One of the most common questions I’m asked is about whether it’s possible to get a traditional publishing deal for a book that has been previously self-published.
In general, traditional publishers want to buy first publishing rights. They don’t want to republish material that’s already been published, as quite often it is thought the market for the work has already been served.
Historically, there are exceptions, usually for work that has fallen out of print but is thought to have the potential for a new life if put in front of a new audience. Persephone Books would be an example of the kind of publisher that works this way.
These days there are also some agents and publishers who will consider previously self-published work, although in limited circumstances. Carina Press, a digital-first imprint of Harlequin, is an example.
So, can you now get a traditional publishing deal for a previously self-published book?
You can’t sell your rights to a traditional publisher if they are still controlled by a hybrid publisher. You will need to have the rights reverted to you if you have not retained them. Getting your rights back may not be completely straightforward and you may need help. Check your contract, or bring it to me to check.
If you have published independently without using an assisted self-publishing company or a hybrid publisher, you should still be in control of your publishing rights.
The difficulty with previously self-published work, for a traditional publisher, is that very rarely is there an untapped market for it. It isn’t like publishing a debut author, who is brand new to the market.
When an author whose work has sold poorly asks whether they would do better with a traditional publisher, the answer is ‘No’. The poor sales show that the buying public has had the opportunity to buy and read the book, but not taken it up. That suggests it has a limited market, which has already been served.
Let’s assume the reason for low sales is the marketing of the book, and not the quality of the book. In the event this is true, it may be that the wider reach of a traditional publisher would result in good enough sales to make republishing the book worthwhile. But then again it may not, and why should they risk it?
Traditionally published authors still need to do a lot of the marketing of their books, they can’t sit back and rely on the publisher to do it all. If an author is unable to achieve sales with their own marketing efforts, the problem might well be that the book is not good enough to attract an audience, and in which case a traditional publisher who takes it on will merely be throwing good money after bad.
Some books are outliers, and their success becomes a talking point because it’s unusual, not because it’s usual. That means they’re not a great basis for comparison. Don’t pin your hopes on replicating one of these rarities.
In fact, there was a clear case for Vintage Books to republish that previously self-published work. They saw the potential for sales to many more readers, and so were able to take the books from a minor hit, which relied almost entirely on word-of-mouth recommendations, to a worldwide phenomenon.
Outside of the incredibly rare cases, if an author has a strong publishing background and can show good sales of their work – and the book will need to sell thousands of copies in its first year of publication to be of interest – it might be possible to show that untapped markets exist which would be best served by a traditional publisher.
For instance, I know an author who gradually built a following for her self-published books over the course of about 10 titles. Her sales were good enough that she was able to interest an agent in selling her foreign rights, so she could demonstrate international interest in her books. Her next ebook became a Kindle bestseller and, on the strength of those sales and that history, she was able to sell the paperback rights to a traditional publisher. The book could then be sold to bookshops by the publisher’s sales team, thereby reaching a market that’s difficult for self-published authors to penetrate.
The book became a series, the later titles also published in paperback by that publisher, and the author’s next series sold to a Big 5 publisher.
The case for republishing that author’s previously self-published work was strong. The publisher could see a clear way to make money from it, because there was an untapped market for them to service.
Very often, the answer is still ‘No’. The truth is, self-publishing is incredibly easy to do now, and especially easy to do badly. That means everyone is doing it, with wildly varying levels of quality and success. The fact that you’ve self-published a book is therefore not impressive in itself.
Trying to get a previously self-published book republished traditionally is by far the hardest route to traditional publishing. It just isn’t going to be possible for the vast majority of self-published authors.
A slightly easier route is to write an entirely new book and submit that to traditional publishers. However, this is still incredibly competitive and may be even more difficult, if your self-published work didn’t sell well, than beginning your writing career by publishing traditionally.
If you’re serious about entering traditional publishing from a self-published start, you’ll need to put together a plan for making the leap. A mini consultation with me can help you reposition yourself and your work.
I’ve written an article, exclusively for my newsletter subscribers, which goes into a bit more depth about the circumstances in which certain self-published authors made the transition to traditional publishing. Sign up to my newsletter to gain access to it.
This article was first posted on 25th April 2021.