Most traditional publishers won’t even look at a previously published title. Here are some reasons why.
As a publisher, I usually start my day by checking out the questions and comments that are submitted to us via our contact form and social media accounts. I like to know what people are thinking and what questions they’re asking. Almost every day, we field questions like, “Will you accept my previously published work?” or, “I have a self-published novel, would you like to see it?” And every day, I’m responding to these authors with a sincere, “Unfortunately, we can’t accept submissions of previously published titles.”
I know that this is an extremely frustrating answer for authors, mostly because many authors aren’t sure why a traditional publisher like us won’t accept their book. So I’d like to explain some of the reasons for this decision.
But first, a definition. If you’ve made your book available, in any format, in any place, for outside readers to consume, your book has been previously published. This includes any of the e-tailers like Amazon or Barnes & Noble or Kobo. This includes posting chapters on fanfiction sites like Wattpad. And this includes free giveaways on your website.
But this doesn’t include critique-type sites like critters.org where you’re seeking and giving critiques on draft manuscripts. In fact, we encourage authors to have other eyes look at their stories before submitting them.
Recently, an author submitted a book to us, claiming it was unpublished. Since they listed other published titles in their bio, we checked out their Amazon author page. And there it was, the book they’d submitted to us, the one they’d claimed was unpublished. It had a different title, but the blurb they’d given to us and the one on Amazon was the same. The book had been available for sale on Amazon for two years and garnered seventeen reviews! Needless to say, we rejected the submission.
Another author suggested that the book they’d had for sale on Kindle for only six hours should be considered unpublished. While this makes a little more sense, bottom line, it doesn’t matter if the title was up on Kindle for six hours or six days or six minutes. Once the author makes the book available for sale on the Amazon platform, it is published.
It’s easy to research and find previously published titles, so trying to sneak them past us and into our submissions queue just won’t work. I always wonder what makes authors think that we won’t notice, and, once we do, what made them think we’d want to do business with them?
But why is a previously published title such a bitter pill for agents and publishers to swallow?
Here are four reasons:
- Publishers don’t want to redo something that’s already been done. A publisher’s job is to turn a manuscript into a product for sale. The publisher wants to create a product that’s fresh and vibrant, with a knock-out cover and interior design a reader can’t resist. The publisher wants to create a product that stands out when compared to similar titles. It’s hard to do that when an older version of the work is already out there. It muddles all marketing efforts.
- Chances are, a previously published title has already been purchased by the readers most likely to buy it. This is especially true with fiction. If you put a book up for sale on Amazon, for example, it’s already had its splash as a new release. It can’t ever be “new” again. A publisher wants to capitalize on the newness of a title and wants to scoop up those readers as the first purchasers of the book. We can’t do that with previously published titles.
- It’s possible that the author doesn’t own the rights to the work. If a title has been published by another publisher, the rights may remain with that publisher, and the author doesn’t have the rights to publish the work elsewhere. It’s not a wise business decision to spend time and take a chance on such a title when we get plenty of genuinely unpublished submissions every day.
- The author wants a traditional publisher because she doesn’t have time to market her book. Some authors submit previously self-published works because they didn’t have the time to market the book themselves and hope that a publisher will do it for them. Unfortunately, this is a misconception and far from the reality of the marketplace in 2020. Regardless of where and how you publish your work, you must have the bandwidth to market your book. Publishers do what they can, and some publishers do more than others, but authors have to participate in marketing and promoting their books. Otherwise, the books just won’t sell. So we, as a publisher, can’t take a chance on a self-published title, if an author doesn’t have the capacity or desire to market and promote herself.
The Special Case of the Series Title
We’ve had several occasions where an author submitted an unpublished title that was part of a series with previously published titles. One particular case was heartbreaking for me. The author had everything we look for — a great voice, great stories, great characters, and an established author platform with a readership we could market to — but we still had to say no.
Here’s why: The first two books in the series were published by another publisher, and despite our best efforts, we couldn’t obtain the rights. Without the rights to those first two titles, we couldn’t leverage the read-through we’d need to make the third book successful. We’d have no control over the marketing of the first two titles and the way they’d direct readers to the title we’d be publishing, while any of our advertising and marketing efforts on the third title would invariably point readers to the first two, to the benefit of the other publisher. So from a business perspective, we just had to say no. That was probably the toughest rejection I’ve had to make to date.
So you see, decisions about previously published titles have very little to do with the editorial quality of a book, and everything to do with how effectively a publisher can market and promote the title. Publishing is a business, and publishers make acquisition decisions based on estimates of revenues and profits. Previously published works are too much of a fiscal risk for most publishers to take. And, that’s why agents usually aren’t interested in them either.
The best advice we can give to authors of previously published works is to sit down and write that next book. And when it’s ready, send it our way.
Update 08/11/2020: After the first version of this post was released, I got some emails from authors pointing to other publishers who were accepting previously published works (one was for a Big 5 imprint from 2012, so that doesn’t count). That’s okay. What other publishers accept is completely up to them. What CamCat accepts is completely up to us.