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.
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.
ATTEND A WRITERS
CONFERENCE IN 2024:
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.