Friday 4 October 2013

Will publishers accept my previously self-published novel?

This question arose from a Twitter conversation. A writer who had self-published his novel, in order, as he later explained, to get feedback and see whether it/he was good enough to be published, then saw that a particular publisher's submission guidelines said it wouldn't consider previously self-published books. The writer wondered if this was normal. I said it was, and so did the publisher.

Had he screwed himself, he wondered?

No, but he has published his book and clued-up trade publishers will only republish books in certain circumstances, and these are rare:
  1. If the book does phenomenally well as a self-published book, proving its worth. NOTE: "phenomenally well" means two things: high volume and at a decent price point. If you've sold ten thousand at only 49p, this tells the publisher nothing. That is a good result for a self-published book, but it's nowhere near good enough to show a publisher that this book has sufficient legs to sell enough at a higher price point, and a publisher needs a higher price point to cover costs and overheads - including, crucially, editing, which the self-published book almost certainly will not have had. (You may technically have had your book edited, but the publisher will most likely want to suggest changes and this is a vexed issue if the book is already out there. Be warned, too, that your understanding of the word "editing" may fall short of professional standards. Editing requires training and is not at all the same as proofreading - which also requires training!)
  2. If a book has been previously published but perhaps went out of print or only sold modestly (at a proper price) but now the author has become very successful with other books, so his "backlist" genuinely stands a chance of a new life.
  3. If there is some other unusual reason which gives the book a special chance of success. For example, you've suddenly become a celebrity. Or something else which my imagination is failing to imagine.
Writers need to realise that publishers are looking to publish "first rights", and if you have published the book yourself, first rights have gone, by definition. Rights are at the core of the publishing industry. The publisher does not want an unedited trial version out there already. It's not regarded as professional.

So, why did I say that the writer had not made a mistake by self-publishing? (And the publisher in the conversation agreed.) Because it's a perfectly reasonable thing to do, will teach the writer a lot and could be very satisfying. Then the writer needs to take what he learns from the process to write his next book and make it really sing. He can submit that for publication and know that he has a better chance. So, self-publishing as a tactic towards improvement, or for personal satisfaction, is perfectly reasonable. After all, you're a writer - this will not be your last book and you understand the need for practice and apprenticeship, don't you?

So, self-publish to get feedback, if you want to. (And if you know how to judge the validity of the feedback.) But don't self-publish as a trial run. Yes, you might be like EL James and your trial run accrues massive sales and huge publicity, leading to a deal, but please realise how very rare this is, and that it could only work for certain books with mass market appeal anyway. Doing this because you think it's going to net you a deal is a very rash thing to do. Unless, of course, you can sacrifice this book for that risk and get to work on your next, better one.

Self-publishing is a strategy. But there are different intended or desired goals. If the goal is becoming published by a publisher, then you need to understand how publishing works. And it doesn't work by republishing books that haven't sold squillions.

(Please forgive me if I'm slow to respond to comments. I'm in London and tomorrow I have a big event for Mumsnet. Not big as in big audience - it's a small audience - but big in terms of exhaustion and energy. And hours... Tomorrow evening, I will have collapsed, nursing a small glass of wine.)


Vanessa said...

Excellent post - I see SP as my trial run... Maybe, I'll approach and agent & get lucky for my next project! :)

Enid Richemont said...

Nicola - why a SMALL glass of wine?

Nicola Morgan said...

Enid, I didn't say i'd stop after the small one :)

Vanessa, I wish you strength, talent and luck!

Lesley Cheetham said...

I self published because I didn't want to be one of those writers you hear about who have twenty manuscripts gathering dust and many many rejections from publishers and agents. I'm lucky as I work in a school library and have had so much joy in seeing the excitement my books have given students and their pride in me for writing something they can relate to. Apparently I have a following at local schools! I didn't self publish because I wanted my book to be picked up by a publisher, but to reach out to an audience - And I am impatient! I know that I'm a much better writer than I was when I put those books out and hope that I will one day be spotted and picked up by a publishing house - for my new books, obviously, but I don't regret self publishing for a moment.