Can self-publishers sell their books to conventional publishers? Should they want to?

By: Jeff Herman 

The answers to the above questions are “yes” and “maybe.”

For the sake of clarity, a “conventional” publisher is a house that publishes books that are written by other people, as opposed to having been written by the same people who own or run the house. From here on, I’ll refrain from having to use the word conventional.

A self-published book may have sold as many as one million copies (a few actually have), but publishers may still deem the book as virtually unpublished. Why? Because publishers essentially focus on retail sales, and within retail sales, most of their focus is on bookstores. Few publishers have the capacity or mandate to sell books in other ways. Large non-store sales frequently happen, but generally because the buyers have come to the publisher to purchase or co-market the title in question, not because the publisher has been especially aggressive or innovative about generating such deals.

It follows that self-published books that have not penetrated bookstore shelves in any meaningful way can still be seen as virgin meat by publishers, even if sales have been tremendous beyond the stores. As publishers see it, the bookstore represents an entirely new population of potential consumers who have not yet been tapped by whatever other sales activities the author has in place. Interestingly, consumers who purchase their books in stores are different then consumers who purchase books in other ways.

What’s also interesting is just because a book is very successful outside the stores, does not necessarily mean that it will achieve the same or any success in the stores. The reverse is also true. Why? The answer should be obvious in a general sense: Consumers who buy books through infomercials, websites, SPAMs, direct mail and at public events, may never go to bookstores. Conversely, consumers who go to bookstores may not be nearly as reachable through these other channels.

At a minimum, publishers evaluate self-published books as if they are untested raw manuscripts, and all consideration will be based upon the publisher’s sense of the work’s salability in bookstores. At a maximum, the publisher will take into consideration the self-published book’s sales history and the author’s ability to manifest those results. If it’s believed that the author can duplicate her proven capacity to sell books once the product makes it into the stores, then that will add leverage to the kind of deal the author can make with a publisher.

Even if a self-published book did not sell very many copies, a publisher may still be very happy to pick it up if they can see that it has unfulfilled potential once it has distribution behind it. Publishers do not have any expectations that self-publishers can or should be able to succeed by themselves. But once again, even a successful self-publisher may not be able to interest a publisher, if the publisher does not think that the success can be transferred to bookstores.

Why would a successful self-publisher even want to give up his rights to a publisher? After all, the per-copy profit margin greatly surpasses the per-copy royalty. However, there are several good reasons why going over to the “other side” can be a shrewd move. Basically, the self-publisher would want to achieve the best of both worlds. She would want to be able to buy copies of the book from her publisher at a very high discount, so that she can still sell the copies through non-bookstore channels at an excellent margin. At the same time, the publisher would be selling the book in her behalf through bookstores, something she was unable to do by herself, thereby generating new revenues that would not have been earned otherwise.

If one of the self-published author’s goals is to use the book as a medium for selling additional goods and services, then maximizing distribution may actually be more crucial than the per-copy profits, and bookstores are a wonderful way to “meet” quality consumers.

What all of this reveals is that self-publishers have to develop a flexible form of logic when it comes to understanding who buys books, and who conventional publishers know how to sell books to. Pretty much everyone buys certain kinds of food and clothing in predictable ways. But until you immerse yourself into the “laws” of the book market, you may be confused at what first appears to be the relative randomness of what books people buy, and how and where they get bought. If you are able to accept the apparent nonsense of it all, and open your mind to seeing through the dissonance into the way the book universe functions, then 2 + 2 will again equal 4, and you will also end up being a bit smarter than you were before. 

Remember to follow us on Twitter and Like us on Facebook to be the first to learn about new releases, see behind-the-scenes at BP Wiz headquarters, and stay on top of the latest news from the publishing world!

No comments: