by Chris Ferebee
What do The Shack, Jesus Calling and 50 Shades of Grey all have in common? Their respective commercial trade publishers have sold millions of copies of each, and they all started out as self-published works. So the easy answer to the question, Will a publisher consider my self-published book, is “yes.” But you knew it would be more nuanced than that.
We have written previously about how self-publishing might fit as a strategic part of your overall publishing strategy. But the purpose of this post is whether you can transition a trade book from self-published to commercially published. The key to this answer is, you guessed it, platform.
As self-publishing and the online sale of books have significantly increased, the amount of available physical retail space allotted to books has significantly decreased. There was a time when a publisher or retailer could choose a book they absolutely loved and make it a bestseller. When the only place to buy books was in a physical retailer, those books could be positioned in a way to make them successful. But as shopping habits of readers have changed, moving largely online, and available retail space has shrunk, publishers and booksellers have largely lost their power to do this. It’s not impossible, but it’s significantly harder. So far, there is no digital equivalent to stacking 50 books on the front table of every major bookstore.
The primary reason an author’s platform has become so important today is because of this reality: Readers don’t follow publishing companies and, outside certain technical fields, don’t read every book published in their preferred genre. Discovering good new books is downright impossible in an online environment. Hence, readers follow and pay attention to their favorite authors, or a short list of friends or influencers whose opinion they trust. Your “platform” is the specific audience and channels of influence you have cultivated that will pay attention to your content.
So will a publisher consider your self-published work? Well, what do the sales of your self-published work say about the size and health of your audience? Whatever reason you decided to self-publish, you now have a tangible example of the size of your platform. If you’ve sold 47 copies, you don’t get to blame it on self-publishing and assume a commercial publisher will make you successful. They won’t. And they won’t consider your self-published work.
But if you’ve sold tens of thousands of copies of your self-published work or, if you can show significantly increasing sales month over month or year over year of your self-published work, then a commercial publisher will pay attention.
A commercial publisher can basically do one thing for you as an author. Whatever your personal reach is, they can amplify it. If you have a significant reach, the amplification will be significant as well. If you have a small reach, the amplification will be also. Yes, they bring editorial expertise, and market knowledge, far greater distribution than you can obtain on your own (even through Amazon), marketing and publicity relationships, etc. I’m not downplaying the role of a commercial publisher, but it all amounts to amplification of the audience you already bring to the table.
If you want to know the size of your audience, self-publish a book. You’ll know pretty quickly whether you have work to do or not. Commercial publishers will absolutely consider your self-published work if it’s successful. They’re looking for good bets. But self-publishing doesn’t get you off the platform hook. It will just be a tangible example of how successful you’ve been cultivating an audience for your work.