Why Agents Don't Often Represent Previously Self-Published Books

A couple weeks ago, I shared #100Queries on Twitter and explained what does and doesn’t work in a query letter. I also fielded questions from writers who were following along as I talked about what I was reading in my inbox, and one topic that came up more often than I expected was previously self-published projects. I’ve answered this question many times, but never in detail in a full-length blog post, so I thought now is better than ever to explain how literary representation and self-publishing interact… or don’t.

You’ve probably read somewhere that most literary agents are not interested in receiving queries for books that have previously been self-published (unless the books have sold hundreds of thousands of copies). Let’s break down why this is the case:

  • Agents are not interested in these projects because publishers are not interested in these projects. Why? Self-published is still published—why should a “traditional” publisher do something that has already been done? The way that publishers (and agents) look at it is that you made the decision to publish the book, and so it has had its chance to find its audience (which translates to sales).
  • Queries for self-published projects often state something about the author not having the right resources for marketing or publicity. I don’t doubt that this is the truth. Unfortunately, making the decision to self-publish goes hand-in-hand with needing to promote your own book. This can take time and money that many writers simply don’t have. This is why it’s so important to assess all the possible publishing paths before committing to one decision. There are risks and rewards for every type of publishing (whether it’s self-publishing, publishing with a small press, or publishing with one of the major, “traditional” publishing companies). Whichever route you decide to take, published still means published.
  • The caveat of this general statement—that publishers might be interested if a book has sold hundreds of thousands of copies—is a difficult pill to swallow. Whatever “magic number” of sales a book needs to interest editors at publishing houses will vary by person, and often this number changes depending on the price point of the book. For example, if you self-published a book in ebook form and only ever sold it at a .99 cents price point, then there’s a chance you might not get interest from a larger publishing company even though your sales look impressive.
  • Self-publishing is becoming more popular as writers search for accessible ways to break into the publishing industry. But it’s not always the best decision for every writer, so it’s crucial to think about the type of writing career you want long-term. If you’re interested in self-publishing and finding literary representation, then maybe you want to consider being a “hybrid” writer—which means that you plan to both self-publish and pursue more traditional routes of publishing. There’s nothing wrong with this, it just requires careful planning on your part.

If you have already self-published a project and have changed your mind about your career/now want to find literary representation, I recommend sending out query letters for a brand new project. A literary agent won’t mind that you self-published another book, but remember to be honest about your publishing experience and what you expect moving forward. By querying a new project, you’re starting from scratch with a new business relationship and you can work together with your agent on shaping your career.

I hope this clears up some confusion surrounding the issue of querying previously self-published books. Please leave a comment below if you have any more questions about this topic.