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

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

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?

Pro Writer Tip: Unsure which route to take? Take the FREE Publishing Path Assessment to find out which path – traditional or self-publishing – is best for you and your book!

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.

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?


  • John Perez says:

    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.

  • Chris says:

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

  • Dana Michaels says:

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

  • 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.

  • Jeremy says:

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

    Thank you!

  • Lisa says:

    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!

  • Perse says:

    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!

  • Kerry Cox says:

    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.

  • Cory says:

    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.

  • Majida says:

    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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • Jim Snell says:

    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

  • 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.

  • 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

    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

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

    • Lisa says:

      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!

  • 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.

  • 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.

    • Kayleen says:

      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!

  • 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.

  • 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.

    • Henry says:

      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, 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

      • Lori Cushing says:

        I went the self-publishing route because one, I’m a control freak, and two I enjoy being a publicist. As a graphic designer I also like being in full control of book and cover design. So, I decided to go with a large self-publishing outlet for my first book and use an imprint for my own small press. I have a very targeted audience for the subject matter, so I’m hoping this helps with sales. I find all this preparation so much more exciting than sending off queries and putting everything on hold while waiting for a response. I haven’t gone the traditional route and don’t plan to because for me self-publishing is a good marketing choice. It’s certainly not for everyone, but it’s exciting that writers have more options today.

      • Chad says:

        You’re forgetting that higher royalty rate comes with drastically lower sales. The average self published book will sell 100 copies – if that. This is a point that those who advocate self publishing always seem to gloss over.

        • Kerry Cox says:

          And I figure it’s likely that those 100 copies are probably the writer ordering distro copies for him/herself.

          • You have a point, but social media has changed all that. I asked for recommendations for self-publishers on my Facebook page and I had about thirty requests for the book – I hadn’t even announced it, as it’s not quite ready and I genuinely hadn’t decided whether to go SP or traditional. My followers have been asking me for years to write a book on my area of expertise and I have thousands of people who follow me just for that. The only thing making me hesitate about self-publishing was my concerns about the production, as it’s an art book and has to be beautiful. Luckily I live close to an excellent book designer so my decision is made. My book is set in my very touristy town and I sketch on the street, with punters stopping to watch and chat a lot, so I’m sure I’ll make sales there too.

    • MYA DOUGLAS says:

      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.

  • Tammy K says:

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

  • 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.

    • Deborah says:

      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 [email protected] 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,. 🙂


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