So, I'm curious then where you stand on authors who self-published (orig, not backlist) but are doing well? Not those pulling Amanda Hockings, but well. Do you see a way how agents could help them to do even better? Can an agent come in after the fact and open new arenas for them? Or is well not enough? Just curious.
The short answer is that even the Chia Pet sells millions every year. (This year, I'm getting Chia Obama! Okay, seriously, is that not just a bit disrespectful and even borderline racist that there is a Chia Obama?) How many crappy TV shows have stayed on the air season after season? Germans really like David Hasselhoff's singing???!
Okay, that's a bit snarky. I'm sure there are many excellent self-published novels. Alas, over the years, none of the ones that have been sent to me have been that great. I did take one on for representation in 1994 or so, the title of which I have completely forgotten. It didn't sell.
I remember reading a review of Amanda Hocking's works. It was not favorable. Then again, I know plenty of editors laughed at David Gernert when he was an editor at Doubleday and paid, I think, $250,000 to acquire THE FIRM. Now he's Grisham's agent and laughing all the way to the bank. Plenty of editors have told me over lunch that they would not have acquired THE DA VINCI CODE, because they didn't think it was that good a book.
Now I enjoyed THE FIRM and found it to be a perfect "popcorn read." Very good pacing. But I thought it was written at an eighth-grade reading level. I couldn't finish THE DA VINCI CODE, because I grew up reading Hardy Boys novels and then I moved onto more complex fiction. THE DA VINCI CODE, bestseller that it is, is not complex fiction and is, I feel, not much more than a Hardy Boys novel. I'm not even sure it's at an eighth-grade reading level.
So what's my point? Well, the market is the final decider, though it's a shame that what that often means is that works with lower common denominators succeed better than more complicated works of fiction.
Now, could an agent help those self-published novelists do better? Perhaps, but it depends on a few factors. For example, is the book truly well-written and not just selling? Because people who acquire books for foreign publishers or for movies or for audio tend to be "book people," meaning they may turn up their noses at anything that's just selling but isn't also well-written. I have shopped books by at least one New York Times bestselling author and editors turned them down because they didn't like the story or didn't find the jokes funny. C'mon! The guy sells. Put aside your personal opinion and make the house some money!
But if an author self-published and said to me, "I worked with Beth Lieberman or Ed Stackler [or another quality freelance editor I know], and then I had the book professionally copyedited by a copyeditor who has edited over one hundred novels for Random House, and I had it professionally proofread after conversion to ensure it was clean, and I've sold thousands of eBooks and really want a deal with a 'real' publisher,'" I'd certainly be interested. But if the author just wrote it, self-published it, and didn't go through a true editorial process, I would have less interest. Strong sales might be enough to get me to look, but in the end the person has to be a good writer, in my opinion, or I won't take him or her on.