Looking for updates? Subscribe to our newsletter

Ask an Agent: Paul Lucas on What Makes a Self-Published Author Stand Out

Posted in: Understanding Publishing on August 25, 2016 29 Comments đź’¬

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?

Blood SongMy 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.

29
Leave a Reply

10 Comment threads
19 Thread replies
0 Followers
 
Most reacted comment
Hottest comment thread
16 Comment authors
  Subscribe  
newest oldest most voted
Notify of
Sam Wood

Great information! I appreciate you and Paul for taking the time to send this.

Reedsy

Glad you found this interview useful, Sam!

Natalie Hanemann

Smart advice here. As a freelance editor who works for both publishing houses and self-published authors, I agree with the statement that the quality of the storytelling is surprisingly good in many self-published books--particularly with genre fiction.

Wendy Mays

Great article, really appreciate this information. Could you comment on how you think self publishing authors of children's books are doing. We work with a lot of self publishing picture book, MG and YA authors who come to us for illustration. I would like to share this article with them as an encouragement but it would be nice to know if you see this positive trend in their arena as well.

canonizer

Hi Wendy, I can't really comment with any authority since I don't work in those spaces. Children's books have more physical outlets for sales than adult books and I'm not sure if that has impacted ebook sales in those categories or whether younger readers have access to ereaders, which is where (in my experience) most self-published authors are finding success.

-Paul Lucas
@canonizer

Wendy Mays

thanks, That is helpful.

Randy Peyser

I pitch manuscripts to agents and have helped 41 people get book contracts. Last week, I had an agent tell me she won't take on a self-published book unless the author has sold 20,000 copies in the first six months. I'm curious, what do you see as the amount of books and timeline for a self-published author to have sold in order for you, or others, to consider it?

canonizer

Randy, There's no rule. There is no particular amount. Publishers might lack confidence in bringing a book to a wider market for a variety of reasons. That particular agent has set guidelines based on her experience, possibly in part to give herself a reason to reduce the volume of submissions that she receives. There's nothing wrong with her making that determination. I've seen publishers acquire projects that have only sold 100s of copies and seen them turn down ones that have 10s of thousands (hundreds of thousands?) so there is definitely still an editorial critique and, more importantly, an evaluation… Read more »

Randy Peyser

Thank you for your response, Paul. I helped an author get an agent who negotiated a six figure deal in a bidding war between S&S and two other houses. His book was on the Wall Street Journal bestseller list in July. Another one of my clients, whose book I placed, was featured in O Magazine just last month. Her book came out in May. I have three fiction projects I'm pitching to agents right now. One in particular is upmarket commercial fiction. I see that's a category you gravitate towards. The author has a fantastic platform. He has been repeatedly… Read more »

canonizer

Sure, I'm at plucas at janklow.com

Jillian

Randy, I just put my book, GOODBYE, PETER PAN, on CreateSpace after giving up on the regular route. Everone I sent this manuscript to loved it, but all had the same problem with it--the characters were older than readers were interested in, and could I rewrite it with the couple being younger? No way I could do that. The screenplay I adapted of this book was a semi-finalist in three competitions, but same story. Hollywood doesn't like "older" people. This is a story about two "seventy-somethings" written by a "seventy-something" and is perfect for Hallmark IF I could get an… Read more »

Randy Peyser

It sounds to me like your book would benefit from marketing it to your target market audience, namely seniors. To sell anything, you've got to capture an audience. That's where I would focus. AARP magazine? Senior centers? Retirement villages? You could even create a play and tour with it to senior centers and retirement villages. There are a lot of upscale retirement villages who look for entertainment. Those are just a few ideas. If you can create a groundswell by yourself, you will have a much better chance of your wonderful story being picked up in the way you want… Read more »

Elizabeth Ducie

Jillian are you based in US? Over here is UK, one of the biggest TV dramas in recent years has been 'Last Tango in Halifax' which is about two 'seventy-somethings' who meet again after many years and rekindle their love. There's certainly a market for that sort of story here.

pixiedust8

That six-month time frame seems very short-sighted. I understand wanting a minimum amount of sales, but when someone self-publishes, they may have a hit--but not necessarily in six months. There's a whole discovery process that is still being figured out and doesn't necessarily correlate to a traditional book selling process. The creator of Stranger Things said that Netflix didn't expect people to discover the show immediately. Not sure why publishing often lags so behind.

David Balzarini

thanks for the article, Paul. You mentioned contemporary titles are doing well as self-published books, can you name a few? Thanks again.

canonizer

I named a few in the essay but otherwise just go to the ebook bestseller lists on all the retailer sites and pick out the independently published ones. Feel free to report back on popular authors that we should know about.

John Stevens

Good article. My biggest reservation over self-publishing is the editing process. I don't have the cash to afford a real editor, but with traditional publishing there's no upfront cost. Yog's law, right?

Jillian

I learned the hard way about hiring a "real editor" to edit my manuscript. She charged an enormous fee, had great credentials, and she promised that when I got the ms. back it would be ready to submit to publishers/editors/agents. What I got back was a complete mess, major scenes chopped out until the ms. was 20,000 words shorter. My writing voice was totally wiped out and the ending had been changed. I spent weeks rewriting the manuscript to get it back to what was recognizable. Furthermore, this woman spent 14 months "editing" this. Only after I threatened to report… Read more »

Reedsy

Really sorry to hear about this experience, Jillian. Unfortunately, you're not alone in this case, there is a frightening amount of so-called editors out there who are little more than beta readers — and still charge an arm and a leg…
This is actually one of the main reasons why we started Reedsy, to create a safe place for authors to find and work with reputable editors and designers. And we spend a lot of our time making sure of that.
Grammarly is an awesome plugin, but it won't solve any developmental issues your manuscript might have.

Stacey Dyer

I can vouch for Reedsy in their high quality editors. I couldn't have found a better partner to edit my book than Rachel Small. She saw my voice, understood it, and helped refine the continuity of it while prioritizing the reader's needs.

canonizer

If your book needs a lot of editing or lacks promise you will not find a traditional agent or publisher. Join a writing group and review your own work carefully.

Mike Scantlebury

You think a 'traditional publisher' still do their own editing? I don't think so! Even writers who have landed a publishing contract aren't guaranteed the free service of editing anymore. That's so 1950s!

Stephen Connor

Thanks for the article, I am a newbie self-published author (I'm onto my third book). I have found it is worthwhile to explore and absorb any information out there on publishing. You probably sensed a 'but' coming on. Here it is. I have also found that self-publishing is great. It is easy, with lots of services readily available, which in turn gives you the freedom to do what you first intended to do, which is, simply write, and write for the fun of it. Getting bogged down too much with the publishing and distribution process can cause the cobwebs to… Read more »

Reedsy

You're absolutely right, Stephen. Often, I worry that the main problem with the publishing industry is that there are too many "players" in it, and too many people offering advice. And as with anything else, usually most of it isn't really any good. Since we started Reedsy, we've received over 15,000 applications from so-called editors, proofreaders, book cover designers, typesetters and marketers. So far, we've accepted under 500… Just to give you an idea of how hard it can be to find anyone who's good to work on your manuscript. And don't get me started on publishers. I am baffled… Read more »

EJ Jackson

Thank you for this. I'm a self-published author (working on third and fourth books and other projects) with a day job and like many indies, I dream of being able to write full time -and to be able to earn a living from doing so. The hardest part is not the writing (which I enjoy) or the editing (sometimes not so much, but it has to be done!) but the marketing. I'd be interested to know how many good books fail just because the indie author isn't able to target his/her audience successfully, meaning that no-one gets to hear about… Read more »

canonizer

I can't help but would suggest looking towards resources for indie authors. Read konrath, etc.

Stephen Connor

Marketing, another hat we need to put on. I like to keep this simple. I am the best marketer of my work and myself. I go with what flows and feels right. It is a big topic. I have found that being an author has given me authority and credibility, so I approach all the avenues I can, and generally I get a positive response. (whether tv, radio, papers, mags etc.) I have found that getting yourself out there is all about energy, which in turn is all about evolving and growing as a writer and a person. There will… Read more »

Adam Bender

I self-published my first two books after I got frustrated with the process of submitting to agents and the long waiting to hear back. I've recently finished my third novel, which I think is my best yet, so I've decided to query agents again. Now I'm playing the waiting game again. I do wonder sometimes if I should just plan on self-publishing from the start.

Stacey Dyer

I often see studies of self-published authors from the Fiction space that move to traditional publishing. I'd love to hear more about those who have a different type of fan base like that of the self-help realm. I find it more difficult to play in this space because the solutions or lessons taught in the self-help space are ephemeral. You can pick up a fiction book at any time if you enjoy those types of books whereas with non-fiction there has to be a need or a problem to solve and often that problem rears its head at one point… Read more »

Continue reading

Recommended posts from the Reedsy Blog

What is Line Editing, and What Can It Do For Your Book? (With Examples!)

What is Line Editing, and What Can It Do For Your Book? (With Examples!)

Whether you're dashing off a note to a colleague or listing your bike for sale on Craigslist, your writing could always use a second pair of eyes. But what is line editing specifically? A tool …

Read article
How to Write a Query Letter in 7 Steps

How to Write a Query Letter in 7 Steps

A starving writer stands in front of a mailbox, clutching a hefty brown envelope addressed to a publishing company. They say a prayer, push their manuscript in, and begin the long wait for a reply …

Read article
The Complete Guide to Ebook Distribution

The Complete Guide to Ebook Distribution

[Last updated: 05/14/2019]At Reedsy, our goal has always been to help authors through every stage of the publishing process, from the actual writing down to the marketing and promotion. However, if there's one thing our …

Read article
What is Proofreading? And Can You Do It Yourself?

What is Proofreading? And Can You Do It Yourself?

Whether you’re a student, a mechanic, a doctor, or a professional writer, you’ve probably come across proofreading in some form or another — though you might not be aware of it. So much of the …

Read article
IngramSpark Review: Don't Use Until You Read This + PROMO CODE!

IngramSpark Review: Don't Use Until You Read This + PROMO CODE!

IngramSpark, KDP Print, Lulu, BookBaby — there is no shortage of companies out there promising to help you publish and sell your print books and ebooks. Luckily, if you’re struggling over which platform to use, …

Read article
CreateSpace is DEAD. Here's what you need to know.

CreateSpace is DEAD. Here's what you need to know.

As all writers know, the process of self-publishing a book is ever-fluctuating and evolving. Case in point: CreateSpace, one of the premier print-on-demand (POD) services for self-published authors, recently merged with Amazon’s KDP Print in …

Read article
Ă—
Free Course: Traditional Publishing 101