How to Sell Your Self-Published Book to a Major Player


Written by: Marilyn and Tom Ross

Want to move into the big time? Many creative small presses and self-publishers are discovering a practical path for penetrating bigger “establishment” trade houses. They bring out a quality book, market it successfully, then allow a trade publisher to buy the rights. While this sounds patently simple, it isn’t. But it does often work. How do you accomplish such a victory?

Your best ammunition is a good, well-focused book. By good we mean one that has been meticulously edited and attractively crafted. Is the cover striking and clear? Has the interior designer laid out the book so it is appealing to the eye and simple to use? A well-focused book meets a specific need and is distinguishable from similar titles in one or more distinct ways. Outflank the competition by making your book more complete, more useful, or more unique.

Now that you have a quality product, go on the offensive and sell the heck out of it! Tap into every possibility for free PR—get reviews and author interviews—cultivate that all-important word-of-mouth. Place ads in specially targeted media and, if your book retails for $25 or more, consider launching a consumer direct mail campaign. Seek every opportunity to develop momentum for your title.

What does it take to interest a large trade publisher or an aggressive mid-sized house? An impressive print package and a strong sales track record. When you have that delightful duo you’re bargaining from a position of power. You’re offering a proven product; the risks have already been taken.

Research to determine who publishes your kind of book. First, look in Literary Market Place under “Book Publishers.” There is an index at the end of the section telling who publishes in what genre. Writer’s Market also has a very useful subject cross index. Second, call and get the name and correct spelling of the appropriate current editor. Next, request their current catalog. (Many will have toll-free ordering numbers you can use.) Now study the catalogs. Look for books with similar subject matter. Often you can show how your book will complement another title on their list. Or perhaps you’ll detect an obvious void you title would fill.

Now go to a large bookstore and carefully explore your subject area. Again, tune into relevant titles. The reason we succeeded in selling our Big Marketing Ideas for Small Service Businesses to Dow Jones-Irwin was because we saw their Service America while doing homework at Denver’s Tattered Cover Bookstore. We suggested our book be positioned with it.

Now develop a proposal with pizzazz. Tell how the book meets a present need and why it is different. Give them your sales figures. Include copies of reviews, large purchase orders, and newspaper interviews. This is what we did to sell Writer’s Digest Books the rights to our Complete Guide to Self-Publishing.

When negotiating a contract, you may find it makes sense to bargain in person rather than just by mail, email, and phone. This allows you to “read” the other person better, and more quickly consummate a deal. Otherwise, contracts usually go back and forth several times. Sometimes they even falter and collapse. We feel sure the five-figure advance we negotiated for one of our books would have been considerably smaller had we depended on a less personal form of communication.

The negotiation process should be a win/win proposition. Think about what you would like to have—and what you must have. But be willing to compromise. There is no way around it: Publishers Row has some sacred cows. They aren’t going to alter their position on certain issues for you or anyone else. Be reasonable in your expectations, but firm in explaining what you must have.

The success stories using this springboard technique could go on and on. Last year Putnam came out with Breaking into the Boardroom, a book we helped a client privately publish in 1986 and for which St. Martins ultimately bought the paperback rights. What Color is Your Parachute, How to Avoid Probate, and The Elements of Style are other classic examples of self-published works that zoomed to stardom. So if you want to fatten your wallet, consider pursuing a trade publisher to pick up the rights to your proven product.


© Copyright 2004 Marilyn and Tom Ross


Marilyn and Tom Ross are the coauthors of 13 books including the best-selling Complete Guide to Self-Publishing and the award-winning Jump Start Your Book Sales. Through phone consultations and ongoing coaching/mentoring, Marilyn empowers authors and self-publishers to realize their dreams. She can be reached at 719-395-8659 or [email protected] Visit and sign up for their FREE monthly ezine on how to make more money selling books—plus get your FREE downloadable copy of “15 Smart Strategies for Self-Publishing Success.” Order books by calling 800-331-8355.

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