Making the Transition From Indie to Traditional Publishing

WD Self-Published E-Book award winner Christopher Stollar offers 6 tips for making the switch from indie publishing to traditional publishing.

[This article first appeared in the March/April 2023 issue of Writer’s Digest.]

Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.”

That quote from Thomas Edison greets me and about 100 other writers every time we connect with each other in an online group for authors with agents who are pitching our debut novels to publishers. Some of us have been in the group for weeks, while others have remained for months or even years.

But every single author is stuck in that agonizing transition between writing and publishing we all experience. Each day that goes by without an update from our agent we feel like giving up, wondering if our words are worth anything to the publishers they’re pitching. And yet each day we could get “the call” from our agent saying they landed a deal for us.

As an independent author who successfully self-published a crime thriller in 2016, I too am stuck in that same transition. I made the decision about three years ago to move out of the indie world to traditional publishing because I wanted to take my writing career to the next level.

Maybe you’re considering that same transition. Maybe you’ve already embarked on that journey but heard nothing back from the agents you’ve queried or editors they’ve pitched. Or maybe you’re just struggling to move from one word to the next so you can cross that finish line of a first draft. Regardless of where you’re at in your own path to publishing, this column will help you keep hope alive along the journey—no matter how long it takes.

“All writers need patience and persistence,” said Paula Munier, my senior agent at Talcott Notch Literary. “Those are the writers who get published, the ones who persevere. The most important thing to remember going from indie to traditional publishing is that you are now going to get what amounts to a master class in publishing … Keep an open mind, and remember you are swimming in different seas now.”

This column won’t provide a master class, but it will offer surprising insights from several of the 100 other agented authors I interviewed while on submission with their debut novels. It will also cover several universal tips I have learned during my own journey transitioning from the world of self to traditional publishing that apply to every author.

3 “Do” Tips

1. Start your next story.

It doesn’t matter if you’re editing, querying, or on submission; every writer must take that first step into their next story regardless of their path to publishing. Munier recommends that former indie authors who are now looking to land a traditional deal focus on a new concept in a different genre. At the same time, you should always write what you know and love.

“The most unique product you have at your disposal in this crowded market is yourself and your voice,” said Frances White, an author in our online group who queried agents for six years before finally landing a deal in October 2022 with the imprint Penguin Michael Joseph for her debut fantasy murder mystery. “That’s why I think writing something you personally love and are passionate about is so important. That might just be that special something an agent or editor is looking for—and only you can give it to them.”

2. Connect with a community.

Writing can be a lonely journey, so find a group in person or online to join you along the way. These communities can help you polish your work, but they can also serve as a sounding board or even support group during those long months of silence. I joined our online group about two years ago, and it has proved crucial to my own transition. I’ve been able to ask the hard questions, encourage those who receive rejections, and celebrate other’s successes as they finally finish their own literary race.

3. Find joy in the journey.

Publishing a book is like running a marathon, not a sprint. It can take months—or even years—for an agent to find that perfect home for your book. That means you must keep a long-term view of the process and strive to enjoy each step.

My own transition from indie to traditional publishing has taken about six years so far. I successfully crowdfunded The Black Lens in 2016. While my crime thriller won Grand Prize in Writer’s Digest Self-Published E-Book Awards, I knew that my chances of success with a second novel would be slim unless I had an agent advocating for me.

That’s why I spent about three years writing a second book—this time science fiction—and pitching dozens of agents until I finally landed one in Munier through an online Writer’s Digest University class. I have spent the last few years writing a third book while she continues pitching my second. The only reason I haven’t given up is because I’m still enjoying this journey. When I write, I feel alive.

3 “Don’t” Tips

1. Don’t rely solely on yourself.

This has proved the hardest advice for me to learn during my own transition to traditional publishing. As both an indie author and professional marketer, I’m used to handling everything myself. But now that I have an agent, I’ve learned to rely more on her for help.

“You are used to having control over all aspects of your work, from the cover to the copyediting,” Munier said. “You won’t have that control now … because the people you’ll be working with will be publishing professionals who are in the trenches every day editing and producing and selling and promoting books. You should learn a lot from the pros and be open to their process.”

2. Don’t fear the rejections.

From Stephen King to Kathryn Stockett, some of the most successful authors today faced dozens of rejections before hitting it big.

“Rejection is just redirection,” said Swati Hegde, another author in our group who racked up more than 400 rejections until she received a two-book romcom deal in November 2022 with Bantam of Penguin Random House. “The fact is, your publishing partners must be as passionate about your writing as you are, so stick it out for those people. They’re out there—and you’ll find each other.”

3. Don’t ask “are we there yet?”

Whether you’re waiting to hear back from an editor, agent, or publisher, don’t keep refreshing your inbox and bugging them for updates. Munier said her email account exploded with 1,000 queries from writers just during her first week as an agent, so stand out from that crowd by remaining patient.

Jenna Grinstead, an author in our group currently on submission with a contemporary fantasy young adult novel, said she has learned to find solace during the silence by diving into that next story.

“My advice is to keep writing and enjoy the process,” Grinstead said. “Focus on a story of your heart and let that bring you joy.”

I don’t know how long my own transition or yours will take, but I hope you keep finding joy in the journey—and refuse to give up. 

Improve your submission materials with in-depth coaching from literary agent Amy Collins in this Writer’s Digest University online course.

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