The email I received a week ago actually read, “How Can I Get my Self Published Book in the Hands of Real Publishers?”
I get a variety of questions like this: Sometimes an author is about to self publish and wants to know how to maximize the chances of attracting a traditional publisher in the future. Other times they are frustrated with their book sales from self-publishing and hope a traditional publisher can boost sales. And, at times, an author has sold a significant number of books and believes a traditional publisher can help take that momentum and bring sales to a new level. Or perhaps they feel a traditional publisher will provide even greater credibility.
So, first of all, let’s clear up the misconception of this particular author who asked, “How Can I Get my Self Published Book in the Hands of Real Publishers?” Self-publishers are also “real.” Some are more professional than others. And you may even want to be your own publisher and work with freelance editors and designers to create your book. I am guessing this particular author got burned by a self-publishing company that either charged too much, did an unprofessional job, or both. My first piece of advice is to work with freelancers to publish your book rather than self publishing companies (which tend to compete on cost and not quality). Look at samples of their work and speak with authors who have worked with them.
Let’s get down to numbers to answer the bigger question of how you can interest a traditional publisher. Once a book is self published, acquisitions editors at traditional publishing houses want to see significant book sales before they will take the book on. While the sales figures vary according to genre, subject and market, the number I have heard most often from agents and publishers is that sales of about 15,000 books will start to get publishers interested. Be aware, however, if your book is for a small market, a publisher may believe you have saturated that market. So, it’s not just about current sales but also potential sales.
Why do publishers generally want to see such a high number of sales? Aren’t they going to make the sales happen? Short answer: no. They want to know that you are out there selling books and that you are likely able to continue to engage in activities that result in book sales: blogging, social media, public speaking, TV and radio interviews, being interviewed or writing for magazines, newspapers or journals, offering webinars, etc. Know this: Even if a traditional publisher picks up your book, you are responsible for the majority of book sales 99% of the time. A traditional publisher is not a “pass” on having to market and promote and sell your book. In fact, you likely will need to hire your own publicist. The publicist at the publishing house will have more books than they can fully support.
There are exceptions to the high sales rule. Generally, if a niche publisher sees a book that works well for an audience they already target and reach, they may be interested even before the book sells in large numbers. Often, this is not a sale generated by the author, but a book the acquisitions editor has discovered on his or her own. This is what happened to Kimber Simpkins, who self published Full: How I Learned to Satisfy My Insatiable Hunger and Feed My Soul. An acquisitions editor at New Harbinger read the book and realized it would be perfect for one of the core audiencesof this niche publisher.
If you are self publishing your book, develop a strong marketing plan and then fulfill that plan to the best of your abilities. That is the best way to get picked up by a traditional publisher after self publishing.
You may ask, then, should I just look for a traditional publisher in the first place if I have not already self published? The answer may be yes. It will likely take longer to publish the book, so this may not be optimal if you are in a hurry to get the book out and use it to support a business or garner speaking gigs, for instance. In addition, you will need a significant author platform and believable marketing and promotion plan to attract publishers. That plan will be part of a bigger document, your book proposal. You can find out how to write a book proposal here. You may also want to hire a book proposal coach.
Let’s say you have great sales numbers–maybe 15,000 books sold–and you have written a book proposal. If you haven’t already hired a book proposal coach or editor, do so to make sure the book proposal is highly polished and convincing. Get their help on your query letter, as well. Your book proposal coach or editor may be able to query some colleagues for you–agents or acquisitions editors they have relationships with. This is something I do for my book proposal clients. In addition, you can query agents or publishers that you find on your own through a search of AgentQuery.com or Writer’s Digest or look at meet agents at writers conferences.
Just make sure your proposal is polished, makes a compelling case in every section of the proposal and is ready to go when you send the query. Nothing can extinguish the flame of interest as quickly as a proposal that takes months to arrive after the initial query. You want to send it the day you hear back from the agent or acquisitions editor.
One final note: Be clear about why you want a traditional publisher. A traditional publisher may help you get greater distribution for your book in bookstores. They can provide some instant credibility for your book. Sometimes they can be a help in book promotion, but often not much. A traditional publisher may also make changes to the book that make it even better or more marketable. Make sure your expectations are realistic. If your book is doing great without a traditional publisher, you may do well to continue that way. It really depends on the specific circumstances.
What questions do you have about how to get published? Ask here as a comment and I am happy to answer.
Thanks for the very helpful information!
Agreed that “real” publishers like to see a decent number of sales – they’ve got a higher overhead to cover so they need a certain amount of volume to get there.
The best way to get them to take notice is to get high sales – they’ll be watching the best seller lists and will probably have some kind of software that helps with that.
If you’re able to team up with other people, that will help get eyeballs and sales. I’ve seen quite a few self published book launches in niches like internet marketing and self help where they offer competitions to fellow marketers to get sales. Not mega-easy to organise but it can work nicely. A friend who’s done that says the best time is mid-month because overall sales are lower (it’s nowhere near pay day) which means the number of units needed to get to the top of the category is lower.
Lisa Tener says
Thanks for weighing in, Trevor. Yes, the main way publishers and agents get sales numbers is through BookScan, a service of the Nielsen Company. Unfortunately, it’s an extremely expensive service so few authors could afford it, but once you have an agents, many agents have access, either through their own agency, if large, or through colleagues in publishing houses.
Daniel Wright says
I just enjoyed reading your article, Thank you so much for this amazing article that you have shared with us, my sister is a self publisher I am sure this article will be of great help to her.
Lisa Tener says
Thanks, Daniel. I hope it is–and good luck to her with her books.