Can You Self-Publish Your Way to a Big Deal?

Self-published author Lindsay Buroker was approached recently by 47North, Amazon’s SF/F/H imprint. Today Lindsay is here to explain how you can best position yourself to attract an offer. And, despite what you may think, it’s not all about sales.

Self-publishing offers a lot of advantages over the traditional path: freedom to write whatever you choose and price however you like; real-time sales figures; direct connection with readers; complete creative control over things like covers; and, of course, the famous 70% royalty rate (and more again if you sell direct).

Despite all these advantages, many self-publishers are keen to leverage their success into a publishing deal.

For some, it’s a nice advance, access to bookstores, and the potential increased marketability of subsidiary rights like foreign, movie, and audio rights. For others, it’s either to lighten the all-round workload, pursue a “hybrid” strategy, or the attraction of being backed by the incredible marketing power of a company like Amazon.

Lindsay’s post isn’t just good advice for those hoping to attract offers, it’s good advice for any self-publisher, no matter what their goals are. Without further ado, here’s Lindsay:

Can You Self-Publish Your Way to a Traditional Publishing Deal?

We’ve all heard stories about the handful of self-published authors who sold tens of thousands of ebooks (maybe even hundreds of thousands!) and were then courted by Big 6 publishers. Some signed lucrative deals, while a few rebels decided to stay indie.

It’s interesting to read about their stories, but does anything there apply for the rest of us? What if you’re just getting started? Or what if you’re a mid-list indie author, selling 1,500 ebooks or so a month—enough to earn a modest living from your writing, but not enough to top any bestseller lists or belong to the 50,000+ sales club?

As you might guess, I’m in that “mid-list” category. I have four full-length fantasy novels out and a few shorter works, and I’m very pleased with the number of people who have tried my work in the last year. Really, there’s nothing shabby about my sales numbers, but I wouldn’t have thought they would earn me the attention of a publisher or an agent. As it turns out, I was wrong.

An acquisitions editor from one of Amazon’s new publishing imprints recently contacted me and offered a contract. She’d read my Emperor’s Edge series and was interested in taking it on. As I write this post, I haven’t decided what I’ll do yet, but it’s certainly nice to be noticed! (By the way, if you’re a fantasy fan, you can check out my first ebook for free at Amazon, Smashwords, Barnes & Noble, and iTunes… just saying!)

While my experience doesn’t make me an expert on getting noticed by publishers, I thought I’d share a few of the things I learned from talking to the editor, things that might be useful for independent authors who are hoping that self-publishing can be a stepping stone to a traditional deal.

1. Big sales numbers can certainly make you attractive to agents/publishers, but you don’t necessarily have to be a mega seller

One of the things publishers can offer you is help reaching that next level. As a self-published author with a track record, you may command a higher advance than a nobody plucked out of the slush pile. More money spent on an advance means publishers are going to shell out a little for marketing to make sure they recoup their expenses.

That said, you do have to be selling enough to get on someone’s radar. I found with my own books that selling that first thousand copies was a bi–, er, it was difficult, but after that, at Amazon in particular, the store’s algorithms kicked in and my work started appearing in recommendations for readers in my genre.

2. Having a platform and an established fan-base means a lot

Everybody knows this, but surprisingly few authors seem to make it happen in such a way that it’s going to matter (i.e. impress a publisher). Here are a few things I do:

  • Maintain a blog where I post regularly—an outsider would be able to tell from the Alexa ranking, Google PageRank, and comments that it gets a respectable number of visitors, many of whom have obviously—from the comments they leave—read my books. This didn’t just happen. I’ve done a lot of guest posts to build links to my blog.
  • Maintain an author page on Facebook—I have about 800 “likes,” but those can be bought so what’s more likely to interest an agent/publisher is the amount of activity on the page—i.e. do readers comment on your updates?
  • Have a presence on Goodreads—I advertised there in the beginning—something that resulted in more people adding my books to their reading lists—and ran a book giveaway as soon as I made physical copies of my novels. I also maintain a little discussion board where readers occasionally pop in. I link to this discussion from my blog, so people can find it.
  • Maintain a newsletter—right now, there’s no way an outsider would know how many subscribers I have—about 700 if you’re curious—but so few authors, self-published or otherwise, have a newsletter that just having the form on your website might look good. Having a newsletter (AKA your fans’ email addresses) makes it easier to keep in touch with your readers and let them know when you have new books out . That means you don’t have to start at ground zero for promotion of subsequent books you write.

Those are the basics, but I’m elsewhere too. I did a blog post on author branding before Christmas, and I went over a lot of the things I’ve done and places I’ve been in case you want more details.

Before moving on, I want to emphasize that a “platform” isn’t just about being out there, everywhere you can, but it’s about building a community. For that, you’ve got to a) sell books so people can decide they’re fans and b) make sure those fans know how to find you online (in the afterwords of my ebooks, I list my blog and social media addresses and invite folks to stop by — if you don’t tell people you have a home on the web, they won’t know!).

3. Reviews help in more ways than one

I don’t have all five-star reviews, and nobody’s out there saying my books are the best thing since the printed word was invented, but a lot of people have said they’re fun reads. That sort of “social proof” helps other readers decide to try the books. And, from my chats with the editor, it sounded like the reviews were one of the things that prompted her to check out the series.

Reviews can be hard to get, especially in the beginning, but one thing I did in the afterword of my first book was to ask readers who enjoyed the story to leave a review somewhere. That first novel has over 100 reviews at Amazon right now (it had more than 70 before I made the book free after Thanksgiving). Remember, I’m not a mega seller; I think a lot of those reviews came simply because I asked for them.

4. Price points may matter

This didn’t come up in my conversations with the editor, so I could be totally wrong, but I’m guessing that price point may play a role in whether your ebooks interest a publisher. It’s true that my first novel is free right now, but the others in the series are $5, and people do go on to buy them.

$5 is still a deal compared to traditionally published novels priced at $8 or more, but I think that if you can sell at $5, you can probably sell at $8. (As an indie, I take home a reasonable royalty at $5, so I haven’t tried higher price points — I like keeping things affordable for my readers). I’m not a publisher, but I know I wouldn’t necessarily make that assumption about someone selling novels at 99 cents. In fact, I’ve seen authors who do extremely well at 99 cents and then fall off the radar when they’ve raised their prices to even $2.99 for the higher royalty.

Because there’s no room for profit if a publisher is selling books at 99 cents, I believe they might be more interested in ebooks that have proven they can sell at higher price points.

If I’m right, and your goal is to catch a publisher’s eye, you may want to reserve free/99 cents for a Book 1 in a series or for a temporary promotion, but then price subsequent novels at prices that are more in line with what presses and publishing houses are doing (you can try $8, but there are actually quite a few presses, including the Amazon imprint, selling books at $3.99 and $4.99, and I think that’s a respectable price for an electronic novel).

5. The publisher/agent/editor/etc. has to like your books

There are any number of “mid-list” indie fantasy authors doing as well or better than I am over at Amazon. Maybe some of them are being contacted by publishers as well. I don’t know. Maybe I just got a little lucky in that my writing style meshed with one editor’s interests. I do think luck, however, is something that finds those who have worked hard to be in a position where “a little luck” can make a big difference.

You’ll hear of a few fluke stories of people who make it big with their first book, but, as with traditionally published authors, most successful indies have years of experience behind them. They’ve belonged to workshops, read books on the craft, taken writing classes, etc., and they probably have a stack of “trunk” novels that they’ll never let anyone see because they’re that bad.

If you hope to make a career as a writer, whether independent or traditionally published, it’s worth investing in a solid apprenticeship before you put your stuff out there. That way, when you do get noticed, you’re more likely to turn that important person into a fan.

After all is said and done, I’m leaning toward staying independent at this time, but it’s certainly nice to have a choice. Good luck to you all, and thanks for taking the time to read my post. You can read more about book promotion, blogging, social media, and (of course!) my work over on my blog.

* * *

I really do recommend spending some time on Lindsay’s blog – it’s packed with useful information on all aspects of self-publishing. It’s simply one of the best blogs out there, covering every imaginable topic. (You might be particularly interested in her recent posts on improving sales outside of Amazon, and on whether advertising works for authors.)

Lindsay has lots of books out (you can see some of the lovely covers above) which you can find at Amazon, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, Smashwords, and the rest. On top of that, you can follow her on Twitter here (recommended), and her Facebook Page is here.

Lindsay will be along later if you have any questions.

I look forward to debating the price point issue as I’ve seen some evidence that agents are primarily concerned with raw sales numbers (wrongly, in my opinion). Regardless, I think Lindsay’s advice to go for higher price points is solid for all sorts of reasons.

But there is so much more to discuss. For starters, since Lindsay penned this guest post last week, she turned down that approach from Amazon. Many self-publishers would jump at the chance of such a deal, so why did she say no?

Lindsay explains her decision here.

For what it’s worth, I think she made the right decision for the right reasons. Her logic is compelling, and, of course, there’s always the possibility of another offer in the future, one that may fit better with Lindsay’s goals.

Before I go, I want to thank everyone who helped make the St. Patrick’s Day Blowout a huge success. I will be posting about the promotion later in the week where I’ll have the time and space to thank everyone properly, and share the (amazing!) results.

David Gaughran

David Gaughran

Born in Ireland, he now lives in a little fishing village in Portugal, although this hasn’t increased the time spent outside. He writes novels under another name, has helped thousands of authors build a readership with his books, blogs, workshops, and courses, and has created marketing campaigns for some of the biggest self-publishers on the planet. Friend to all dogs.

56 Replies to “Can You Self-Publish Your Way to a Big Deal?”

  1. Hi David
    Thanks for your selfless contribution on self-publishing. I am a newbie in this area and had just registered in Oronjo and Ecwid.

    I realised that if I priced my ebook at $0.99 and Paypal take a big chunk of it for fees (5.5% + 0.30) , a whopping 35% cut , leaving me with $0.65 gross profit.

    Is it really wise to use different pricing model say $0.99 at certain sites and maybe $1.29 elsewhere?

    Am I also right to say once the account is set up in Oronjo and others, it is still up to us to market the sites. How do i add tags to make my book more searchable on Google ?

    I find many articles and write up about self-publishing but not so much for newcomers to this area.

    Are there any good books or sites you can recommend me ?

    Thank you

  2. Thanks for this post Lindsay. One thing I like about Goodreads is that reviews and recommendations about books were more valuable and more accurate when they came from friends instead of the computer generation “If you read this, you might like this” that is so common on sites like Amazon. The discussion boards allow you to connect with other people from around the country that are also interested in that same topic.

  3. Good info and right to the point. I am not sure if this is in fact the best place to ask but do you folks have any thoughts on where to employ some professional writers? Thx 🙂

  4. Thanks David, I’d forgotten Smashwords has so many formats.

    I think Lindsay’s ideas on price points are interesting. I’ve learned of several very successful fantasy authors over the past two years who give away the first book in a series, but then charge $4-6 for the other books in the series. They also have in common that are all very prolific.

  5. Lindsay was one of the first people I “met” on Twitter. I was a clueless newbie and she didn’t even mind me following her around the twittersphere like a puppy, asking silly questions.

    Lindsay is awesome like that.

  6. Thank you David and Lindsay for an insightful article. As usual, one always walks away richer from visiting your blog David.

    Lindsay, I’ve opened another tab here and will explore your blog next. Like David, I think your covers are stunning. Do you do it yourself or do you use someone for this part of the preparation?

    Thanks again guys.

      1. Lindsay, Thanks for the info. I don’t think the mystery is solved in this case. I’m accessing over my home ADSL connection. There’s no 3G involved and hence no mobile bandwidth for Amazon to pay.

        You hinted at setting up a store for some international sales. I found a fast and simple way at currently no cost: It’s a free payment and download service for digital goods located in Holland. They use Paypal, and buyers get redirected back to a download area. Currently no fees during beta, and it will only be cents if and when they do.

        Their “About Us” or FAQs say Oronjo was created by a guy who wanted to self-publish and needed a way to sell downloads. This was before Kindle took off, I think. Anyway, I saw another author using it on their website and found it that way.

  7. Great post, thanks to Lindsay and Dave. I find it VERY interesting that the Amazon editors aren’t just going after the top-sellers but are seeking out books they themselves enjoy reading. I think all authors should be heartened by this. I’m also self-pubbed and got an offer from Amazon to republish 2 of my books through their romance imprint, Montlake. Unlike Lindsay, I took the offer, but like Lindsay, I’m not a super-seller. I make a nice income and 1 of my books did get under the 1,000 ranking on Amazon a few months ago, but mostly I cruise along at a higher altitude. I think Lindsay hit the nail on the head in her post – write a great book and sell enough to get some fans (and an editor’s interest) but you don’t need to sell a ton. Sure, luck plays a part, but it really is all down to the story in the end.

    The very best of luck to Lindsay in her writing career.

  8. What a helpful post for self-publishers! Thank you.

    Re: Keeping in touch via an email list.
    I think it’s important to give people options for how they follow and interact with you.

    Social media’s one way for fans (and others!) to share opinions about a writer’s work. However, ‘traditional’ email also works, and some like the idea of being able to visit their in-box whenever it’s convenient for them to see what you’re up to.

    Question: Lindsay, do you get questions/comments from email subscribers? For example…?
    Thank you.

    1. It’s definitely a good idea to have multiple ways that fans can follow you! I love that you can send a letter right into someone’s inbox with a newsletter, but not everyone wants to sign up for extra email. I have people who only follow on Twitter, others who only follow on Facebook, and others who subscribe to the blog.

      I get questions via FB and Twitter, though I’d say the majority come through from the contact form on my blog. (In the afterwords of my ebooks, I invite readers to get in touch with me through any of those venues.)

  9. At the end of Lindsay’s post above, I mentioned something about certain agents only looking at raw sales over anything else, so I guess I should explain that. My impression is that many agents are scouting for “prospects” based primarily on sales only. When they talk about looking at self-publishers as potential clients, their only criteria seems to be a certain sales threshold (e.g. 5,000 or 10,000). I know there are exceptions, but that’s my general impression.

    I think this is quite shortsighted, primarily because it takes no account of genre, price point, the number of titles out, or how long someone has been self-publishing. I have no doubt that Amazon are using a lot more metrics when they consider approaching someone, but I think agents (and probably publishers too) are several steps behind on this.

    Because of this shortsightedness, if your sole goal as a self-publisher was to land yourself an agent and/or a trad deal, an argument could be made that your best approach would probably be to sell everything at 99c and just try to amass as many raw sales as possible, regardless of revenue.

    Before anyone gets too excited, I think there are all sorts of reasons why that’s not the best approach. Even if your goal is to land a deal you should still try and maximize revenue, as, if you don’t, you won’t know the true value of the work your are proposing to sell, and could undervalue that work in any negotiation.

    Besides, you may change your mind on wanting an agent or publisher. I certainly did.

    1. Good point, David, and I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t follow agents’ blogs or pay much attention to them (sorry, agents!).

      I often advise e-pubbers to try different price points and see what makes them the most money. I know Robin Sullivan has mentioned that Michael sold more books at $5 than at lower prices, but then you have folks who have made six-figure incomes with all 99-cent ebooks (the infamous John Locke, of course).

      I’d probably make my own earnings a priority over sales numbers, even if I wanted an agent eventually. That way, you’re in a position where you can be choosy when an offer does come your way. You have to sell so many ebooks at 99 cents that it’s a tough way to make a living, unless you write in a genre with wide appeal (and even then, you’d need to be selling 10,000 ebooks a month!).

  10. Thanks, Lindsay, very interesting.

    I have a question: when you refer to emailing a newsletter, are you talking about sending your blog posts by email to those who sign up for it, or do you write a separate newsletter?

    1. Lindsay might not be along until later, so I’ll have a stab at it until she arrives. I presume she meant a separate newsletter. I have a mailing list, but I strictly use it to announce new releases (and other major news like crowdfunding). I have a sign-up in the right-hand sidebar of this blog, and one in the back of every book (first thing readers see). I use MailChimp, which is free up to something like 2,000 subscribers, and it will be quite some time before I hit that. I wrote about mailing lists briefly here – – but Lindsay might have more info for you.

      MailChimp turns out pretty fancy looking emails (with a bit of fiddling). You can see an example of my last one here:

      1. Thanks, David. I have my blog set up so that people can subscribe to the posts either by email or RSS, but I haven’t done anything about a separate newsletter. I look forward to hearing what Lindsay (and anyone else, for that matter) has to say about it.

      2. Here’s just one example of why it’s important. When you release a book, by informing your mailing list, you will get a lot of purchases in a short window. That sales spike will lead to a rankings jump, increasing your visibility on genre bestseller lists, and, crucially on Amazon’s Hot New Releases list (where you can only appear for the first thirty days). Those lists are crucial drivers of sales as some readers use them to discover new books. It also reduces the chance of readers who were fond of your book forgetting who you are. Heavy readers can get through 100 books a year. Unless you’re pumping out titles at a frightening rate, there is a good chance that you will slip some people’s mind. There’s no chance of that happening if they get an email every time you release something. On top of that, you can use them to build connections with readers, and for things like crowdfunding.

      3. Yes, it certainly makes sense to inform all your followers of something big like a book release. I just figured that when I get to that point I’d do a blog post about it and that would inform everyone following either by email or RSS. Do you see any problem with this approach.

      4. Well, because your blog readers may be an entirely different group to your book readers. There are a lot of people who read this blog who might not be interested in my historical fiction, or science fiction shorts, or whatever. Similarly, I’m sure I have plenty of readers who have little interest in reading me blathering on about the publishing industry. It’s very handy to have a direct line of communication to people exclusively interested in your books. I post about new releases here too, although I often frame the information somewhat differently as the audience is different.

        On top of that, I tell potential subscribers to my mailing list that they will hear from me less than once a month. I think that gives people confidence I won’t spam them or clutter their inbox.

      5. MailChimp provides excellent documentation. Interestingly, part of it is also available in Kindle and ePub formats.

    2. David already did a great job of answering, but I have a newsletter service (I use Aweber, but others like MailChimp, which I believe is free for the first 1,000 subscribers) and collect readers’ email addresses via forms on my website and Facebook page. About once a month, I send out a letter with the latest news and sometimes coupons or contest announcements. Of course, I let subscribers know when I have new books out, too, but I try not to sell all the time.

  11. The best thing about all of this is – authors have more power/control over their career than ever before. I don’t see publishing as an either/or situation any more. Now, we really CAN have our cake and eat it too. We all need to figure out what works best for us. And, thankfully, now – due to the revolution of indie publishing, many options are open. Hurray!

  12. Thank you for this post! I have been going back and forth about the idea of self-publishing vs. shopping for a traditional print publisher, but the research alone has been its own kind of process. You were informative, to the point, and extremely concise in what has worked for you as well as pointers.

  13. Fascinating, informative post. Thank you, Lindsay! And congratulations for being contacted by Amazon about a publishing deal, and also for making the decision that felt right for you. 🙂

    1. It sounds like Lindsay had a good dialogue with 47North, and I presume she communicated her reasons for rejecting, which were sound. I doubt any bridges were burned and there is nothing to prevent another offer in the future (from Amazon or anyone else).

  14. There’s a ton of great ideas and frank facts in this post, makes you able to see that the jump from self-published to a contract is in your reach with a lot of hard work, networking and branding.

    Armand Rosamilia

  15. This is a very interesting post, and is full of some great examples of aspiring authors who have managed to carve successful careers out of humble beginnings. While self-publishing may not be the best/most reliable method for authors to get book deals out of, it is at least SOMETHING for us to try. With every rejection from agents and publishing houses defeating some valuable authors who happen to lack the confidence to keep trying, self-publishing — digital self-publishing in particular — can at least get the ball rolling.

    It’s also important to remember that one cannot just self-publish a work and expect it to make a splash. Marketing one’s work is probably more important than having it written. I’m being a bit hyperbolas, but there is no denying that such effort makes the difference. I have been kicking around the idea of printing marketing brochures to pass around town — bookstores, local businesses, and so forth — that will showcase snippets from the book I am working on, as well as my blog and contact information. I was led to a site that can print such a brochure, and I think they’re pretty reasonable with their pricing-to-volume ratio.

    Here is the link, should any aspiring authors out there want to give it a shot as well. Hopefully it will yield some positive results:

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