Monday, August 10, 2009

Can self-publishing damage your career?

“More than a few writers are turning to POD publishing after their agent cannot sell their book, or after they can't get an agent to rep their book. When they go to sell the next book, will this POD or self publishing work against them if they end up selling only a few thousand books? Is it better to do an ebook or think of another way to get their material before their readers that doesn't generate an ISBN number?”

--question asked by Barbara DeMarco-Barrett on behalf of The American Society of Journalists and Authors. Barbara is host of “Writers on Writing,” a weekly radio show airing on KUCI-FM (88.9) in California.

Understandably, authors worry that self-publishing their book with a print on demand (POD) service could end up hurting them in the long run. They worry that an assigned ISBN could track their book’s sales, and that if sales are weak, a future publisher will reject future books based on their track record.

But there is nothing to fear. Publishers are sophisticated enough to differentiate whether an author’s prior books sold poorly as a result of being published in a POD format or as a result of being published by a major publisher. If an author’s books were published by a major publisher and sold poorly, then yes, this would be a major problem for a future acquiring editor. But if the poor sales were the result of a POD edition, then all is forgiven, and the author is treated as if he had never been published at all. And if the sales were strong, the POD edition can become an asset.

This has been my experience as a literary agent. I also discussed this question with an editor at a major publishing house, and he concurred.

This topic also begs the broader question: whether to self-publish at all. Keep in mind that the majority of authors who self-publish will find that just because they “published” their book and perhaps even built a website, it doesn’t necessarily mean the masses have shown up to buy it, or that they’ve been able to draw review attention. I would guess that most self-published books sell but a few dozen copies to family and friends, and sadly, never lead to a book deal.

If you want to self-publish merely for personal satisfaction, or to share your book with family and friends, then by all means, do it. But if you are embarking on this path solely for commercial reasons—as a way to land a book deal with a major publisher—then I would say only do it if you realize that 1) the chances of this happening are remote; and 2) you are going to have to put a huge amount of time and effort into bringing traffic, attention and publicity to your book online. If you have 100,000 followers of Twitter, or a video with 500,000 views on youtube, or an e-zine with 100,000 subscribers, then you may be a good candidate for self-publishing. If you can manage to sell 5,000 or 10,000 copies on your own, if you can manage to land one or two major reviews in established venues, you may be able to defy the odds and land an agent or publisher. Online, it’s all about what you bring to the table and how hard you are willing to work. Which is, in fact, good training for being published by a major publisher. Successful traditionally-published books also have in common authors who bring their own resources to the table, and who push their own books relentlessly over extended periods of time.

Ultimately, the same factors that affect a traditionally-published book’s success will also affect the success of a self-published book: does your book have a unique concept? Does it have competition? Is there a large market for the genre? Do you have the means to reach out effectively to the market that needs to know about it? How strong are your writing skills, and how well-written is your book?

If you have something important to say and say it well, your book will eventually find its audience. If not, technology can never replace quality.


  1. I looked into self-publishing and decided it wasn't for me. People were at one time trying to talk me into self-publishing my blogs into a book (on another site) but I just didn't want to go that route. Especially after I saw several others trying it and failing.

  2. I'm curious how small-press published books are viewed by industry professionals. My book was repped by a top agent but didn't sell. Now I'm at a crossroads: seek out an small/mid-size press or scrap the book. I've heard from more than one source that publishers and bookstores will look only at the number of books sold without taking into consideration the size of the press. I guess the larger question is, is a small/mid-size press really a good stepping stone? My goal is to have a thriving career as a mystery author. Thank you.

  3. I recently saw a self-pubbed book, by one of the worst self-publishers out there, bought up by a small press. The author is building a name in her genre, and the small press must have seen something they liked. I haven't read the book, so I can't comment. But I thought that was interesting. I'm 38 years old and never thought I'd see the day where self-published books would ever be taken seriously by small publishers, or any publishers. But I'm starting the question the old ways.

  4. I think books are meant to be read and self publishing via ebooks or POD gets them into the hands of the readers. Of course, I say this as someone who has self-published. I wrote the work to be read and hopefully enjoyed. I may never make a fortune, but I can know that people are reading the stories I so enjoyed writing.

    I wonder why agents would want to work with someone who is content to let a book collect cyberdust rather than get it out there.

    Perhaps, self-publishing is a new form of querying. If you read the free sample of my work and think you can sell it or publish it, you can email me from my blog to request the full. It seems to me that POD and ebooks could outsource the slush pile.

    In the meantime, I haven't been querying because I think I'm particularly bad at the process. So, like I said on a recent blog post, I think my work is my query.

    Even if I never get published formally, I'll know my romance novels took some of my readers over the top with me and gave them a reason to groan and laugh and to cry and cheer.

    Thanks for the post!

  5. Hello Noah Lukeman, I have just discovered your book on punctuation, A Dash of Style. And now, finally, so very late in life, I understand the colon. See my ardent blog post on the subject at
    Thanks! Barbara Falconer Newhall - Oakland, CA

  6. As a blogger with several thousand readers and a memoir book proposal in hand, I am smack in the middle of the decision between continuing to pursue traditional print and finding a literary agent versus self-publishing and letting that smaller income be 'enough.' Tough choices, thanks for this helpful post.

  7. I would be curious what it means to "sell poorly" at a major house. Isn't this subject to interpretation? Okay, we can all agree that selling 500 or 1000 books from a major house means that a book did poorly. But a first novel by a first-time author (except in some rare cases) isn't going to sell 50,000 copies anyway, so what kinds of numbers do big houses expect? And how do those numbers change depending on the genre?

  8. Can an e-book transition to print?

    My novel is soon to be published as an e-book, which will give it exposure in unexpected places and an opportunity to see if it sells. The e-publisher has electronic rights for 3 years. This leaves me open to pursue my dream of being in print. But can I solicit agents or publishers before the 3 years is out, and will any of them consider a book where electronic rights aren't available?

  9. Thanks, Mr. Lukeman for your "How to Write a Query Letter". I have employed it, after writing countless letters, following varied advice over years. I'm in the beginnings of a 2 novel query marathon, and I'd sure like your opinion. The first, a self pub'd literary ghost-driven mystery, has similarities to Brunonia Barry's The Lace Reader, and I'm pitching that to the very few agents that may entertain taking on a self pub'd work, as Ms. Oliver did for Ms. Barry. It comes with 7 blurbs, including Tom Monteleone, NY Times bestseller, The Baltimore Sun and Denise Koch, CBS Baltimore news anchor. Have you any advice on this idea of re-marketing the self pub'd novel? On best employing the blurbs and reviews in my queries? In the same effort, I'm in touch with the Maryland Film Commission, as the story happens right here in MD and I'm trying for a sale of movie rights as, perhaps a back door entry to agency.
    The other novel, 'ripped from the headlines, so to speak, is an up to the minute political action thriller, just completed. I envisioned the blurbs from the self pub'd novel helping this one, by riding my reviewers' coat tails, so to speak. The 2 novels being so different may hurt my chances, making me appear scattered, but I don't feel that way. I'm not writing whatever I feel like, as you suggested in one blog, rather, I feel like I am responding to 2 markets. Any insight on my approaches to both?
    I took the self pub route, particularly as a route to agency, using the mystery's finished book to garner blurbs over a year as I finished the thriller. If interested, read about me at www dot charles colley dot com. If I can help someone as your kind efforts have helped me, I'd sure like to. Thanks

  10. I think self-publishing is a choice. You have to decide if you have the energy and personality to go out there and promote your work. Remember that without making the effort, nothing can be done. You have to rely on your own lead and market yourself to sell your book. I self-published my first book titled "How to Achieve Your Sports Dreams," which is currently being sold online at and I am still working on establishing a wider audience. Since it was published in August 2009, i have sold 100 copies. One thing I know for sure, it is not that easy to self-publish a book, however with proper planning, well developed marketing strategy, it is possible that you can succeed and even become a best selling author. There are advantages and disadvantages of self publishing. You have to weigh both side and make a decision. If you have the money and the time, then go for it.

  11. I self-published one of my book projects over a year ago, for a couple reasons. First and foremost it was to have product with me when I am on the road teaching and speaking. A small book, well-written, addressing an underserved niche market, with a modest price point, has been easy to tote around and easy to sell. I can also begin my bio with "author of...," which allows me to schedule events at bookshops and gets people in the door for my workshops.

    Now, as I search for a larger publisher for a second edition, I can report sales of almost 1,000 copies in the first year. They know I'm serious about promotion, and have a solid platform from which to market my work. And as I have two other book projects in mind for the same overall self-help/spirituality topic, I think I am in a better position to query agents about representing my work going forward.

  12. This post helped me greatly. I have a website and as I write my novel I've been publishing copies, chapters and notes on the website plus one general artist community. I was worried that if I publish here and there like that any agent or editor might reject me since I already 'published' it.

  13. My co-author and I are still grappling with the question of whether or not to self-publish. We have not decided one way or another thus far. I enjoy reading informative articles such as yours. Thanks for your insight on the topic.

  14. I totally agree with you. Self published books are just in a few chances to have a great lead. These type of books have a low marketability.


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