Can Self-Publishing Lead to a Traditional Publishing Contract?

by Joel Friedlander on January 14, 2011 · 14 comments

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By Patricia Fry

I’m really pleased to welcome Patricia Fry to The Book Designer today. Patricia has a wealth of experience publishing and helping other authors navigate the indie publishing path. She speaks from a long and successful career in publishing.



Some people look at self-publishing as a last resort—something that you do when there is absolutely no other option. But for authors who want to land a traditional royalty publisher, it can be a smart business move. Why? Because some publishers seek out good self-published books.

self publishing, publish a bookNot all publishers are open to already published books, of course—some even write in their submission guidelines or their listings in Writer’s Market, “Do not want to see previously published books.”

Few publishers, however, will turn their backs on a book that is selling—that their audience wants and that has proven itself in the marketplace.

I have had five of my self-published books picked up by publishers—two of them in 2010. Scholastic Books issued one of my clients a contract last year for her young adult fantasy. And this wasn’t a self-published book, but a pay-to-publish book. (Self-publishing means establishing your own publishing company. A “self-publishing” company, or subsidy publisher, is now more widely known as a “pay-to-publish” company.)

What does it take to have your previously published book even looked at by a traditional royalty publisher? Proof that it is selling in large enough quantities to that publisher’s audience. The publisher must see the success potential in the project.

While there are steps you can take to prepare your book for eventual acceptance by a publisher, not every book that is picked up has been intentionally groomed for this outcome. In most cases, the author simply produces the best product he can for the right market and then promotes it as a priority, not a second-thought. This describes the scenario in all cases I know of.

With my book on how to do a Hawaiian luau on the mainland, I just got tired of promoting it. I was almost sold out of my third self-published edition and I was running out of ideas for promoting it. So I offered it to a publisher in Hawaii and he jumped on it. He sells it through tourist shops on the Islands—the audience I had in mind originally, but wasn’t able to adequately reach.

Planning for Success

Now, I recommend to my clients who have written books of potentially wide interest, that they give up their seemingly futile search for a publisher and self-publish the book to get it out there. Then I help them set up a marketing plan and advise them to promote their book as if its success depends on it—because it does! I advise them to hit it hard for a year or more and then take their book along with their impressive sales figures to an appropriate publisher.

Doesn’t it make sense that a publisher will be more interested in a book that has proven itself and an author who has demonstrated his promotional skills than take a chance on an unknown author and an untested book?

If you’ve studied the publishing business at all, you’ve already heard about some of the more famous self-published books that eventually made it big in traditional publishing houses. There was James Redfield’s Celestine Prophecy, Lisa Genova’s Still Alice and many other happy-ending stories.

Some publishers even request full books in their submission guidelines and others are known to go out and solicit self-published novels and nonfiction books.

How to Land a Royalty Publisher

So what is the best way to land a traditional royalty publisher? There’s nothing new under the sun. It’s the same advice any professional would offer any hopeful author:

  • Write a good book for a large audience or a strong niche audience.
  • Promote, promote, promote.
  • Once you have some impressive sales figures, start approaching appropriate publishers.
  • If this is your first spin around the publishing arena or if you have not quite figured out how to navigate this highly competitive industry, before putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard,
  • Study the publishing industry so you have a clear understanding of what it takes to succeed in this competitive climate; so that you know what your options are, the possible ramifications of your choices and your responsibilities as a published author.
  • Write a book proposal. This will help you to write the right book for the right audience, show you how to establish a platform and build on it, and help you to create a reasonable marketing plan.

If you dream of being published in the traditional way, but you are receiving rejection after rejection, after rejection, consider self-publishing your amazing book. Prove its worth and then approach the publisher of your choice. Rather than a fluke, these days, going from self-publishing to traditional publisher is becoming a rather sophisticated business move.

Patricia Fry is the executive director of SPAWN (Small Publishers, Artists and Writers Network). She established a career as a writer over 30 years ago and is the author of 32 published books. Visit her informative blog daily: www.matilijapress.com/publishingblog. Websites: www.patriciafry.com and www.matilijapress.com.

All links are affiliate links. Photo by Marin Cathrae

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    { 11 comments… read them below or add one }

    Ken K. Chartrand September 24, 2011 at 10:03 am

    Hi friend! I am a middle aged, married man who is a late blooming author.
    I am self published or as some would say, I have “paid to get published”. My book is a work of fiction titled, “The Lupine Effect”. It features a man, his family, a werewolf and a vampire or two, love and adventure! I paid to publish it. The company I used is FriesenPress of Victoria British Columbia Canada. They have reasonable prices and are good at what they do. The majority of promotion has to be done by the writer. Now I am in the tough ,but necessary promo stage.

    Reply

    Leslie January 18, 2011 at 10:14 am

    A literary agent I heard speak at a publishing conference said that a trade publisher does not consider a book to be commercially successful until it sells 7,500 copies.

    Reply

    Patricia Fry August 17, 2011 at 1:11 pm

    I’m stepping into this conversation a few months after the fact, but perhaps this comment will be noticed and will be helpful. As for what sales figure reflects a successful book, it depends on several things. First, what denotes success for you. If you self-publish, you’re profit per book is $8.00 and you sell 7,500 copies, your earnings total $60,000. If you go with a traditional publisher and get $1.00 per book royalties, you’ll only clear $7,500. Big difference.

    And then you must consider; what does success mean to you? Is it fame and fortune as an author, establishing a business you love around your writing work or enjoying a place within the writing world in whatever capacity you can achieve.

    It is true that the more published books and ebooks you have, the more copies you can sell. But this also means that you may be spreading yourself awfully thin between continuing to write new books and trying to promote a variety of titles.

    I want to share my news. Allworth Press released my latest book–number 34–“Promote Your Book, Over 250 Proven, Low-Cost Tips and Techniques for the Enterprising Author” last week. Check out all of the 5-star reviews at amazon.com

    Patricia Fry

    Reply

    Patricia Benesh January 15, 2011 at 9:51 am

    Patricia,

    Thank you for clarifying the term “impressive sales.” Getting to the 5,000 mark takes a tremendous amount of work…especially if it has to happen in the first year. According to data from the Kindle forum, the majority of self-published authors who sell 1000+ a month have multiple (e-book) titles. So a serious fiction writer may realize that it takes several novels to reach that point–and that building a fiction-writing career likely will take years.

    I look forward to any details you may have in this regard.

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander January 17, 2011 at 5:10 pm

    Hi Trish,

    We’ll continue to talk about this as time goes by. I was at a talk with Alan Rinzler last year, and he estimated that about 5% of books that had been “well” self-published were being acquired by traditional publishers. Interesting, yes? Thanks for taking part here.

    Reply

    Kama January 14, 2011 at 5:03 pm

    Great article, Uplifting words and practical advise. It is so lovely to see a positive article about publishing and to be left with some hope of one day reaching a larger audience. Thank you so much!

    Reply

    Patricia Fry January 14, 2011 at 3:01 pm

    The Author’s Guild has determined that a book of fiction is considered successful if it sells 5,000 copies and a nonfiction book is considered successful if it sells 7,500. But when I talk about “impressive sales” or “bookselling success,” I use the terms loosely. As different authors have different success goals, so, it seems, do publisher.

    I’ve heard that most publishers hope to sell 10,000 copies of a title by a relative unknown author on a niche subject. When a publisher accepts a book that has sold only a few thousand copies, he may be doing so using a different set of criterion. He may be looking at the potential of the book rather than the track record. He may be confident that he can move that book through channels available to him better than the author can on his own.

    The thing that some authors don’t understand is that, sure there are likely common sense, probable scenarios, when it comes to publishing. But there could also be numerous other possible opportunities arise that you don’t plan for or expect.

    What I’m saying is, listen to the experts and follow the rules, but be ever aware of opportunities and don’t close any doors. Your book may have sold only 3,000 copies, but there might be a publisher who is experienced in this genre/topic and hungry for a book like this who would take it on in a heartbeat.

    Patricia

    Reply

    Sue Ingebretson January 14, 2011 at 7:57 am

    I appreciate this wonderful and informative article, yet there’s one glaring omission. What the heck are “impressive sales?” I know why that was left unsaid, but a little help would be nice. I’ve read that sales over 5,000 will get a raised eyebrow from traditional publishers. I’ve also read that self-published books that sell 3-5 copies a month should be considered “successful.” Quite a disparity there. Any clarifications?

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander January 14, 2011 at 11:53 am

    Sue, I’m not sure what Patricia would say, but I’ve also heard the 5,000 figure, but the books need to be sold in the first year at the most. When it comes to many self-published books, the authors are not necessarily looking for big sales that will attract a traditional publisher. They might have quite different aims, and that’s one of the great things about self-publishing, that you get to define “success” for yourself. So sure, where it’s congruent with the author’s intent, it may well be that a book that sells 3-5 copies a month can be considered a success even if it isn’t “commercial.” Thanks for raising an important issue.

    Reply

    Karen January 14, 2011 at 2:57 am

    Great advice from Patricia. Thanks for the interesting post Joel. I published my first book last August and have been bitten by the self-publishing bug! So, wise-words related to the subject are very welcome.
    – Karen

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander January 14, 2011 at 10:36 am

    Karen, Patricia is a terrific resource on both sides of the publishing spectrum, traditional and independent, I’m so glad you enjoyed it.

    Reply

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