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?


  • Katie-Ellen says:

    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….

  • 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

  • Ciara says:

    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.

  • Layla T says:

    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.

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

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • Jeanne Felfe says:

    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.

  • 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.

  • 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!

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • Joshua Lisec says:

    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!

  • Toni Johnson says:

    Great article. Thanks!!

  • 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.

  • 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

  • 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.

  • K. R. Borne says:

    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.

  • Ilyssa says:

    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!

  • Allison says:

    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.

  • 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.

  • Janet W says:

    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 🙂

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