some of their work. When one already has a significant fan base, self-publishing could be profitable.

I think the best you can do is make an informed decision, and then pursue your goal with single-mindedness. Learn as much as you can about the publishing industry. Know that if you choose to self-publish, marketing will be your responsibility, as Brunonia Barry did. Amanda Hocking was unknown when she e-pubbed her first book; but she blogged about the process. When she got her traditional book deal, she wrote,

In all honesty, it’s harder to be a best seller self-publishing than it is with a [publishing] house.

I don’t think people really grasp how much work I do. I think there is this … misconception that … I spent a weekend smashing out some words, threw it up online, and woke up the next day with a million dollars in my bank account.

This is literally years of work you’re seeing. And hours and hours of work each day. The amount of time and energy I put into marketing is exhausting.

She goes on to say, “I am continuously overwhelmed by the amount of work I have to do that isn’t writing a book.” (Emphasis mine.)

So it’s a trade-off, kids. And only you can decide what trades to make.

Of course, you must also write a great book. :)

Tweet: Self-publishing’s a trade-off, kids. And only you can decide what trades to make.
Tweet: Will a traditional publisher sign a self-pubbed book? Good question.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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  1. Joanna Penn says:

    Hi Jamie, thanks for the shout out :) Just to clarify, I signed with a NY agent in order to pursue traditional publishing – for some books – definitely not all. In fact, I chose this specific agency because they allow for self-publishing in their contract and that money is not split with them. I absolutely intend to be a hybrid author – continuing to self-publish but also, to have a trad deal (which as yet, has not happened, so I continue to self-publish all my books!)
    I would also point to successful hybrid authors like NY Times bestselling authors CJ Lyons and Scott Sigler who navigate both worlds, as well as established authors like Jackie Collins who has started to self-publish some of her work. It’s definitely NOT either/or these days.
    Thanks, Joanna

  2. Michelle Ule says:

    The authors of The Shack did not get their “traditional” deal until they had sold one million copies of their book out of the trunks of their cars. I think the book has sold north of 2 million copies now, so everyone is happy.

    Word of mouth, obviously, was the big seller.

  3. Excellent overview Jamie, thanks.

    Do you not think the game is tilting incrementally in favor of self publishing—especially in the Fiction category? There are so many more options in an era of eReaders and low-overhead aggregators. My take is that the electronic path has shown the Vanity Press for the dubious value-proposition it always offered. Most of those VP companies were printers looking to keep their pressmen busy.

    • Jamie says:

      I agree about vanity presses and others who call themselves publishers except for that little thing in the fine print that says the author has to pay. Re ebooks, incrementally, perhaps it is tilting, although I read just this week (somewhere) that in the overall percentage of sales, publishers are reporting ebooks have slowed from the pace they were setting a year ago. So incrementally is the key word. :)

  4. […] not as if this topic hasn’t been discussed here before; it has. (Here, for example. Also here, here, here, here, and this one has links to older posts.) As you can see, industry professionals have […]

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  1. By Self-Publishing (Same Old Same Old) on 7 January, 2014 at 8:04 am

    […] not as if this topic hasn’t been discussed here before; it has. (Here, for example. Also here, here, here, here, and this one has links to older posts.) As you can see, industry professionals have […]