If you self-publish, will a conventional publisher want you?

Jeff Herman's Guide cover 2009“Can self-publishers sell their books to conventional publishers? Should they want to?” Jeff Herman poses this question in his Guide to Book Publishers, Editors & Literary Agents, which has an excellent chapter on self publishing. Yes they can, he says – but they may not want to.


Herman’s book is perhaps the most highly recommended guide of its type, and I’ve been buying the new edition every couple of years, although I’ve never seen it for sale in a bricks-and-mortar bookstore. Rather, I learned about it online, through various writers’ groups, and ordered it from Amazon. That makes me part of a clientele that’s very different from traditional bookstore customers. Herman makes some fascinating points in the 2008 edition:

Too many books are published, compared to the quantity and quality of shelf space to accommodate them. You can have a big-name publisher and an invisible book (p. 801).

A self-published book may have sold as many as one million copies . . . but (conventional) publishers may still deem the book as virtually unpublished. Why? Because publishers essentially focus on retail sales, and within retail sales, most of their focus is on bookstores . . . It follows that self-published books that have not penetrated bookstore shelves in any meaningful way, can still be seen as virgin meat by publishers . . .

At a minimum, publishers evaluate self-published books as if they are untested raw manuscripts, and all consideration will be based upon the publisher’s sense of the work’s salability in bookstores. At a maximum, the publisher will take into consideration the self-published book’s sales history and the author’s ability to manifest those results. If it’s believed that the author can duplicate her proven capacity to sell books once the product makes it into the stores, then that will add leverage to the kind of deal the author can make with a publisher. Even if a self-published book did not sell very many copies, a publisher may be very happy to pick it up if they can see that it has unfulfilled potential once it has distribution behind it. Publishers do not have any expectations that self-publishers can or should be able to succeed by themselves. (pp. 802-803).

I especially like the last two sentences. One of my goals in building my online presence is to build an impressive track record that will interest agents and publishers, but maybe I don’t need to wait until I have astronomical numbers. Numbers, though, are a major reason Herman’s become a strong proponent of self publishing. Self-publishers can make as much as a 90% profit on each copy they sell, he says, whereas the traditionally published author makes only a small fraction of that amount.

Granted, he’s discussing self-publishing in terms of hands-on involvement from start to finish. The profit for authors who contract with a POD printing firm like XLibris, Lulu or Virtualbookworm doesn’t approach 90%, but the arrangement can still be far more lucrative than working with a conventional publisher.

Jeff Herman is walking his talk. His 2008 Guide is the 18th edition of this work, but after many years with traditional publishers, he’s gone the self-publishing route by founding his own firm, Three Dog Press. Since I haven’t been actively agent hunting, I passed on the 2009 edition (pictured above), but I’ll be looking forward to the 2010 version, where I hope he’ll have more to say about self-publishing and print-on-demand. If you’re not familiar with this book, I heartily recommend it.

Thanks for all the great comments on POD and self-publishing over the past week. Let’s keep the discussion going. As for me, my head is spinning, and I plan to lighten up a bit for August. I’ll start the month on Monday by posting my poem about a library book sale – a fitting follow-up to your comments on printing costs, paper waste and green consciousness.

11 thoughts on “If you self-publish, will a conventional publisher want you?

  1. Jeff Herman’s comment that self-publishers can make as much as a 90% profit on each copy is a bit misleading. Yes, self publishers who do not sell through conventional channels (using a wholesaler like Ingram and Baker & Taylor to get their books into stores and libraries) can make a huge profit. This works best with non-fiction writers who can give seminars on their subject, sell their books at full price, or even charge for the seminar and give away the book free. They are cutting out that 55% discount that wholesalers demand. Fiction is a whole different story, especially if you want your books on that library or book store shelf. Someone else posted that POD books are not well edited. Print on demand is just a printing process. New York publishers sometimes use POD to whip out 1,000 advance reading copies quickly. Your traditional printer using an offset or sheet fed press is going to take 6 to 8 wks to print that quantity. So just because the print method used was POD does not mean the manuscript didn’t go through the editing process.

    • Thanks for your comments, Sandra – very informative. Yes, quoting the 90% figure may have been misleading, and you clarified it well.

    • Hi Enid, good to see you here. You cite a perfect example of the way self-published authors can create and define a niche for their work and tap into markets that traditional publishers might not initially think worthwhile. It’s great that we can prove them wrong, create our own markets and maybe attract conventional publishers in the process.

    • Yes, you’d enjoy the book – an excellent all-around guide to the current publishing world, so it should be very useful to you.

      Picnic was fun, despite lowish attendance due to the rain – but we stayed dry in the pavilion.

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