Ask an Agent: Paul Lucas on What Makes a Self-Published Author Stand Out
Paul Lucas is a literary agent at Janklow & Nesbit where he has been representing authors since 2011. His clients come from across the spectrum of fiction (thrillers, science fiction, fantasy, historical and literary) and non-fiction (history, narrative, travel, science and humor). His clients include New York Times best-selling author R.A. Salvatore, Anthony Ryan, Alan Flusser, and Katherine Arden.
Reedsy: How have you seen attitudes toward self-publishing change since you started out in publishing?
Paul Lucas: Attitudes have changed tremendously, particularly since several self-published authors have now become monumental success stories. It is in part because so many readers came to, and enjoyed, books by self-published authors. Since distributing e-books is so much cheaper and simpler than distributing physical books to bookstores, there are fewer barriers to entry and much easier discovery. As products, the e-books are indistinguishable from other offerings. So if the book is good, it will receive attention.
Which of your clients are self-published? Do you know of big authors that people might not know got their start as self-published authors?
My clients that started in self-publishing include Anthony Ryan (NYT bestselling author), Matthew Mather (translated into 15 territories), James Islington, Steve McHugh, Jodi McIsaac and Richard Phillips. Andy Weir, Hugh Howey, AG Riddle, and Blake Crouch are major authors who stand out from the self-publishing world.
Sorry there’s a male bias to these writers! Women have been tremendously successful with self-published science fiction and thrillers; I just haven’t signed any other than Jodi. Women absolutely dominate the romance space.
In working with self-published authors who transition to traditional publishing, what stands out about them? What are their greatest assets, both personally and professionally?
The key to self-publishing is that the writer becomes her own publisher. That means hiring editors, illustrators, and designers and paying for marketing and promotion. The best of them are very professional, and many publish several books a year. It’s easier for them to do so since there is a much longer lead time in traditional publishing.
Since many self-published authors enjoy closer access to their fans, it makes it self-sustaining success more achievable. If she feels confident that 20,000-30,000 readers will come to each of her new books, twice a year, a writer can comfortably rise to a six-figure income. Traditional publishers would find it challenging to reach 20,000 readers and might give up on that author if they did not see sales rising. Relishing the challenges of editorial control and developing strong positioning for your book are two critical characteristics for success in self-publishing.
With all of the reading that agents need to do to stay on top of the industry as a whole, how do you prioritize reading self-published work? Do you actively seek it out or hear about it through word-of-mouth or recommendations? In short, how does a self-published book find its way onto the radar of an agent?
I typically find self-published books that are rising quickly in e-book sales rankings. It is less word-of-mouth than trawling through the winners on retailers’ sites. Sometimes self-published authors seek out agents but it’s fairly rare for very successful ones to do so these days since agents typically come knocking after they get enough attention.
Where do you see self-publishing fitting into the larger publishing industry in the coming years? What is exciting about it? What will traditional publishers have to adapt to?
Self-publishing will continue to grow for as long as it remains difficult for new authors to break into traditional publishing. That means it is more important than ever to treat a self-published book with the same consideration (or as close as you can get) that a traditionally published book would receive. The more believable the characters, plot, and writing, the easier it will be for readers to engage with it. Similarly, everyone judges books by their covers so it’s worth spending $500-1000 to have one created professionally rather than attempting one’s first MS Paint masterpiece.
Publishers have attempted to launch their own digital imprints, which seem to cater to readers of self-published books. I’d recommend that any self-published author contemplating moving to a traditional publisher’s digital imprint do so with caution. Losing control over marketing the book can be jarring for people who have found success marketing their books on their own terms.
Frankly, traditional publishing has become mediocre at launching new brand-name authors, especially with ongoing series. There haven’t been many new Anne Rices, James Pattersons, Stuart Woods in the last 5-10 years. Some of the ones now traditionally published earned their names in the self-published ranks. Publishers will need to learn how to develop talent if they want to keep people from wanting to self-publish, rather than publish traditionally.
What are the potential obstacles facing self-publishing as it grows?
Well, the elephant in the room is whether Amazon will continue to pay such substantial royalties and subsidize self-published authors through Kindle Unlimited and their other deals. Authors might see a decline in their earnings if those were to disappear but it is unlikely to change how self-published books succeed in the near term since most self-published authors rely on the platform.
What would you tell emerging authors who are on the fence about self-publishing?
There used to be a stigma to self-publishing; it was synonymous with vanity publishing, which meant that authors would spend several thousand dollars in exchange for inventory and the possibility of physical distribution. This stigma has all but vanished, particularly in commercial fiction where self-published authors are really thriving. Literary fiction and non-fiction all continue to work better traditionally. Readers seem to have short attention spans these days so discovery for more academically minded projects (or “serious” or “literary” or however we are describing high-brow books on a given day) have a big headwind.
Lastly, new authors should keep in mind that it’s very hard for an agent to do anything with a newly self-published book. If it only has hundreds or several thousand sales, they will be unlikely to move it to the traditional space right away. This should not be discouraging – it might lead to far greater rewards.
Are you hesitant to self-publish? What is your top reason for wanting to work with a traditional publisher on your first book? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.