Every time I do a panel at a conference, an #askagent session, or any other kind of Q&A with authors, the topic of self-publishing comes up. So I thought it would be a good idea to break down when I’d recommend self-publishing to authors and when I wouldn’t.

These are the situations in which I’d recommend self-publishing to an author:

1. You want complete creative control over your book.
Any time you work with an agent and/or publisher, they’re going to have opinions about every aspect of your book, including the plot, characters, writing, title, cover design, your author website and Facebook page, even your pen-name. And depending on your contract(s) with these people, you might not get the final say on some or any of these things. For example, my agency agreement stipulates that I don’t have to send out a manuscript until I think it’s ready to go. So if the author and I reach an impasse, I’m not legally obligated to send out the manuscript. (It hasn’t happened with one of my clients yet, but it’s there in my contract if I ever need it.) Your contract with your publisher might likewise give them ultimate control over the title, cover design or final manuscript. No one can legally control the content of your website or Facebook page, (unless you have some crazy clause in your contract that gives the agent/publisher that right, which I’ve never seen before), but an agent or publisher may not want to work with you if they feel that content is inflammatory.

I can’t speak for every agent or publisher, but I (and most of the publishers I’ve worked with) try to work with an author to reach an agreement on these kinds of things. I don’t draw a line in the sand unless we’ve been going back and forth and really can’t reach an agreement.

So if you know from the outset that you want absolute control over your book and all future books, then self-publishing might be the right path for you.

2. You’ve already sent it to every agent/publisher on the planet and gotten no bites, and just want to get it out there.
This is probably the most common reason I hear from authors on why they self-published, and one I definitely understand. You’ve slaved away on this manuscript, pouring all of your time and energy into it, and you want to share it with people. Your only other option is to stick it in a drawer and forget about it.

In this situation, I absolutely agree that self-publishing is the best option, so long as you have no interest in trying to find an agent or publisher for it (or another book) later. (I’ll explain why in a moment.)

3. You’re writing a book specifically for friends and family that you have no interest in sharing with the general populace.
You’re a genealogy buff who’s traced your family back to the Elizabethan era. Your family will get a real kick out of reading about your ancestors, the rest of the world probably won’t. Self-publishing makes the most sense. In this case, you won’t be putting your book up on Amazon, or attempting to sell it elsewhere. So for these people, I recommend that you do not get an ISBN for your book. (I’ll explain why in a second.) I don’t know the ins and outs of ISBNs, especially for self-publishers, but it’s my understanding that you’re only required to have an ISBN if your book is available for sale.

Now I’ll delve into when self-publishing isn’t the best path for an author.

1. When you want an agent/traditional publishing for your book, or any future books.
Publishing is an industry of creativity and passion, but like any industry, it also has to make money to stay afloat. So to get an agent or publisher for your book, they need to not just love it, but also believe that it will sell a lot of copies. If you self-published your book and sold 100,000 copies in six months, you’ll have agents and publishers chomping at the bit to work with you, because you’ve proven that your book is in demand. If your sales figures haven’t been fabulous, you haven’t proven that your book is in demand, in fact you’ve proven the opposite. Publishing debut authors is already a risky business. And if you’ve established a track record of sales showing that risk won’t pan out, you’re going to have a hard time finding an agent or publisher.

I’ve heard self-published authors say, “Well, I really wasn’t trying to promote my book, and that’s why my sales figures are low. I’d actually try if I had a traditional publisher.” Unless you’ve suddenly become best friends with Oprah and you know for certain your book will be her next book club pick, publishers will not believe that your sales figures would be any better if they published your book. And this goes not just for the book you self-published, but for your future books.

You might be thinking, “Well, I’ll just tell agents and publishers that I sold 100,000 copies. How would they know?” They’d know because they have software programs (like Nielsen Bookscan) that track the number of copies sold of every book on the market. Well, every book that has an ISBN, which is legally required if you’re offering the books for sale. (Hence if you’re not offering the book for sale, it’s probably better not to get an ISBN.)

Yes, you could self-publish in the hopes that your book will be the next Fifty Shades of Grey, but self-publishing success stories like that are incredibly rare. You might hope your book is the exception, but you can’t rely on it.

So if you couldn’t find a traditional publisher for your first book, but you want one for your second book, my advice to you is to set the first book aside and focus on the second. You may still be able to find a publisher for your first book someday, after you find one for your second, (or third or fourth or fifth).

So what do you do if you’ve already self-published and now want an agent? You could:

1. Promote the hell out of your self-published book.
You could try to promote your book on your own, or hire a publicist. Give talks, write blogs, network, make balloon animals, do anything you need to do sell books. I’m looking for self-published books that have sold at least 7,500-10,000 copies for every month it’s been on sale. So if your book has been out for a month, and you hustle and sell 30,000 copies in two months, you could still find a publisher.

2. Write your next book in a completely different genre.
Maybe you self-published your children’s picture book and didn’t sell many copies. If your next book is YA or memoir, the sales figures of your picture book aren’t nearly as important, because they’re intended for an entirely different audience. However, if your self-published book is sci-fi and your next book is fantasy, you might have an issue, since there’s a lot of overlap between those audiences.

Ultimately the decision of whether or not to self-publish comes down to what you want to get out of the experience. Some authors have a wonderful time with self-publishing. Others don’t. If you know any authors who’ve self-published, ask them about their experience. If you don’t, look for blogs from self-published authors that break down the pros and cons. Do your research so that you make the best decision for you.

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