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Why Would a Self-Published Author Want a Literary Agent?

In a previous post, I offered some tips for snagging a literary agent. I think nearly all fiction authors can benefit from a good literary agent, and a great one is the difference between quitting your day job and storytelling remaining a side hobby.

Understandably, many people believe literary agents are only for writers pursuing traditional publishing. Authors with goals of self-publishing or submitting to small presses often don’t consider the merits of have an agent.

I was fortunate enough to work in a literary agency that represented traditionally published, self-published, and hybrid authors, and I saw how a great agent can be a career changer for all kinds of authors.

First, Some Terms

Self-publishing authors put out their own work through platforms like Patreon, Substack, Ko-Fi, Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP), Kobo, Barnes & Noble, et cetera. They might use Draft2Digital to sell their books across multiple platforms, and they’re responsible for either doing or outsourcing everything from the cover design to the editing and formatting.

Some authors enjoy the control this gives them, some feel it’s a more profitable approach to publishing, and some know that their books break genre conventions in ways traditional publishing might balk from.

Examples of successful self-published authors abound, including Jordan L. Hawk, Hugh Howey, and whatever kooky self-publishing high jinks Brandon Sanderson is getting up to.

Hybrid authors fall in between the spectrum of trad and self-published. They have a flexible approach and utilize different publishing platforms depending on their aims for each project. For example, the unfortunate truth is that sapphic/wlw romances weren’t being traditionally published for years. Some authors who wrote diverse romances used traditional publishers for their mlw and mlm romances, but their wlw books needed to be self-published.

Examples of successful hybrid authors abound, too: Roan Parrish, Talia Hibbert, Mia Sheridan, Alyssa Cole, Colleen Hoover. Some authors start out self-publishing, like C.S. Pacat, Alexis Hall, and T.J. Klune, but then transition into traditional publishing. Plenty of authors, like Cat Sebastian, continue to do both throughout their careers.

And finally, some authors don’t want all of the responsibility that comes with self-publishing but also don’t feel their work fits within the bounds of traditional publishing. Writers can build careers with the help of good small presses. Some examples of small press writers include Jae and Lola Keeley—both beloved authors of wlw romance—Jenn Burke, and LaQuette.

Why Would a Self-Publishing Or Small Press Author Want An Agent?

1. Small Press Contracts

Just because an indie publisher doesn’t require authors to be agented doesn’t mean that an agent can’t negotiate you a better contract. Agents deal with small presses, too, helping to guide you away from predatory contracts, protecting your rights to your book, and negotiating higher advances/royalties.

2. Sub Rights, Sub Rights, Sub Rights

This is the most important point of this post. Self-publishing authors too often limit themselves to just selling their books on Amazon and calling it a day. In reality, often the bulk of potential income for an author comes from selling translation and audiobook rights. Careers can be made on reliable subsidiary sales.

I’m going to change details to keep authors anonymous, but I’ve seen self-publishing authors sell a modest number of copies of their books in English and regularly hit the best-seller lists of other countries. One author I assisted never made more than four figures combined off all of their book sales in English, but they were able to write full-time because they regularly received contracts for their works to be translated into Hungarian. They were hugely popular specifically in Hungary, and they would have never locked into that source of income (and the joys of having a dedicated readership!) if it hadn’t been for the agent who shopped, negotiated, and managed their subsidiary rights.

Negotiating a better subsidiary rights contract doesn't just mean more money, either. It can mean more creative freedom. For example, an agent can be the difference between you getting to choose your own audiobook narrator or being forced to accept the first actor available. All of that nitty gritty stuff can be negotiated by a good agent.

Subsidiary rights make careers. And it’s usually not easy (or possible) to manage those rights without literary representation.

3. Tax Advice

Literary agents are not your accountants, but they can (or should be) a source of sound financial advice. This stuff can get really complicated, particularly when you sell your books and rights across borders. Agents are there to advise.

4. Help You Find Your Career Path

If you’re feeling unsure of your professional aims or don’t know the exact target audience of your current book, a good literary agent will be able to help you. To be clear: You’re in the driver’s seat; you make the decisions about whether you want to seek out self-publishing or big/small publishers. But an agent can help guide you toward the most realistic (and lucrative) ends for each project.

In Conclusion

I’d been planning this blog post for a while, but saw one of my favorite authors, K.J. Charles, express similar thoughts yesterday:

Tweet from KJ Charles: "THIS. My brilliant agent stuck with me through five years of self pub, handling translation and audio for me. I wouldn't have the trad deals I've now got without the self-pub audience and momentum I built. An agent who doesn't understand that isn't worth their 15%." Tweet from Elizabeth May: "So an agent who considers interest in self publishing a red flag for signing on new authors is red flag agent behaviour. Of course agents are in the business of selling books, but this does not mean self-published books can't make them money. They can, and do, sell subrights."

See? Self-published authors looking to generate income shouldn't overlook the potential value of their sub rights.

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