Q. How interested are mainstream publishers in buying successful self-published books? I don’t mean hugely successful titles (Hugh Howey’s stuff, say), but books that have racked up impressive sales. And how many sales does it take to get a traditional publisher’s attention?
This is a hard question to answer because I truly think it’s different for every scenario. But when I see that a book has already been self-published, I assume that the author has already attempted to get it traditionally published and failed. This, I’m sure, is not always true, but I admit that I find myself wondering if the author got demoralized, said “screw you, gatekeepers!” and didn’t fully investigate the amount of work, time, and money it takes to self-publish successfully before getting demoralized again and querying their self-published book.
Regardless of whether this is true, a vast majority of self-published titles seem to sell somewhere between a couple hundred and a few thousand copies. In traditional publishing, these are not impressive numbers. If only a few hundred have sold, that’s likely friends and family members, which means the book is more or less undiscovered by its audience. Ironically, this is better for you because it means that you have more or less a clean slate. If you’ve sold somewhere between 3,000-6,000 and got the book reviewed in places an agent might have heard of, I start to worry about whether a traditional publisher can really offer you anything. It’s possible that the book has found its audience and all its potential readers have already bought a copy.
Numbers above that enter a major grey area. If you’ve written a book that’s getting buzz by word of mouth and strangers are recommending it to other strangers, that’s a good sign that a fresh package and new marketing/publicity effort by a publisher could help you find a much larger audience. But be prepared to make the argument that your readership is actually much larger than the people you’ve already reached. Does it appeal to readers outside your genre? Is your momentum still growing? Remember when 50 SHADES was only being read by erotica fans? Alternatively, you should consider whether it’s worth sharing those future sales with your new fair-weather friends… Know your limits, but also consider whether you should just pay for a publicist/cover designer/editor yourself and keep your 100% royalty, which may be more money for you in the long term.