Prior to asking this question, I have found and read similar questions posted by other people and I have come away each time deeply dissatisfied and frustrated by the responses given. Here’s an example.

The reason is because I have noticed that every time such a question is asked, respondents have a tendency to reply by bringing up the Amanda Hocking-type clichés, thus answering in the following manner:

“Sure you can! Look at these self-publishers who were hugely successful and later got contracts!!”

As a result, respondents end up not actually answering the question. What tends to be overlooked is that the question is really about the very act of pressing the ‘publish’ button, and whether or not, by committing such an act, you have ruled out any possibility of signing a contract with a traditional publisher even if they like the book. That is the question. Bringing up unusual cases like Hocking or Hewitt is a red herring.

In other words, it has nothing to do with how many copies the book has sold via self-publishing. We just want to know if publishers, as a rule, do not want the book to have been previously self-published at all.

As an example, let’s say the agent and the publisher both love the book after reading it and would like to sign a deal. Then you say to them:

“Oh, by the way…uhmm….I think you might want to know that I actually put it up on Amazon for a little while. However, I have removed it.”

What would be their response? Will they go, “Oh well, in that case, deal’s off!”

Furthermore, that brings up another frustrating thing I’ve noticed: In the question that I linked to, you will notice that not a single one of the respondents bothered to distinguish between print and digital publishing. In other words, they failed to say whether, when they speak about ‘first world publishing rights requirement’, whether it includes digital publishing as well? Or does it only apply to print? This clarification and distinction wasn’t made, but I think it is important. Because a writer needs to know if it is okay to test the waters through self-publishing as long as they keep it in digital form only.

All that being said, what's all this nonsense about “publishers are only looking for books that have already been ‘proven’ to be successful on Amazon?” What?? Really??

Don’t they brains of their own? Can’t they read? What then is the point of agents and editors?

Besides, this completely ignores the crucial fact that success of a self-published book is highly dependent on effective marketing. Why do people keep ignoring this fact? Why do people keep saying that if a book has been self-published on Amazon but did not sell, then it means publishers cannot be successful with it? What if it is actually a fantastic book and the only reason it didn’t sell was because the author simply lacked the skills or the resources to market it? And isn’t that the job of traditional publishers? Isn’t that what they are supposed to do?

Sorry about the multiple questions, but now you can see why I am baffled by this issue. Here is just one example of what I’m saying (from the same link):

This sentence is from ‘Seth Gordon’s’ answer (in the context of a self-published book not having already sold well):

“But if you self-publish through Amazon and then try to market the same book to a traditional publisher, your book is a known quantity.”

To me, the statement makes no sense because the book is, almost by definition, NOT a “known quantity”. If few people have bought it (usually due to lack of marketing), then how on earth is it a “known quantity”? (I will grant, however, that the statement is true only in the cases of self-published books that were only moderately successful. Because it means that the author obviously invested effective marketing into it but the poor/mediocre nature of the book did not allow it to truly take off.)

So, in sum, my point is that the purpose of a traditional publisher, as I understand it, is to provide the marketing skills and resources that many authors simply do not have the means to provide for their books. But if such an author does make an attempt at self-publishing (despite little or no marketing resources) in the hope of being lucky, does that very attempt automatically rule out any chance of the author securing a deal with a traditional publisher no matter much they may like the book?

ETA: Just to clarify what the question is, since some people clearly have trouble reading and are saying things that are utterly irrelevant to the question: the question, quite simply, is does the act of clicking 'publish' for the ebook version of a novel make it impossible for a publishing house to publish a book that they have received from a literary agent and would like to publish? If so, why? Please note that the question is not about sales. It is more about the technicalities regarding copyright or 'first publication rights'. It would still apply even if the book was only e-published by the author just the previous day and hasn't had time to make any sales. Does the very act of clicking 'publish' technically create a problem? If so, why?

I'm sorry I had to be repetitive, but there really does tend to be a problem with reading comprehension that people have with regards to issues like this.

  • 5
    I heard this discussed on a podcast recently and the answer given there was basically, publishers won't usually take a book that's already been epublished, unless it was really successful when epublished. The thinking is that if it was really successful on amazon for example, they think that by applying their marketing/network, they can make it even more successful.
    – levininja
    Commented Dec 24, 2019 at 14:53
  • 1
    The fact that others have done it means it is possible - if the book is good enough. So the real question is "Is YOUR book good enough to be traditionally published after it is released as an ebook?"
    – sambler
    Commented Dec 25, 2019 at 5:35
  • 1
    Levininja, your comment is actually better off as an answer, though with a bit more elaboration, since it is the only response that truly answers the question. The one "answer" the question received doesn't actually answer the question and is really just a bunch of irrelevant gibberish which other people who also have trouble reading are surprisingly upvoting.
    – user394536
    Commented Dec 28, 2019 at 20:32
  • Is this question really about copyright, as the latest edit says? Because that’s a very simple question that can be asked in a single paragraph, and equally simply answered. If so, removing everything else in the question would improve it and its chances of getting a direct answer, by removing garden paths for readers and potential answer-writers to get lost down.
    – Robin
    Commented Dec 30, 2019 at 16:04
  • Hi Robin. I agree that the question could be significantly shortened to make it more succinct. But it is nevertheless a murky and complex issue. Yes, it is basically a copyright (or 'first publication rights') issue. But that is only because I assume that that is what the concern is with traditional publishers. Otherwise, why is it such a problem if a book has already been digitally self-published even if it hasn't yet sold? I prefer to leave the rest of the commentary so as to allow discussion of related issues regarding what publishing companies care about when it comes to publishing.
    – user394536
    Commented Dec 31, 2019 at 10:14

5 Answers 5


In a nutshell, yes, self-publishing does all but eliminate the chance of the same work being traditionally published.

  • If the book was self-published and it didn't sell, why would a publisher want it?

  • If the book was self-published and it did sell, who would the author need the publisher? The author is likely making 70% on sales and the publisher wants to offer 10-15%.

To explain one point you made: Publishers are only looking for books proven on Amazon. This is not quite true. More accurately: Publishers are interested in authors proven on Amazon. e.g. If you were to self-publish, and produce profitable results, a traditional publisher may be interested in signing you for a 3 or 4 book deal, and they'd make an offer on the first book so as you are exclusive to them.

Publishers don't publish 'good books' or 'books they like.' They publish books they believe will sell. You'd be surprised how often they get it wrong.

  • 1
    "If the book was self-published and it didn't sell, why would a publisher want it?" It seems you did not read the details I provided. The fact that a self-published book has not sold does not mean the book is not good. It could easily just be due to lack of marketing resources on the part of the author. And what if the publisher sees from reading the book that it is very good? Wouldn't it occur to them that it simply needs marketing? Please read the details below my question.
    – user394536
    Commented Dec 24, 2019 at 14:14
  • 6
    I read your question. Publisher's are not educators. They do not publish 'good' books. They publish what they believe will sell. 'Marketing' will sell anything, that's why people buy bottled water, anti-wrinkle cream, and super-foods. I'm sorry if that's not what you want to hear but they've no reason to publish your work if it doesn't sell without their help.
    – Surtsey
    Commented Dec 24, 2019 at 14:24
  • 4
    Yup, pretty much. You've no clue about the publishing world. You are looking for confirmation of what you want to do won't damage your chances of being the next Rowling . . . You won't get that from me.
    – Surtsey
    Commented Dec 24, 2019 at 14:49
  • 1
    @user394536 It’s to the publishing industry’s benefit that authors believe they care about quality, but it’s not true. Their own margins are brutal and what sells is paramount—not what could sell or should sell if supported, what does sell, and they’re not interested in learning why if it doesn’t. They don’t have the resources anymore to do anything except place a bet on some other book that they’ll mostly not support. Publishing today is about planting many seeds and harvesting the lucky ones, and hoping the result keeps them in the black financially.
    – Robin
    Commented Dec 24, 2019 at 17:18
  • 1
    @user394536 For an eye-opening look at the realities of mainstream publishing, both small and large, from someone who is invested but has no illusions, read “Part V: Publishing It” in Susie Bright’s book How to Write a Dirty Story. Don’t mind the title; the part on publishing is generally applicable even to less popular genres than romance. It’ll not just shatter any illusions, but replace them with pragmatic, useful ways to think of the relationship and for dealing with them productively anyway.
    – Robin
    Commented Dec 24, 2019 at 17:19

If you book is wildly successful, then you have a chance to sell it to a traditional publisher. More likely if you have a big social media presence.

If your self-published book tanks then you have no chance at all.

  • Yes, this is the one most correct answer to this question. Commented Nov 3, 2020 at 16:37

For one data point, Penguin's DAW Books (publishes science fiction and fantasy) has this to say on their FAQ page (emphasis mine):

Do you accept works that have been previously published (self-publishing, e-publishing, etc.)?

DAW can consider all submissions as long as the author currently retains all rights. If you do currently retain all rights, then you may submit the work to us for consideration.


Since this question has received no real (non-nonsensical) answers, I will post an answer based on my own investigations and what other experienced authors and publishers have said about it in other websites by making a few quotations that deal with this question.

[One can still sell it to a traditional publisher], but if you [do] sell it to a traditional publisher, you will be expected to pull it the second the contract is signed, and they will probably make you go through several rounds of editorial revisions just to make it different from the version that’s still out in the wild.

If you have a winning manuscript, anything can happen. However, here are the hazards. If there is a free preview and it looks unprofessional with typos and formatting problems, that will count against you. If the book has bad or lukewarm reviews, that will count against you. If the book clearly sold poorly, that will count against you. [Note that the word 'clearly' is crucial here. Because it's not necessarily clear what it is meant by a book "selling poorly" because that would depend on the circumstances of its publishing. Normally, that phrase implies that the book has actually been seen and received by customers and rejected by them (as opposed to a book that has not yet reached the eyes of customers at all or barely so).]

[Self publishing] doesn't mean that your books cannot be picked up by a traditional publisher. However, in my experience, having at one time had nine books published on Kindle Direct Publishing and listed with Amazon, this route will preclude most...reputable Literary Reps from reading your books.

Note: The original question is premised on the fact that the agent and publisher have already read the book and would like to sign a deal with the author. Thus, it is about whether there will be an issue if they learn that the book was previously self-published although later removed.

Regarding the issue of copyright:

[Technically, one can still have it traditionally published, because] you still hold the copyright on your book. You own that text unless and until you sign away that copyright, which Amazon will not demand and no credible publisher will demand (If anyone does demand your copyright, that is a warning sign and you should get away from them).

What Amazon and other publishers buy from you are typically limited publishing rights (the right to print and sell your book) that do not infringe on your possession of your intellectual property. Though if you do get conventionally published, they might require you to stop selling via your other channels so that people are more likely to buy the copies that they paid to print and put into bookstores.

Based on these and many other comments I have read, one can conclude that there is no real technical issue (regarding copyrights) that affect the possibility of later publication by a traditional publisher. The only issue would simply be that the privilege of 'first publication' that publishing companies tend to prefer and value would be gone in principle. But, as I said in my original post, from a logical perspective, it is not really an issue if the book has reached none or only a few people. This of course raises an interesting paradox: If a self-published book (like any one of Amanda Hocking's for example) has already reached huge numbers of people due to her marketing abilities as well as, of course, the quality of her books, then who do the traditional publishers imagine they are going to sell it to when everyone has already bought it? Obviously, it's because they know that there are still millions (if not billions) of potential customers out there in the world that can still buy the book and haven't been exposed to it yet.

The rest is really just common sense. As one of those quotes say, a lot depends on the circumstances regarding the book itself: When exactly was it self-published? How long has it been? Did it sell? Was there any marketing involved? What are the reviews of the book like? What do customers who have already bought the self-published version think about it? And so on.

Regarding another of the quotes, I suspect that the reason why literary agents would typically not want to bother reading a book that they are told has already been self-published just comes down to pragmatism and time-saving. Since they deal with so many submissions everyday, they tend to not want to deal with any unnecessary hassle or issues that an already published book might bring (especially in terms of the first publication rights issue). Naturally, they would prefer to approach publishers with books that will not potentially bring any issues. Also, as is typical with human beings, they naturally do not like the idea that they are being used as 'second options' by hybrid authors who are maximizing their chances by trying out both approaches at the same time. It's just human nature. That's why it's best either to not tell them or to submit straight to publishers. Alternatively, if the book has already found success in the self-publishing platform, the author might use that fact as an advantage by mentioning it in the query letters sent to agents.


Kindle KDP says the following about ISBN numbers:

This free ISBN can only be used on KDP for distribution to Amazon and its distributors. It cannot be used with another publisher or self-publishing service.

Therefore, I assume they can decide how and where you sell it. Whereas when having your own ISBN, you could sell it in multiple places.

  • You can get your own, different ISBN, or publish elsewhere without an ISBN.
    – Mary
    Commented Aug 14, 2020 at 2:56
  • I don't see what this has to do with the question.
    – Chenmunka
    Commented Aug 15, 2020 at 12:14

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