In an author’s world, agents and self-publishing can lead to one another. Maybe you’re querying agents, once you’ve completed your fiction. You probably can skip to just completing the sample chapters if you’re querying nonfiction. (If you’re writing a memoir, see the advice for fiction.) After a lot of research in places like QueryTracker and Manuscript Wish List, your queries might not land you an agent.
What they’re very unlikely to do, though, is pick up your already self-published book. Most agents will only represent subsidiary rights for a self-published book. That movie or series option, or the audiobook that’s still to be negotiated — those are possibilities.
No agent, no outside publisher? You’re now at the self-published part of the Game of Authorship. It’s a good bet, though, that an agent won’t be swayed for your future books by what you’ve self-published in the past, even if the self-pub book sold well. It might not count against you, but some agents say it’s unlikely to help.
Agents Jessica Faust and James McGowan explain why self-publishing doesn’t make it easier for them to say yes to a new author. As the principals at Bookends Literary, these agents say. that the minute you put your book out there, you are reaching the same market that the book publisher is going to reach with your book.”
It’s a bit more complex than that. A publisher will get your book noticed in places a self-published book has got little chance of reaching. Library sales, for example, or that review from Booklist or the starred review from Kirkus. If your urban fantasy book becomes published by an Amazon imprint like 47 North, you can imagine how much farther the reach will be for online sales. Publishers can get a book closer to those mile markers on the path.
These agents also say that the amount of editorial work your self-published book receives can be a drag on success. “Not much editorial” was the hallmark of the old vanity press books. Even today, not investing in enough editorial — like a development edit as well as line editing — can hobble a book. The high tide of a genre’s fans can only lift a novel so much above the reading horizon.
According to Faust and McGowan, a self-published book’s massive sales make a pickup of that book a possibility. “But there's also that fine line where publishers might say, well, you have amazing sales, but you've already reached the market,” Faust says. “Like you've almost bypassed the point that they could achieve.”
And at that point, McGowan, adds, “everything just gets pivoted to something new, like, what is next for you?”
Some agents will read a query for a self-published book to represent its subsidiary rights. A French version of your mystery can be published. Or your book in English gets published outside of the US.
Any book’s chances are improved by better editorial — and after that, a marketing plan driven by the author’s enthusiasm to promote themselves and their story. In any case, keep writing. Agents consider if an author is already reaching out via a newsletter, website, and more.