Self-Published Books: What Does it Take to Really “Make It”?

POSTED ON Nov 29, 2010

Joel Friedlander

Written by Joel Friedlander

Home > Blog > Marketing, Self-Publishing > Self-Published Books: What Does it Take to Really “Make It”?

Do you read blog comments? Sometimes that’s the most interesting part of the post. Recently I read an interesting comment on the article Literary agents open the door to self-published writers by Alan Rinzler and published on his blog, The Book Deal.

The comment was from literary agent Kristina Holmes, and she talked about what she was looking for in books—self-published or not—for her agency. Here’s a part of what she had to say:

I still must see a significant platform and a well-written book with a compelling premise. The extra consideration self-published authors will have is showing substantial book sales. To a degree, a really unique hook or premise to the book can make up for low book sales, as can recent platform developments that may take sales to another level.

Whether you’re trying to attract a contract from a traditional publisher or not, there’s some powerful advice in this comment.

Consider at the three things Holmes is looking for in all books and authors:

  1. a significant platform
  2. a well-written book
  3. a compelling premise

Aren’t those the same things we should be aiming for, as self-published authors?

A significant platform—In the online world, your book may have just as good a chance to be discovered as a book from a major publisher. That can happen when the people who are touched by your author platform efforts become cheerleaders for your book or program or cause and amplify your message into their own networks.

A well-written book—One of the messages we’re trying to send readers is that self-published books, when they are produced with professionalism and care, are the equal of books from traditional publishers. This starts with a well-written and edited manuscript, and there’s simply no replacement.

A compelling premise—Like all publishers, we have to answer the question, “Why publish this book?” We need to aim to fill a need in the market, or solve it better, faster, cheaper, or with more flair than anyone else. Present your unique perspective, give people a reason to want or need your book.

The Self-Publishing Conundrum

Holmes specializes in nonfiction, and nonfiction is where it’s easiest to profitably publish a book yourself. Her extra requirement for self-published books, “showing substantial sales,” is where a dilemma arises.

Most self-published books have negligible sales. That’s bad for the publisher and for any hope of selling to a bigger publisher, no matter what. But even if you sell 5,000 copies—a significant achievement for many self-published authors—you may only succeed in convincing a potential publisher that that’s all your platform will support.

In that case, why should they acquire your book and try to open up a larger distribution channel? You may have already exhausted the sales potential for your book.

And while a 5,000 copy sale is well short of what a big publisher with national distribution needs if it hopes to make a profit, the same book can be a cash bonanza for a self-published author. Once the costs of developing the manuscript and producing the book have been covered, the profits would be substantial.

A $15.95, 200-page trade paperback in print-on-demand distribution and sold on a short 20% discount will show a profit of $9.25 per book, or $46,000 for 5,000 books.

But the lesson in all this is simple: Books, to be successful, need to be well-written; to have a compelling reason for being; and they can be helped immeasurably by an author’s efforts to build a receptive audience. And that’s a lesson we should all remember.

Photo licensed through Creative Commons by Vicky S,

Joel Friedlander

Written by
Joel Friedlander

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