19 January 2010

The five rules of getting a book deal

Guest post by Jean Hannah Edelstein

Before we start, some quick disclaimers: I used to work in publishing, and I keep up to date on the industry for my blogging purposes (and personal interest), and I do a little critiquing of new writing on an ad-hoc basis (and have introduced a handful of writers to their now-agents). But I’m not, of course, the absolute last word on the topic. OK? OK.

Rule one: write something extraordinary

Yes, I know that you think your book is good, but it has to be REALLY good – by which I mean well-written and original and something that makes people want to turn the page.

When I worked for a literary agency, we read dozens of submissions every week, and the vast majority of them were terrible – not just OK, or mediocre, but really astonishingly awful. Before you start submitting your work, get several objective opinions on it. By ‘objective,’ I mean not from your friends or your mum.

The good news is that thanks to the flourishing communities of writers on the web, it should be easy for you to find someone who is interested in the kind of writing you are doing, who doesn’t know you, but who is someone whose opinion you will respect – and whose criticism you will take on board to make your writing better, rather than a reason to shout, ‘you don’t understand me!’ and sulk. Websites for writers is a great portal for key writing sites.

And yes, you might be inclined to argue that there are lots of books being published that are not extraordinary. That is true. But producing something mediocre is still not going to increase your chances of getting a book published.

Rule two: research the business of publishing

Yes, you should research your book, but you also need to research the business of publishing. Which literary agents are most interested in your kind of writing? What books have been published that are similar to yours, with which your book will compete? Who published them? How were they published? What market are they aimed at?

Some aspiring writers think that they should just submit their work to everyone under the sun, until someone bites, but that’s a waste of your time (and theirs) – you want to identify the people who may be genuinely interested in your project and target them carefully.

Trade websites are a good place to start – if you’re in the UK, The Bookseller and Booktrade.info and BookBrunch are the must-reads. And, of course, book blogs – Nathan Bransford, Bookslut, the Guardian books blog and Book Ninja are my top four go-tos, but there are many more as well, particularly for specific genres.

Check Twitter for directories of publishing professionals, too, and start following them. You’ll learn a lot.

Rule three: network

There’s often a lot of complaint on writing blogs about how people who get books commissioned have ‘connections’ in the world of publishing, but how many other industries would you expect to crack in to without having some contact with the people who are already in?

This doesn’t mean that you have to get a job in publishing (though it undoubtedly helps – I would certainly not have published a book at this stage if I hadn’t worked in publishing) but it does mean that you should look for ways to engage with publishing professionals to learn from them about the industry, about what they are interested in publishing, etc.

Again, thanks to the internet, this doesn’t mean you have to live in London or New York – but you need to get stuck in to the dialogues about publishing that are flourishing online. Yes, this wasn’t necessary ten years ago, but book publishing is not as old-fashioned as it seems: it does move with the times, and writers have to as well.

Email people and ask them for advice. Sure, some will never write back, but many will be happy to give it.

Rule four: get an agent

There’s been a lot of debate recently about the usefulness of agents in a digital world, but I think that’s because most people don’t understand what an agent’s real job is. I didn’t either, when I started in an agency – I imagined I would drink coffee, read manuscripts, wear tweed and occasionally shout things like, ‘I’ve discovered the next Philip Roth!’

In fact, the bulk of the agent’s work happens after the book has been sold – negotiating the contract, making sure that money flows through to the writer, negotiating sub-rights deals, arguing with editors when they try to make writers do things that they don’t want to do, administering a hell of a lot of paperwork.

You’re a writer; you don’t want to spend time handling complex contractual issues when you could be writing. Get. An. Agent.

How to get an agent? You’ve already done your research and your networking, so contact the people who you think will be interested in your book, and contact them according to the instructions that they set out on their website – if they don’t have those instructions, they’re not a very good agent (or agency) and you don’t want them representing you.

But if you ignore the instructions – sending the whole book when they ask for a synopsis, or sending an email when they ask for a hard copy – they’ll ignore you or reject you outright, not because they are jerks, but because they work very hard and need submissions to fit into whatever system they have for dealing with them.

They don’t have time to take out to deal with someone’s alternative approach not because they are jerks, but because they are working so hard for the authors they’re already representing. That’s good, because you want an agent who works hard for his or her authors.

There’s no need to load up your submission with bells and whistles: your work should speak for itself, and if you feel the need to write things in your submissions letters like, ‘my book starts off slow, but becomes interesting on page 74’ you’re not ready to submit; if you feel the need to attach sexy photos of yourself to the submission (more common than you’d think), you’re not ready to submit.

An agent won’t take on a project that he or she can’t sell to a publisher, so it’s your job, in submitting, to help the agent see how your book is sellable.

Rule five: be patient and manage your expectations

Publishing is a slow, slow business. Decisions aren’t made quickly; everyone experiences a lot of rejection; sometimes people write fantastic books that aren’t right for the market at the time (because, yes, the market does matter, annoying as it is) and their books prove to be unsellable.

Even if you do get a book deal, it is unlikely to be for the kind of money that will mean you can retire to the French Riviera with your typewriter – these days, most advances are very small indeed (mine included, which is why I have a secret, unglamorous copywriting job).

There are few things more satisfying than holding a book in your hands that you wrote yourself, but it is unlikely to set you up for life.

This article first appeared on Jean’s personal blog and was written in response to Rachel Hill’s question to several published authors on how to get a book deal.

43 Comments

  1. I agree with almost everything here – everything except the agent part.

    Don’t get me wrong, I tried my best to get one, I really did! But in the end fortune (and Twitter) led me directly to my publisher and I’ve never looked back. I did panic when I found myself with a contract and no legal knowledge, but the Society of Authors and a couple of friends who used to work in Rights helped me out and I’m thrilled with the deal I got.

    I might well need one in the future, but am happy to have my first deal without an agent.

    • Ivan Escalante

      How has it been since getting your deal? And do you get a high percentage of the sales?
      (If I can ask)

      • Hi Ivan. This is quite an old post so it’s unlikely Emma will pick up on your comment and respond. However, I have since got my own book deal since then and can tell you that so far, so good. I don’t get a high percentage of sales, but that’s normal for traditional publishing route, what with the publisher getting the book in shops ans suchlike, they tend to keep the lion’s share. Hope that’s useful.

  2. Good post, with lots of sense, but I also agree with Emma’s comment. I actually do have an agent and am absolutely delighted that i do, and I also believe that agents in general are very very useful things to have. HOWEVER, I see so many types of writers who for many reasons are unlikely to get an agent, and a few who will manage perfectly well without. Emma’s most important point is that the Soc of Authors (UK) is fantabulous for unagented authors, because they do a free contract vetting-service, which is easily worth the membership fee without anything else.

  3. Er – btw, i didn’t ask that link to my last blog post to be included in that comment! Is that an automatic thing?? I would not do that unless it was 100% relevant to your post and if I thought you’d welcome it. It’s probably going to happen again now…..

    • @Nicola The link to your post is automatic and is meant as a little thank you to people for getting involved in the conversation and to lead others to good content. I think you can choose not to have it appear (I’ll check), but I absolutely welcome it, so don’t worry.

  4. Thanks for this guest post – wise words.

    I’m a far better writer now that I know more about how publishing works (thanks Nicola, above, and many others). I am also thrilled to have an agent; she’s encouraging and is very hands-on, which I appreciate. I need that added comfort of knowing someone believes in my work. I know other writers who haven’t needed one, but it works for me.

    May we all write things that are extraordinary. :)

  5. Although I’ve had short stories, articles and business documents published, this is my first year as a serious writer. By serious I mean I am determined to finish my book and be published. Whatever that takes I’ll do.

    Posts like this one water my enthusiasm. I’m finding companionship through twitter leading me to supportive websites. This has been an unexpected bonus for someone who thought she’d better tweet just in case.

    I’m at the point of researching agents. I’ve had interest in a first chapter from an independent joint publishing house. Not sure whether that is the way to go and depends on how much of the financial risk they want me to take. Any advice for me?

    Now I’ve found this site, I’ll be a regular visitor.

  6. Jean (Author)

    Hello all,

    Thanks for your comments, and for reading.

    Penelope – re joint independent publishing houses – fine to do if your first priority is producing an actual physical book (which can be very satisfying!), but only if you are happy to accept that you will not make any money from publication.

    Publishers (at least in trade publishing) who are confident in their ability to publish/market books do not charge writers money to have their books published. Notable that the same goes for agents – an agent who asks for money up front for them to represent your book is not a genuine agent

    JHE

  7. The only thing I’d add, and this perhaps falls between writing something extraordinary and researching the industry, is studying the craft. Really studying. Reading books (and taking them apart to figure out what made them work and sell), how to books, attending classes, talking to other authors, asking questions, and reading blogs like this one…it will go a long, long way toward writing that extraordinary book. Even if you break the “rules”, you’ll still know what they are and be more confident in your choices as a writer. At least that’s what I’ve found to be true for myself.

  8. This is great no nonsense advice for someone like me who is just starting out (the comments as much as the original article!). My previous experience is limited to having short stories published in magazines and writing theatre reviews – both requiring minimal input from myself beyond the obvious. The world of agents/publishers is thus far a mystery to me.

    I’ve bookmarked this site and will be back…

  9. An uncommonly clear overview. Rule 1 is the tough one – and we all should stop at that point if we don’t truly feel we have written something extraordinary.

  10. Jean,

    Such cool stuff! You are indeed a treasure.

    I do have a question: I know that I have to write something extraordinary to get noticed. I can deal with that. However, I work in a Library and I tend to read a lot. I have come across so many books that were poorly edited, or had flat characters, or outrageously poor story lines. How do these slip through the cracks? It seems the climate is so tight, these never should have seen the light of day. How does that happen?

    Thanks again!

    Cheers

    George

    • @George Just to add to what Jean has said there George, I often think (and I’m talking generally here) us writers spend way too much time looking over the garden fence. Pick any of the arts – music, film, literature, whatever – every one of them has its unfathomable dross and frankly, that will always be the case.

      What we writers need to do is not get upset at all the rubbish, but work even harder at our own writing. Be motivated by it, not frustrated. It’s tough, but definitely the only way to go.

  11. George,

    Hm, good question. Obviously quality is a relative concept – for example, I do not enjoy reading science fiction or religious romance and thus rejected any of it that crossed my desk when I worked at the agency (which is why doing research on what people like is a good idea). So there will always be books published that seem to be a bit crap to you or anyone else – because they filled a particular gap in the market, because they appealed to an editor in the way that they did not appeal to you, whatever. But the odds of getting published that way – of slipping through the cracks, as you put it – are certainly far less good than if you succeed to write something extraordinary.

    Think of it like a race with competitors who you’ve never run against before: you could win if you didn’t run your fastest, if they all turn out to be slow, or they slip, but it’s unlikely, so you might as well give it 100%.

    Best,
    Jean

  12. great advice

    I’m forwarding this post to other aspiring writers

  13. Jean,

    Your post was a wonderful, condensed version of important things writers must know. It’s nice to see them written so succinctly and in an easy to understand way.

    Too often we don’t understand what writing entails and give up long before we are truly ready to succeed.

    Thanks for sharing.

  14. Thanks for this straightforward, condensed, very helpful advice. I’ll definitely be checking back in with this article often to see if I am following the steps to publish my novel correctly.

    Do you have any suggestions for finding a literary agent in the U.S.?

    • @Ollin Hello there and thanks for your kind words. I’m afraid I don’t know much about getting a literary agent in the US, other than that the principles outlined in this post are still applicable. Perhaps one of our US readers can help out….?

  15. A fantastic and very helpful post – and with the humor thrown in, a pleasure to read. When you have a book winging it’s way around publishers and agents and you’re feeling a little despondent, a post like this helps you keep going.

  16. Pickles0110

    Hi wonderd if any one can help i have been offerd a deal by a ghost writer who wants to write my life story they say they would want all the advance and that i should not exspect more than my profile to be raised is this correct?

    • I don’t know the ins and outs of this enough to give you advice, but it sounds like something you should certainly get checked before you even think about signing up for anything. Perhaps put the question out on Twitter, something like that?

    • I don’t know the ins and outs of this enough to give you advice, but it sounds like something you should certainly get checked before you even think about signing up for anything. Perhaps put the question out on Twitter, something like that?

  17. IvelLleb

    Some good points, But remember not everybody has to conform to these rules and so on, so if you follow them all and don’t suceed do not give up, yes research your market, however if you find yourself thinking its not working, get the pen and paper out ( or the pc/laptop ) and write away. Even if it doesn’t turn out well at least you will be learning.

    • This is true, even if you do follow these rules there are never, ever any guarantees in publishing. You’ve just got to keep writing with patience and persistence.

  18. Steff

    Fantastic tips. Thanks very much.
    Just wanted to know if there are any specific UK literary agents that specialize particularly in childrens/ teens fantasy books?

  19. Raven Williams

    I know this is an old thread, but I’m hoping someone in the discussion can help! I have written a peice that I’d like to get publish. I haven’t begun sending it out because I’m fearful of getting my idea stolen. I’m SO confident in the story’s basic premise, and I’m afraid that someone with experience will take the idea and run with it. Is it common to take your unpublished work to an attorney to get a copywright? Or to have something done to protect the idea, before sending it out?

    Also – I’m overwhelmed with companies calling, saying that can help me get this published for a fee upfront. I assume this is not the way to go?

    Thanks for anyone’s help out there!

    • Hi Raven. It would be very unusual for someone to literally steal your idea and nick off with your book, and it’s not common to see an attorney or anything like that. I’m not an expert in copyright, but my overall advice would be to not panic, think positively about it, and look at you options. Do some research and send it to reputable agents. There’s no way they will steal your work. And I don’t know who’s calling you, but that sounds rather odd and you should absolutely not pay any fee up front (or at all, actually) to get it published. Hope that helps.

  20. I like this post a lot – both inspiring and realistic…
    I mentioned it on my blog : http://percychatteybooks.wordpress.com/

  21. Jonathan davies

    Im writing a book at the moment, and i’ve always thought that publishers would be what i call “ageists”. which means that people think that kids and young teenagers are useless and wouldn’t be able to write a book. Like, ive always thought that if an adult wrote the exact same words as me, the publisher would publish the book. But if it was me ( a 14 year old) the publisher would most likely reject the book, unless it’s really good.
    would this true?

  22. Pearl

    I am signing with a major agent who wants me to use one of their (well known) authors to finish my book. Is this common and will my story remain in my control?

    • I’ve never heard of that before. Make sure you read your contract very, very carefully. And please, please, don’t agree to anything that you’re not comfortable with.

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