As a first-time author lacking the platform I knew agents wanted, I decided to self-publish my first book—and it was a success. For my second book, I wanted to go the traditional route and find an agent. However, there was one thing I wasn’t sure about: Could I frame the success of my first book as an element of my platform? Or should I refrain from telling agents that there’d been a first book at all?
I started writing For Those About to Rock, a middle grade rock ‘n’ roll book, four years ago. My nine-year-old son and I shared a love of music, and I tried to find him a children’s book about musicians, but came up short. I decided I’d write my own: it would be like Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls—which features profiles of groundbreaking women written in a kid-friendly style—but about rock musicians. I made a list of 50 seminal bands and musicians across several decades and genres, including Aretha Franklin, Led Zeppelin, BjÖrk, Jimi Hendrix, Beyoncé, the Cure, and Run DMC.
At first, I wasn’t planning to publish the book at all; it was just a gift for my son. After the book was complete, and my son and I had read it together many times over, I showed it to a few friends, who told me I should try to get it published.
During the time I was writing the book, I was also teaching music to the third, fourth, and fifth grades at my sons’ elementary school. My curriculum included a lot of contemporary rock music, so I incorporated some of the book’s content into my lessons. The kids loved it. That clinched it for me: I’d start looking for representation.
I put together a proposal, then submitted it to several agents who’d represented similar books. I heard what I’d expected to hear: I was a first-time author with not much of a platform, so agents were wary of taking me on. I’d anticipated the platform issue, so I’d started a mailing list, and was gradually building subscribers as I sent out curated lists of songs I thought kids would love. I had two possible paths: I could continue submitting to agents—which seemed like a nonstarter unless I built more of a platform first—or I could self-publish and use my mailing list as one way of marketing the book and getting some recognition.
There were a couple of problems with self-publishing: money and money. I needed money to print the book, and I also wanted to pay illustrators to create original portraits of each musician. I consulted my friend and fellow author Jamie Beth Cohen, who runs a consulting business for authors. She talked me through self-publishing options and advised me to fund self-publication through a Kickstarter campaign.
The Kickstarter was a project in and of itself! Luckily, I had already hired designer Joey Spector to design my book, so she made my Kickstarter graphics, too. It was fun coming up with stretch goals to encourage my backers to keep pledging. We reached my first stretch goal—I reached $10,000 in pledges—so I made the book a hardcover. I did my own marketing through my mailing list, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, and sold close to 600 copies.
Ideally, I wanted to republish the book with a publishing house, so that, if I sold more than the 700 copies I’d printed, I wouldn’t have to do another costly print run. I posted a question in a Facebook Binders group to see if this was possible. (Named after Mitt Romney’s infamous “binders full of women” comment during the second 2012 presidential debate, the private Facebook groups for women and trans and gender-nonconforming people are invaluable sources of feedback and information about all facets of writing and publishing.)
What I heard disappointed me. A self-published author needed to have sold at least 10,000 books for a publisher to consider republishing. Also, publishers often liked to have input on a book; they weren’t necessarily interested in something that was already fully formed. Some commenters on my post even suggested that I scrub any mention of my self-published book from the internet, in case my sales numbers worked against me when I pitched my next book. I’d worked so hard on the book that this was crushing news.
Since I’d always conceived of For Those About to Rock as part of a series, I took the advice and prepared to pitch the next book in the series, rather than pitching my existing book. I also followed up with Cohen again, and she suggested that I include my existing book in my query letter, framing it as a product I created to support my music teaching curriculum. That way, I could mention my marketing work and newsletter, and it would work in my favor.
Before jumping into pitching my next book, I knew that I needed to create a more robust author platform. I attended Alexa Bigwarfe’s Women in Publishing Summit to learn more about how to do that. I focused on building my Twitter following by engaging with other authors and tweeting about my existing book, as well as participating in pitch events such as PitMad and PBPitch. I also continued to market my existing book.
I was happy to have found a way to include my self-published book as part of my platform for my next book. The next step? Seeing if agents were happy about it, too. I wrote a Twitter pitch for my next middle grade book, a collection of 50 inspiring stories about female musicians, and tweeted the pitch during PitMad this past June. To my surprise and delight, agent Cassie Mannes Murray at Howland Literary responded to my tweet and told me I should pitch her boss, E. Carrie Howland. A few minutes later, Carrie also responded, saying the book sounded amazing. I’d already put together a book proposal for the new, female-focused rock ‘n’ roll book, so I sent it over to Carrie right away.
Cut to a month later, and I officially have a literary agent! I signed with Howland at the beginning of July. We’re currently working on refining my book proposal before sending it out to publishers. Right now, the proposal still mentions my self-published book and the platform I built while promoting it. It’ll be interesting to see whether my new agency advises me to include my first book in my revised proposal or to keep it low-key. Either way, I’m happy that my having self-published my first book didn’t prevent my new agent from wanting to sign me.
Kate Seldman is a mother, writer, teacher, and metalhead. She is the author of For Those About to Rock: A Kid’s Guide to 50 Legendary Musical Acts, a rock ‘n’ roll primer for ages 8-13.