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.)

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