Keller Media Blog


What You DON’T Know CAN Hurt You

by Wendy Keller, literary agent since dirt was invented

Are you thinking about publishing your book yourself?  Have you failed to find a literary agent or publisher willing to take a chance on your masterpiece?  Before you give your credit card to that oh-so-promising-looking company that will get your book out in a few days, here are some things you should know.

The AVERAGE self-published book, done as an ebook or a printed book, sells about 117 copies total.  That’s in the first year!  That’s because people who self-publish any of the approximately 259,000 books self-published annually wrongly assume that just because the book is available, the world will beat a path to their mousetrap.  Ummm, this almost never happens.


To prevent terrible sales, no matter HOW brilliant your book is, you’ll still need to promote it. Sorry.  You’ll have to build a “platform” – a “fan base” of people who believe what you’re saying (for nonfiction) or like how you write (for fiction).  This is far, far, far easier said than done.  Ask any self-published author whose book has been out more than six months how well it’s selling…   (To get our super-duper very practical platform building course, click here.)  BTW: It’s easier to build a platform for and promote a book that has the stamp of a “real” publisher, at least to journalists and book reviewers, radio stations and so on.


There’s a reason people use publishers to get their book out, and there’s a reason it takes “so long” for a publisher to get a book to market.  When a sales rep from a publishing house pitches your book to bookstores (which still account for about 70% of annual book sales) or when a “real” publisher lists your book on Amazon, there’s proof it has been vetted. It’s probably been edited. The cover looks like a professionally made book, because it IS a professionally made book.  Self-published books DO reach the market faster.  Distribution (electronically) is almost instant.  But some things shouldn’t be rushed.  Waiting for excellence and all the help and people who make your book the best it can be on its way to publication may be worth the pause.  Think about your long term goal for your book before you make this crucial decision because…


How you choose to publish your book will determine your destiny for a very, very long time.  Literally hundreds of self-published, failed authors come to me every month and beg for representation.  They all have some “good” story about why their book failed. Some even boast that their book beat the average and sold 800 copies or something.  Here’s how publishers (and therefore agents) look at this: If you self-published, and you were making all the profit, and you’re so smart, your book is so valuable and you’ve got such a great idea and marketing platform and your book STILL failed, why the HECK would it do any better if it gets upsold to someone else?  You couldn’t make it on your own and now you want someone else to invest in a product that has proven it’s a failure?


No one makes a business decision to invest in something that has failed. The minute you put an ISBN on anything, it can be tracked.  (All self-published books that appear on Amazon, for instance, have an ISBN.)  It’s very easy for the publishing industry to see exactly how many copies sold “through the trades” (bookstores, online retailers, etc.)   You might want to say, “Yeah, but I sold 20,000 in two months to people who came to my workshops!”  There’s no way to prove it; if that is true, you should have gone with a real publisher because a virgin book for someone who is speaking to that many people would have been worth a VERY high advance; and you could have leveraged that book – if it had been done right – into a huge media success.

Obviously, I have a biased opinion because I’m a literary agent.  But as a human being who tries to support other people’s dreams, it breaks my heart when some misguided, platform-less self-published author who has sold just 100-300 copies in a year comes to me forlorn and says, “I did everything I could…”  or “This is a LOT harder than I thought…” or “I found out I just like the writing part, not the marketing…”  I hear these statements ALL the time.

I’m not telling you NOT to self-publish.  If 25 or more agents (who sell books similar to yours) have rejected your book, it’s because we know it has zero commercial appeal. Remember, we work on commission. Finding things that WILL sell is how we feed our families, so we’re all pretty good at it.  That means that when you self-publish, you likely will NOT have much commercial appeal, at least not in the trades. But if you have your own method for selling books, like when you give lectures or workshops, then you may as well self-publish because you’ve got no other alternative.

Here’s the positive spin:  If you are leaning toward self-publishing, and you know your book is good, there’s a Plan B.  You could write a proposal (relatively easy to do) and offer that to agents.  If one of us picks it up, it takes about 30-90 days from the day a good agent begins shopping a project to the day the best solid offer is in hand.  That’s when you’ll have a solid option – do I take the money the publisher is offering, the editorial and marketing and cover design and interior design and professional support I’ll get from the publisher but have to wait a little bit extra for the book’s release? Or do I invest a few hundred bucks, self-publish and hope for the best?

My vote: hedge your bets.  Offer it to agents first. If 25 turn it down, you have no choice but to go ahead and self-publish. But either way, build your author platform every day for the rest of your life. If one of us takes you on, and gets you an offer, then you know two things: you can choose to have someone else do the hard parts for you AND you will know that in the minds of top publishing professionals, your book has commercial potential.


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  1. I just wanted to point out that where you say “All self-published books that appear on Ama­zon, for instance, have an ISBN” is untrue.

    Authors, self-published or not, do NOT have to have ISBNs for e-books at Amazon (& a few other e-retailers). ISBNs are only required when an author has a print book. A lot of authors these days only publish e-books [for which Amazon provides an Amazon Standard Identification Number (ASIN)].

    Lea Ellen

    • You are right, of course, Lea-Ellen. I should have made a longer statement and said, “Intellectual property, primarily books, to which any type of recognized tracking code has been assigned that allows the publishing industry to count how many books have been sold in any format and how many remain in inventory if the book is in print format.”

      Thank you for the correction.

    • Actually, we DO as long as there is also an English version. I’ve sold books all over the world, lots of Spanish from Mexican to Castillano. Had 3 of my clients’ best sellers in Spanish.

  2. very helpful and informative article. Thank you!

    Does the same idea hold true for someone who has previously self published but wants a traditional publisher for a new book? meaning- is the previously self-published book, if it is not a big seller, actually make a future book sale less likely?

    (not referring to myself, just intrigued by this line of thought.)

    Thank you!

    • Issy,

      Nice to hear from you, my friend! The short answer is yes. The longer is, “It depends.” If the book has a VERY good reason why it didn’t sell, AND if the author’s platform has grown substantially, AND if it has been a long while since it was published, AND if market conditions have changed AND AND AND then perhaps in some cases an argument can be made for the fact that while an author was making the lion’s share of the money and had all that energy to promote, the project still failed.

      Self-publishing is dangerous without a platform if one wishes to get a “real” publisher further down the road. We have a great, inexpensive eBook that really helps authors (self-pub’d or not) jump start sales, even if the book has been out a while. It can be seen here: Fifty Nifty Book Marketing Tricks

      Thanks for commenting. Continued good wishes to you.


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