Considering Self-Publishing? You Might Want to Do This First

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Chuck is giving a lucky reader a copy of his new book, Guide to Literary Agents 2016. He’ll pick one commenter on this post at random after two weeks.

You must live within the U.S. or Canada to receive a print book. Otherwise, he can send a PDF ebook to the winner. Update: Congratulations to Tim P.!

There are different ways to get your work published, but the biggest two options in today’s marketplace are still the following:

Traditional publishing: You sell your work to a publishing house, like Simon & Schuster or HarperCollins. The publisher typically pays you money up front in the deal, then distributes the book in print and e-book forms.

Self-publishing: This method allows you to publish your work independently, without anyone judging your work. You’re in charge of everything. A common website people do this is through Amazon’s CreateSpace.

I could talk about all the nitty-gritty elements to both publishing options — the pros and cons, the ins and outs — but that would take you hours to read. So instead, I’ll just focus this post on one simple question: If you’re unsure what path to take concerning these two major publishing options, what should you do?

Which publishing method should you try first?

If you are truly on the fence concerning which path to take, you should always try traditional publishing first — period.

I’ll tell you why.

It’s because if you send your work out to agents first but hit walls, you can always self-publish it afterward with nothing lost. Easy peasy. But if you self-publish it first and then seek an agent for it later, you’re setting up a very difficult task.

Quick note from Chuck: I am now taking on clients as a freelance editor. If your query or synopsis or manuscript needs a look from a professional, please consider my editing services. Thanks!

Let’s say you have a novel. You send it to an agent who is open to submissions. When the agent reviews your query and first pages, they are asking themselves the following: “Can this person write well? Is this an interesting story? Can I sell this?”

An agent will take a long critical look at your writing, and it’s not easy finding a rep who loves your voice and your book.

When an agent reviews a self-published book, it gets more complicated. They’re asking themselves the following: “Can this person write well? Is this an interesting story? Can I sell this? And why does this book deserve a second life via traditional publishing?

That final question is a damn hard one to answer well. And that’s why self-publishing your novel out of the gate can be a risky decision.

Perhaps you self-published a novel before querying any agents. My guess is that there is a 90-95 percent chance it will not sell well enough to attract agents and publishers (5,000 total units sold in six months, for example, would not impress an agent).

Statistically speaking, most self-published books don’t achieve these kind of numbers. So now you have a problem. You got a self-pubbed book that’s not selling. What do you do? You may say, “I’ll try to find an agent for it.” Your reasoning is Well, I tried it myself and it’s not taking off. I need an agent and a publisher to help me get this baby off the ground.

Put yourself in an agent’s shoes when they receive the pitch for your book: “Hi, I self-published a book. It went nowhere. Would you like to rep it?”

It doesn’t even matter much what’s in between the covers of your book. You’re admitting that it was released and found no audience. That means either the book may not be written well, you have no ability to promote it, there is no market for the book, or a combination of these factors.

Don’t rush into self-publishing

I’m not knocking self-publishing. If you think it’s the path for you, then power to you. Enjoy the high profit margins and try to corral some serious money.

And note that results may vary book to book. If you self-publish a novel, you can always query agents, with no strings attached, for your next book, as long as the new title is independent from your first self published book.

The main takeaway here is this: If you self-publish your book, you make it twice as difficult to pitch it to an agent afterward.

I’ve written about how agents look for four things when you query them for a self-published book: sales, accolades and awards, blurbs or endorsements, and media attention.

If you cannot provide something notable in some or all of these areas, then an agent has no incentive to consider your book, because they cannot sell it to a publisher. The book has no velocity behind it.

So if you’re not sure if you should query agents or self-publish the book, I say send out the agent queries first. If you don’t get an agent offer you like, you can always self-publish later and nothing misses a beat.

Are you working on a book? Do you plan to self-publish, or go the traditional route?

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Chuck Sambuchino is a staffer at Writer’s Digest Books, best-selling humor book author, and freelance query/synopsis editor. He is the editor of the Guide to Literary Agents and the au... .

Writer's Digest | @chucksambuchino

Traveler and blogger Chris Guillebeau

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Comments

  1. Chuck, I’ve been sitting on this fence so long the pickets are tickling my backside. After two major agencies ignored my query, I started studying self-pubbing. Your argument for exhausting the traditional avenue before going the other way makes sense. Thank you. I’ll just work on toughing my skin in the rejection dept. for awhile.

    • Same with me Reba. My book made the cut for finalist in the Harlequin So You Think You can Write Contest, and I’ve started querying agents. Heard back from one with an incredible turnaround of 24 hours!@ Unfortunately, it was a very nice rejection. My writers group is pushing for self-pub, I’ve been seriously considering, yet I’ve one the traditional route before but that’s been awhile. So, move over and make room for me on that fence,. 🙂

      Debbie

  2. Great information! Thank you for taking the time to share it with us!

  3. Jane Steen says:

    I don’t agree. Self-publishing isn’t a fallback option, it’s a completely different way of being an author. While you’re writing your first book you should be learning all you can about traditional and self-publishing, so that once that book’s ready to release you can make a firm decision and stick to it.

    Remaining indecisive is a waste of time. Why spend two years pitching agents when you could have been writing books 2 through 5 and getting them out on the market? As any savvy self-publisher knows, you’re not likely to start making a decent income until book 4.

    On the other side of the fence, why waste time self-publishing when your heart’s really in traditional publishing? As you say, Chuck, an agent is going to look sideways at any author who rushed into self-publishing when what they really wanted was a Big 5 deal. If that’s what you truly want and you’re not breaking in, rewrite your book. Or write a better one, and pitch that. Rinse and repeat. If you don’t break in after several books, you’ll at least be a better writer–and hopefully you’ll have learned enough about the industry by then to revisit your decision about self vs. trad knowledgeably.

    On either side of the fence, you’ve got several years of hard work ahead of you before you see anything like a decent result. I chose self-publishing after two years studying the industry (while writing my first two books), because it fit my personality and my writing goals. The first book I wrote is still waiting for a rewrite because it was my first try and I didn’t know enough about story structure back then, and it’s a complex subject so I need to mature my craft skills. The second book is self-published, as is its sequel, and book 3 of that story is in an advanced draft stage. Long story short, I have a plan and I’m sticking to it. In today’s market, indecisiveness will make you miserable and possibly kill your career.

    • I agree with you Jane. One has to choose one of the two and stick to that plan. In my case I have tried traditional Publishing for ages and it’s hard to break in. So self publishing is the way to go for me.

    • Totally agree! Nothing wrong with traditional publishing, but don’t knock self-publishing. I feel as if this article, while it makes some great points, is skewing toward traditional publishing and degrades those who boldly do all the work themselves—who are making 6-7 times more in royalties, too, I might add. It may take time to build your audience as a self-publisher, but don’t give up and don’t stop doing what you love. Bottom line: focus on the writing first, sales later. They will come.

      • Thanks, finally someone who understands us self-published authors. I will keep plugging away, since I do love to write. God bless.

      • One thing I would point out is that, technically, if you are paid in the form of percentage-based “royalties,” you are not really “self-published” in the most stringent sense. For the fully self-published author, all costs and all profits are yours, because you are essentially running your own publishing company. That business model demands much from the author, but has its rewards (financial and otherwise) if it’s the right choice for you and for your particular book.

        There is a different business model in which the author pays a company owned by someone else all upfront costs of publication, performs any meaningful marketing themselves, and then receives only a “royalty” on each book sold, while the company keeps the rest. The polite term for this business model is “subsidy press,” but for decades the standard term has been “vanity press.” It’s a cruel term, and I think an unfair one in many cases. (Of course, no company refers to itself as a vanity press. When self-publication became popular, many started referring to themselves as self-publication companies.) After working with a number of authors having their books distributed through this model, I have come to realize that there can be many legitimate reasons for choosing it, provided you make the choice with your eyes wide open. (I discuss such reasons in my video, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a6ky2nGXcPw.) However, because many of these presses have been known to cheat authors, it is important to do your homework before selecting a company to produce your book.

        Some presses that specialize in ebooks can be in a gray area. If they simply charge a (preferably flat rather than percentage-based) per-book fee to make the book available for purchase (preferably at a price set by the author, who retains the copyright), they are really the electronic equivalent of a physical book’s printer, bindery, and shipper. If instead the company offer a whole package that is supposed to include additional services, such as editing, formatting, or marketing, and especially if they own the copyright, they are a vanity press. Some companies fall somewhere in between.

        Again, there’s nothing wrong with using such a press if it’s what’s right for you and your book, but it’s important to think through your decision carefully.

        Trish O’Connor
        Epiclesis Consulting LLC
        Freelance Editorial Services and Writer’s Coaching
        http://www.epiclesisconsulting.com
        http://www.epiclesisconsulting.etsy.com

    • I love this reply. Well said. I hate that self-publishing is looked at as a fall back plan. I know self-published authors making a nice, solid, four figures a month. Now, it does take time, but with a plan, it’s doable.

  4. Fantastic post, Chuck, and I agree, especially when it comes to fiction. It’s a long slog either way, and I think any writers looking for quick hits will be disappointed, no matter which route they go. Thanks for the post.

  5. Great line. -> “Put yourself in an agent’s shoes when they receive the pitch for your book: “Hi, I self-published a book. It went nowhere. Would you like to rep it?” ”

    I don’t see a problem with self-publishing or using a small press publisher for a novel, but I wouldn’t pitch taht novel to an agent. Pitch a NEW manuscript instead and mention your self-published book if and only if it’s relevant. If you had decent sales or won some awards with it or something.

    In other words, use it to show agents your dedication, experience, and platform.

    • This is good advice. I’ve self-published and written books for traditional publishers. I’ve never had an agent so can’t speak from that avenue, but I am using my self-pubbed book to build a platform and now feel better prepared to compile a similar book (WWII profiles) to pitch to traditional publishers. The platform not only consists of sales, but speaking engagements, continuing to contribute to the subject area (I continue to interview WWII vets), and blogging. You better enjoy the subject to make it the focus of your life!

  6. Sonya H. Moreno says:

    My first book is still being edited. I’m not sure which way to go. I’ve been going back and forth about both options. This article did help give me some insight. I have more research to do. I really want to get the ball rolling on this. I know for sure where I want to see it end up.

  7. Alex Rushmer says:

    Great post! It’s very helpful. I’ve been trying to find an agent for the last year so I can go the traditional route, but I’ve had no luck so far. I’ve queried every agent I could find that I thought might like my book. I’ve been looking at self-publishing now, but it seems very risky to me. I’m sixteen, and I’ve got no one to really help me with this problem. What should I do? Thank you.

    • Sixteen? Keep writing…you can only get better. Keep reading…as many genres, as many cultures that you can absorb. Find friends who will encourage you. Find a mentor who will guide you. Try publishing in small literary magazines. Find an audience for your work. As for self-publishing they used to be called “vanity presses.” Why? If you gravitate toward self-publishing try reading “The Fine Print of Self-Publishing.” A valuable part of this book is his ranking of self-publishers into the good, the bad and the ugly. Good luck.

    • That is very impressive! Your tenacity will pay off, and make a favorable impression. The mere fact that you knew to query literary agents and not send directly to publishers shows you are serious. I have a good feeling about your drive! Best to you!

  8. An Agent will help you to find your mistakes but self-publishing will help you to discover your strength. l don’t think it’s best to the promote any rather it’s perfect to blend both .Traditional publishing and self-publishing are both Trendy now. Most top selling self-published books were trash on the agent decks, with no positive review but with the Authors strength it’s turn out to be the best sellers ,although traditional publishing still control the writing rules of presenting the writer work to the world in a well organized and traditional way, the best option is to write down the best creative words you wish to share to your readers and chose either to be seen by the agent who support the traditional publishing by correcting your mistakes and promoting your work or you chose to discover your strength but using the Lonely route of competing with other self-publishers to find your voice in the crowd.

  9. Elizabeth Malm Clemens says:

    I believe so strongly in traditional publishing I have spent ten years writing and rewriting a memoir in an effort to put on the market a decent book with universal appeal. Many self published books are poorly edited and obviously quickly put together raw quickly draw a small segment of the readership much like the selfie photos posted on Facebook for instantaneous attention. I want my story to live beyond my life expectancy.

  10. Like Chuck, I am a freelance editor, and I feel sad for clients when I feel they may have chosen the wrong route for publishing their book. The right kind of publication for one author and one book may not be right for another.

    I have videos on YouTube to help authors navigate that minefield, so if you’re facing that decision, I encourage you to visit the Epiclesis Consulting channel at
    https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCLqOsVzGEIRtyNTi_fPDsqA

    It’s important for authors not to become defensive when challenged on the choices they are considering. While any publication model (even a vanity press) can be the right choice for some, it can also be the wrong choice, chosen for the wrong reasons. A challenge forces us to clarify and articulate our reasons, if only for ourselves, and be sure we have made the right decision. Articles like this can provide that challenge for authors who may be jumping too quickly to self-publication for the wrong reasons, such as avoiding (really only postponing) rejection, or the unrealistic hope that self-publication will be a stepping stone toward traditional publication.

    I wish you all success with your books, no matter what publishing model you decide is right for you and your book.

    Trish O’Connor
    Epiclesis Consulting LLC
    epiclesisconsulting.com
    epiclesisconsulting.etsy.com

  11. Ron Tillotson says:

    Selecting the optimum method for getting your book into the hands of the readers depends on several factors, many of which were discussed in previous comments. Is the book fiction or non-fiction? Is it a memoir? If fiction, is it considered a novel or novella? How well defined is your target audience? How many pages or in it? Is the subject matter specific to certain cultures or industries? A consensus among a few local authors I know is: If you believe your book is too small, say less than 200 pages, and its theme focuses on unpopular events or is esoteric to a narrow audience, self-publishing is probably the best choice. Both large publishing firms, such as the Big 5, and even smaller publishers tend to reject books with narrow spines because these garner smaller profits.

  12. Jim Snell says:

    Chuck–
    To put things in a bit more clear perspective, can you answer this question: how many traditionally published books move 5,000 units in 6 months?

    And because people tend to write in one or the other, how about answering for both fiction & non-fiction.

    If it’s not a high percentage of trad books hitting those numbers, then are agents being unrealistic?

    • Jim,

      Not Chuck here, but I think I can answer your question:

      Agents are not providing a seal of approval to deserving authors; they are agreeing to undertake representation of a book in exchange for a commission on the author’s earnings. Say the author’s royalty is 5% of a $10 cover price, and the agent’s commission rate is 15% of the author’s royalties. That means that for each book, the agent receives just 7 1/2 ¢ (15% of 50 ¢). If the book only sells 1000 copies, the agent only makes $75 for what may have been hundreds of hours of work. An agent, to be blunt, is not interested in a book for a relatively small audience because it’s not possible for agents to make a living off them.

      It is thus not unrealistic for agents to insist on some likelihood of brisk sales before agreeing to represent a book. On the contrary, it would be unrealistic for them to think they could stay in business if they didn’t.

      Some publishing houses,however, may be able to make THEIR living publishing books for such small audiences, and these publishers are less likely to insist on a literary agent before looking at a manuscript. There is nothing wrong with querying an acquisitions editor directly if your book seems like a good fit with what the particular house publishes.

      This would be an example of the point I made earlier: It is important that authors not become defensive when challenged on whether a particular route to publication is right for their book, because the challenge is an opportunity to examine the big picture and be sure that one’s own purposes mesh with the purposes of those with whom you are doing business. The author is the person without whom the book would not exist, yet is also often the only person in the entire process who does not need to make an immediate living off of it. This is just as true of the editors, typesetters and printers hired by the author during self-publication as of the agents and publishing houses involved in traditional publication. You will know you have chosen the right publication model for your book when not only do you achieve your goals as a writer, but everyone involved in the project is able to achieve their goals, including earning a decent living for their skilled professional labor.

      Trish O’Connor
      Epiclesis Consulting LLC
      epiclesisconsulting.com
      epiclesisconsulting.etsy.com

  13. David Leblanc says:

    Thanks for the article Chuck. Some good points. While I agree that a publisher is a great option, would there be cases, particularly if the book appeals to a niche market, where self-publishing would be the best option?

    Another note in general….if you do decide to self-publish, you still need to hire an editor! Critical to get another look/respective in your work before putting it out there.

  14. Tim Pugel says:

    Chuck, I really enjoy your articles. However this one really spoke to me because I have been asking this very question for the past week. I am currently in the process of writing my first novel and really have been haunted by this dilemma which has to some degree taken away from my writing time. Thanks to you I can completely focus on my book and hopefully make it that much better. My problem now is trying to find the right agent to appreciate my vision.

  15. I agree with Chuck about going the traditional way for book 1, even if it takes a little longer. The reason is the marketing. Publishers and agents will support the author in publicizing the book. They are expert in the business so why spend time on something that someone else is good.

  16. I think this is sound advice, Chuck. I’ve been down both avenues, and self-publishing puts one under a lot of pressure to self-promote and find an audience. It works well for some, but it’s a path with just as many unlikelihoods as traditional publishing; they just wear different clothes.

    For me, the pull toward self-publishing comes from this central problem: What do you do when you can’t get much feedback on your queries? Receiving dozens of form letters tells you *something* but without concrete feedback, it’s hard to make your manuscript better, or your pitching style better. Easy to get frustrated in that situation for some, I think.

  17. I have had, over the years, five different agents. One gave up on me after a single attempt at a sale. Another wound up in jail for embezzlement (I’d left by then). A third did a wonderful job, landed two book deals for me, one of which did very well. He passed away, and the agency closed. A fourth gave up after one attempt at a sale (I’ve come full circle!)

    The lesson: the responsibility your success is ALWAYS up to you, whether you go the traditional route or self-pub. Too many new authors feel that once they’ve signed with an agent, all they have to do is wait for the check to show up. Sorry, but in my experience agents get discouraged VERY easily, and are quick to say, “Couldn’t sell this one, go back and write something else and we’ll give it a try.”

    They are in the sales business. You provide the product. If they can’t easily move the product, they move on. Like all salespeople, they’re (yes, I’m generalizing) looking for a sale they can close with the least amount of effort and expense.

    For those of you getting rejections, of course take a hard look at your product. But keep in mind, it was just as likely a business decision as an artistic decision that led to that rejection.

    I’ll repeat: Whether you go the agent route and get published traditionally or you self-pub, a great deal of the book’s success will depend on your own marketing efforts.

    Oh and by the way, if you do self-pub and the book does well, you won’t have to find an agent. They’ll find you.

  18. I’m writing a book that straddles the genres of science fiction, dystopian, and romance. It’s only halfway done and I don’t see it getting finished soon—I still have to devote a lot of potential writing time to school. Publishing is a long way off, but I’ve always intended to get there and just haven’t been sure which route to take. Thanks for your article! It’s at least pointed me in the right direction. I guess I’ll try my luck first before I go independent!

  19. I didn’t follow the protocol as suggested in your article. I did several queries for months to agencies whom I researched diligently. I think I failed with my query letters and/or proposals. I decided to self-publish in the interim so I could could hopefully get feedback, reviews, and ratings while the perfect agent recognizes my masterpiece. 🙂 Thankfully, I have received some positive feedback on my Amazon page, but the sales and marketing don’t do themselves. Publishers are mandatory to promote the book to the highest level so I’m not giving up on queries! Thank you for the great article, Chuck!

  20. Great article! Question for Chuck or anyone with some insight: does this strategy change at all for non-fiction?

    Thank you!

  21. Jenny Wright says:

    Thanks for a great post! I’ve heard excellent arguments from both sides, but this one stands firm. If you can try route A first without repercussions to route B, but you can’t do the opposite, then go A! It makes logical sense to me. Of course, the temptation to be the next Andy Weir is always present, but then again he self published AFTER rejections, so the literary agent query first argument still stands.

  22. Dana Michaels says:

    Thank you, Chuck, for confirming that I’m doing the right things, in the right order.

  23. This is really insightful, Chuck. I appreciate your insight. Would you apply this same advice to nonfiction publishing?

  24. This is definitely an eye opener. As a freelance writer and recently turned author of my first self published book, I never really considered taking the route of traditional publishing. The main reason: not being familiar with the process. And being intimidated (admittedly) by the competition of being one author amongst others vying for a book deal.

    I don’t know how many books I’ll end up selling in my lifetime, but with self publishing beig so easy and accessible I decided took that route.

    I challenged myself to write and publish a book in 24 hours just to see if I could do it. Within 24 hours I had the book up on Gumroad and Amazon via Kindle.

    I enjoyed reading this article and have definitely learned from it.

  25. I needed to read this post today, so thank you once again for wise words 🙂 I am going through the agent query process and rejection sucks. I have aways planned to go the traditional route, but the process is long, arduous and frustrating. BUT I know that both me and my book need the right person to champion for us 🙂

  26. D E Osborne says:

    Chuck, your article misses one important point. The ability to promote or market ones book is entirely separate from publishing or writing. My ‘debut’ novel, Smiley’s Run, is a fast, paced character driven adventure that readers, the few I’ve had , find hard to put down. Getting their attention for my story has been daunting.

    Do I regret self publishing? Sometimes. On the other hand I’ve seen what agents and acquisition editors can do to a perfectly good story when they diddle with it.

    I think the best advice I saw in here is too keep writing so you have a backlist. That way a reader can binge in your work.

  27. I’m working on a short story collection and just started querying literary agents. However, only recently have I begun considering self-publishing due to the fact that from 99 percent of what I’ve read, short story collections don’t sell – if you’re someone like me, an emerging, unknown author. Which is somewhat discouraging. I still plan on keeping at it traditionally, but I’m not sure if eventually I have to realize that that route is no good, and to just quit and move to self-publishing instead.

  28. Really great advice, Chuck! I think both venues can prove to be useful, but it really just depends on what type of author you want to be and what is best for each person. I’m going to try out the traditional route with fingers crossed! Wish me luck!

  29. My best friend has self-published two of her books now, while I have decided to take the long/painful publishing house route. I have never been published (aside from poetry) and I’m still in the process of editing my debut novel. Watching my friend, I feel like I’m sitting in the dust and wasting time, especially since I have no idea if I’ll experience any gratification from this. I thank you for your support of my chosen route and for giving me some semblance of hope through all this.

  30. Thank you for this insight! Makes sense now that you’ve laid it out, however for the beginner who just wants to write, the “system” can be overwhelming.

  31. Deborah Brown says:

    Hi! I’ve been a freelance writer and editor for many years and would really like to publish a book. I have several written an just don’t know which way to go. I would love some help and quidance with my work. I really enjoy editing other people’s work, and don’t want to stop that but my work sits there and cries from the corner of my world. Please give a hand!

    • Hi, Deborah!

      Have you considered investing in a critique of one of your manuscripts? As fellow-editors, we both know how hard it is to be objective about one’s own work, and some frank feedback from a fresh set of eyes could be just the nudge you need to get a manuscript in shape before you start querying agents and acquisitions editors, or begin the process of self-publication.

      You’ll want to choose someone that you feel is a good fit for you and your writing to perform the critique. For what it’s worth, I offer them in my Etsy shop (priced per 10,000 words of text), and you can find out more about me at my main website. (See links below.) But don’t hesitate to shop around until you find someone who’s right for you.

      Once you have the best draft you can manage to create, then you can think about what type of publication is most reasonable to pursue.

      Whatever route you take, I wish you success!

      Trish O’Connor
      Epiclesis Consulting LLC
      http://www.epiclesisconsulting.com
      http://www.epiclesisconsulting.etsy.com

  32. A.B. Robinson says:

    Some questions cannot be answered universally, with the assumption that all embody the same. The information here I found interesting, and pointed. Thankyou.

    My challenge being; Father time, and time management. I would prefer to spend my time writing, and not engulfing my soul in the career from which I desired so greatly from which to catapult. Business anything.

    With one last thought, I bid you all adieu. Freedom, such a wonderful thing. It does have different definitions. Using today’s technology to avoid corporate governance of what spills from my soul, well, It’s rather the point, than a solution.

  33. Toni Johnson says:

    Great article. Thanks!!

  34. The path less trod is neither to the left or to the right (traditional vs. self-publishing).

    Rather, it is to *build your audience of readers* FIRST. Whether you want to go with an agency and a big pub or keep total control and put out there whatever you want, the only concern ought to be *proving demand* for your book.

    As hard as it is…if nobody wants to read your book before it’s officially published, no one is going to want to read it once it is. That’s why 90% of self-published books sell fewer than 100 copies. The author writes what THEY want to write, not what people actually want to read.

    That’s also why so manuscripts get accepted by literary agents — the agencies hear from their publishers what books readers are wanting more of. Sign on those authors, no others.

    I once followed the traditional path of publishing — I spent 3 years crafting a “great” book series that I knew “everyone” would want to read. Submitted the manuscript to 100+ agencies. Heard back from only 3. Just 1 of them responded to my follow-up email (with a no).

    When I decided on the path of the small publisher who expressed interest in my book, I spent 2 years advertising and promoting my book online, in print, and in person. So did the publisher. Not even 80 sales.

    Fast forward several years to my new book…I refused to make the same mistake, so long before I put pen to paper to begin writing, I did my homework first (i.e., market research) to see what my future readers REALLY wanted.

    The result? Before I ever officially published the book, I saw over $2000 in pre-sales from the audience I’d built up.

    Lesson learned: don’t write what you want to write (an expensive hobby), yet don’t write what you think people want to read (selling out). Instead, discover the ‘intersection of profit’ that combines what (1) you want to write and (2) what your audience wants to PAY to read.

    That way, it won’t matter what publishing route you want to take — either way, you’re going to earn revenue. That’s a win!

  35. Kate Williams says:

    This is exactly the same advice that my editor gave me. She told me that my book was good enough to get published traditionally but if I exposed it beforehand I would likely kill it before it ever got a chance to breathe.

  36. Excellent write up. Wish I had read this BEFORE I self-published. I am doing a series and I could use the help, but now that I have published the first book I am stuck. Anyone out there who would take on a self-published writer I’d love to hear from you.

    Otherwise, thanks for the information. It will help me in making desicions for the future.

  37. Kimberly B. says:

    Thanks for the great post, Chuck! I am revising a novel now I hope will be ready to pitch by the end of the year (but really, it will take as long as it takes, as I work full time). My plan is to try traditional publishing first, though I won’t rule out self publishing depending on the response I get (if they say “this is good, but I don’t know how to market it”, for instance). Anyway, your advice makes a lot of sense.

  38. Joseph Bingham says:

    Thank you for the article and suggestions. I am finishing my first book and about ready to enter to battle to find an agent, which I would like to try first before self-publishing.
    Both avenues are daunting.

  39. Mark Weissinger MD says:

    This message came just in time. You provided me the inspiration to attempt traditional publishing before the self-publishing route. Curiously, I had already considered the potential that my self-published work might not be successful enough to an agent in the future. You confirmed my suspicions. I have received substantial affirmation of the quality of my work from established editors, who were dismayed by my initial interests in self-publishing. I am going to send my queries out to the contacts that the editors have provided. I believe that if they are confident of my skills, I should be as well. Your article is a blessing, thank you!

  40. Alex Rosel says:

    From my (limited) experience, most aspiring authors believe their book to be a masterpiece that readers worldwide have been yearning for. Even if that is true, gaining recognition from a self-published novel is an uphill task. Unfortunately, quality does not equate to sales. Getting people to click on the buy button has more to do with marketing technique rather than literary craftsmanship. Literary agents and publishers can assist the would-be author in both respects and their advice can be worth its weight in sales. So, if you plan to take the self-publishing route simply because you’re unable to see past the 70% commission versus 10% commission equation, ask yourself if 10% commission on a bestseller is better than 70% commission on a flop.

  41. For my first novel, I’ve made my decision–I will self-publish. Why? Because I’ve researched and studied the methods and understand how self-publishing works. I don’t crave a big 5 deal.

    My first novel is in the final (professional) editing phase, I’ve selected a cover and have been working to build a readership. I have Beta readers lined up once the editing is complete. And I belong to a large community of writers who self-publish. It helps to have a group of writers who have been there, done that.

  42. I was just about to self-publish my book when I read this article! In the past, I’ve heard authors say that it’s not worth it to publish traditionally, because even with a traditional publisher, you are responsible for the promotion of your book.
    Is that not the case?
    Thanks for your insight. This crazy world of publishing is tricky to navigate! And with so much conflicting advice out there, it’s easy to get caught in a vortex of doubt and confusion.
    I remember a time when I thought writing the book was the hard part. So naive.

  43. As someone who is navigating this process for the first time, I am happy to hear that traditional publishing is not dead in the water. I understand it is a long, hard process, but it is important for aspiring writers to know it is still possible.

  44. Great! I am going to check out the article its very informative thanks to share this.

  45. Another thing to consider when self-publishing is that many, most, submissions and things require your stuff to be unpublished. I didn’t really get that in the beginning as I was so enthusiastic about being paperless, independent, publishing on my own, etc. Plus I didn’t really thing of putting stuff up on my website as actually “publishing” it. So after having put some of my best and most-improved (completed) stuff online, I’ve come to a complete stop.

    I’m focusing now instead on polishing & perfecting, as well as completing some things I’ve got going so that I’ll have plenty of fresh, new, unpublished material to submit to everyone from publishers to contest entries.

  46. I’ll admit that I’m young and inexperienced. My whole education for writing consists of high school, three years of college, and passion, but none of those things gave me any significant answers to questions like this. When I heard about self-publishing I thought it was the most amazing discovery, and I was to thrust myself head first into it. Thank goodness for this article enlightening me. When I finish my novel I will definitely remember this comparison and figure out which path is better suited to my needs.

  47. Steve Goble says:

    I am shopping my first novel to agents for the very reason you mentioned, Chuck, plus one other: I want to prove to myself I can make it.

    If a professional agent asks me for more material, or a full manuscript, then I know that at least one literary pro thinks my book idea has merit. If I land an agent, then I will know at least one literary pro thinks the book can sell.

    I have had two agents request my full MS, and a third asked for more material based on my query. All are still considering my novel, and I am on pins and needles, of course, but I feel like getting even that far is a sign that maybe I’ll be good at this.

    Thanks for the steady flow of advice, Chuck.

    — Steve

  48. That has been my own reasoning, Chuck. Thank you for the encouragement. I’m looking for an agent for a first finished novel for adults, while working on a second. I have had short fiction and verse published before, and an agent tried to place one short story with a TV company. They didn’t bite in the end, but he suggested I try my hand at a novel, so I did.

    I DO want my work judged, and strictly; because the alternative is to risk having work go out when it is not ready, and I could not after so much work, bear to fall short of a professional standard of publication. A great read is ALWAYS going to need more pairs of eyes. I know that because an agent needs to place my novel to earn any money out of me, if I can get one, I’ve found a industry reader ready to put their money where their mouth is. And I am ready to take medicine and put in more work, you bet, if that is what it takes.

    The world is full of books. I want my book to punch its weight and be a really excellent and memorable read, or else not be published. That’s the ambition. The feedback so far says I can write, and I have an attractive MC and a powerful story, but is it sufficiently commercial? No, said one agent, I CANNOT pitch it as ‘general fiction’, because there is no such thing, and how does that help an agent tell a hypothetical publisher which shelf to pitch it to when speaking to book stores? OK then. It is a contemporary ghost story. Or is it Urban Fiction or a Psychological Drama. Gahhh! Like a novice, which I was, I set off down the road, and wrote the story I had in me to tell. The eternal genre question. Oh, sob, the genre….

  49. Elinor Young says:

    This was very helpful. Great logic. All my research on the topic hasn’t cleared away the mud like this did. Now I know where to start first.

  50. Well, the truth is that many books traditionally published by new authors sell less than 2,000 copies and a lot of those books, even ones that get large advances, can end up remaindered in six months. Also, traditional publishers now expect the writer to do most of their own promotion. The days of prepaid tours are extinct except for writers already out there as bestsellers. There is no predicting whether a book will take off–think JK Rowling–but traditional publishing has a perspective much narrower than it was even in the 90s–and they are very unlikely to take risks–which new writers are to them.

    Further–to quote Ian Irvine, and others agree: “publisher…is gambling tens of thousands of dollars that it [a book] will sell enough copies to earn a profit. Most books barely cover their costs or at best earn a small profit, and this is particularly the case with books by unknown authors. Therefore, publishers have to keep costs down by offering small advances. An advance is just that – an advance against future royalties – and the author doesn’t get any money from book sales until the advance has been earned back by royalties from sales. The advance is seldom more than half to two-thirds of what the publisher expects the book to earn in royalties, insurance in case it does badly.”

    He’s not alone in this assessment.

    Self-publishing is more difficult to manage, since the writer does have to do everything. Marketing is not a fast track. But the fact is–now–it is possible to make as much self-publishing as it is to make via traditional publishing for the new author–and much more, if the book catches fire–and some do–since royalty rates are between 35% and 70%.

    Both traditional publishing and self-publishing have pros and cons–but there is a great appeal in running your own show, especially since the rejection rate by most traditional publishers runs at 98% and even if a book is accepted, it can take over a year to get published.

    The prestige of having a traditional publisher is still floating out there–for fiction writers–and many spend ten years or more following the agent route. I did. But those gatekeepers are operating within, as mentioned before, far narrower parameters. I attended a panel discussion where agents mocked query letters–reputable agents, mind you. Traditional publishing hasn’t been an over-the-transom success story for a couple of decades and more.

    In self-publishing, a writer who cares about his or her work will have it edited, will create great covers, will know the publishing world, will keep track of marketing trends, and will know how to engage with their readers. And what they create will be worthy–as many self-published books already are.

    It’s a new world that offers everyone who has a story to tell the chance to tell it, which is a creative act and part of the reason we are on this earth. It also gives so many more people the opportunity to give their vision and voice out into the world–which is a gift of its own, because some of those people have a message we need to enjoy, experience, and receive.

  51. I haven’t written a book yet though i have few ideas. However, it is good to be updated on both routes of publishing. Thanks for sharing your views.

  52. Barbara Bond says:

    Chuck: I wish I’d had your advice years ago when published writers at workshops were saying the state of traditional publishing was so bad that we were far better to self-publish. The first novel still sells well to a limited market and has good reviews but I can’t get an agent interested in a sequel–for the reasons you state. Had I known that reality I might have hung in longer in the search for an agent.

  53. Debra Lueck says:

    What a dilemma! I want to go traditional to have their expertise behind me but a 2-year wait for publisher or agent acceptance to holding a book in my hand is just to long when what I’ve written in timely and relevant for today.

    So I’ve heard about self-publishing, subsidy publishers, and traditional, but I’ve also heard the term “indie publishing”. Is this the same as self-publishing?

    Am I showing my newbie ignorance?

    • Debra,

      “Newbie ignorance” is nothing to be ashamed of, especially when you are putting the time and effort into learning!

      An “indie” press is just a small “independent” press. Unless you happen to own the press yourself, it is not self-publishing. It’s traditional publishing, just not at a huge press. If your work happens to fit the specific niche of the press, it can be a good opportunity.

      You might want to check out my YouTube video, “Business Models in Publishing,” which talks about the different kinds of publication and how to know which one is right for you. Here’s the link: https://youtu.be/fg2WUga0sS0

      Congratulations on finishing your book, and best of luck!

      Trish O’Connor
      Epiclesis Consulting LLC
      Freelance Editorial Services
      http://www.epiclesisconsulting.com
      http://www.epiclesisconsulting.etsy.com

  54. Thanks for this post. I believe a good alternative to seeking an agent for one’s already self-published book would be to focus on getting that book well-enough read independently so it can be used as a credential in queries/pitches when I go to sell the new story that I want traditionally published.

  55. D E Osborne says:

    Best comment on my book Smiley’s Run came from a reader in Iraq… “I want you to know that I’ve lost sleep over that damn book. Couldn’t put it down. But, it’s 12:30am and I’m finished. It’s a great read. I like how you lead from one chapter to the next with little cliffhangers.”

    I am self Published and struggling with marketing, but I hate the idea of selling out to make the book ‘commercial’ when it’s already that damn good.

  56. I’ve been considering printing a draft of my novel first (as a folio) and sending it to an agent in this manner. This way they can see my vision and they can write comments on this book. I wonder if this is a good idea, especially since my book will have a lot of photos because of the topic.

    • D E Osborne says:

      Never send an agent or editor anything they don’t ask for. You can query with a treatment of your proposed book but better to hone the concept.

  57. If considered self-publishing but for now it is not an option. The information you gave is terrific, Chuck.

  58. Mary Trost says:

    Chuck, Thank you for another insightful and thought provoking article. I have several books on Smashwords and my advise to any beginning writer is give self-publishing a try. Give it a try if you’ve been sitting on your book (or the fence) for several years. Self-publishing will give you the confidence to say, “Yes, my desire to write is more than just a dream.” Give it a try if you feel your book lacks value because it hasn’t received the stamp-of-approval from a literary “authority”. Self-publishing will give you almost instantaneous feedback from your readers. Their wonderful reviews will reflect the true value of your book. Give it a try if you are a writer of fiction. Your imagination is boundless. Over your lifetime you will write many books, so there is no inherited risk due to rejection by a book agent who might lack the “incentive” to consider a self-published a book. Give it a try and after you do, download your self-published book onto Kindle. You will realize that your masterpiece is no different than the e-book versions of a traditionally published book. I predict that fifty years it will be difficult to find a hard-cover book, however your self-published e-book will still be out there circulating through cyberspace.

  59. A British-born Chinese woman, who wrote a book about her experience, was asked how many rejections it would have taken before she gave up. “Five hundred,” she said. I haven’t had that many, but it couldn’t be far off. Some of us are simply unstoppable. (The submissions I made, it has to be said, were never very good.) Now I’m finally racing though the non-fiction book I was always meant to write. The fact that I wrote it with self-publishing in mind gave me a very confident “voice” in the writing – I knew no one could tell me to write it differently. It helped that I have a large online audience, which gave me a lot of confidence.
    Now, having read your piece on traditional vs. self-publishing, I think I will probably send it to the agents who are interested in my field. I’m very grateful to you Chuck for having put those thoughts out there – and I agree, nothing to lose but the last vestiges of my pride in risking yet more rejections.

  60. I like this thought process. With any decision on which way to go for publishing, you still have to write. In the process of querying an agent? Write the next book. Self publishing? Write the next book. You can’t sit on your hands and wait for success to happen to you. Work hard and keep writing no matter which way you end up going.

  61. Well said, Chuck. Thank you.

  62. Hey Chuck,
    Any advice for a write who is self published in Non-fiction who want to go traditional in fiction?

    I hope I get a copy of your new Agents book.
    Sarah Marrie Burge of createspace aka Amazon.com

  63. Hey Chuck,

    At what point would say an author should begin to consider self-publishing? I have a manuscript that has been rejected by 20 agents. I’ve been revising, taking feedback from beta readers and writing partners; it’s a polished as I feel it could be…I may be wrong. But now I’m considering self-publishing. Would you say that this has gone through a sufficient amount to now consider self-publishing, or would you say I should stick with it just a little bit longer?

  64. This is just my humble opinion, but I’m not sure why there is all this talk about obtaining an agent. I have had three books published through traditional publishers and I never went through an agent. There are a ton of traditional publishers who accept unsolicited manuscripts, you just have to Google and do your research. Now granted, my publishers have been your small to medium size; not your “Big Five”. But unless you have a large platform, or you are already a well-known author, I’m sorry, but you will never get a contract with the Big Five. Also, it’s only the really big publishers who give advances. Advances are becoming obsolete in the industry. In my opinion, having an agent is overrated and they take a percentage of what little you make in royalties going the traditional route. Another issue I have run across with traditional publishers; is they really don’t do much in the way of marketing. After sending out their “advertising blast” when your book first comes out, or obtaining a couple of book reviews for you, you are pretty much on your own. It is for these reasons that I now self-publish my books. I make great royalties and I get the satisfaction of creating my books from start to finish. Again, just my humble opinion.

  65. Jill Hartmann Roberts says:

    This advice is very helpful. I’ve been working on a memoir that is really about making sure the book gets finished, edited and published, and so I’m certain that is my labor of love to self publish as it is specifically a tribute to a loved one who passed away. However, as far as my other books in the future, this article helps me to reconsider my plans. Thank you!

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