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

by | Nov 29, 2010

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,

tbd advanced publishing starter kit


  1. Laura Pauling

    As Kristina mentioned, publishing is a personal choice. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with an author who self published to consider querying an agent or hope for a traditional deal. That said, I know lots of authors who are very happy with self publishing.

    I do love that either way, it’s the story that counts, not always the writing because great writing doesn’t always mean great story. But I’ll look past formatting issues and so so writing if the story moves me.

  2. Arlington Nuetzel

    Thanks, Joel. Those of us who are really serious just write and the traditional press be damned. Our words are out there. The sales figures cited here are way beyond my accomplishment but if I leave a legacy to my daughters and entertain a few people, I’ve done my job.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Beautifully said, Arlington. I couldn’t agree more.

  3. Kristina Holmes


    What a cool thing to see that you found my comments on Alan’s blog and wrote an article around them! It’s a funny world we live in where a person that you don’t know writes a blog post based off your comments on another blog, linked through a shared connection on Twitter (@AdvicetoWriters).

    I am excited to see you connect the dots for your readers, that both traditionally-published and self-published authors face the same basic issues. Regardless of which route an author takes, the issues we’re discussing here are essential no matter what. Readers want a book that moves them (thinking broadly), and is well-conceived and executed. And those readers must be reached. Yes, distribution helps. In some cases, for example with certain types of books like gift books, where the book is physically sold can make a big difference in how many copies are sold. In the nonfiction world, however, an author’s platform is usually the way that the book’s audience is reached. This issue exists regardless of whether you’re published by S & S or by your own self-publishing company.

    Not directly related, but perhaps worth mentioning: the decision to self-publish or seek an agent/publisher is a very personal one. There is no right or wrong – the decision must be based from knowing the realities of both sides of the coin. Do you want to make more money than royalties can offer? Do you want to jump through all the hoops required to solicit the interest from an agent and major publisher? Do you want to be in the business of publishing (as a self-publisher, you will be responsible for many of the responsibilities a publisher assumes)? Do you have the upfront cash to self-publish? Furthermore, do you have the upfront cash to properly self-publish, including hiring an editor, a publicist, a book cover designer, etc etc. If I didn’t know much about publishing as an aspiring author, I would not only read as much information as I could about the industry, but I’d spend some time with someone in publishing (even if I had to pay) to talk about my specific situation and goals. Surprisingly few authors make this sort of investment in their career, yet even a couple of hours spent with an editor, book publicist, publishing coach, or well-selling author can make a big shift in how an author thinks and what they know, and that can help them make meaningful changes in their publishing strategy and/or goals.


    Sales matter to traditional publishers because, if they’re reasonably high (10K, 15K or more), a publisher will say the very thing you’re saying: put a little more oomph behind the book and perhaps it will do well. Give the book distribution and some added publicity and marketing, and the book has the potential to sell really well. However, low sales can cast doubt in the publishers’ minds. That was really my point in commenting on Alan Rinzler’s blog. Strong sales can help a self-published author’s position, but low sales may suggest that the author lacks a platform capable of yielding sales along the lines that are interesting to a major publisher.

    If you consider that Amazon sells a big fraction of all the books sold in the marketplace, I think a publisher will tend to look at self-published book sold on Amazon and think to themselves, “hmm – if the book is available on Amazon, yet the book has still sold few copies, then chances are we’re not going to be able to do something so big with this book that it will stand a shot at selling 50,000 or 100,000 copies.”

    Many self-published books sell 100 or 200 copies total, as Nielsen Bookscan demonstrates. For many publishers, regardless of how worthy the book is, how well-written it is, or if the book has succeeded in getting good reviews, if sales are that low, it will be too scary oftentimes for publishers.

    Hope this explains it a bit more. The publishing industry has many idiosyncrasies and it can frankly be frustrating for many of us working within it. I try to always keep in mind what the final goal is and shoot for that. I think that’s what Joel’s post here is all about. Blow past all the ridiculous stuff about the proper way to query agents or whether your proposal needs to be single-spaced or double-spaced to appease the publishing gods. Instead, shoot for writing a book that people will love to read and build an audience that will be there to love it.

    Thanks again, Joel!

    • Joel Friedlander


      Thanks for your thoughtful and on-target comments.

      Yes, it’s odd how the networks we all exist within connect us. And yes, you are exactly right. I appreciated your clarity about what you need to see, and thought that that applies to all authors who hope to connect with an audience and find a readership.

      Thanks for stopping by.

  4. DiDi

    Who pays $15.95 for paperbacks? Or, lets do it this way, where do I SELL $15.95 paperbacks?

    • Michael N. Marcus

      To DiDi:

      Amazon sells two of my paperback books at $15.95, and three at $17.95. B&N sells them, too. I get checks every month, so someone most be buying them.

      I recently paid $19.78, $16.99, $19.95 and $18.11 for paperbacks at Amazon — so other authors’ books are selling for at least $15.95, too.

    • Joel Friedlander

      How much are you paying for trade paperbacks? $15.95 doesn’t seem that high anymore for most of the books I see.

  5. Mary Tod

    Hi Joel – my son sent me an article a few days ago about transmedia which I think is relevant to this post. Readers can find it at . A few ideas stood out for me:
    • Jeff Gomez, owner of defines transmedia as “a way of following stories between platforms and between media … Transmedia facilitates the move from passive viewing to participation. It’s about connection and collaboration.”
    • Transmedia adds another dimension to your work, a reason for readers to explore your ideas, topic, or storyline further
    • Transmedia can be simple, for example, a blog about research you used for a novel
    • Transmedia can open up additional revenue streams, a straightforward example would be offering online workshops based on a non-fiction topic

    Hope it’s useful.

    • Mary Tod

      Oops – looks like I made a mistake, the owner of is Simon Pulman not Jeff Gomez.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Very interesting, Mary, thanks for the link. All these ways of content interacting with different media seem to be exploding at the speed at which people can think of new ways to do it. This looks like a great article to get up to speed on Transmedia.

  6. Rima

    I’m not sure I understand why sales should matter when considering a self-published book. Self-publishers are generally unable to market their books on level with traditionally published books, so comparing their sales is an apples / oranges comparison. If I were an agent, I’d be more interested in the book’s reviews, because therein lies the truth of whether the book has big sales potential.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Rima, good point. Of course, self-publishers have to escape the review loop too, in which reviewers are reluctant to feature self-published books because they don’t have distribution, which they can’t get if they aren’t reviewed anywhere.

  7. Michael N. Marcus

    Sales of 100-plus books a month would be meaningless — or a turn-off — to a major publisher, but will provide a nice income to a self-publisher who also has a “day job.”

    If a book by a major publisher sold just 300 copies in the first three months, it would be a likely candidate for the buck-a-book tables, or even shredding and pulping to become the raw material for other books.

    A self-publisher who sees the same sales would be encouraged, and could look forward to many months, or even years, of regular income.

    Self-pubbers should abandon the mindset of measuring their success by selling out to one of the Big Six — and the loss of control that a small advance and the possibility of royalties would entail.

    Write and publish for the joy of it, or to impress your friends and family, or to change some minds, or as a learning experience or a business builder — not to impress Random House or Simon & Schuster. A first self-pubbed book is more likely to provide a valuable education for the author than a big profit — and that’s fine.

    Michael N. Marcus
    — Create Better Books, with the Silver Sands Publishing Series:
    — “Stories I’d Tell My Children (but maybe not until they’re adults),”

    • Joel Friedlander

      That’s great advice, Michael, and likely to lead to better books anyway. Thanks for the input.

    • Peg

      Michael, completely agree with your view that self-pubbers should not be focused on selling to the Big Six. We should all be seeking to elevate our own work and indie publishing as a whole. That’s where the future of publishing is and its where our own freedom lies.



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