You hear lots on both sides of the fence. Can self-publishing actually help you prove yourself to a traditional publisher and motivate them to offer you a royalty publishing contract?
Well, let me tell you my story for starters.
My Written Work Needs to Be Published
Back in 1986, I was involved in a ministry to Vietnam veterans and their family members. The Executive Director of the ministry had written a manuscript about post-traumatic stress disorder and how surrendering his life to Christ was the answer he had been searching for and finally found. It was an effective evangelistic tool for the many wounded warriors and their loved ones who didn’t understand PTSD or why there was so much anger, depression, suicidal thoughts, and relational distance.
We had outreaches in churches all across the country, and literally thousands of people begging for a resource that gave spiritual answers to the problem of PTSD, rather than the VA answer, which amounted to “just learn to cope with it.”
We started sending out the manuscript to publishers in New York, and all across the country. Met with countless rejection letters, we realized the only way to get this much needed resource into the hands of those who needed to read it was to self-publish. A friend who worked in the publishing division of a major denomination offered to help us edit the work, design a cover, typeset it, retain an ISBN number and copyright, and print 10,000 copies for $1 each.
Self-Publishing The Answer
This was a total answer to prayer. Now where the money would come from we had no idea, but we knew God would provide. And provide He did. In just a few weeks a Korean veteran walked into the ministry office and wrote a check for the entire amount needed, as a gift to the ministry.
We went through the 10,000 copies in less than 2 years, and were down to our last box of 50 books when we were waiting in the “green room” to be interviewed on The 700 Club about a big Vietnam Veteran’s Conference that CBN was hosting. It was there we met Rob Michaels, police officer turned manager of the Christian pop group, DeGarmo & Key. As a former cop, he understood all about PTSD (known to law enforcement and other first responders as Critical Incident Stress), and he suggested that he act as our agent and get a royalty publisher to buy the rights. We hadn’t saved any of the money from the sales, so … well … sure!
Then The Book Was Picked Up By a Royalty Publisher
The next weekend he was attending the National Religious Broadcasters (NRB) convention and approached Larry Libby, Senior Editor for Multnomah Press. Larry read the book on his plane ride home to Oregon and it just so happened his brother was a Vietnam vet. Larry was excited about the message and Multnomah offered us a contract.
Over the next 8 years, Multnomah sold 40,000 copies and then took the book out of print. That experience gave us exposure we were unable to get on our own since, unlike today, there were no distribution options to bookstores for books that were not published by a royalty publisher.
To date that book — “Nam Vet: Making Peace with Your Past” — has sold over 150,000 copies and touched untold numbers of hurting vets. But that experience was a perfect example of using a self-published book to prove to a royalty publisher that you are worth taking a risk on.
I have to admit, though, it was not our intention to get a royalty publisher to pick up the rights to the book. It just happened, it was a God thing, and is what got me involved in publishing oh, so many years ago. And over the years I’ve helped many authors who have strategically used their self-publishing experience to prove themselves to a royalty publisher.
Authors We’ve Helped Get a Royalty Publishing Contract
Rebecca Ingram Powell, author of “Baby Boot Camp: Surviving the First Six Weeks of Motherhood,” a devotional for new moms. I worked with Rebecca to produce this book and it launched in early 2000. She had a great response, and after selling the first 2,500 copies (half of her original order) she started marketing the work to royalty publishers using her sales to prove the viability of the message. By August of 2011, a new edition with a new cover and revised subtitle was published by New Hope Publishers.
Dorothy Valcarcel, author of “The Man Who Loved Women”. Literary Agent, Joyce Hart, just couldn’t land a publisher for her so recommended that she come to me for help. We used her cover design and created a product for her to sell through her women’s ministry. After selling 5,000 copies, Joyce started approaching some of the same publishers who turned the book down initially and nailed down a deal with Baker Publishing, retitling it to “When a Woman Meets Jesus: Finding the Love a Woman Longs For” and giving it an entire new look.
Heather Paulsen wrote a book for the homeschooling market called “Emotional Purity.” I worked with her to refine the content and then produce a beautiful book. After selling the initial 2,500 copies, and reprinting 5,000, she pitched Crossway and they picked up the rights. It continues to show healthy sales to this day.
Holly Wagner, former soap opera star turned co-pastor and women’s ministry leader, came to me back in 1998 with a book idea, two books in one… “Dumb Thing He Says, Dumb Things She Says.” The book was launched in April, 1999 and the initial 5,000 copies disappeared quickly, especially after a trip to Australia to speak at a Hillsong Women’s Conference. She quickly sold the rights to Thomas Nelson and went on to write a series called “God Chicks” along with many other stand-alone titles. (Holly also runs her own GodChicks Conference annually.)
And finally, Carol Vandesteeg, author of “When Duty Calls.” Her book was an incredible resource for military families to help prepare for their loved one’s deployment. The book came out just one month before 9/11 and scores of books left the warehouse to fill orders placed by chaplains across the country and around the world. After selling 25,000 copies, Cook Communications approached Carol and offered to buy the rights. They changed the cover and tightened up the sub title, and re-launched the book.
But Should a Royalty Contract Really Be the Ultimate Goal?
So, yes…a professionally self-published book can certainly help you prove yourself to a traditional publisher. But here’s an interesting fact…many of the examples above, after experiencing the traditional route, actually came back to me to publish other works. Yes, the grass on the other side wasn’t all that green after all.
Don’t miss any of Athena Dean Holtz’s updates on her writing and publishing blog “From the Publisher’s Desk” or her personal life. You can also sign up to receive Redemption Press’s free monthly resource email newsletter for Christian authors.