Here’s the brief answer to the title of this post:
Sell a lot of copies, strong five figures, if not six figures. Sell so many copies that traditional publishing is potentially less profitable for you than self-publishing.
Few people like the brief answer, so here’s the long answer.
By far, the No. 1 consulting request I receive is the author who has self-published and wants to switch to traditional publishing. Usually it’s because they’re disappointed with their sales or exposure; other times, that was their plan all along.
These authors ask me, in many different ways:
How can I get my book the exposure it deserves?
Back in ye olden days of self-publishing (before e-books), the message to authors was so much simpler: Don’t self-publish a book unless you intend to definitively say “no” to traditional publishing for that project. Yes, there was a stigma, and in some ways, it helped authors avoid a mistake or bad investment.
Today, with the overselling of self-publishing, too many authors either:
- Decide they won’t even try to traditionally publish, even if they have a viable commercial project, or
- Assume it’s best to self-publish first, and get an agent or publisher later.
The assumption of #2 is one of the worst in the community right now. As far as #1, some authors end up self-publishing for the instant gratification (we have a serious epidemic of impatience), or to avoid what’s increasingly seen as a long, exhausting, and dumb process of finding an agent or securing book contract (which, of course, offers less profit than self-publishing).
I support entrepreneurial authorship, and authors taking responsibility for their own career success. But I would like to see more authors intelligently and strategically use self-publishing as part of well thought out career goals, rather than as a steppingstone to traditional publishing. It’s not any easier to interest an agent or publisher when you’re self-published, and since new authors are more likely to put out a low-quality effort (they rush, they don’t sufficiently invest, they don’t know their audience), chances are even lower their book will get picked up.
Before you self-publish, consider whether any of the following describe you. If you can say “yes” to at least a few of these statements, then you’re on a better path than most self-publishing authors I encounter.
1. Your work presents challenges for the traditional or commercial market.
If you don’t know how commercial your work is, or if a traditional publisher would be interested in it, you need to find out. You should understand if your category/genre sells well in ebook form (see my Pinterest board for charts that can help you research this ). Study your genre’s bestsellers via Amazon and other retailers, and understand how the market has been behaving over the last few years. Are you about to enter a very competitive field, a very niche market, or a growing category with lots of opportunity? Know the challenges ahead of time. While you’re at it, study the marketing strategies and platform of the successful indie or traditionally published authors you find.
Can’t be bothered to do the market research? Then you’re less likely to be a successful self-published author.
2. You’ve exhausted your options with the traditional path, and you can commit to entrepreneurial authorship for several years.
I know how difficult it is to secure an agent or publisher, but as I emphasized earlier, it doesn’t magically become easier after you’ve self-published, unless you’re sitting on top of the Amazon bestseller list week after week.
If you feel self-publishing is your next best step (rather than, say, writing a new work), then commit to it for several years, and over several titles—preferably a series. You need to build a core audience as you release each new work; if you switch genres every time, you’ll likely find yourself spinning your wheels because you have to find your audience again with each new work.
3. You have a plan for writing and publishing 3-5 titles before you re-assess your publishing strategy.
Look at the most successful indie authors, and you’ll find many are writing a series, and have lots of books on the market. Having more books means you have a lot more room to develop marketing strategies and find your audience.
If you have only one book, and you’re wondering why it’s not going anywhere in its first three months on sale … well, you’re expecting too much too soon.
I challenge you to comment on this post with an example of an author who self-published their very first book, then segued into a major deal with a traditional publisher for that first book without having several other titles also in play.
4. You’ve read all the major guides from successful indie authors on what it takes to market, promote, and sell your work.
The secrets to long-term career success aren’t a secret at all. People who are making a living at self-publishing have written extensively on how they’ve done it. But few authors have taken time to read these guides and apply the strategies consistently.
If you’re not sure which guides to read, see my list of books on how to market indie work. 
5. You’re patient enough to wait for agents and editors to approach you.
When Hugh Howey is asked by self-published authors how they can effectively approach agents and editors, he has advised: Wait for them to come to you. That’s how you know when you’ve reached the level of success necessary to interest the traditional market.
And if you’ve done your job right, that’s exactly what will happen. Only by that time, you may enjoy your success and your profits so much you don’t want to share them with an agent and publisher. See the Catch-22 you’re in?
While I don’t like to discourage authors from experimenting with self-publishing (for too long it was feared!), it doesn’t help when it’s approached as a stop-gap measure or a short-term strategy. Have your eyes wide open about the likelihood it’s going to work for your strengths, your category of work, and your ability to be your own best promoter.
What trends do you see in authors who go the self-pub route? What success stories have you seen where an author went onto a traditional deal after only self-publishing? How long did it take them to make the move?