The Leap from Self to Traditional Publishing

Today’s post is prompted by two events:

  • My wife was filling in for me on a writer’s panel this weekend (I got a bad fish that gave me a bit of food poisoning)
  • I’m counseling a self-published author who is negotiating a traditional contract for his series.

Regarding the first, a fellow panelist mentioned, “No publisher will buy a work previously self-published.”  This author is dealing with outdated information. This WAS true at one time, but I’m living proof that self-published authors are being picked up by traditional publishers, and I’m not alone.  Just within Orbit (my publisher), which only releases a few new authors each year, recent acquisitions include: myself, David Dalglish, Mur Lafferty, D.J. Molles, and Anthony Ryan. There are even agencies that target self-published authors. Look at the clientele list of of Trident Media and you’ll see a lot of authors that started out as self-published. Also the Amazon imprints (47North, Thomas and Mercer, Montlake, etc) are very active with plucking authors from the self-published bestseller’s lists.

Of course, there is no guarantee that you’ll be picked up – just as there isn’t a guarantee that you’ll get plucked from the slush pile, but lets consider a few scenarios.

  • You self-publish and sell moderately well – this was me when I was picked up. I had been selling about 1,000 copies a month spread across 4 titles. Not amazing, but I was showing a constantly growing audience that got several publishers interested in my titles.
  • You self-publish a “good book,” but it sells poorly. A publisher isn’t going to be “more” excited by your book, but they won’t dismiss it out of hand either. A compelling books is a compelling book. The fact that the sales were low can be attributed to any number of factors, usually bad marketing on the part of the self-published author. If they like the book, they’ll know it has future potential with their value added resources that can be brought to bare.
  • You self-publish a book and it sells amazingly well – such was the case of people like Hugh Howey, Bella Andre, and Barbara Freethy.  If this occurs, you’ll probably have the opposite problem…trying to determine WHY you should make the leap.  When you are already selling hundreds of thousand (or millions of books), a publisher (and probably many) WANTS to sign you. Whether they can develop a package that will lure you away is another matter.
  • You self-publish a “bad book”  that sells poorly. No publisher will be interested in this.  But neither would they be interested if it had it come through the query-go-round. So, you are no worse off.

So now that we’ve established that you CAN make the leap…I want to discuss an issue that the author I’m counseling is dealing with. How to structure the transition. To me there are three scenarios – two that are acceptable and one that is definitely not.

  • The author keeps their titles on the market until just before the publisher’s books go up for sale. This is the process my books took, and is, in my opinion, the best approach. Orbit put up their pre-orders in March of 2011 and they co-existed with my books until August when I removed my titles. This was when Orbit was starting their marketing campaign so it only made sense for there to be be “just their” books available for sale. Their copies started shipping in November so I was only out a few months of “self-published” income, but as those sales were being funneled to the traditionally-published versions it wasn’t a complete loss.
  • The books are removed from the market and re-appear when the publisher’s versions are available. Usually this is done with a “fast-tracked” release. Obviously you don’t want this to occur if it will be a year until the book is released, but if it’s going to be 4 – 6 months….and the self-published sales have cooled significantly. It can be a scenario that is comfortable for the publisher and not result in too much loss income for the author. The monthly sales of the book will be a huge factor in whether this approach should be taken.
  • The books are transferred to the publisher upon contract signing…such that the self-published books remain for sale, but the income is being collected by the traditional publisher and royalties shared by the terms of the contract.  This is a horrible approach, and I would look sideways and object strenuously to any publisher who suggests such a thing. To me, it’s tantamount to theft. The publisher is taking 75% of the author’s sales on a book they have yet to contribute to.  If a publisher is requiring this, they are essentially asking the author to subsidize the books production and hence turning the publisher into a vanity press. I talked to more than one author who has been in this situation, and if the author (and their agent) properly educate the publisher as to why this isn’t acceptable, then another approach can be arranged. If not, and the current income is substantial, then I recommend making this a “deal breaker.”

It should be noted that there other ways to make the transition.  For instance H.P. Mallory kept the rights to the first three books of her series and sold books 4 – 6 to a publisher. This is a very clean way to make the transition without any worry about revenue sharing during the transition. Another alternative may be to sell the publisher on the “next series” to be produced by the author. This allows them to roll out with a whole new set of books and there is no confusion regarding existing sales.

So yes, it is possible to take your self-published work and have it picked up by tradition publishers. But how that transition occurs needs to be carefully considered. If both parties come to the negotiation table with an willingness to “make it work” then a path will be found.

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