How to Get a Traditional Book Deal if You’ve Self-Published

how to get a traditional book deal if you've already self published

I hope you all had a chance to catch a few lessons from the Profitable Blogging Summit last week! I was following along from the beach in Punta Cana while working on new and experimental kinds of sun poisoning. (Seriously. My skin hates me right now. And yes, yes, I should know better. I have already given myself many demerits.)

I love answering questions at summits and conferences, but the difficult part is that I have to answer questions in 30-60 second spurts. And anyone who knows me knows that I do not excel at brevity. I don’t think I’ve ever had anything but a 6-part answer to a question.

But it’s not because I like to hear myself talk! (I actually very much think my voice sounds ridiculous when recorded.) It’s that publishing is very complex and has so many facets, exceptions, and tangents that there’s no way to provide an honest, hard-and-fast rule about anything.

So today I wanted to give you guys the long, 4-part answer to one of the questions Kirsten asked me: What does it take for a self-published author to get a traditional book deal?

When we chatted about this on camera, I grabbed my copy of The Joy of Less to illustrate a shining example of one author who successfully went from self-published to traditionally published.

The Joy of Less had sold 70,000 copies in just over 4 years by the time I took it on, so clearly Francine had created an incredibly successful and powerful book on her own. But she was ready to see her book in bookstores both nationwide and worldwide. And luckily, we were able to place the book with Chronicle, a wonderful publisher, as well as sell foreign rights in 17 countries.

And because I love ya, I’m going to be giving away 2 free copies of the book to 2 lucky readers today!

The joy of less francine jay book deal

The new edition is gorgeously redesigned, streamlined, and a great example of how a self-published book can live a whole new life with the help of a traditional publisher. I think you’ll love holding it, reading it, and sharing it with other clutterbugs in your life!

To enter to win a free copy of The Joy of Less, scroll down to the bottom of this post!

In the meantime, let me take a big breath and better explain how the self-pubbed to traditional-pubbed process works:

As we all know, the job of an agent or acquiring editor is to make an educated guess about how a book will perform in the marketplace. We all have our own hunches about how marketable a concept is, how well an author’s platform will translate into sales, and how much readers, reviewers, and the press will like the book.

That’s what our jobs come down to: making bets based on hunches. If we make good bets and take on good projects, we do well. If an editor signs a breakout author, she can start getting promoted up the ladder as she works on the author’s next (hopefully as successful!) books. If an agent signs a breakout author, she can negotiate an even better deal for the author’s second book, and then her third and fourth book after that. That’s the part that thrills us to our cores: building lasting careers for authors we admire.

But any agent and editor will also tell you that it’s nearly impossible to predict with total accuracy whether a book will do well in the marketplace. With one big exception: self-published books.

Because self-published books have already had their debut in the marketplace, editors and agents will know exactly what to expect, and they’ll have many more data points when they run their P&Ls.

This can be a great thing if you have a highly successful self-published book, because you’ll be able to show editors and agents that investing time and resources in you will be fairly low risk. But it can also make self-published books with middling sales look like an especially high risk.

So the very first thing I ask myself when assessing a self-published book is:

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The Two Ways to Make a Living as a Writer

How to make a living as a writer

But first, the publishing news worth reading this week:

Sorry, You Can’t Speed Read (Jeffrey Zacks and Rebecca Treiman for The New York Times): “Our favorite Woody Allen joke is the one about taking a speed-reading course. ‘I read ‘War and Peace’ in 20 minutes,’ he says. ‘It’s about Russia.’” So in case you don’t have time to read this article, it’s about why we don’t have time to read.

Creating Easy Branded Images for Your Blog and Social Media (Kirsten Oliphant on Including a gorgeous image with your online content is such an important part of branding! Here’s the ever-savvy Kirsten Oliphant on Jane Friedman’s blog with some quick and easy tips for designing graphics, even if you’re not a graphic designer.

Integrating a Personal Brand with a Book Brand (Chadwick Cannon): I get asked questions about book and brand integration all the time–things like “Should my book have its own website?” “Should my book look just like my blog?” This is a great explainer on the 7 most common brand integration questions.

How and When to Catch the Elusive Publicity Department–Part 2 of 2 (Lizzy Mason on Pub Crawl): Here’s the second half of Lizzy Mason’s piece on working with your in-house publicist. Lizzy is the Director of Publicity at Bloomsbury Children’s Books, and you can find Part 1 here.

The Two Ways to Make a Living as a Writer

I’ve written about my journey with minimalism before (and the wonderful book that got me there), but I think there are so many more practical lessons that creatives can take from this growing trend.

The way I see it, there are two ways to make a living as a writer.

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Book Deal News: The Joy of Less by Francine Jay

The joy of less by francine jay book cover

But first, the stories worth reading this week:

How To Win With Your First Book: Podcast (Michael Hyatt): “Whether you’re an entrepreneur, counselor, pastor, or pundit, writing a book is one of those bucket-list items, isn’t it? But navigating the publishing world is like exploring a new country.”

Bill Gates on Books and Blogging (Katherine Rosman for The New York Times): “Bill Gates, the co-founder ofMicrosoft, has emerged as a force in the publishing industry, thanks to the book reviews he posts on his blog, Gates Notes. Mr. Gates, who says he reads about 50 books a year, discussed his love of reading, how he makes his selections and what book Warren Buffett recommended.”

5 Steps for Setting Writing Goals You’ll Actually Keep (Kristen Pope on The Write Life): “Taking the time to step back from your immediate deadlines and projects allows you to think about where you’d like to be—and chart a path to get there.”

The Complete Guide to Query Letters: Nonfiction Books (Jane Friedman): “It’s also important that prospective authors give some thought to their author platform, or their ability to market and promote their book to an existing audience they can reach, without the publisher’s help, through online or offline activities.”

Why Designers Love The Ampersand: A Romance That Dates Back to Pompeii (John Brownlee for Fast Company): “Cheerily nuzzled above the ‘7’ key like a pear-shaped pill bug, the ampersand is perhaps the most intriguing character on the keyboard.”

Book Deal News: The Joy of Less by Francine Jay

Minimalist Flowers

I have a book deal that I am so excited to share with you today! (I hope you can hear the sing-songy excitement in my voice!) Finally, I can tell everyone about The Joy of Less: A Minimalist Guide to Declutter, Organize, and Simplify by Francine Jay, who’s the Founder of Here’s the official deal listing:

the joy of less francine jay book deal

Publisher’s Weekly also wrote up a nice little feature on the book deal–read it here!

I am extra excited about this book, because my own personal history with it goes way back. (I’ll tell you that story in a second.) Francine originally self-published The Joy of Less, and it already had a tremendous cult following and over 70,000 copies sold before we started working together. But Francine was ready to get the book into bookstores and spread the message of minimalism to a wider audience. And we were lucky to find the perfect partner to make that happen: Chronicle Books. They’ll be releasing a gorgeous, completely redesigned and revised print edition on April 26th, and yes, you can already preorder your copy now! Francine also has such an interesting story and perspective as an author who started out self-publishing before moving to traditional publishing–you can read why she made the leap to getting a traditional book deal here.

We’ve also been lucky to have so many foreign publishers fall in love with this book, and we’ve now sold translation rights to publishers in 17 (!!) countries: Bompiani will publish in Italy, Paralela in Brazil, Planeta in Spain and Spanish-speaking countries worldwide, Mosaik Verlag in Germany, Editions First in France, Book21 Publishing Group in Korea, Eksmo Publishers in Russia, Prometheus in Holland, Beijin Han Tang Yang Guang Media in Mainland China, PT Gramedia in Indonesia, TYTO ALBA in Lithuania, Muza in Poland, Objectiva in Portugal, and As If Books in Taiwan, Post Books in Thailand, Notos Kitap in Turkey, and ANAG in the Czech Republic. Brilliance Audio will also be producing an audiobook, which will be released at the same time as the print book.

This is a book that changed my life when I first read it, and it’s a book I feel honored to be able to bring to a worldwide audience.

I first heard about the self-published edition of The Joy of Less when I was an editorial assistant, working at a publishing house in New York. It was just about the financially toughest time in my life—editorial assistants always start out in the industry working long hours for tiny salaries and being surrounded by higher-up editors who are much more well-dressed and sophisticated. (Although, really, it doesn’t take much with me–ha!) When you work in New York as an editorial assistant, you quickly realize that nearly everyone in the city has much nicer shoes, clothes, jewelry, apartments, and restaurant reservations than you. You’re at the bottom of the ladder, and you’ll be there for awhile.

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Zen Habits–How To Make Yourself Work

how to write more and be prolific

One of my all-time favorite blogs is Zen Habits by Leo Babauta. It’s amazing because it’s different–just look at the main page, and you’re instantly struck by how it looks nothing like anything else on the internet. No ads, no images, no lists of posts, very few links, and no social media icons. It’s just one post on a blank page, with a few links that lead you to years and years of archived posts. It’s quiet in a noisy world. As much as I always tell my authors about the importance of design, this is the perfect example that website design doesn’t have to be cookie cutter–it just has to be impactful.

Lucky for us, the writing on Zen Habits is just as impactful. Leo’s such a master of condensing so much knowledge and inspiration into just a few short sentences. Makes my long-winded self jealous! And I also think his approach to writing as a profession, particularly writing on the internet, is incredible. He went the traditional route for a while, running a blog with ads and writing a book with a traditional publisher, then decided the whole thing just wasn’t jibing with his minimalist values. So he uncopyrighted his blog posts (more on this here), pulled all his ads, and refocused on helping his readers in a more direct way. He moved his business model to one of building value with his readers, so that now they directly support his business by signing up for his great e-courses and buying his ebooks, instead of having third parties, like advertisers, support the business. It’s both a radical idea and a simple idea–not too different from a business model like that of NPR, where the emphasis is on serving the public, and then inspiring the public to support you back.

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