Should You Self-Publish, Then Get a Literary Agent?

by Suzannah Windsor Freeman

Woman reading a book and smiling

Editor Alan Rinzler of The Book Deal wrote an interesting post this week: Literary agents open the door to self-published writers.

Please take a few minutes to read the original article, but the gist of it is that agents are becoming increasingly willing to accept previously self-published authors as clients. In fact, some are more than willing—they’re actively seeking self-published authors.

On the other hand, those who were skeptics in the past are still skeptical. Rinzler quotes a couple of agents who say they aren’t opposed to taking on self-published authors, but that they simply haven’t seen anything worth considering just yet.

It seems the consensus is this: if your book catches an agent’s interest, it doesn’t really matter whether you’ve self-published or not.

Do self-published authors need agents?

Rinzler concludes his post with this opinion:

As an editor at a big commercial publishing house, almost all my acquisitions come in through agents.  So I’ve always believed that the best way for a self-published author to convert to commercial publication is with the help of an agent. A good agent who believes in your book can make all the difference in the world.

While I don’t disagree with this statement in the least, I do have one question:

Why would a writer spend a great deal of money to self-publish his book when really he hopes to break into the commercial market and secure a literary agent to represent him?

Yes, there are the lucky few who self-publish with limited commercial aspirations, then discover there’s a bigger market for their work than they ever imagined. From there they decide to approach an agent, and the deal takes off.

But, I can’t wrap my head around the idea of deliberately self-publishing with the intention of later breaking into mainstream publishing.

There are several reasons people decide to self-publish:

  1. They want to see their work in print for sentimental, rather than commercial, reasons.
  2. They can’t find a literary agent to represent them.
  3. They don’t care for mainstream publishing.
  4. They want to be in full control of their work.

If one of these four reasons describes why a writer has decided to self-publish, then I wonder:

  • If your motivation is simply wanting a few bound copies of your book for sentimental reasons, do you really need an agent?
  • If you can’t find an agent to represent your book before you self-publish it, will someone want to represent it after you self-publish it? (*That is, unless you manage to sell an outstanding number of copies.*)
  • If you don’t care for mainstream publishing, would you care to work with an agent who is part of the mainstream publishing process?
  • If you want to be in full control of your work, would you really want an agent anyway?

Should you test your book by self-publishing it?

Alice Martell, an agent quoted in Rinzler’s article, believes self-publishing is becoming a way for writers to test the market for their books, so perhaps that’s one of the bigger reasons it’s become attractive.

To me, that seems like the longest, most difficult, and most expensive way to test if there’s a sufficient market for your book.

To self-publish, you still need to write the book, just as you would if you were going to submit to a literary agent in the first place. Then, to test out its appeal, you have to pay for your own editing, design, and distribution.

I don’t see the logic here, but I might be convinced if I heard from authors who’ve had success with this process.

Is self-publishing for you?

My opinion on self-publishing has relaxed over the last couple of years. Things are definitely changing, and I’d be a fool to ignore that. I think it’s great that agents are more willing to look at self-published submissions, but I don’t necessarily agree with self-publishing with the intention of finding an agent later.

According to everything I’ve read and studied, I believe you should self-publish your work if you are confident it’s an investment you won’t regret. It doesn’t really matter what your motivations are, as long as you’re satisfied with the outcome.

That said, there are many writers who don’t want to self-publish.

What’s your take on this?

  • Is it a good strategy to self-publish your book first, then try to find a literary agent? (Me: I’d just try to find an agent first.)
  • Have you ever self-published a book, or would you consider doing so in the future? (Me: Never self-published, but I would write non-fiction ebooks to create passive income. I wouldn’t self-publish my fiction.)
  • Have you ever purchased a self-published book? (Me: I don’t think I’ve ever even seen one for sale anywhere.)

  • Solvangsherrie

    It’s funny, I’m planning on doing a similar blog post. But as I read through this, my first thought was that people spend thousands going to conferences in hopes of meeting an editor or agent that they connect with. So for some people, self-publishing might be less expensive than multiple conferences. I know of a few authors who self-published and ended up with mainstream publishing deals. It’s happening more often these days.

    • Suzannah

      Good point. I currently live in a very isolated part of Australia, so no conferences for me, but I know they can be pretty expensive. Of course, I’d say most debut authors still get contracts the old fashioned way–by querying an agent.

  • Jered

    When I was in college, one of my professors urged strongly against self-publishing for any serious writer. His argument was “regardless of how good you think it is, when you publish it yourself people in the publishing world are quick to label you as vain, and less likely to take you seriously.” I think there is some truth in this statement. If you publish your own work, you’re saying it’s great. If someone else publishes your work, that’s social proof that someone else thinks it’s worth publishing.

    Regardless, I think it’s important for a writer to get connected to the right people. This means getting your work in front of people that can help you get your writing out there.

    This is really a hot button issue I hear serious writers talk about frequently. Thank you for adding to the discussion.

    • Suzannah

      Your professor was right, but attitudes are definitely changing. I’m not comfortable with self-publishing my own work for that precise reason, but if it works, it works.

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  • Sgroyle

    Is it a good strategy to self-publish your book first, then try to find a literary agent? Me: I’d publish first. It’s digital real estate. The aggregated income from that real estate will accrue directly to you over the next XX+50 years. The proviso is that the book you publish has to be professionally produced. That means hiring editors, cover artists, blurbista’ (kind of like Barista’s, except instead of coffee they make blurbs; and then you have to do the advertising, the pr, promotion; and you have to start work on the 2nd or 3rd book; and you have to constantly blog. If you take the long term view, I think it would be great to have a literary agent with solid experience represent your work – I am not so sure, at today’s rates that I would want them to be introducing that work to traditional publishing houses. Distribution is great, however what is the cost of that five years from now.
    Have you ever self-published a book, or would you consider doing so in the future? (Me: Yes; planning on five to eight over next five years; minimum.
    Have you ever purchased a self-published book? (Me: Yes. They’re on sale at Amazon and Smashwords. )

    • Suzannah

      Thanks for sharing the other side of the story!

  • Anika

    I would only self publish non-fiction or poetry. I wouldn’t do it for fiction unless I had already been commercially published and had a substantial back list that was out of print. I’m a writer not a saleswoman or marketer. Yeah commercial publishers expect you to do some marketing/ pr work but there big difference between what they expect you to do and hand selling your book, calling book shops to beg and asking them to stock your book

    • Suzannah

      Thanks for your comment, Anika. Even if you are an excellent marketer, I just think a lot of people wouldn’t buy a self-published book. I have never purchased one, unless a non-fiction ebook counts.

      • Patkirk

        Self-publishers don’t necessarily tell you. A top-of-the-line book gets read. Poorly designed books with typos don’t. There are many beautiful books out there that are self-published.

        • Patkirk

          Have you ever read a travel guide for your city? Or a book on your obscure hobby? If the niche is narrow enough, a big publisher won’t touch it. But you still want to read it.

        • Suzannah

          Yes, niches are one area where self-publishing can definitely work.

  • Louisewise

    I SP my book, (Eden – and all I paid for was the ISBN. Nowadays, with POD, self-publishing isn’t as expensive as it used to be. My story is that I needed to move on. I was submitting Eden and not getting anywhere. I needed complete closure and so I SP it, and a year on have completed my next book, which is out with an agent (fingers crossed).
    But Eden’s finished, as far as I’m concerned. I wouldn’t dream of bothering an agent with it… until I read this post… hmmm

  • PK Hrezo

    Say your fiction just doesn’t fit into a particular category and it’s been critiqued, proofread, revised til your eyes bled and you just can’t seem to catch an agent’s attention. Say you really believe in your story and think others will believe in it too. Why not get it out there while you’re working on a new project? Seems like it only makes sense to start building your career rather than sitting around dreaming about it.

    • Suzannah

      Yes, there’s always the other side to the story–and I agree with you! But, I think the key to what you said is “while you’re working on a new project.” If you genuinely want to be published by a traditional house, you need to work on something else if your first book doesn’t sell.

  • Alan Edwards

    I have purchased self-published books in the past and enjoyed them, and that was the reason why I decided in the end to self-publish, then look for an agent. As an earlier commenter wrote, when writing in a very specific genre or blends categories, it may be very difficult to get attention for your work, no matter how much effort you put into seeking an agent’s services – I think as an agent (and rightly so, for them), trying to take a novel that doesn’t fit neatly into a category and working to sell it is a great deal more difficult than passing on it and picking up something else easier to quantify. The ease and accessibilty of self-publishing in the last handful of years is, in my opinion, going to change the landscape of publishing to a degree. A few years ago, it would have taken thousands of dollars, but now a work can be sold around the world for less than a fifty dollars. It wouldn’t surprise me to find that self-published authors who can manage to sell a few hundred copies of their book despite the long odds against it ever happening would in turn become targets for agents – it would speak to the merit of the work itself.

    As for attributing vanity to self-publishers…well, it takes arrogance and vanity of a sort to produce any written work and believe that it is good enough to be sold and placed on shelves next to the works of human history, whether one takes the route of standard publishing or self-publishing. There is plenty of vanity, ego, and arrogance among writers with established agents as well.

    • Suzannah

      If you’ve written a niche book, then absolutely, self-publishing may be the way to go. There are some non-fiction books that have done particularly well this way.

  • Anonymous

    I self published my self-help book No More Drama: Nine Simple Steps to Transforming a Breakdown into a Breakthrough 3 years ago. I have sold 7,000 copies to date and was able to secure distribution in Borders and Barnes & Noble and press in many different outlets. My first choice was to try and sell the book to a large house, but the agent I was working with at the time dropped me since I didn’t have a platform. I HAD to self-publish since I didn’t have a PhD, a large media platform via TV or radio, or a national scandal to push sales. About a year ago I got another literary agent who has been shopping a two book deal for me with the large houses. While he’s shopping, I’m still selling pushing my book.

    Self-publishing is a great way to establish a following, but you have to be prepared to take on all of the marketing and sales efforts yourself. If you can’t sell or don’t understand marketing, you probably shouldn’t self-publish.

    • Suzannah

      I think non-fiction is one area in which self-pubbed authors can do well, especially if they don’t have the platform, as you say. You might have a fantastic idea for a book, but without the credentials to drive sales, an agent or traditional publisher might not consider. Great point!

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  • coffee fundraiser

    Can I simply say what a relief to find someone who truly knows what they’re talking about on the internet.

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