Conference Tidbits: Using Self-Pub to Move to Traditional Pub

This came up at the conference and it also came up on one of the forums I read on a regular basis.  I think the problem with asking a question like this on a forum is that most of them have their biases.  So, ask on a self-pub forum and you’ll get asked, “Why would you ever want to do that?  You have power and control and time-to-market and can actually do this full-time if you self-pub.”  You ask on a traditional publishing forum and they just say, “Huh, why do that?  If you want to self-pub, then do that.  Elsewhere.”

Somewhere in the middle is the real answer.  (Or the current version of it that will change in the next month.)

A year or so ago it was pretty common to hear that the stigma had worn off of self-publishing and that editors and agents were willing to take on a well-selling self-published book.  As a matter of fact, at this conference last year there was a panel by Hugh Howey’s agent and editor talking about what a smashing success it had been for them to sign him and get him foreign deals on his WOOL series in something like 30+ countries.

Now, it looks like the pendulum has already started swinging back towards the middle.  The stigma on self-publishing has worn off to a large degree.  BUT, I think more and more there’s an opinion forming that a book can either be self-pubbed or trade pubbed, but that once it’s self-pubbed that’s it for that book.

Things I heard at the conference this year:

-Many publishers that took on self-pubbed books that had been successful at 99 cents or $2.99 are finding that the book is not successful at the higher price points used by trade publishing.

-Many publishers that take on self-pubbed books are finding that the market for that book was already used up and that they aren’t seeing significantly more sales.

-If you print a self-published book, that book’s sales statistics may show in BookScan or similar tracking systems and no one is going to take the time to realize that the low sales they’re seeing are for a self-published book (since most self-pubbers get most of their sales through e-book sales not print).  All the buyers at places like B&N are going to see is that a book by that author sold poorly and they’ll let that influence their buying decisions which can tank a successful self-pubbed author’s attempt at trade publishing, even if it’s for a different title.

So, should you use self-pubbing as a springboard to trade pubbing?

For a specific book, my current opinion is no.  If you want that novel trade published, go that route.  If there was a shortcut it’s now gone (or about as rare as winning the Powerball jackpot).

For the second or third book in a series?  Unlikely.  Your readers will want a faster turnaround time than going trade will get you and I would expect most trade publishers would be leery to take it on mid-series no matter how successful the first book was.  Especially true if the first book was successful based upon lots of price cuts or the magic of Amazon’s algorithms.  (Turns out they may be biased towards Amazon books–either Amazon imprints or Select participants.)

For a new series?  Maybe.  Depends on what your price point has been for your self-pubbed books, how similar the new series is to the old (will the same readers want to read it), and a whole host of other random factors including whether anyone else has been recently successful at doing it.

I’m not saying it’s impossible.  Just know that it’s probably not a strong strategy.  And, as anyone who has self-published knows, there are SO MANY people self-publishing that you have to work your ass off to get out of the “no one knows or cares who you are” starting point.  It’s not just about having a good book.  It’s about having a good book and having enough people discover it and buy it to start it moving.

There was a good talk at the conference about how at the very start of publishing you get out exactly what you put in.  Each sale is a direct result of your efforts.  You advertise, you get sales.   You stop advertising, you have no more sales.  If you’re lucky, your advertisements lead to new readers who like the book and then they tell someone else about it.  And if you’re doubly lucky that new person reads it and they like it, too, and they tell someone else.  Only then, after you’ve managed to scale the first hurdle of getting people to read the book does the magic of “word of mouth” and algorithms kick in.

Maybe five years ago you could just throw up a book and people would buy it.  Those days are LONG gone.  I’d argue that now being a successful self-pubber is just as hard as being a successful trade pubber.  The difference is just in degree of control over the product.  But both sides now have that large pyramid where most are at the bottom earning nothing.

(And as more people think that self-pubbing is a better route and the public gets more exposed to people who weren’t ready for publication in any form, the harder and harder it’s going to become to gain notice as a self-pubbed writer.  Most readers haven’t cared about who a publisher was.  I expect that will change.  I know self-pubbers talk about how great it is that nothing goes out of print anymore, but I’d disagree.  It’s kind of like that giant floating trash pile somewhere in one of the oceans–growing bigger every day.  How do you find quality in the midst of that?)

About M. H. Lee

M.H. Lee is a speculative fiction writer currently residing in Colorado whose stories are sometimes dark, sometimes funny, sometimes darkly funny, but hopefully always thought-provoking and entertaining.
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