These days, self-publishing doesn’t necessarily mean your novel will wither and die, unread, on the digital and real life bookshelves. Books with polished writing, a compelling voice, eye-catching covers, promising sales numbers and an author with a decent reader following may be destined for great things. Meaning a traditional book deal.
With so many indie titles released every day, the pool of authors has become something of a resource for literary agents eager to unearth new talent and sign the next breakaway bestseller – and a testing ground. “Traditional publishers let the indie market experiment, then they swoop in and try to grab what has worked,” said literary agent Evan Marshall with the Evan Marshall Agency. “When a (book) is of high quality, the attention and popularity naturally come with it.”
The main indicator is sales rankings, which creates a “slush pile that is self-curating,” added Laurie McLean, a partner at Fuse Literary Inc. Basically, if the numbers just aren’t there and the book isn’t making waves in the indie market, it likely won’t stand a chance in the traditional one, either, added Andrea Hurst, literary agent with Andrea Hurst & Associates.
The indie world is also allowing the traditional folks to see how new genres resonate with readers. It’s a “freedom and flexibility most traditional publishers don’t have,” Marshall said.
But there are barriers between a literary agent and the next great indie find. Mostly, it’s the sheer volume of titles, which bury the best ones. “It’s the same with the normal slush pile we deal with as agents,” said McLean. “We read. A lot … It’s the same as finding those needles in the huge haystack that we deal with every day.”
So where do agents look? Amazon Bestseller lists, The New York Times eBook Bestseller Lists, Bookbub and other major indie advertising sites. WattPad is another big one, along with Scribd – where McLean’s hybrid client Ransom Stephens got his start – Textnovel, FictionPress, FanFiction, textnovel, Worthy of Publishing, Mibba, figment, Quotev and other writing sites, as well as author web sites, popular review blogs and any place indie authors are being talked about – “the proverbial online water cooler vibe,” McLean added.
Writer’s conferences are also key. That’s where Toby Neal, a self-published author of police procedurals, met and clicked with McLean. Now she has an eight-book audiobook deal and two new series. “She’s given me six months. If I fail, she can always self-publish them. But this gives me a huge incentive to get this book pitched quickly and sold.”
And though word of mouth may be low-tech and old-fashioned, it’ll still get writers’ work under an agent’s nose. One of McLean’s hybrid clients, Michael J. Sullivan, referred her to two fantasy authors whose work he enjoyed and now one of them – Brian D. Anderson – is getting a chance to sell his new series with publishers in New York. “So, do a good job and your name will spread, I guess,” she said.
But the pressure is on indie authors to impress if they want to snag a book deal. Great writing, fresh ideas, a popular genre and novel-length stories – not short stories, novelettes or novellas –are required, added Marshall. It’s also a popularity game, evidenced by a strong reader following and social media presence, plus a marketable author brand. But McLean pointed out another critical element– desire.
“We’re particularly looking for indie authors who also want to have at least some presence in traditional publishing. “We’re in it for the long haul of an author’s career and we are looking to grow hybrid authors who can have one foot in the indie world and one in traditional publishing at all times.”
This element can be a challenging one to attain, because indie authors unfamiliar with traditional publishing get frustrated with the process. “They expect everything to move quickly and to have a say at every point along the way. That’s just not the way it works for the most part. You don’t get to pick your covers. You need to make some tough editing choices and trust your editor to make you a better writer. And you need to be patient.”