The stories of successful indie authors, in particular ebook authors, attracting agents and publishers has spawned a common belief that self-publishing represents a viable path to a traditional publishing contract. In fact, if becoming a traditionally published author is your goal, self-publishing your book first may be a huge mistake.
It’s true that quite a number of successful indie authors have landed book deals. The reason why is simple: They proved they could sell books…lots of them. They sold large quantities of a series of books over a longer period of time.
Here’s what they did not do: sell very few books in any given amount of time.
The Kiss of Death
Your self-publishing venture will attract a publisher only if it proves you can sell a lot of books really fast. Releasing a book that doesn’t sell can prove the kiss of death for an aspiring author who dreams of becoming traditionally published.
That begs the question, “How many books do you need to sell?” It depends. Large publishers always look for large numbers. Midsized publishers look for smaller numbers. Small publishers are more easily impressed. And the answers authors receive to this question may vary—and change daily.
I asked several literary agents if they could provide specifics on numbers. Here are a few of the responses I received:
According to Andy Ross of the Andy Ross Agency, “There is no definitive answer except to say that low sales on a self published book is a big negative.”
Gordon Warnock of Foreword Literary said, “It actually varies a lot depending upon perceived potential, and there are always outliers. I’ve heard of self-pub projects moving around 20-30k in the first few months and not selling. I also know of at least one that sold after, I think, 1.8k. And it’s always changing. 10k is the new 1k, and today’s answer won’t matter tomorrow.
“If you must generalize and give one answer, I’d suggest, 50k, quickly,” Gordon added, “And to give you a better idea of how it’s changed, one of my clients sold 5k in six months back in the 90s, and a Big Six [publisher] jumped all over it. Today, some agents would turn that down at the query.”
Gordon claims that most agents with whom he speaks, however, will at least become interested in a self-published book that has sold about 5,000 copies over a six month period. “However, we would also factor in the price of the book. A lot of books only sell well because they are free or selling for 99 cents. That doesn’t speak well for the sales potential of a book.”
So, driving your sales with free days and low prices isn’t the best strategy if you want to attract a publisher. Getting “true” sales at full price, or at least at the Amazon or Barns & Noble regularly discounted prices, will garner you sales more credibility with publishing professionals.
Katharine Sands of the Sarah Jane Freymann Literary Agency chimed in: “To attract a publisher once you have a book on the market means scrutiny of sales figures and the velocity of those sales. The bigger the publisher the more sales needed to be deemed viable for the publishing program. The figure cited is usually 5,000 copies sold, and the traction is also considered. There is a marked difference in seeing how books were selling right out of the gate, as compared with seeing sales figures that accrued over a period of years.”
Katharine want on to say, “A midsize publisher is every bit as concerned with sales data as a larger one. But niche presses, as well as academic and regional publishers, do bring other viewpoints. In addition to how many copies moved and how fast, they can look at how the book might work in a larger market. If an author has been selling well—and steadily—2,500 copies over an initial period, this does demonstrate a market. The publisher is aware that a book with more outreach could improve on sales. And a niche or regional publisher is aware of specific markets and has experience with books that successfully transition.
“What does not work is to sell 80 copies and regale agents with tales of hard it is to be an indie author!” she concluded.
And if you don’t make the numbers selling under your own imprint, publishers generally won’t believe your book will sell much differently just because it has their name stamped on the spine of the book.
If you really want to go the traditional publishing route, try that first. Produce a book proposal, and send that out to agents. Let them send your book on to publishers. (You can approach small publishing houses yourself.)
But be sure your book proposal argues convincingly that you have produced a marketable book, one with a high likelihood of selling in the marketplace. Your book proposal is the business plan for your book. You give it to a publisher, who will serve as your venture capital partner. That partner wants to know if your product—your book—is viable, if it will produce a return on investment, and if you make a good business partner—someone who will turn out a marketable product and who can help sell it.
Turn Out a Winning Book Proposal
The key, therefore, is to produce such a business plan. To do so, first, use your proposal in the same manner as an agent or publisher: to evaluate yourself and your idea. Do this prior to submission.
Second, use your evaluation to improve your idea and make yourself an attractive business partner, increasing your likelihood of landing the deal.
Third, hone the business plan so it convince a publisher your book will sell—and that you can help it do so.
If you can’t convince a publisher, you always can self-publish later. You will have lost a bit of time, and your dream, but your efforts don’t have to be for naught.
The Author Training Process
The process of creating that proposal—that business plan—can help you produce a marketable book and train you to become a successful author.
Accumulating the information for a proposal and evaluating it through the lens of an agent or acquisitions editor trains you to discern the marketability of your own work. You can then hone your idea so it has a higher likelihood of selling well in your target market. It also helps you determine if you are ready to help your book succeed. During Author Training 101: How to Craft Books that Sell I teach aspiring and published authors how to create and use a business plan in just this manner, which is why I call the process in that course the “Author Training Process”; it teaches you to become a successful author—one that produces marketable books.
My new book, The Author Training Manual: Develop Marketable Ideas, Craft Books That Sell, Become the Author Publishers Want, and Self-Publish Effectively, serves as the text for Author Training 101: How to Craft Books that Sell. The course provides you with the tools—a proposal template, a free copy of The Author Training Manual, training exercises—and the training—audio, video and live coaching—so you know how to use the tool to produce a business plan for a marketable book. Not only that, when you complete the 8-week course, you end up with a writing plan to produce a marketable book.
The Author Training Process is the same one discussed in How to Blog a Book: Write, Publish, and Promote Your Work One Post at a Time. In that book, it’s called the proposal process. The Author Training Manual expands on that one chapter and process in great detail because without the pre-planning it’s difficult to craft a book that sells. Author Training 101: How to Craft Books that Sell helps you put that process effectively to use so you can produce successful books. No matter how you publish, the process taught in this course is essential to selling books.
The next Author Training 101: How to Craft Books that Sell course begins on May 6. There are only 10 seats still available. If you want to land that traditional publishing deal—or if you want to produce a successful self-published book—claim your seat. Find out more and register by clicking here.