Be Careful Pulling That Self-Pub Trigger

columbineI’m not usually the one to give self-publishing advice. That’s because, while I’ve done a bit of it – a couple of backlist books (Petals and Thorns and Negotiation) – I’ve put a lot more focus on the traditional path. There are a lot of reasons for that, which aren’t really pertinent to today’s point, though I’m happy to talk about it if anyone wants to know.) That said, I will be doing more of self-publishing in the future, including a fab anthology project and an exciting secret something with Grace Draven.

Still, I feel like I should say something to up-and-coming writers who decide to self-publish.

Apparently there’s a lot of bad advice out there, because this particular question keeps coming up on my author loops. A gal going to RWA Annual Conference asked for advice on pitching to agents and editors. Which is great that she’s asking! I pitched for many years and it’s not easy. However, she said that she self-published the first book in her series and it’s not doing well, but the second book is almost ready. She wondered if she should pitch the first book or the second.

The answer? NEITHER.

And I should caveat this by saying that she is FAR from the only person to do this.

So here’s the deal. We all read the stories about the self-pubbed book that gets picked up by a major publisher because it did so astonishingly well. This makes for great news in part because it’s SO RARE. It doesn’t seem like it, because the stories are so high profile, but statistically this is hugely unlikely to happen. This is one of the very worst reasons to self-publish, especially the first book in a planned series. Seriously. Here’s why.

If the self-published book does not do astronomically well – and that means tens of thousands of copies – then a traditional publisher will not want it. That’s just the facts of the industry. The book has been market-tested and will hold no appeal for a traditional publisher. Which means that an agent will not want to represent it, because they know they can’t sell it to a publisher. Simple logic.

Also, pretty much no publisher will pick up the second book in a series. There are some exceptions to this. Occasionally a traditional publisher will drop a series after two books and another will pick up the third. But again, this happens when the original series did decently and I’ve only heard of it working when a bigger traditional publishing house drops it and a smaller, usually digital-first, publisher picks it up. I don’t know of any cases where they’ve picked up more than one book. It’s really a gamble that lovers of the series will buy that final book to round out a trilogy. With a series, most traditional publishers want to control the packaging and marketing from the beginning.

So the upshot of this is: 99.9% of the time, once an author self-publishes the first book in her series, she has to commit to self-publishing the entire series. If she wants to try for a traditional publishing deal, too, then she needs to pitch an entirely new series to agents and editors.

(Also, if she really wants to go the agent route, then it’s best to pitch to them first, and let THEM pitch to editors, but that’s a whole other post.)

I want to add that committing to self-publishing a series can be a terrific plan. I have several writer friends doing very well that way. One, Elizabeth Hunter – whose book THE SCRIBE (book 1 in the Irin Chronicles) I’m just *loving* – told me that she saw no significant audience for her books until she published book 3. Other people have said book 4 or even 5.

Sure, self-publish a series! But commit to that path for it and don’t look at self-publishing the first book as a stepping stone to getting it traditionally published. It *can* open the doors to having another series traditionally published. But once that first book is out there, it’s out. If you harbor hope of taking that series down the traditional path, think very carefully before you pull the trigger and click that “Publish” button.

56 Replies to “Be Careful Pulling That Self-Pub Trigger”

  1. Very wise words – and I say this as an author self-publishing a series where the first book did amazingly well (almost 75k units in the first 6 months). Even then, no agent or publishing house would touch it or the subsequent volumes because it’s out there and as you said, market-tested. People who would buy have already bought.

    1. It’s a sad truth of the business. Right or wrong – that’s how they make decisions. Thanks for sharing that number, because that makes it clear that even tens of thousands isn’t enough. Maybe it’s hundreds of thousands!

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