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 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:
Did it sell well?
This is, by far, the most important question. If your self-published book hasn’t sold well, it will be very, very hard to convince an agent or acquiring editor that this will suddenly change once you partner with a publisher. Publishers truly do expect authors to be the driving force of sales, and while working with a publisher will vastly increase your reach, it’s so important to prove that you already have the writing skills and marketing savvy to launch a successful book.
But how do we define “strong sales”?
Well, it depends. (Isn’t that everyone’s favorite answer in publishing?)
It depends on the size of the publisher: smaller publishers have lower expectations for first year sales. It depends on the category: a middling amount of copies sold can be overcome if the genre or category is either perennially strong or in-demand and growing. It depends on the author platform: an author platform that has grown exponentially since the book was launched can overcome tepid first year sales.
I know it can be maddening to not have any concrete numbers, so I always try to provide you with whatever data points I can. I can’t speak for other agents and editors, but I can tell you the number that would get my attention: 50,000 copies sold overall or 20,000 copies sold in the first year.
That’s not to say that hitting those numbers would guarantee you a traditional book deal, but it would certainly be enough to get me past this first hurdle.
Next, I would ask: new book or self-pubbed book?
Right up front I’d have to know whether the author is interested in getting a traditional book deal for their already self-published book or for a new, unpublished book. If you’re interested in getting a book deal for a new book, then it still has to pass the standard review process, but you’ll have the extra advantage of an incredible track record.
If you’re looking to have a previously self-published book acquired by a publisher, then I’d continue on to these questions:
Is it a good book?
Once a book overcomes the primary hurdle of proving its ability to succeed in the marketplace, agents and editors want to look closer at the book itself. Is it good? Does it immediately pull you into its world? Is it saying something new, or saying something in a new way? Do we personally enjoy it?
Publishing is so subjective that every book must pass the “Do I personally love this?” test in order for an agent or editor to advocate well for it.
But we also want to see that other readers loved it, too. This is where online reviews become incredibly important. Does the book have overall positive ratings? How is it ranked within its category? What are readers calling out as strengths and weaknesses? How heated or tepid is their enthusiasm for it? And most importantly, are the reviews real? (Yes, I’ve spotted fake reviews! They’re much easier to pick out than you’d think.)
Is the audience tapped out?
This matters much more for platform-driven nonfiction than fiction, but agents and editors will want to know if there are still even more readers out there who would buy the book. This can be a tricky thing to prove, since most often authors throw all of their marketing force and connections behind their book in the first year (and rightly so!) and there may be few of their own fans who haven’t already bought the book.
I think there are two helpful things to demonstrate to an agent here to help convince her that your book could continue to succeed if placed with a publisher.
- Do you have a strong and growing platform? If an author can demonstrate that her platform is on track to increase dramatically by the time the book hits bookstores, then that’s a whole new set of readers to market to.
- Are you willing to make the new version of the book even more appealing, so that readers who bought the self-published edition will still want the new edition?
Adding new content is an excellent way to make sure that the traditionally published edition of your book will still be worth your fans’ time. In the case of The Joy of Less, the editor worked closely with the author to fully revise and update the text, and the author wrote a whole new chapter about dealing with family clutter in direct response to her readers’ request for more family-focused decluttering advice.
It was wonderful to see a book that I had loved and read in its self-published version be transformed into something that was even more useful, tightly written, and relevant. And we’ve seen so many readers of the first edition happily buy, read, and rave about the new edition!
Finally, is it a strong category or genre?
I know this can be frustrating, but the reality is that the book marketplace is as susceptible to passing trends as any other market. (Why do you think every big suspense thriller has “girl” in the title these days!)
If you have a paranormal vampire novel when every editor in town is over the trend, then it will be very difficult to sell it to a publisher, no matter how strong your self-published sales may have been. If you have a nonfiction book in a very niche subject area, it may be difficult to prove to publishers that a general trade audience exists for the topic.
In the case of The Joy of Less, there was worldwide interest in the topic, and so many publishers were thrilled to see a book with a new approach to such a timely topic.
If you want to see a fabulous example of a repackaged self-published book, or if you’re just wondering what all the decluttering fuss is about, then enter below to win a free copy of The Joy of Less!