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Self-publishing is more of a threat to literary agents than traditional publishers

When self-publishing came along, made most popular by Amazon, the initial headlines focused on how this would be bad news for publishers.

The idea being: If writers could publish their work directly to the audience, and Amazon does all of the printing and shipping, what was the need for a traditional publisher? Plus with Borders and Barnes & Noble closing stores, the traditional publisher's value prop of "getting the writer into bookstores" was becoming less relevant.

But the traditional book publishing industry, especially the Big 5 publishers, are doing just fine. They're not experiencing rapid growth, but they've had good years in 2018, 2019, 2020 - especially on the audiobook + ebook side of things. Self-publishing hasn't wiped them out. Hasn't really made that big of a dent.

Why not?

Our theory: Self-publishing is more of a competitor to the literary agents than it is to the big traditional publishers.

Who serves as the better sorting hat?

Let's take a step back for a second and look at the question: How do publishers decide who to publish?

There are books that publishers know will become mega bestsellers. Michelle Obama's Becoming or the next Stephen King novel, those are sure things. Safe bets. Landing a star author is like signing LeBron James to your basketball team or casting Leonardo DiCaprio for your movie, chances are immediately high for a good return on your investment.

But there aren't many of these authors/stars to go around. And, because of that, it's a pretty steep bidding war at the top to sign an established big name.

The highest return on investment for a publisher is to find the next mega-bestseller but to find it from a new voice. One they can sign on a $10,000 advance not a $10 million advance.

Publishers want to find the next big story or next big name author before they've become a household name. They want to be the first one to discover JK Rowling vs. being in a high price bidding war to publish the 5th Harry Potter book.

Problem: There are millions of undiscovered authors. Over a million new books each year being submitted. It's impossible for the publisher to sort through all of this without adding more staff.

So what literary agents did was came in to serve as the sorting hat. The keepers of the "slush pile" (we hate that term but that's what the pile of manuscripts was nicknamed in the publishing world). The literary agent sorted through the manuscripts, picked which ones had potential, and then brought these to the publisher. If the publisher agreed, they signed the author to a contract and the literary agent would receive 10-15%.

How do literary agents know which books will do well? Ultimately, it's an educated guess, but there are a few key factors that help inform this decision.

  1. The story itself - Literary agents have a great talent and appreciation for good stories. And they're especially good at judging if the first chapter will hook the reader.

  2. The author's credentials - A 25-year-old with an MFA from NYU or Northwestern is a pretty solid bet to be a great writer. English departments at universities and especially master's programs teach their students the process of submitting to agents. Since agents have a steady flow of manuscripts coming from top writing programs, this factor also increases their odds of finding the next big name author.

  3. The author's following - If the writer already has 500,000 followers on their blog, chances are good for book sales. Same thing with Instagram, TikTok, LinkedIn. More and more, agents are evaluating an author/personality's existing audience.

Do literary agents ever miss and there's a book that gets rejected over and over that ends up finding success? All the time. And there are plenty of books that are really well-written but the author lacks traditional credentials or a social media following, which prevents the book from receiving a yes.

To sum it up: the literary agent system always had its flaws, but it served (and is still serving) the publishers well in terms of finding good books to publish.

But the literary agent system still comes down to a guess. There is no proof the book will or won't sell till it's on the market.

This isn't the same with self-publishing. When an author puts their book out there on Amazon, they have tangible data on how well the book is or is not selling. For example, when Fifty Shades started to climb the charts, the author no longer had to wonder, "Maybe this will find an audience." The numbers spoke for themselves and, eventually, a publisher did come in and sign her to a contract.

Which makes us wonder, will self-publishing become the new sorting hat? Instead of relying on a literary agent's opinion/educated guess/evaluation of a manuscript, publishers can look at live data. It almost becomes like Shark Tank, the publisher wants to see proof that you've sold 500 copies of your book before they invest to take it to 5,000+.

Self-publishing doesn't guarantee financial success. Most authors will sell somewhere between 5 and 100 copies of their book. But it does beg the question, which process is more fun: self-publishing your book, getting it out there, promoting it or sending it as a PDF attachment to an agent and waiting to hear back.

This is why when authors ask us, "How do I get signed by a literary agent?" our response is more and more becoming, "I'm not sure if you'll need one."

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