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 That’s because when agents review a query for an unpublished novel, they’re looking for voice and story.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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.”
“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.”
“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.”
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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.