Writers in the Storm

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September 5, 2014

How to Pitch Your Self-Published Book to an Agent

Chuck Sambuchino

Many writers who’ve self-published a book for one reason or another get to a point where they want the book to be taken to the next level and see a widespread, traditional release. This is the point where they may contact a literary agent for representation. So with that in mind, I want to help explain some of the necessary basics about how to pitch a self-published book to an agent.

What Constitutes a Self-Published Book?

If you’re wondering what types of books fall under the umbrella of “self-publishing,” the answer is any book where the decision to publish the book was the author’s alone, the transaction involved the author paying any upfront costs for services, and the book is available for viewing/purchase now. This includes:

  • E-publishing—such as Smashwords and CreateSpace.
  • Vanity presses.
  • Print-on-Demand (P.O.D.) publishers.
  • Book printers.

Basically, if you think your book falls under the umbrella of “self-published” books, then it almost certainly does, and that means you must pitch it as one and disclose to the agent (or editor) that it is already available for purchase. If you self-pub the book, and it has virtually no sales, it is still considered self-published, even if the masses have not discovered it yet.

How to Pitch a Self-Published Book

If you want to pitch a self-published book to a literary agent, you have to immediately understand that you have a tougher submission road than others. That’s because when agents review a query for an unpublished novel, they’re looking for voice and story. When agents review a query for a self-published novel, they’re looking for voice and story—and they’re also looking for one or several good reasons as to why this book deserves a second life via traditional publishing. Agents look for factors that hint at money and success. You are trying to show that your book is head and shoulders above the other million items that are self-published each year, and thus it demands fresh attention. So here are 4 elements to include in a query letter for your self-published book that can impress an agent:

  1. Sales numbers. How many copies has the book sold? And by sold, I don’t mean free downloads. I mean how many copies you’ve sold for money. How many print books? How many e-books? (And since it’s assumed e-books are usually downloaded at $0.99, have wording in your query if the price was higher—such as $2.99 or $6.99.) “Impressive” sales numbers will differ from agent to agent, but you shouldn’t query before you’ve sold at least 2,000-3,000 print books or 10,000-20,000 e-books.
  2. Awards and any recognition. Did it make any online “best of” lists? Did it reach No. 1 in any category bestseller lists on Amazon? Has it collected any accolades that vouch for its content and quality? Such recognition could be a local honor, or a niche fiction award, or anything else.
  3. High-profile endorsements or blurbs. Since your book’s release, has it attracted the attention of any notable authors, politicians, celebrities, organizations, or person of interest? If so, whom? What did they say about the book? A blurb from a recognizable name or large group is a great marketing tool, and agents know this.
  4. Media attention or reviews. Has your book received a review in any mainstream publications or media outlets, such as morning TV shows (local or otherwise), newspapers, magazines, or notable blogs? If so, explain some of the greatest hits. Please keep in mind that Amazon reviews do not count.

Will an Agent Find Your Self-Published Book and Contact You?

A deep hope within authors is that, after a book is self-published and available for purchase, a literary agent will come across the work and come a-calling. Does this happen? Occasionally. Does this happen with any degree of regularity? No.

Some agents make an effort to scan through Amazon’s e-book bestseller lists and find hidden gems that are blowing up the charts. In fact, this happened to Couleen Houck, author of Tiger’s Curse. After she e-published her book and spread the word to friends, it remarkably made its way to the No. 1 spot on the Kindle children’s bestseller lists for seven straight weeks.

Getting to that spot for just one week would have been impressive, but seven straight weeks is quite amazing. Says Houck: “Costco contacted me about selling my series in some of their stores. I was contacted by China, Thailand, and Korea to see if the translation rights had been sold. A film producer e-mailed me. My world was spinning when a literary agent contacted me. He said he’d found me on Amazon and was impressed with my reviews. Two days later I had representation. Within a few weeks, I had a [traditional] book deal.”

So, as Houck’s success story shows, this possible path to publication can indeed happen, but it’s a rarity in a marketplace glutted with self-published works. And don’t forget Houck’s book was huge—and your book is likely not selling at the stratospheric levels hers was. So don’t just e-mail an agent and say, “Check out my book! [Amazon hyperlink] IT’S THE BOMB!” Understand that you’re not yet at a level where it’s that easy. Entice the agent by mentioning sales figures, pricing details, media attention, endorsements, awards and more for your book. These items don’t come quickly or easily, but including them in your query letter will immediately make your work stand out among other self-published books.

(Hi, everyone. Chuck here chiming in for a second. I wanted to say I am now taking clients as a freelance editor. So if your query or manuscript needs some love, please check out my editing services. Thanks!)

Literary Agents Sound Off on Reading Pitches for Self-Published Books

“Oftentimes a self-published author will just send a link for me to look at, which I never click, or they don’t send the book in a Word doc or PDF for me to evaluate. In addition, authors aren’t immediately transparent on sales or download info. I find self-published authors make me work too hard for the information I need. For self-published authors to get my attention, I need transparency around sales and download figures, and want a straightforward and professional query without buy links or embedded images. Don’t make me work to get the information.”

- Elizabeth Kracht (Kimberley Cameron & Associates)

“My thoughts for self-pub are similar to any type of query as far as the pitch itself. It should be clear, concise, compelling (we’ll call it the 3 c’s!) and well written. As far as the self-pub background, I need to know the realities of the publication history, even if that means it’s only sold 300 copies in 4 months. Frankly, if the sales are low, I’d prefer to see a pitch for a new book—and not one that’s part of a series from the first one.”

- Stacey Glick (Dystel & Goderich)

“The good news: The stigma of vanity publishing and self-published books not being good enough has been proven false by the ‘Kindle Millionaires’ and other self-published authors who are making a comfortable living going it alone. The bad news: The expectations of a self-published author are higher than they’ve ever been, both in sales numbers and in social media marketing muscle. When I receive a query from someone who has self-published a book, I want to know how many books you’ve sold yourself, how extensive is your social media presence (I will Google you!), and what your future plans are. If you’ve published the first book in a series, don’t pitch me the second because zero publishers will be interested in publishing your sequel if they don’t have the first book. And don’t tell me that you’re looking for an agent because you haven’t sold very many self-published books and you want a publisher to help you accomplish that. They are going to run into the same obstacles you are. Self-published authors need to self-write, self-produce, self-market and self-sell. It’s not for the faint of heart.”

- Laurie McLean (Foreword Literary)

Leave a comment below and be entered to win a copy of the 2015 GUIDE TO LITERARY AGENTS. Winner will be picked by random drawing on Friday, September 19.


About Chuck

Chuck FW head shot   Chuck Sambuchino of Writer’s Digest Books edits the GUIDE TO LITERARY AGENTS and the CHILDREN’S WRITER’S & ILLUSTRATOR’S MARKET. His Guide to Literary Agents Blog is one of the largest blogs in publishing.

His 2010 humor book, HOW TO SURVIVE A GARDEN GNOME ATTACK, was optioned by Sony Pictures.  Chuck has also written the writing guides FORMATTING & SUBMITTING YOUR MANUSCRIPT and CREATE YOUR WRITER PLATFORM.

Besides that, he is a freelance book & query editor, husband, sleep-deprived new father, and owner of a flabby-yet-lovable dog named Graham.

Find Chuck on Twitter and on Facebook.

44 comments on “How to Pitch Your Self-Published Book to an Agent”

  1. Wow, I didn't know this, Chuck. I thought self-pubbed books had no shot with an agent, so this is good to know - even if the bar is higher, at least it's possible!

  2. Fascinating post, Chuck! I've heard the stories of Hugh Howey and Amanda Hocking, but it's interesting to see exact numbers and recommendations from the agents who are out there buying these self published books. Thank you!!

  3. Good information. There's so much talk about self-publishing versus traditional. I've been told agents troll self-published sites for perceptive clients. It may not be the case for most authors.

  4. Was it Amanda Hocking who got discovered after she self-published? There is good information in this post.

  5. Thanks, Chuck. You're always insightful and this subject has particular interest for me, right now. My next question is, which July 15th deadline? Next year? Ooopps!

  6. That sounds exhausting, but it's good to know that even if I do self-pub, if the numbers are there, I could always try to switch at some point!

  7. This article is very informative! Very useful, too, as self-publishing is becoming a more popular publishing medium everyday. Venues like Amazon, Lulu and CreateSpace have given many authors their start in the publishing realm. Self-publishing is the way I want to go for my books as well. Though it does have it's pros and cons, I like that it provides its own benefits, and that I can have ownership of the publishing rights.

    Thanks for sharing this article, and all this great info, Chuck! 🙂

  8. I think what this reveals is that if you have the sales, etc. to be attractive to an agent, then you don't need them!! If you have gone to all the trouble to self-publish, market, etc. to generate 3,000 physical sales or 10-20,000 e-books sales, what do you think an agent is going to do for you that you haven't or can't do yourself for that book (other than possibly help you pitch it for movies)? You'll just be giving away 15% of your proceeds for very little in return. Much better idea to write a new book(not a sequel), and use your success with your self-published book as a credential showing you are an effective promoter of your work to query the agent.

  9. Bonita McIlvaine
    For someone like me who has self published their first book this information is invaluable. There is a learning curve, with lots to learn. You've made life just a little easier. Thank you.

  10. A very helpful article. It gives HOPE to those that are Self Publishing; that there works can possibly, someday be represented by both an agent and a reputable mainstream publishing company. Thank you for the information.

  11. Wow...I need to bookmark this Article. I found so much information I want to refer back to and I appreciate it.

  12. Thanks for the specific numbers.

    I wonder how (or if) those sales numbers are different depending on the book's genre or whether it's fiction or nonfiction.

    I also wonder what percentage of traditionally published titles began their lives as self-published.

  13. I'm running into the self-pub vs. traditional dilemma currently and find most agents specifying that they are not interested in previously self-published books, especially if they involve upcoming series editions that had their beginnings as a self-pub. Other agencies may be rejecting queries after Googling the author and discovering that she's currently on Amazon. They do this without saying much other than "This just isn't for us and good luck." Seems like they want to punish us for trying. They must know how tough it is to get agency representation from a cold query. You'd think they'd like to see a few reviews and some public feedback for a book that's just starting out with potential. We're all aware that there's a heap of bad stories on ebook sellers, not to mention coming out of POD houses, but there are many excellent ones residing there as well. I've read them. I am one of them, and I'm very frustrated and confused as to what to do. Will pulling my books off Amazon, Smashwords, and CreateSpace make them consider my work? Or are we stained for life like Hester Prynne with her Red "A" apron. Why don't they just tattoo our self-published ISBNs on our forearms like some former "agents" who stood in judgment of others they deemed inferior.

    1. Agents aren't rejecting you because they stigmatize self-publishing. They're eager to find great talent, period. Your pitch may need work, or agents may feel your type of book is not marketable to the broader market. Your sales may indicate that you're already tapped the main audience for your work, and a publisher would only be shoveling for scraps in the same goldmine. There are many reasons why agents turn authors down.

  14. POD is a technology not a publisher. Many mainstream publishers use POD technology. The books they publish are NOT considered self-published.

    The way to determine if you are self-published is easy: did someone other than you select your work for publication? No? Then you're self-published, and more power to you.

    If however, someone else had to say yes, be it editor, acquisition board, publisher, then you are NOT self-published, no matter what technology is used to print/produce your book.


  15. Thank you for the article, Chuck. It's packed with valuable information I haven't found on other sites. Now I know to stay with my plan to self-publish my poetry series, and to approach an agent with impressive sales numbers.

  16. What a fantastic article - I thought that unless a big house contacts YOU that a self pubbed book has no second life. This is food for thought if my sales figures ever get to where I hope they will one day be. Thank you!

  17. It seems to me what you are saying is that you shouldn't pitch to an agent unless you're already selling well enough that you'd lose money being published traditionally.

  18. I enjoyed this article. I have written what the people who have read it call "A Page Turner!" called Breaking all the Rules." I now have it in three libraries and two book stores as well as Amazon and kindle. Having never been a computer person, (I am 75 years old,) I find the blogging and goodreads and tweeting all so horribly difficult. An ex English teacher of mine from high school days gave me an "A." I;d love to get my book out and get it read. I'll keep on keeping on. Any advice for an old dog?

  19. I liked the 'literary agents sound off' part where an agent mentions having to click on a web link for details on a self-published book and complains he is being made to 'work too hard for the information' - priceless. Maybe he could hire someone to click the mouse for him.

  20. I have self published on Create Space and it is interesting to know that SOME agents MAY be willing to represent you , a self published author. I have been told and by reviews on Amazon that my book is a "page turner" and "I could not put it down." I have sold 400-500 copies. No one outside of Rhode Island has heard of me or my book. It is ludicrous and far reaching even if I did sell 2000 books to even imagine an agent wanting my book. Have a look All the Rest of Her Days. I have sent copies to newspapers, talk show hosts and best selling authors--no response.

  21. How about Poetry...?
    Poetry has a soul ...
    Most readers run away from souls
    to read soulless words in many stories...
    Thus... I like to say,
    'Find your soul in poetry
    share ...and breathe in each stanza
    a new soul ...
    And share with your beloveds
    Soul after soul!'

    Sylva Portoian,MD
    Winner of the Carnegie Poetry Prize, Spring 2009

  22. A great informative article with clear concise instructions for self published authors who are serious about taking their book(s) to the next level. I wonder, if you have already written a series for which sales and recognition are improving since it became a series, is it acceptable to submit the complete set for consideration?

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