If You Self-Publish Your Book, Can You Sell It to a Big Publisher Down the Road -- And Would You Even Want To?


As many of you know, my book The Gift of Maybe is being published by Perigee, an imprint of Penguin Random House, on November 4, 2014. What some of you may not know is that I originally self-published my book in February 2013 (the original title was The Book of Maybe). I hope sharing my story with you sheds some light on the advantages and disadvantages of self-publishing and helps you decide what is the best avenue for a book you are writing or have already written. More than that, I hope it illustrates the power of Maybe.

My journey started many years ago. I was invited to lunch at a restaurant called Otto's in Manhattan. My friend, Peter, had a friend he wanted me to meet. I had been involved in a parent's group to reduce the amount of catalogs we receive in the mail and Peter thought his friend, a successful publisher from London, would find this project interesting. My own background was in law and accounting. I had practiced law for over 15 years but was not fulfilled. Over the years, I had been able to transition my practice and become a business consultant and life coach, but the most powerful thing that had happened in my life was that I had found a way to reduce, not the amount of catalogs we receive, but my immense stress and general worry. I had done this using a philosophy I developed called, simply, Maybe. Over lunch, it came up that this extremely successful London publisher was very stressed. He loved my stories about how the power of Maybe had transformed my own life and the lives of my clients and he appreciated my ideas about how he could reduce his stress in life (he had, by way, zero interest in my desire to reduce the printing of mailing of catalogs to help the environment!). By the end of the meal, he threw me his card and said, "When you're ready to write your first book, call me."

Over the weeks that followed, Peter insisted that I write his friend and tell him I was ready to write my first book. After some hesitation, I followed the path of Maybe. After I sent the email, I was put in touch with a colleague of the London publisher's in New York and I was off and running writing my book. I am not a writer by trade and at that time I had very little experience penning anything other than memos and contracts. For some reason, that did not stop me. I just started to write. After six months, I was done writing a one hundred and forty page book. I sent it to the representative of the London publisher. His response -- 10 days later -- was, "You need to either take a writing class or hire an editor. You can resubmit after you figure it out." I remember thinking to myself, "Maybe I should call some people and try to understand what you submit to a publisher when you are writing a book!" It didn't take long to find out that the answer was something called a book proposal. So, for the next three months I wrote my book proposal and got the names of three agents from people I knew. I submitted the proposal to these agents. Two were interested but ultimately one offered to represent me. She had represented some famous self-help authors including Richard Carlson, who wrote Don't Sweat the Small Stuff, and I felt it was a good fit. Now my new agent was telling me I needed to hire an editor and she recommended someone. It was a beautiful fit. Working with this editor, I turned my proposal back into a short book we all felt good about. I was ready to send it out to publishers.

My agent sent my rewritten book out to several big publishers and I immediately got rejected. The overall response was, "We love the concept but the author is unknown and has no platform." I didn't even know what having a platform meant, but for over a year I built one. I became a blogger, I made YouTube videos, created an author Facebook page, starting tweeting and pinning on Pinterest. I begged my agent to send out the book again and against her better judgment -- I was no Wayne Dyer! -- she did. Over a one-year period, we came close to a deal twice but ultimately my "unknown" status prevailed and all I had was a bunch of new rejection letters.

A few years from the time of that lunch at Otto's, I found myself sitting on my couch in my apartment thinking about what my next move should be. I had a finished book in my hand and most people in the industry were telling me to wait until I had a larger following. But I had never waited for someone else to give me permission to start helping people and this book was a vehicle to spread my work. And wasn't helping people find a way to relieve suffering what it was all about?

It all happened in about 15 minutes. I called Createspace, the Amazon platform for self-publishing. They were very polite and helpful, but I found it tough to make so many of the publishing and editing decisions on my own. Still, I got the help I needed from various sources and got through it. I don't remember how long the entire process took, but my book was published in paperback in February 2013 and on Kindle about a month later. I was pleased with the finished product. I joined the Kindle Select program, giving me the option to deeply discount my book or give it away for free for a limited time. After my book was self-published, I found it very time consuming to sell books. I found I was writing less and spending a lot of time trying to connect with people to get the book exposure. As an unknown author, I found most media outlets were not that responsive. But bloggers and small outlets welcomed my book. It was hard work for not that many sales.

Toward the end of the 90-day period I decided to give my book away for free for three days. It was an easy decision for me because I'd written the book to help people and I had not been very successful in marketing it even though my web presence and following had grown significantly over the years. I found a site called Authors Marketing Club. They connect you with several websites that advertise your free books. Some sites were free and others cost $5 or $10 dollars. I also listed my book on any other sites I found on my own. My colleague also mentioned a book promotion site called Bookbub, which you have to apply to and which accepts books and/or authors who are a bit more established or well-known.

This is where the platform that I had built for several years paid off. By this time, I had over 10,000 Facebook followers, a popular website, a successful YouTube video, and some interesting published interviews. For reasons I will never exactly know, Bookbub accepted me and for a few hundred dollars they listed my book for a three-day period.

I was at a hair salon the first day in June when the free offer of my book began. I checked my stats and almost fell off my chair. Within hours, my book had been downloaded over 10,000 times. Who were all these wonderful people downloading my book? Suddenly, I was number one on the free bestseller list on Amazon for self-help books. I stayed number one for three days and number two for all free books. I also managed to stay on the Amazon bestseller list for sold books for a short time after the promotion, smack dab in the motivational book category right next to -- you guessed it -- Wayne Dyer. When the free book promotion was completed, more than 29,000 books had been downloaded and it was one of the most thrilling experiences of my life. All of these people had my book! Better yet, MAYBE some of them would suffer less in their lives after reading it.

My agent and I had not spoken in a while. When I called her she didn't really know what to make of the entire matter, but she sent my book out again to ten publishers and sure enough, this time I had my choice of publisher! I had several meetings but the minute I met Marian Lizzi, the managing editor at Perigee, I knew my book had found its home. I called my agent and they negotiated a deal. Having a big publisher was much easier than being on my own. It opened up many doors for me. I am now blogging for The Huffington Post and Psychology Today. I am launching my book at the Tribeca Barnes and Noble on November 4th, which is a dream come true! I also have several large media outlets considering me for articles and as well as television appearances for when my book comes out. The doors have really swung open. I am trying to make the most of this opportunity and have my book reach as many people as possible.

My advice to anyone writing a book? Unless you are well known and you can sell books regardless of who the publisher is, try to get an agent and get your book in front of some publishers. If you get rejected, try to get real feedback from people with experience in the industry and make adjustments to your work if it feels appropriate. Then go back out there again and try to find an agent. I would give the process six to eighteen months. If every door is starting to close and you are tired of waiting, then my advice is definitely to self-publish. If the book supports a career you are already in, give lectures and sell books at events. If this is a new career for you, make relationships with bloggers and take advantage of Amazon's Kindle Select program, then give your book away for free or at a discount to create a fan base. Spend some time marketing your book creatively each week and then... start writing your next book. Enjoy that your work is out there and know that MAYBE your books will sell over time or MAYBE you will get a major publishing deal like I did. There is also the possibility that you will simply be satisfied just to get your work out into the world and that you'll be joyful each time one person experiences your work. Whatever you do, don't give up. Keep your dream alive!

It's funny. My agent called the other day and told me that if my book does not sell at least 25,000 copies it might be difficult to get me another book deal. I got off the phone and had to laugh. The journey of uncertainty never ends! Will The Gift of Maybe sell 25,000 copies? Who knows! Instead of worrying, I choose to embrace the basic tenet of my book. MAYBE I will sell 25,000 books but if I don't... just MAYBE I can find another way to get my next book out there. I'll keep you posted.

GOOD LUCK on your journey publishing a book! And don't forget, life always offers MAYBE even when you can't clearly see the possibilities in front of you. Keep hope alive. The right decision will inevitably reveal itself over time.