Note from Jane (July 2021): Even though this post was first written and published in 2017, I stand by it and my advice remains the same.
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 (or traditional publisher) 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 before you query if it was indeed a mistake, 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(or a book proposal for nonfiction), and research agents who are interested in your genre, just as you would for an unpublished work.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self-publishing effort has resulted in some recognition or sales, then you should query agents just as you would for an unpublished work, but mention in your query what success you’ve enjoyed with the project.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 likely reaction will be I am not interested in your self-published book. In other words, the fact that you self-published is almost never a selling point. 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
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 publisher of The Hot Sheet, the essential newsletter on the publishing industry for authors, and was named Publishing Commentator of the Year by Digital Book World in 2019.
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.