Will a Traditional Publisher Republish My Self-Published Book?

From Janey Burton, Publishing Consultant:

One of the most common questions I’m asked is about whether it’s possible to get a traditional publishing deal for a book that has been previously self-published.

In general, traditional publishers want to buy first publishing rights. They don’t want to republish material that’s already been published, as quite often it is thought the market for the work has already been served.

Historically, there are exceptions, usually for work that has fallen out of print but is thought to have the potential for a new life if put in front of a new audience. Persephone Books would be an example of the kind of publisher that works this way.

These days there are also some agents and publishers who will consider previously self-published work, although in limited circumstances. Carina Press, a digital-first imprint of Harlequin, is an example.

. . . .

You can’t sell your rights to a traditional publisher if they are still controlled by a hybrid publisher. You will need to have the rights reverted to you if you have not retained them. Getting your rights back may not be completely straightforward . . . .

. . . .

The difficulty with previously self-published work, for a traditional publisher, is that very rarely is there an untapped market for it. It isn’t like publishing a debut author, who is brand new to the market.

When an author whose work has sold poorly asks whether they would do better with a traditional publisher, the answer is ‘No’. The poor sales show that the buying public has had the opportunity to buy and read the book, but not taken it up. That suggests it has a limited market, which has already been served.

. . . .

Let’s assume the reason for low sales is the marketing of the book, and not the quality of the book. In the event this is true, it may be that the wider reach of a traditional publisher would result in good enough sales to make republishing the book worthwhile. But then again it may not, and why should they risk it?

Traditionally published authors still need to do a lot of the marketing of their books, they can’t sit back and rely on the publisher to do it all. If an author is unable to achieve sales with their own marketing efforts, the problem might well be that the book is not good enough to attract an audience, and in which case a traditional publisher who takes it on will merely be throwing good money after bad.

Some books are outliers, and their success becomes a talking point because it’s unusual, not because it’s usual. That means they’re not a great basis for comparison. Don’t pin your hopes on replicating one of these rarities.

In fact, there was a clear case for Vintage Books to republish that previously self-published work. They saw the potential for sales to many more readers, and so were able to take the books from a minor hit, which relied almost entirely on word-of-mouth recommendations, to a worldwide phenomenon.

Link to the rest at Janey Burton, Publishing Consultant

8 thoughts on “Will a Traditional Publisher Republish My Self-Published Book?”

  1. One follow-up regarding 50 Shades:

    It also “made sense” (in some sense) because the republication was part of pulling an entire series/property under Vintage’s umbrella — and it was a series/property that was “worth” controlling. I can think of quite a few instances, stretching back into the 1970s, in which an “early” work in a series was later acquired by a commercial publisher as part of its acquisition of the entire series; consider Grisham, Clancy, et al.. That those weren’t literally “self-published” is beside the point: They all represent an acquisition of a “small-venue” early work in a series or milieu (in the case of Grisham).

    There are examples back into the 19th century. But that’s what they are — mere examples. It’s difficult to state anything statistically or replicably.

  2. Some good authors self-published first, became a huge success, and were offered publishing contracts later from a trad publisher. One example is Becky Chambers. She was an unknown writer when she published her first novel – The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet. It became an unprecedented bestseller, and she was offered a contract with a big publisher. They republished her first novel and went on to publish several other novels in the same series. Personally, I liked the first novel best.
    There are a few others like her, but in general, Chambers and co. are exceptions, not the rule. Another possibility from self-published to trad is an established writer who is currently not under contract. Lois McMaster Bujold comes to mind. She published her newest Penric series of novellas herself (her agent did, but that’s sort-of the same). Then the novellas were repackaged and republished by Baen. But they can’t keep up with her. Up to date, they only published the first 6 of the Penric stories, while she herself has already finished and published 4 others. Delightful books, all of them. I read all of them first in digital format, when they first became available on Amazon. But when Baen issued them in beautiful hardcovers, I bought them too. If Baen issues the other Penric stories in paper format, I’ll buy them as well. They are serving the same market as the digital books.

    • BAEN has similar issues with the GRANTVILLE SAGA.
      The shared world authors can produce, and the market will buy, far more volumes than BAEN can reasonably produce so Eric Flint has been supplementing the BAEN volumes with a digital bimonthly magazine (THE GRANTVILLE GAZETTE) and added ebook volumes, reserving the BAEN slots for a handful of storylines.


      The series is over 20 years old and just keeps on going, both through the BAEN books and the GAZETTE.

      • In both instances, there’s a lot more going on under the surface (Disclosures: I’ve known Eric for a couple of decades and have been on panels with Lois at a number of conventions). Keep in mind that both the Ring of Fire series and the Penric series are outside the core market/competence (closely related, but still outside) of their relatively small commercial publisher… and that that publisher is stuck inside the distribution system of Simon & Schuster, which adds its own layers of “velocity and momentum” to things.

        In short, as complex as it seems, it’s much more complex than that for reasons entirely unrelate to author desires, the merits of and/or demand for the works, or even publisher preferences.

        • Thanks for this. I’m familiar with both series, but not the pressures (in detail) that their standard publishers are under. I, too, took this for author-choice primarily, and wondered about it.

  3. “One of the most common questions I’m asked is about whether it’s possible to get a traditional publishing deal for a book that has been previously self-published.”

    Really? It never crossed my mind until I saw this headline. And still not interested.

  4. I’ve always thought this stated unwillingness to republish a self-published work was comically self-indicting. If the self-published book, simply by virtue of having been available online, has thereby exhausted its potential audience and there’s nothing further an agent or traditional publisher can do to increase it, what exactly does the agent or traditional publisher offer to the first-time author that self-publishing wouldn’t?

    • That’s an excellent question. The nonresponsive answer, from a particularly pernicious variety of 20/20 hindsight, is that if the editorial and marketing process that would ordinarily be applied to a book (ranging from purportedly helpful proofreading to many other aspects) were to be applied to a previously published book, it would be virtually a different book and would undermine the author’s reputation from the initial edition. Contrariwise, not doing so would harm the publisher’s brand because it would constitute substandard merchandise.

      No, I will not replace the keyboard you just ruined snorting coffee onto it.

      It’s about ego and the publisher’s unwillingness to reexamine its nineteenth-century-based process for selecting and preparing works for availability to the public. And a bunch of class-based (and darker) prejudices embedded so thoroughly in commercial publishing that pointing any of them out to insiders gets the “confused cow” look in return.

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