Getting an Agent by Self-Publishing Your Manuscript: What Some Agents Think

I want to talk to you all about a particular kind of query I get. It goes something like this:

I self published my novel, WHATEVER IT’S CALLED, and I’m hoping you’ll represent me so I can bring it to a traditional publisher. I know if it’s just given a chance it would do really well.

printingNow let me get something very straight here. I have nothing against self-publishing. But it’s important to realize that if you’re going to choose self-publishing, you’re choosing to go down a particular path with your manuscript. It’s not a bad path, it’s just not the traditional publishing path, and it’s hard! And it’s the exception rather than the rule that by self publishing you’re giving yourself a better chance to get an agent and the attention of traditional publishers. If you choose to self-publish, embrace it! Do what you need to do to be successful. I don’t think getting a traditional publishing deal should be your goal if you’re self publishing. Personally, I just think self-publishing is too difficult though! Because if you’re self publishing you’re not just being a writer, you’re being a book designer, an art director, a proofreader, an editor, a publicist, a marketing specialist, etc…

Agent Pam van Hylckama Vlieg, of Foreword Literary told me, “According to a Random House editor I met, there are forty two people who touch your book before it goes to print. If you can do those forty two jobs yourself, and well, go for it!” Sheesh! I’m having a hard time doing the three – five jobs I’m already juggling. If I were a self pubbed auther, how could I add 39 more?

Emily Keyes, another agent at Foreword Literary said, “I just think the best self published authors go into it like they are the CEO of their own business and they have a business plan. It used to be that one publisher would acquire the first print rights to a book (usually hardcover) and then another publisher would buy paperback reprint rights. I know that’s a hugely dated reference, but authors should sort of think of self-publishing as the hardcover publisher (now ebook?) of yore. If a traditional publisher wants to pick the book up, they’d be the paperback publisher. There are a lot of decisions that are already made in that case. Some editing can be done to clean up obvious mistakes, but you’re not going to do a lot of developmental editing, for example. The book is already positioned in the marketplace. So you have to do a good job on the first go. There are so few second chances in the world!”

Using Emily’s example, why would a publisher want to put out a paperback of something that didn’t sell well in hardcover? If you’re going to self publish with an eye toward a traditional publishing contract, you’d better make sure you sell a lot of your self pubbed books first. You need to go into self publishing with eyes wide open. Many people choose to self-publish because they get frustrated with traditional publishing (i.e. not being able to get an agent or your agent not being able to sell your manuscript to a publishing house). I get it! That is frustrating! Perhaps though it would be wise to put your manuscript aside and write another. Try again. Or, self publish like a mother fucker. Be the CEO of your own business!

When I’ve gotten submissions from self published authors I’ve always passed. A few weeks ago I tweeted, “If you’ve already self-published your book, DON’T query me unless your sales numbers are astronomical. I can’t help you. ” Writers wanted to know, “But what’s considered astronomical?” I checked in with some other agents to see what they thought was astronomical (mostly because I didn’t want to sound like a dick) and also to hear how they felt about queries from self-pubbed authors.

Mandy Hubbard of D4EO Literary had a bunch of really smart things to say:

“I don’t have a hard and fast rule or a magic number, but I’m very cautious on signing any self-published book. A publisher wants to make a big splash with a release, and a book that’s already been available may not feel as fresh or exciting to buyers. And if the sales aren’t impressive, then a publisher has to look at that and go, “How can we publish this better? If it’s not selling well at $2.99, how can we make it successful at $8.99 or more?” I think there’s a common misconception that a self-pubbed book didn’t sell well for marketing reasons, and that a publisher is going to market it. And the truth is that most books don’t get big marketing campaigns. 

SO, onto what kind of numbers I’d need to see to think I can overcome the challenges– we’re talking 100,000 copies or more. The thing is most of these books sell a lot of copies becuase they are priced at 99¢to $2.99, a price that makes it an impulse buy.
My preference is for an author who starts in self-publishing to query me with a fresh book that allows me to shop it to publishers and build upon the success of your backlist/self-published titles. And if I know your plans up front, we can set you up so that you don’t have to do the either-or– maybe you’ll want to be a hyrbrid author and juggle contracts and self-publishing.”url


Natalie Lakosil, at Bradford Literary, had some smart things to say, too: “I honestly look at queries from self-published authors just like queries from everybody else, because very rarely do the ones making millions or selling 100++ copies come in there. And I have to love it, at the end of the day, regardless of numbers. That said, if the author is querying me with a book that is currently self-published, it’s usually a no; even a book that had 100++ sales or hit a list publishers are starting to shy away from, because they paid a LOT of money to snatch up a LOT of those authors in the past year, and aren’t yet seeing the results (profit) they expected. They’re finding that the audience for many of those books…already bought them. So I’m looking for what’s next. If an author is successful at self-publishing, and wants to continue with it and be hybrid, great; I will use that self-published history as a platform for a new book on submission. And for the currently self-published work, I will want to explore ways that I can assist outside of just reselling it – like audio, library distribution, translation rights, etc.”


Amy Stern at the Sheldon Fogelman Agency checked in with this:

“I think it’s really important for authors to realize that agents and publishers aren’t just publicity/marketing machines. I’ve gotten so many people saying that the book is published and ready to go, but it didn’t get the response on Amazon it deserves, so it needs the weight of a publisher behind it to go to the next level. They don’t recognize that agents’ and editors’ and designers’ (and etc.) contributions are part of what makes a book suitable for (traditional) publication. I also think it’s worth particularly noting that when someone submits a self-published book, there’s a different expectation. They didn’t think “this is good enough for professionals to evaluate,” they thought “this is good enough for an audience,” and I think that raises expectations for what the quality of the work should be. Submitting a self-published work sets a much higher bar for me.”


So just to be clear, I’m not saying don’t self-publish your books. I’m saying that if you do, go in with realistic expectations of what you’re in for. Go in knowing that you’re choosing a particular path for that manuscript. Go in prepared for a big job and be prepared to do it well. If you’re still interested in breaking in to traditional publishing, have realistic expectations about where your self published work fits in to that plan. And (as always) submit to agents who are interested in what you’ve done and how you’ve done it.



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3 responses to “Getting an Agent by Self-Publishing Your Manuscript: What Some Agents Think

  1. F W

    All comments are about FICTION only. Just a few of my thoughts.
    1) Agents want to know your platform. Without having self published, your platform is likely to be very weak. Until an author has moved to stage 2 of targeting readers, book clubs etc on Facebook, Twitter etc, I think their platform is lacking. As I am about to self publish my second novel, I know exactly where and how I will be promoting it.
    2) What is your brand and who are your readers? Until you have published and received reader feedback it is unlikely you know for sure what your brand really is or who your fans are. In my own case, I assumed my readers would be mainly male. As a result, I botched my launch. Turns out 80% of my fans are women. Who knew?
    Now that I know, my third novel which is underway, is being written for my target readers.
    3) Until you self publish several books, know what your readers want and you have honed your skills, you may not be “traditional” ready. Being a mid list traditional author means you may as well have stayed self published.
    BOTTOM LINE: Agents should be on the outlook for authors that have grown as a result of self publishing.

  2. Great post. And I especially love the quotes from other industry professionals. It’s useful to know that even the rare “my self-pubbed book was bought by a major publisher” scenario is changing and might not mean the same thing now that time’s passed.

  3. Reblogged this on Mrs C Writes and commented:
    very insightful and useful for anyone considering self-publishing