A few years ago, most literary agents were snobby about self-published work. And rightly so.
A few years back, it was genuinely the case that a large majority of self-published authors wrote bad books that were poorly edited with terrible covers and sales to match. There were some breakout successes – there always have been – but they were rare enough that no agent wanted to tramp those stony fields in the hopes of finding something to grow.
There are, still, plenty of lousy self-published books, but the average standard has improved in almost every dimension. Book covers look vastly better, for one thing. If you go to the Amazon Kindle bestseller list (here), you’ll find traditionally published and self-published books selling alongside each other – but I defy you to guess which is which from the covers alone.
And then because Amazon has made it easy for readers to complain about poor copyediting and weak storytelling, writers have responded by improving their attitude to those things too.
It’s true that many of the self-pub successes (Joe Konrath, John Locke, EL James, and many others) write genre fiction aimed squarely at the lower end of the market – but they tell their stories well for the market they aim at. And it’s not as though traditional publishers are averse to those markets. On the contrary, Random House was happy to take EL James’s work and turn it into the biggest publishing event of the decade.
And – no surprise – agents have noticed all this. Remember: they want any author whose work is strong and saleable. They truly don’t care where that author comes from (and don’t care much about who the author is either, for that matter.) If an author self-publishes a novel that starts to get a considerable following on Amazon, then agents will be interested.
Though the hurdles are high.
As a rough guide, I’d suggest that:
if you are selling print copies of your book, you would need to sell 5,000+ to earn an agent’s interest. (And it would also raise the question of why you weren’t selling electronically. These days, self-pub increasingly means e-pub – not least because it’s vastly easier to accumulate sales if your novel starts to attract readers.)
if you are selling e-books at low prices (£3.99 or less), you would need to sell, let’s say, 30,000 copies or so to make a persuasive case. Remember that a regular publisher may well double the price of your e-book and will probably price a paperback at £7.99 or so, which means that some of the sales achieved at lower prices would be choked off by the move to the mainstream.
if you are selling your e-book as a free download, then you would need to hit 50,000 downloads before a publisher could get excited.
Those numbers are broadly true of the UK market, but you can probably double them for the US market – perhaps even more than double them. And I’m assuming here that we’re talking about a real, proper mainstream publisher – either one of the Big Five Publishers, or one of the major independents (Bloomsbury, Faber, Canongate, for example.) A smaller, niche publisher might well start to get interested at volumes somewhat smaller than those I’ve mentioned – perhaps about 2/3 smaller.
If you want to boost your chances still further, then it helps if you:
Can demonstrate that you are energetic and resourceful when it comes to self-promotion. A good website, an active Twitter account with good followers, a decent Facebook presence: all those things can add to your look as an author who can make the most of any opportunities. Those things won’t swing a deal all by themselves (see our sceptical comments here), but they do demonstrate that you are a business-minded author and that will help
Can show a lot of 5-star reviews. We know of one fine author whose book generated huge free download interest on Amazon, but crucially also generated a ton of 5-star reviews. I suspect that her reviews did as much as her downloads to persuade Accent Press to take her on.
Can write a lot. One of the key “how-to” titles for the self-pub market is called “Write. Publish. Repeat.” Successful genre authors on e-platforms just generate a lot of text. That means a minimum of one book per year, but in some cases it means a fair bit more (even if one of the “books” is a free novella or short story, basically given away to readers at Christmas, or whatever.) The rapid-fire approach to writing generates plenty of snobbery from more literary types, but it is a technique that mainstream publishers have experimented with and, indeed, ploughed a ton of money into at times.
If you’re ticking these boxes, then there’s no reason why you shouldn’t approach agents with every expectation of keen interest in you and your work.
To find those agents, follow the rules that we talk about elsewhere on this site, namely:
Use our search pages to locate about 8-12 agents who are active in your area and where you feel points of contact.
Use our “who represents who?” function to discover agents who may have helped other self-pub authors turn traditional.
Do be specific about your sales and review stats. Don’t massage them into looking better than they really are: agents will want to show proof to publishers, so expect to have your figures checked up on.
Anyone who succeeds in selling a lot of books, whether that’s self-pub, trad-pub, or any-other-sort-of-pub, deserves respect.
It’s not easy to achieve, and if you’ve done it, you’ve done very well.