Chip MacGregor

April 13, 2016

Ask the Agent: How do I transition from self-published to traditionally published?


We’re doing “Ask the Agent” for the entire month of April, so you have a chance to send in that question you’ve always wanted to discuss with a literary agent. The other day someone sent this: “What does it take for a book to transition from being self-published to being picked up by a traditional publisher? If an author wanted to make that transition, what would you recommend? Do I take down the manuscript and pitch as fully revised?”

Great questions (and there were a bunch of other questions asked by this author, which I’ll try to speak to in my answer). Let me try and cover some important ground with ten thoughts…

First, just to be clear, I am very supportive of indie publishing. We represent more than 100 authors, and all of them have heard me say that I think they need to at least consider self-publishing as a means of helping to make a living in a competitive and changing publishing environment.

Second, I don’t believe that indie publishing is second class citizenry, and that traditional publishing is necessarily the preferred means of making a living. I think authors need to look at all their options. (For the record, I also don’t believe in the myth that all you have to do is post your book on Amazon, and watch the Publishing Fairy show up and sprinkle you with golden coins. Both traditional and indie publishing can work — but both can also fail. Making a living writing is a lot of damn work.)

Third, if you’re successfully self-publishing, selling books and making money, you’d have to think long and hard before transitioning to a legacy publisher. The benefits they offer include giving you potential distribution in stores, more marketing muscle, and obviously taking on the production, warehousing, and order fulfillment of your books. But you’ll make less per book, and have less control over things like cover design. Traditional publishers also tend to be far less nimble than you doing it yourself. But, of course, there’s the rub…

Fourth, when you’re indie publishing you’re doing it all yourself. So it’s all on your shoulders, and you may not have the experience, knowledge, time, or money to run your own company. I always tell authors they have to treat their writing as a business. In essence you are setting up your own publishing company, with all the attendant issues to be faced.

Fifth, if you’re not successfully self-publishing (that is, if you’ve posted a book and it’s not selling), then you face a hurdle with publishers: You’ve done your own book, and demonstrated that you can’t help them sell many copies. That’s the danger of self-publishing a manuscript you want to take to traditional publishers. If it tanks, you’ve basically told the world “I can’t really sell this.”

Sixth, if you want to make the transition from indie-published to traditionally published, I think you need to show the publisher you have the ability to help them sell copies. Again, this can be complicated. If you’re selling a bunch of copies of your indie title, you have to ask if it’s worth giving that up to someone else; and if you’re not selling copies, you have to ask if the publisher is going to see it as worthwhile and valuable. So in approaching a publisher, you have to find that balance.

Seventh, for these reasons, it’s my opinion that you take down the self-published book you’re hoping to land with a traditional publisher, unless it is doing really well. Let the publisher feel they’ve got something fresh and strong.

Eighth, understand that it is really hard to “rescue” a failed indie published book by going with a legacy press. Sure, we all know about someone who did it — but that’s the exception, not the rule. Most of the titles that started as indie-published books but then sold a bunch with a traditional publisher (that list would include The Shack, Fifty Shades of Grey, Hunger Games, Divergent, etcwere doing well as indie-published titles.

Ninth, to find success  you focus on building your platform, so that you can help yourself sell more copies no matter where your next book is published. To me, this is the key to succeeding in this area — build your readership, so you can tell a publisher, “I have this big platform to help us sell copies.”

And tenth, this person asked if I’m seeing this happen more and more in publishing. The fact is, I’m seeing a lot of authors try to move their indie-published titles to traditional publishers, but I’m not seeing it work very often. Frankly, I’m seeing much more success when an author brings a strong platform and a new book to a legacy press.

Let me know if that’s helpful. Happy to answer any questions you have of a literary agent — just drop your question into the “comments” section below. 

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  • Dee Lane says:

    If I own the copyright can a publisher pick it up and or would they??

  • Dee Lane says:

    I self published through outskirts press. My book cover design and everything in between belongs to me. How do I get an agent to help promote it now that I have spent thousands through outskirts? My book is a unique take on more than 29 years of HIV and I am tapped out as far as paying outskirts to help promote.

  • Marianne Scott says:

    So…if your readers are liking your book and giving you good reviews but you haven’t yet reached the kind of sales numbers that would ‘impress’ the traditional publishers, do you wait and see what happens in the next year or take the initiative to reach a wider market with the help of the ‘professionals’? Also, I was advised that once you self-publish, you’ve essentially put the kiss of death on that novel as far as the big guys are concerned. The word is that self-publishing is like the plague when it comes to trying to make contact with any agent or publishing house. They simply won’t risk the infection. And, you are correct in saying that being your own publisher involves and extraordinary amount of work. I personally would prefer to spend that time and effort on writing. Maybe you should try to re-answer that question by giving a ten step guide of how to make a self-published novel stand out in the main stream of the publishing industry. Please stretch beyond the contemporary beliefs. There are many great self-published novels out there that deserve their spot in the limelight. It’s a matter of how does an author get it there.

  • John Howard Prin says:

    As a published author of nonfiction who has self-published a novel (fiction has always been my first love), I found your remarks 4 thru 9 especially informative and helpful. Sorry to say, I didn’t quite realize the significance of the issues you spoke about over a year ago when I launched the novel. It’s clear in today’s marketplace that building a strong platform is as important as writing a great book.

    My experience with the “great book” part of that statement came from dozens of readers who bolstered my grand hopes, based in part on the story’s Amazon/KDP 4.6 average rating of customer reviews. But the “strong platform” part eluded me and led to a series of disappointments largely due to my untested skills as an online marketer/publisher (in essence, as you noted, “your own publishing company”).

    So now I am committed to successfully traversing the hazardous terrain of pitching my good-story-well-told/weak-sales-&-low-visibility project to a legacy publisher (your points 5, 6 and 8). That leaves my question based on 7, when to take down my book online?

  • So this post is talking more about taking a self-published book and trying to sell THAT to publishers. But what if you self-publish a book, and then present a DIFFERENT book to publishers? Will the book sales of the self-pubbed title affect the publisher’s decision? Is an author shooting herself in the foot by self-publishing and having low sales if she’s wanting to traditionally publish a different book in the future?

    • chipmacgregor says:

      If your self-published book has done well, it will cause other publishers to notice your work and pay attention, Sara. If your self-published title has bombed, it will make publishers assume you don’t know how to help them sell books. I’m very supportive of indie publishing, but I think authors need to educate themselves on how to market and sell their titles.

  • Lois Keffer says:

    Chip, you mentioned earlier the importance of knowing which types of books an agent represents. I’m curious: Does anyone in your agency handle historical fiction with a western flair? How about a detailed list of the types of books each of you will consider? No one wants to mistakenly pitch a manuscript destined to hit the reject pile without a second look. Thanks!

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Normally at a conference they ask agents “what are you looking for and what are you NOT looking for?” I try to always post a response to that question, to help attendees know what might be a fit, Lois.

  • G M Barlean says:

    Looking forward to hearing you speak at the Nebraska Writers Guild Conference on Saturday.

  • Lisa Godfrees says:

    Hi Chip! Could you define “successful”? I imagine what might be considered a success from the indie author’s perspective might be different than what a legacy publishers would consider a success.

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