Many writers have told the stories about how great self-publishing is. They talk about how much more money and how much more control they have over their titles. The message seems to be, “Get into self-publishing now. You can make crazy money that way.”
Successful writers talk about their half-million sales, and the control self-publishig gives them over their empire. Well, in my little writer’s circle, I have one of the more successful self-published books, and my success just about covers my car payment. As a writer just starting out, you won’t have a half-million sales.
In the beginning, it’s not about distribution, it’s about visibility. Traditional publishers make sure that your book is in a bookstore, on a shelf, where people have to decide to pass it up. Online, they need a reason to see your book at all. There is a huge difference that is rarely given credit by the self-publishing success stories. If you’re going to do well in self-publishing, you must have an audience. And a good route to an audience is to get traditionally published.
So, to have a really successful career self-publishing, you must first get traditionally published. The Big 6 can help you get the audience, and once you have that, you can self-publish and make better royalties with more control.
So, what’s the quickest route to getting published with the Big 6? Oddly, the answer may be self-publishing. I know, it sounds like I’m talking in circles, but hear me out. Publishers don’t want to buy a book from someone who’s never sold a book before. Agents don’t want to work with someone who has only got one book. But, if you’ve written three books in three years, and you’ve put in the work to self-publish each one, if you have a decent Amazon Sales Rank and good reviews, the publisher will be more likely to read your next query.
By the way, I’m talking about approaching the publisher directly, because I’ve lost some faith in what agents can do for a writer. From what I’ve read, there are two kinds of agents. There are the ones who truly do have clout with the publishers, who do have power lunches and who know the publishers by name. These people are not going to hear you if you call them. You need them more than they need you.
The other type of agents I’ve seen are just starting their careers, and need you as much as you need them. The only problem with that is, because they’re just starting, they know as much as you know. They don’t have any secret connections, no special knowledge. And what’s more, they aren’t as interested in selling your book as you are. There’s too many books out there now, looking for a publisher, so even new agents get swamped with queries. Stephen King says that you don’t need an agent until you have something to steal. In that spirit, I wouldn’t get an agent until I had already procured a publishing contract. It would guarantee that I could choose a good agent, and it would let the agent do what they do best, negotiate contracts.
So, first you write a few books, then you go to a publisher, then you get an agent. What next?
You write another book. Yeah, I know, kinda obvious, but here’s the thing. You write at least two or three books for traditional publishers. Make them in the same genre or even better, part of a series. Chances are, you’ll be offered a multiple-book deal in any case, so it’s good to put them all together in one series. This is what readers like, it’s what publishers like, and it sets you up for the next step.
Next, leave traditional publishing behind. Self-publish from then on. This is especially good if you’re in the middle of a series. Traditional publishers won’t worry that they’re losing you (they’ve got too many books to publish as it is), and you will have the audience that’s interested in seeing what your hero does next. You will have the traditional publishing audience, with the self-publishing control. And then, my friends, you’ll have truly arrived.
Self-publishing is easy. Getting the audience is hard. But if you follow this career path, you should be able to reach that point where you have the best of both worlds.
- Write a bunch of books and self publish them.
- Get a traditional publisher contract.
- Get an agent.
- Publish a second book with Big 6.
- Switch to self-publishing.
Update: Nathan Lowell pointed out to me that, with some modern contracts, once you sell the book, you could lose control of it forever. If you don’t cover the advance in sales, and they decide to stop printing it, you may have to give it up. In that case, I would consider the book a loss leader, created to build your audience rather than to be resold.