How to Land an Agent for a Self-Published Book

land an agent for self-published book

One of the most frequent questions in my inbox is: “I’ve self-published, but now I want an agent. How do I get one?” Usually the writer wants an agent because they’ve been disappointed by their sales or have experienced frustration in getting readers. Other times, the author’s plan was to self-publish first and magically attract attention that would lead to a traditional book deal—something that is even more of a rare occurrence than landing a book deal through the slush pile.

If you’ve given up on the self-publishing route and want to try traditional, then there are several approaches you can take.

1. Query agents as if you didn’t self-publish.

This is the most sensible approach if you put very little time or effort into self-publishing your work, haven’t been on the market very long, and believe self-publishing was a mistake. (I would also advise taking the work off the market entirely before you query, but that’s not required.)

Prepare a query letter and synopsis (or a book proposal for nonfiction), and research agents who are interested in your genre, just as you would for an unpublished work. Then pitch and see what responses you get. If you’re able to secure interest, you should disclose the history of the project; if the agent is genuinely interested, that history is unlikely to affect their enthusiasm for the work, especially if the work received little or no attention while it was on the market.

2. Query and mention your self-publishing effort.

If your self-publishing effort has resulted in some recognition or sales, then you should query agents just as you would for an unpublished work, but mention in your query what success you’ve enjoyed with the project. It’s important to note when you released the book, what price it’s selling at, how many copies you’ve sold, how many reviews you have on Amazon or Goodreads, and your average rating. Do not send a copy of the book with your query. Instead, wait for the agent to indicate in their response what they’d like to see—the first chapter? First 50 pages? The entire book? Be prepared to send the work in manuscript format if requested.

If interested, the agent will closely scrutinize the work on Amazon and Goodreads—and probably thoroughly research your online presence—so make sure that you’ve spiffed up your website and are putting your best professional face forward.

3. Continue marketing your self-pub work.

The honest truth is that most agents (and publishers) have little or no interest in acquiring self-published work unless it’s receiving significant attention in the media or hitting bestseller lists. In other words, if you’re doing well enough to merit a traditional deal, agents and publishers will come to you, not the other way around. Usually, your best bet is to continue looking for ways to gain attention and visibility for your work—to try and make waves. If that seems like an exercise in futility, then…

4. Query with a new project.

Aside from hitting bestseller lists, perhaps the best way to land a traditional deal for a self-published work is to secure an agent for a brand-new work. Should that happen, the agent will have a conversation with you about your vision for your career and all of your existing work—and will strategize with you to decide how to handle your existing self-published oeuvre.

Approaches to avoid

  • As stated before, do not send the book to the agent unless they specifically request it.
  • Do not attend writers conferences or industry events with your self-published book in hand and try to sell agents or publishers on it in person (unless there is an explicit invitation to do so).
  • Do not lead your query or your pitch with “I self-published this book and thought you might be interested.” The immediate reaction will be I am not interested in your self-published book. In other words, the fact that you self-published is NOT a selling point. It is a negative or at best a distraction if you’re addressing someone in the industry. Pitch the merits of the work, not its self-published history, unless you can say, “I self-published this book and have sold 50,000 copies so far.”

For more advice

Posted in Getting Published, Self-Publishing.

Jane Friedman (@JaneFriedman) has 20 years of experience in the publishing industry, with expertise in digital media strategy for authors and publishers. She is the co-founder and editor of The Hot Sheet, the essential newsletter on the publishing industry for authors.

In addition to being a columnist for Publishers Weekly, Jane is a professor with The Great Courses, which released her 24-lecture series, How to Publish Your Book. Her book for creative writers, The Business of Being a Writer (University of Chicago Press), received a starred review from Library Journal.

Jane speaks regularly at conferences and industry events such as BookExpo America, Digital Book World, and the AWP Conference, and has served on panels with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Creative Work Fund. Find out more.

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cherrilynn Bisbano

Jane, Great advice. I am an acquisitions reader for an agent. He does not want self-published books unless the book has remarkable sales. Selling a self-published book to a publisher is difficult. Some great books have come across my desk with limited sales, I had to turn them down. It breaks my heart.

John Grabowski

> Some great books have come across my desk with limited sales,
> I had to turn them down. It breaks my heart

This is why, in my opinion, the industry is broken.

Agents and publishing houses make their decision based on criteria no reader browsing shelves for their next purchase would care about.

Rlee
Rlee

I agree John. It is broken, and a shame too. I am a self-published author who has achieved moderate sales, but recently am looking for an agent. I want to pitch my beloved self-published books to an agent or traditional publisher, but it seems the article is saying to disregard my work and push it to the side because agents don’t want to know. So basically I am left to write a completely new novel, one that isn’t self-published, and the agent will more likely look at it.

Steven Hutson

John, what would you suggest as a better plan?

John Grabowski

Great column. Thanks, Jane.

Mel
Mel

I’m with John Grabowski…What is the justification for turning down a really great book because it was originally self published with limited sales? Is it because it was self published? One can see why more authors are going down this route. Or is it the limited sales…Which may be the result of insufficient and ineffective marketing. Some pretty mediocre and badly written books end up traditionally published. Some pretty horrendous self published books become block busters. Is this fifty shades of mixed up?

Mimi
Mimi

What if the reason is to break into foreign markets? How would one attract an agent for that?

Lp Johnson

Yes…well…I went self pub because I wanted my series Published, not with any real concern for ‘best seller lists’, and ten years of traditional queries in a market lacking access for 90 percent of Writer’s was a Drag. I’m not marketing much at all, and Romance/Drama African Diaspora Novels are not all that common, but my series is doing fine on its own, according to My Own standards. I also think Traditional Houses are still very snobbish about selecting lit…since I too think some truly Horrid tales with very little relation to real readers have somehow managed large advances. I’m… Read more »

Emilio Corsetti III

Jane, I would like to suggest that you stop using the term self-published. A self-published book is something that you print out at your local Kinkos and put in a three-ring binder. How about independently published? You’ve heard of independent films, right? They are films made outside the studio system. An independently published book is a book that was written, edited, and produced outside the main publishing monopoly. No one has ever purchased a book based on who the publisher was.

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[…] agent or not to agent? Jane Friedman talks about how to land an agent for a self-published book, while agent Janet Reid shares 6 reasons your manuscript got […]

Cindy Brandner

I find much of information about whether one should make the leap from self-publishing to trying to land a traditional contract rather puzzling. I had an agent approach me a couple of years back, and he told me that I’d need to sell in the six figures within a relatively short period of time in order to get mainstream interest. In the music industry if an indie recording has 20,000 downloads the music industry takes notice because they realize something is happening with that song. Yet books- which traditionally sell in far smaller numbers than music- have to sell in… Read more »

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[…] to Land an Agent for a Self-Published Book (Jane Friedman): This is a must-read if you’ve self-published, but you’re also interested in working […]

SJC

Hi, Jane! Great article. I’m a long time fan. My own book is with a mid-list house & your numbers are pretty accurate. My question is this: There is this person in my writers’ group who is self-published & claims to have sold ~40k copies of their first book within the first year of its release (a few years ago). Their second one sold ~14k in the first couple of months. Privately, I have questioned this for a while. Wouldn’t there be publishers & agents clamoring for their attention? Smaller-time ones, at the very least? I let this go for… Read more »

Steven Hutson

I know of no agent or AE who actively follows self-pub titles, with a view to signing one of them. They already have a full inbox.

Diane McKeithen
Diane McKeithen

I self-published a book in 2014. Had great success in my area, but little success outside of my area. I am proud to say I made back the money I invested in the book, plus more! Marketing self-published books is not easy, especially when you are a new author. One literary agent was interested in my novel before I self-published, but her firm felt they would not have a career with me since I am a retired teacher of 35 years. I have now written the sequel to my first novel and my readers are avidly waiting for it to… Read more »

Betty Viamontes
Betty Viamontes

I am an independent author who has published several books (in English and Spanish). My first book “Waiting on Zapote Street” made it to Amazon’s #1 bestseller in May 2017 (2 years after its publication). It was selected by a United Nations book club and others, and it appears on The Latino Author website as one of the top ten books of 2016. “Waiting on Zapote Street” has 4.8 stars on 62 reviews, but in order to continue to expand sales, I was thinking about traditional publishing. Is there an agent you would recommend for this type of book? It… Read more »

Steven Hutson

I’ve been approached by hundreds of self-pub authors in the past few years. N0ne of them claimed sales of more than 200 copies. Not interested.

Vincent
Vincent

How many sold copies would turn your interest around?

Steven Hutson

Hard to say.But 5,000 would be a good place to start.

Zach
Zach

I’ve sold over 10000 books in 10 months on Amazon, and I’m self-published. Would that get an agent’s interest?

Steven Hutson

When self-pub writers come to me they’re offering the existing book as a proof-of-concept.
But if they only sold a few copies, they didn’t prove the concept.

I expect my clients to work for that deal, and then work to sell the books.

Roger C. Dunham

The whole thing just seems so impossible. To get sales, there needs to be somebody reviewing the book, but nobody wants to review a book without sales. And so there is the endless, and nearly fruitless effort–people reading about it on social marketing sites buy it and love it–this is the case for my new book SURVIVING MORTALITY, and yet with sales of only 200-300 in the past couple of weeks since it was just published, nobody in the press will pick it up for a review that a few thousand people might read. Is it the vast volume of… Read more »

Alexandra
Alexandra

Hello Mrs. Friedman, and thank you so much for the article! My questions regarding this topic can never seem to get answered. I self-published when I was young because it was the new trend and seemed like it may work for me, and for a while I was happy with it. But in the back of my mind I kept going back to traditional publishing and eventually decided I wanted to pursue that path instead, so I closed up shop so far as self-publishing and now I’m starting to query. I have a story I released back in 2011 that… Read more »

Harry Hallman

It seems to me that the publishing world is going through the same trials and tribulations as did the advertising business. They are trying to learn how to deal with a digital communications world. I started writing when I was 68 and knew instinctively that no publisher would even consider me, nor did I believe I had the time to wait 20 years for someone to “find me”. My only outlet was to self-publish. To date, I have published four novels and a short story. The novels are part of a series. They are available in print, eBook, and audio… Read more »

Dale Manolakas
Dale Manolakas

Jane- You are so generous I thought I’d ask: I am a self-published author with good financial success before the Amazon algorithm changed and kdp pages erupted. Now, I am not having the money roll in. Although sales are fine the bottom-line, “profit” [after adverts etc.] is not there. I have a NEW UNPUBLISHED book–in fact two. I have held them back until I can optimize my “agent query” considering my “prior” self-publications. I ONLY want traditional publishing with an agent now. QUESTION: Should I depublish the OTHER Amazon books and paperbacks before submitting the new unpublished work [works]? It… Read more »

Mike Vogel
Mike Vogel

Jane, Great columns. Thanks for doing them. I haven’t found an answer to this: You get an agent, the agent does (as far as I can tell) a great job putting your novel in front of all the major houses, which send reject it. The agent exhausts her ideas of editors who might be interested and very politely says we’re done. Should I give up or should I query new agents? And should I tell agents in the new queries: By the way, another agent tried to sell this everywhere for me and wasn’t successful? That seems a guaranteed interest… Read more »

Harriet Schultz
Harriet Schultz

Your informative column and the resultant comments are helpful, frustrating and familiar. I self-published my first novel after coming very close with several agents only to be told, “You can write and I love the story, but.” That romantic suspense novel was well-received by readers and reviewers and became the first in a three-book series that, to date, have more than 150 reviews on Amazon including one from USAToday. I’ve also published a stand-alone. Like another commenter, I was also told by an agent not to expect her or anyone else to be interested in my books until I sold… Read more »

Terry Ann Thaxton

Hi Jane! Thanks for your book and your blog and site. I’m using your book in my grad class for professional development. Students are loving it. Here’s a question: I have a student whose YA novel is coming out in 2019 through Swoon Reads/Macmillan (a cooperative publisher imprint). Would she query for the sequel in the same way you describe here for self-published? How would she query for an option that is a sequel?

Leah Downing

Hello, any and all advice is most welcome & appreciated. I fall into the 2nd category (query & mention your self-pub efforts), but both my self-pub books are the first 2 in a speculative fiction series. The 3rd is ready to release, ARCs have gone out, and so far, reviewers love book three. Would it be best to: 1) Query the series, indicating that 3 of the 5 books are out with decent success (both #1 bestsellers in sizable categories, over 5k sold, 4.5 star average on Amazon and Goodreads). Books 4 and 5 are in rough draft format. 2)… Read more »