Agency Lessons: Querying post publication

Agency Lessons is a weekly post that gives authors and readers an inside look into the mind of a literary agent and a peek behind the curtain of how books are made.

Today's post comes from the mailbag. It's a doozy, so let's jump right into it.
Q: I have an eBook that has gotten great reviews from book bloggers. Would it be useful or useless to query agents to see if they might be interested in seeking print publication? I don't want to spend a lot of writing time querying agents if they immediately reject because it's an eBook.

There is a lot going on here, so let's break this one down.

First, let's talk about querying after you have published a book. I see this more often that I care too, and it makes me sad every time. People take the plunge into self-publishing for a variety of reasons. Unfortunately, a lot of authors find that the road to success if bumpier than they expected and decide maybe they should take a different course. That's when I get queries for books that are already published. Usually the author uses phrases like "hope to reach a larger audience" or "find a publisher who can get this book the attention it deserves". 

Here's the problem with these queries. It honestly doesn't matter how good your book is. And it's not going to make a difference if you have a hundred 5-star reviews. Unless you're selling books by the truckload, publishers aren't going to be interested. And I don't blame them. Publishers have thousands of books to pick from when deciding what to publish. Why would they pick one that they can already see isn't selling over one that still has the potential to sell? 

A lot of authors will say that they didn't know what they were doing when it came to marketing and selling their books. They are convinced that with the help of a big publisher, their book would fly off the shelves. And maybe it would. But now they are asking a publisher to take a book that isn't selling, analyze what has and hasn't been done for marketing, come up with a plan that fills in those holes, and re-market a book that already has a poor track record. Let's be honest, that isn't going to happen.

So unless your book is already doing smashing sales, publishers aren't going to be interested. As an agent, I can't take on a book that I know going in is going to be nearly impossible to sell. That's a huge waste of everyone's time.

Now, let's address a second aspect of this question. The author in this case has only published the book as an ebook and is looking to get a print deal. This is another one of those 'not gonna happen' scenarios. Unless you're name is Hugh Howey, you can forget it.

Ebooks are currently dominating the market and the profit margin for a publisher is much higher on an ebook. By only offering up the print rights to a publisher, you are basically taking away the most profitable portion of a book's sales. There have been a handful of deal like this that I've heard of. A Handful. I'm talking less than five. And those were all for authors who managed to get on lists like the NYT Bestseller's and USA Today. These people were selling books the way apple sells overpriced phones. Publishers were happy to get any piece of the pie because the pie was big enough to be a balloon in the Macy's parade. 

For the other 99.99% of authors, publishers are not going to be willing to give up ebook rights. Other rights, such as audio, foreign sales and film/tv are always negotiable. Ebooks. Not so much.

The long and short of it is this. Publishers aren't lacking for submissions. There isn't a shortage of authors hoping to catch a big break and land a Big 5 publishing deal. And so long as that continues, publishers will have to be extremely picky about what they sign. Which means they aren't going to be interested in any already published works unless that author can show a very strong readership.

This is why I always preach that authors should be certain about their decision to self-publish. If you aren't going to be happy as an indie, don't put your book out there in the hope that a publisher will swoop down and offer you big bucks. Self-publish only if that's the path you really want to be on.