"Hi Mr. Lukeman, thanks for fielding these questions. My question is related to this post, but perhaps a little more specific: does it reflect positively or poorly to self-publish first, then seek an agent later? The reason I ask is because I tried getting my memoir published, but despite pieces of my story appearing in the New York Times and the Chicken Soup series, I got no bites for a year. So, I tried my hand at self-publishing and sold about 2,500 hard copies of my book in its first year. I didn't pay for any book marketing, it was merely word-of-mouth that got any of the books sold. I'm hoping to start looking for literary agents again, but am not sure if mentioning that I self-published already would ultimately hurt or help my book. Thank you!"
I am pretty sure I answered a similar question in depth a year or so ago on this blog. Please check the archives for that response, too. But I will answer it again here:
First, we must distinguish between print and ebook self-publishing. To start with the former: if you self-publish and sell a huge number of copies, then it is a huge benefit to landing a deal, and may even make the difference. If you sell only a few copies, it won't impress agents or make a difference. There is a gray area in between. 2,500 hardcovers on your own is respectable. But it won't tip the scales. 25,000 would. 15,000 would raise eyebrows but not close the deal. Depends, too, on whether it's fiction or non-fiction and the genre and on your platform and how and where you sold them and the price point. Hardcover sales are much more impressive than trade paperback, and trade paperback much more so than mass market. In most cases, sales are nominal and there is no real distribution--in those cases, it shouldn't really make a difference. However, if you sell around 10,000 or so copies and get real distribution and your name is in the system everywhere, and especially if you already received a lot of publicity, then hypothetically that could be an issue for an editor, who might feel that their chance to launch the book in a clean way is gone. So it is a calculated risk. I would not recommend it, since in most cases it is very costly and time consuming and won't work.
Self-publishing in ebook format is a different story. It affords you much more flexibility, since it costs you nothing, and since you can use a pen name and thus allow for a clean slate in the system--and if it takes off, it can make the difference. So you have a lot less to lose and more to gain by going that route.