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WHAT’S THE SECRET TO WRITING A BOOK?
If I knew, I’d tell you. Seriously. I’ve written four novels, each one harder than the next. Nope, for many of us, this doesn’t get any easier. I wish someone had told me sooner, too.
That said, there are a few core practices and attributes which I relied on as I wrote those books.
1. READ, READ, READ. Read and study many books in the genre in which you’re writing—and plenty outside of it. Re-read what you love over and over again. (Those authors are your teachers.) With them all, take notes, draw diagrams of the structures, and find those sentences that hold secrets in the balance.
2. DISCIPLINE. This is the butt-in-the-chair, eyes-on-the-page, mind-focused effort you’ll have to make on a regular basis. Some people say that a writer MUST write every day. That’s not true. Well, that might be true for you, but it’s not for everyone. It’s also not true you have to be writing to be writing. If you’re researching your next project or trying to figure out how to structure it, that’s work. That requires discipline. And often, it’s helpful to have a schedule. Maybe you’ll work every day. Maybe three early mornings a week. Maybe two late weeknights and half of your Sunday. You have to figure out what works for you, and that might take a few years to discover. My process is to do lots of research, thinking, and notetaking (this takes years, by the way) and then, when I’m ready to write, I tend to scribble away three to five days in a row, six to twelve hours a day, for weeks or months at a time.
3. PERSEVERANCE. Discipline’s sibling. Oxforddictionaries.com defines it as “steadfastness in doing something despite difficulty or delay in achieving success.” There will be times you want to quit, no matter how little or how much you’ve worked on a project. You might be at the point where you’re submitting your work and you dread looking at your inbox because of the rejections that continue to appear. I don’t advocate forcing yourself to work—sometimes, you really do need a break to rest or to gain clarity—but the writing won’t get done unless you commit to it, even in the hardest, darkest times. Of the writers I know, the ones who’ve published are those who’ve mastered their own version of perseverance.
4. SACRIFICE. If you’re going to write, you will have to give something up—watching a lot of TV, social media, reading, hanging out with friends, making excuses, etc. This doesn’t have to feel like torture or punishment. Consider what you’re gaining by dedicating yourself to your work. Eventually, you will find a balance between your favorite activities, or distractions, and your writing. The people in your life—if they truly love and support you—will learn to adjust to those hours you squirrel away.
ARE THERE ANY BOOKS YOU'D RECOMMEND TO HELP WRITERS?
There’s only one book I recommend constantly, and that’s If You Want to Write by Brenda Ueland. It’s the only book for aspiring writers that ever made sense to me. There are no directives to write every day, no exercises in character development or dialogue, and no promises to make you a bestselling author. Instead, it gives practical guidance to finding your true voice as a writer. In a lot of ways, it’s really a guide about life.
Below is a list of books to get you started. Some I’ve read and some were suggested by fellow writers. Next time you’re in your local library or a favorite bookstore, take a few moments to browse the shelves. A title might jump right out at you.
• If You Want to Write: A Book about Art, Independence and Spirit by Brenda Ueland
• The Art of Slow Writing: Reflections on Time, Craft, and Creativity by Louise DeSalvo
• On Writing by Stephen King
• Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott
• Story by Robert McKee
• Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft by Janet Burroway
• The Writers Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers by Christopher Vogler
• The Heroine’s Journey by Maureen Murdock (Not a writing book, but if you read Vogler, this is necessary for another perspective. He recommends it, too.)
• Writing on Both Sides of the Brain: Breakthrough Techniques for People Who Write by Henriette Anne Klauser
• Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace (Sixth Edition) by Joseph M. Williams (If you want to work on your prose, do the exercises. Your writing will change for the better.)
I WANT SOMEONE TO READ MY WORK. WHO SHOULD I GET TO DO THIS?
A point of etiquette to mention first. Do not email a published writer and ask if they will read your manuscript, no matter how much you love that author’s work or think your book is like theirs. If you’ve met at a writers’ conference and sat across from each other during a critique or hit it off during a conversation, maybe… Rarely will a published writer offer unprompted to read a few pages of your work, but if they do, take that writer up on it.
Obviously, you should get someone to read your work, if only to check for technical errors. It helps to have a good critical reader (or two, or five, or more)—not someone who’s going to say “Oh, I liked the part when . . .” or “This was so nice.” You want someone who’s going to be tough and tell you if a character isn’t consistent or if a chapter needs a major overhaul. If you’re part of a writing group, ask for their feedback. If you have friends who like to read, see if any of them would be willing to take a close look.
Whether your book is fiction or nonfiction, you have the option of hiring a professional to help.
Writing coaches assist those who (a) want to write but don’t know how to get started, (b) are in the early stage of a project and aren’t sure what to do next, or (c) have written a good bit but need guidance and encouragement to keep going. In many cases, a writing coach will help you set goals, keep in touch as you work toward them, and read pages.
Developmental editors provide a range of services, but not every developmental editor does the same thing.
• If you haven’t finished your book yet, there are editors who’ll read what you have so far and work with you to complete it.
• If you have a finished book, and you need an opinion about it, most editors give manuscript critiques, which will point out your book’s strengths and challenges and usually include suggestions for improvement. Typically, you’ll have one conversation or email exchange with the editor.
• If you have a finished book and want to work with someone on the revision, most editors will do this. Depending on what you need, you and the editor might work together for weeks or months. After reading and critiquing your manuscript, the editor will serve as a consultant, listening to your ideas and helping you made decisions about your book. You’ll have to work out with the editor whether they will read your revised pages.
If you decide to hire a coach or editor, do your homework. The editor’s credentials and experience matter. Testimonials and references are important. A reputable editor will ask to see your manuscript’s first pages, without charge, to gauge whether the project is a match for her/him. You should have at least one phone conversation or an exchange of emails to determine whether you’d work well together. Not every editor requires a formal contract, but you should get in writing the terms of the engagement and the fees involved. And regarding fees, you’ll see editors charge by the word, page, hour, and project. A general range for a 75,000 word manuscript critique is $1,000–$2,000, but that depends on how thorough the editor is as well as their experience.
By the way, if you’re going the traditional publishing route, agents expect to see highly polished work, and few will help you do the last spit shines to get it ready to send out to publishers.
If you’re planning to self-publish, you still want to produce the best book you can. If you have friends who can help make that happen, outstanding. But if you need extra help, it’s out there.
(I offer editing services. To learn more, visit http://www.ronlyndomingue.com/editingservices.)
I DON'T HAVE A BOOK YET, BUT I DO HAVE SOME SHORT STORIES / POETRY / ESSAYS. WHAT SHOULD I DO?
There's a saying that in order to get published, you have to BE published. In other words, it might help if your short work has appeared in literary journals and magazines. Someone else has taken an interest in your writing, so maybe that will encourage someone else to do the same. There are hundreds of online and print journals. It will take some research to find the journals best suited to your work.
However, don’t torment yourself too much about this detail. I didn’t have any publishing credits before I sent out my first novel and got my book deal. Things worked out okay.
SHOULD I GET A MASTER OF FINE ARTS DEGREE (MFA) IN CREATIVE WRITING?
This isn’t a simple yes/no question.
If you choose that option, you have to be entirely clear on what you hope to gain from the experience. In my case, I pursued one because I wanted to spend three years in the company of other writers and professionals from whom I could learn. I wanted the pressure of grades to force me to produce work. I wanted the credentials to teach at the college level, if I so chose. My ultimate goal was to leave a far better writer than I was when I went in. I honestly don’t think I would have progressed as quickly if I hadn’t attended graduate school.
Going to a two- or three-year program won’t be an option for most people because of the time and cost involved, but a low-residency program might be a good fit. If you do want to enter a writing program, the Association of Writers and Writing Programs website offers several resources to start looking.
That said, many wonderful writers have never stepped their toes into any kind of workshop or graduate program. That will continue to be the case.
You DO NOT have to get an MFA to be a writer, but you do actually have to write to be one.
MY BOOK IS DONE. WHAT’S NEXT? DO I GET AN AGENT AND GO THE TRADITIONAL ROUTE…OR DO I PUBLISH WITH A SMALL PRESS….OR DO I SELF PUBLISH?
Before I get into the subject of finding an agent, you need to consider whether you want to go through the effort to get one. If being published by a Big Five house or well-recognized independent publisher is NOT a goal, then many small presses or self-publishing (sometimes also known as independent publishing) is open to you. You don’t need an agent for that.
Jane Friedman is an industry expert and often has guest writers on her blog who offer terrific advice. In this article, Jane explains the different types of publishing—from traditional (Big Five) to alternatives. https://www.janefriedman.com/key-book-publishing-path/. In this one, she gives an overview on HOW to get published. https://www.janefriedman.com/START-HERE-HOW-TO-GET-YOUR-BOOK-PUBLISHED/.
A good article weighing the pros and cons between traditional and self-publishing— http://robbgrindstaff.com/2012/12/should-i-hire-an-agent-or-self-publish/
An article about mistakes to avoid if you self publish—https://www.janefriedman.com/13-most-common-self-publishing-mistakes-to-avoid/
Thanks to Tomi L. Wiley for sharing the following list of resources.
Association of Independent Authors—http://www.independent-authors.com/
World Lit Café—http://www.worldliterarycafe.com/
Self-Published Authors Helping Other Authors—http://selfpubauthors.com/
Articles on Self-Publishing (various topics)—http://www.huffingtonpost.com/news/self-publishing
Write to Done—http://writetodone.com/
Bad Redhead Media—http://badredheadmedia.com/
Digital Book World—http://www.digitalbookworld.com/
WHAT IS THE “BIG FIVE,” BY THE WAY?
Once upon a time, but really about a century ago, there were dozens of publishers throughout the United States. In time, these companies began to acquire each other. As of 2018, there are now five major publishers—Hachette Book Group, HarperCollins, Macmillan Publishers, Penguin Random House Publishers, and Simon & Schuster.
Within each publisher—also known as a house—are multiple imprints, and these imprints have specific interests. For example, Simon & Schuster’s Howard imprint focuses on faith-based fiction and nonfiction, Emily Bestler Books publishes thrillers, and Threshold focuses on conservative/right-wing politics.
THIS IS A GOOD ARTICLE ABOUT GETTING A BOOK TRADITIONALLY PUBLISHED—FROM SIGNING WITH AN AGENT TO THE BOOK’S RELEASE. https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/features/how-to-get-a-book-published-novel-publishing-industry-literary-agents-ny-a8938486.html
WHAT IS AN AGENT? (WHAT IS A LITERARY AGENT?)
She (or he, or they) is the person who will get your book into the hands of editors, negotiate your deal, and handle any business matters which arise. An agent is your advocate and business manager. All monies that you earn will go from your publisher to your agent’s account, then a check will be cut to you.
Your agent will take a portion of your advances, royalties, and bonuses—typically 15%, but possibly up to 25% if your book was sold for a movie option or sold to other countries.
A good agent looks out for your best interest. The business end of, well, this business is complicated. It’s important to have someone who understands the jargon, pitfalls, and legalities.
I WANT TO BE PUBLISHED BY ONE OF THE BIG FIVE. DO I REALLY HAVE TO HAVE AN AGENT?
Yes, if you want to sell a novel or any other book-length work to a major publishing house. Long gone are the days when you could send a manuscript directly to an editor. In general, an agent is necessary to get an editor to consider a submission.
Yes, I know, there are still tales of writers who got their books read by editors without having agents. Those are RARE instances, often based on direct, personal connections.
I THINK A UNIVERSITY PRESS OR A SMALL PRESS WOULD BE A BETTER FIT FOR MY BOOK. DO I STILL NEED AN AGENT?
Some university and small presses are far more likely to consider work that isn’t represented by an agent. An agent could possibly help in these situations, but often one isn’t required. You will bear the responsibility of researching these smaller houses to determine which would be the best fit for your work. You will also be on your own to negotiate your contract and all other business related to your book’s release.
One more note, if you choose not to get an agent: Please consider hiring an attorney to review your contract before you sign it. You will want to find someone experienced in dealing with LITERARY contracts. In some cases, you might be able to find a person to help in the book deal negotiations.
HOW DID YOU GET YOUR AGENT?
Divine intervention, mostly.
I did the things we’re told to do—meet agents at conferences, keep in touch, get referrals from other writers. When that didn’t work for me, I approached getting an agent as if it were a job. Face it: It is a job.
First, I set my criteria. I only considered agents who were members of the Association of Authors' Representatives (AAR). I wanted someone with a track record of sales to major publishing houses. And finally, which was out of my control, I wanted an agent whose faith in my novel was as intense as my own.
Second, I created a database which held the names, addresses, and pertinent information on dozens of agents. They represented writers I liked or novels similar to mine in subject matter or theme. Each was ranked based on how interested I thought they'd be in my work and on how much information I could find. Some were held pending more research; others marked "do not send" because they were allegedly disreputable.
Third, I sent out individually tailored queries and accompanying excerpts to those ranked highest in my database. In total, I submitted to 60 agents. From 50, I received outright rejections. The other ten read the manuscript.
In the end, I was pulled out of a slush pile. The first 30 pages of my novel were read by an intern who gave it to the agent who was, in turn, intrigued enough to see the whole manuscript. This was Interested Agent #10, my last resort before I had to send another round of queries. There’s a happy ending. My search stopped with Jandy, my first agent. (I have another agent now. No drama, but a long story.)
The truth is, as hard as the search and rejection were, it was worth every minute to get the amazing, brilliant, and devoted agent I had for my first novel. I totally got lucky. I cannot stress this enough.
HOW DO I KNOW WHETHER I’M GETTING A GOOD AGENT?
Do your homework.
One starting point is the Association of Authors' Representatives (AAR). Members agree to adhere to a standard of ethics, all of which are listed on the organization’s website. When you research prospective agents, you will learn about the agencies they work for, what writers they represent, and what books they’ve sold to various publishers. This information is valuable—it establishes their credibility. You will also find there are websites which list agents who are allegedly disreputable. Make notes about this.
If you find an agent who charges reading fees or expects some form of payment BEFORE your book is sold, run in the other direction. There are many other red flags to keep in mind, which are comprehensively listed on the Writer Beware page of the SFWA site. (Kudos to whoever gathered this information. Visit http://www.sfwa.org/other-resources/for-authors/writer-beware/.)
One more thing. An established agent will not necessarily be a better agent for you than one who’s new to the business. An agent who’s been around for 20 or more years will probably have a big list with celebrity-name clients, and it’s possible you won’t get that much attention. You want someone who is committed to your work, excited to represent you, and wants to get you the best deal possible. That might mean an agent who’s at mid-career or even someone who’s just starting out.
WHAT IS YOUR SPECIFIC ADVICE TO SOMEONE LOOKING FOR AN AGENT?
1. Finish your book first. Period. This will make your life much easier in the long run. Yes, I know, some writers sell novels or nonfiction books on proposal with maybe a couple of draft chapters. But if you’re going out for the first time with a book, it’s really in your best interest to have it completely done.
2. Understand that agents are ever more selective about their clients, and publishers are even more cautious about who they’ll take a chance on. This is a competitive business and only the persistent survive to get published with a traditional house.
3. Expect a wait of several weeks to several months for a reply to your query and excerpt, if you get one at all. If you haven’t received a form rejection letter or a request to read your manuscript within three months, read that as a decline—they aren’t interested. Do not resubmit to that agent again for this same book.
4. Consider the feedback you’re getting to determine whether to keep submitting.
• If you’ve had no requests to read the full manuscript after 20 or 30 submissions, it could be that you’ve haven’t targeted the agents most likely to be interested in your work, that your query letter requires a revision, or your manuscript itself needs to be revised. Possibly all of the above.
• If you’ve had requests for the full manuscript (let’s say one out of every 10 submissions) and multiple rejection letters are mentioning the similar issues in the story, you might seriously consider a revision before sending out another round of queries.
• In some cases, an agent will be willing to read your manuscript again if you seriously revise it. Sometimes, that’s simply an open invitation to get back in touch if you do that. Sometimes, an agent will offer to work with you on revisions—but give you no offer of representation up front OR no assurance that you will be signed after you’ve revised it. For that latter situation, be very careful about how you proceed. You might put in a year of work, following someone else’s suggestions that might not even feel quite right to you, and then still have no agent. Frankly, every friend I’ve had who took this option didn’t sign with the agent in the end—and they weren’t pleased with what their books became. Obviously, some writers have a better outcome. Be mindful that the excitement over having an interested agent might cloud your judgment about your work and what you want for it.
• Be prepared for the sincere, unexpected compliments you’ll get in rejection letters, as well as the soul-testing, awful comments that will make you question your existence.
5. Expect a long wait to get an agent at all. How long? Maybe a year. Maybe more. Of course, there are examples of a quick match. I have a writer friend who met her agent at a conference with no search involved while another sent out about 10 queries and got an agent within a few weeks. But, as I shared earlier in this document, I received 59 rejections before I got my agent, which took longer than a year. And I consider myself lucky.
Figuring out which agents to contact takes time and effort. These are some agent hunting tips based on my experience, and a few links. Note that each writer’s approach, resources, and experience will be different.
• Some agents have active online presences, especially on Twitter. Sometimes, they will announce that they are actively seeking books in a particular genre. Follow them to keep up with their announcements. Occasionally, some agents will participate in online pitches. (P.S. Although it’s tempting to want an agent who’s hot online, what really matters is if they is making good deals for her/his clients and has a good rapport with several editors. Look at industry sources like Publishers Weekly to see if they’re really doing their jobs.)
• What books have you read that you admire? Find out who represented those writers. (You can sometimes find agent names in books’ acknowledgements. Publishers Weekly and Publisher’s Marketplace list who made deals for whom.) When you write a query to an agent, make sure you briefly share how much you enjoyed their client’s work.
• What books currently on the market are similar to yours? Again, find out who represents those writers. Your query should reflect that you know something about the book and that you state why you think your work might be of interest to this agent.
• Check, double check, and triple check your information. Agents—especially ones who haven’t been in the business long—move around a lot. It may be necessary to Google an agent and search through multiple sites to ensure that you have correct information. Of course, if you’re lucky enough to have this person listed on a literary agency website, that’s helpful. But sometimes updates to those sites are delayed. Basically, do your homework.
• Google every agent. Find out every little detail you can about a person—what they represent, what conferences they attend, what kind of dog they have. You never know when a tiny piece of information will help you decide who’s a good potential match.
• Send an agent ONLY what they ask to see and in the format they want. If they want a query letter and 30 pages, send that. Make sure you know whether they want it via email or snail mail. Some agents even have submission guidelines about margins and font style, so do your best to see what they want. (If you cannot find information on someone’s submission requirements, a safe rule of thumb is to send ONLY your query letter, the first 20 pages of your book, and a self-addressed stamped envelope for a reply, assuming you use snail mail for this.)
• Send out your queries and excerpts in batches—10, 20, 30, whatever works for you. Try to avoid agents who require exclusivity just to see a query. Sheer numbers are in your favor.
• NEVER send out your entire manuscript unless it is specifically requested.
• If you sign with a literary agency that does NOT have a lawyer on staff, be prepared to hire your own attorney. It’s a good thing to have, no matter how good your agent is. When you see your first publishing contract, you’ll understand why.
WHAT ARE SOME GOOD WEBSITES WITH INFORMATION ABOUT AGENTS?
I used some of the ones listed here. I included others that looked promising.
One of the great industry resources. Once upon a time, you could sign up for a free trial.
Association of Authors' Representatives—http://aaronline.org/
Members of this organization agree to stick to a standard of ethics. You can search for agent names right on this site.
Some good agents have listings on this site. You’ll have to dig around a bit. In general, it stays updated pretty well. (This is the site that tipped me off that I should look more closely into the person who became my agent.) You can pay to get more access to this whole site.
Literary Market Place—http://www.literarymarketplace.com/lmp/us/index_us.asp
This site has listings of publishers, agents, trade services, and international resources. You have to sign up to use it.
This looks like an outstanding resource to search for agents and to learn about the book business in general.
Lists agents and provides you with a way to keep track of your queries.
MS Wish List—http://mswishlist.com/mswl/literary
Agents list what types of manuscripts they are currently looking for.
Top 100 Literary Agents (updated 4/21/2018)—https://literaryagencies.com/list-of-literary-agents/best-literary-agents/
About firing or ending a contract with an agent…. Sometimes, a writer will get an agent and have to fire that person before the book is ever sold. Established writers might need to part ways, too, for various reasons. Here’s an article about how to do that: https://writersrelief.com/2014/05/23/fire-literary-agent/ )
HOW DO I WRITE A QUERY LETTER? WHAT IS IT, EXACTLY?
It’s similar to a cover letter you’d write to accompany a resume. It’s a brief introduction to your work and to you as a writer. Like resume cover letters, there is a specific format that queries must follow. There are dozens of websites with tips on how to craft a good one. I found many sites by typing the words “sample query letter” in a Google search.
Here are a few articles to read about how to write one.
Agent Query— https://www.agentquery.com/writer_hq.aspx (very good article)
List of articles about query letters through Writer’s Digest— https://www.writersdigest.com/forums/topic/successful-queries
Two articles from a former literary agent
AN AGENT WANTS TO REPRESENT ME! WHAT’S THE NEXT STEP?
You’re going to enter into a contract with this person. Remember you have every right to ask questions before you sign. If you’ve done your homework, you should be confident this is someone you want to work with. At the same time, you’ll want to know more about him/her. Schedule a time to talk to the agent, and have a list of questions ready when you call.
Here are the questions I asked my prospective agent.
1. How long have you been in business as an agent?
2. Which publishers do you deal with? (****As in, with which publishers/imprints does she have connections.)
3. How long do you stay with a manuscript before giving up?
4. In the event my work isn’t placed, what next?
5. How aggressive are you in foreign sales or film sales? Do you have specialists at your agency who handle movie and television rights? Foreign rights?
6. Do you have subagents or corresponding agents in Hollywood and overseas?
7. Could you share a list of current clients? Would like to know which publishers have taken their work.
8. How available are you to clients?
· Email, phone calls, text?
· Prefer to be contacted directly or thru an assistant?
9. How many people on your staff?
10. Who in your agency will actually be handling my work?
11. Which other staff members will be familiar with my work and the status of my business at your agency?
12. How will you oversee or keep me informed of the work that your agency is doing on my behalf?
13. Do you consult with your clients on any and all offers?
14. What are your procedures and time-frames for processing and disbursing client funds?
15. Do you keep different bank accounts separating author funds from agency revenue?
16. When you issue 1099 tax forms at the end of each year, do you also furnish clients upon request with a detailed account of their financial activity, such as gross income, commissions and other deductions, and net income, for the past year?
17. In the event of your death or disability, what provisions exist for my continued representation?
18. Do you issue an agent-author agreement? May I review the language of the agency clause that appears in contracts you negotiate for your clients?
19. Why did you become an agent?
20. What makes you good at what you do?
21. Who are your favorite authors / favorite books?
22. What are your expectations of me as your client?
23. What can I do to enhance our working relationship?
24. Seen Raising Arizona and what did you think? (*****I’m not sure whether I actually asked this question, but I probably did just to judge her sense of humor.)
Also, when you talk to the agent who wants to represent you, feel free to ask for names of clients you can speak with. Keep in mind you’re hiring someone to work for YOU.
Once you sign the contract, you’re officially represented.
Next, you’ll run toward the next hurdle.
WHAT’S GOING TO HAPPEN WHEN MY AGENT STARTS TO SHOP THE MANUSCRIPT FOR A BOOK DEAL?
This is a brief explanation of what’s LIKELY to happen.
Your agent will come up with a list of editors who would be interested in your book. This is one of the reasons why having a good agent is valuable. She will have knowledge of the tastes of specific editors and publishing houses/imprints—information that takes years to accumulate.
Your agent will write a pitch letter which describes the book and might include information about you.
Some agents will contact several editors at once, calling each editor personally to pitch the work and pique their interest. Some agents might contact one or two at a time, with the pitch letter as the only introduction. Electronic copies of your manuscript will be sent to the editors.
Your agent should keep a record of all rejections (phone calls and emails) and share them with you. You should be kept posted on all developments—rejections and interest.
THIS IS IMPORTANT TO UNDERSTAND: An editor—sometimes called an acquiring editor—is the first to read the manuscript. If she likes it, she will share it with other people in the house. These readers will likely be other editors, publicists, marketers, and possibly the publisher (head of the house) himself/herself. If the rest of the team doesn’t feel strongly about the book, it will be rejected. Why? Because the decision to buy a book is both subjective (they love the work) and economic (they must think it can sell). If the team is highly enthusiastic, an offer will be made.
When you have an offer, your agent will negotiate the deal. The big point is, of course, the advance. The other details include manuscript delivery, royalties, rights, bonuses, author copies, and various legalities. Your head will swim.
Most writers will wait months before a book is picked up by a publisher. The wait could be two, three, six, even twelve months—or more. This may be a reflection of your agent’s connections or tenacity, or it could be that the timing isn’t ideal for this manuscript.
Few writers will be offered a pre-empt. That means a publisher offers a deal that entices the writer to take her book off the market and sign with them. In other words, if other houses are interested in the book, they’re out of luck if the writer accepts the pre-empt.
Rarely will a writer’s book go up for auction. That means several publishers are hot for a book, and they get into a bidding war. A writer doesn’t have to go with the highest bidder. They can choose the house that fits best with their vision for the work as well as their career.
A PUBLISHER HAS OFFERED $_______ FOR AN ADVANCE. WHAT DOES THAT MEAN?
An advance is aptly named. This money is given to an author with the hope/expectation a certain number of her books will sell.
When the author’s royalties—a percentage of each book sold—add up to the advance, the writer has “earned out.” She will then receive money from royalties from that point. (By the way, most books NEVER earn out. Please remember that when your books gets published, and don’t beat yourself up if that happens to you.)
Getting a big advance is nearly every writer’s dream. But if you receive a $150,000 advance and only sell 3,000 books, your publisher—and you, to a certain degree—are in the hole.
For a debut book, you can maybe expect an advance between $5,000 and $25,000, but even that varies by genre and many other factors. You could get $2,500 for a fantasy novel or $50,000 for a literary one, or vice versa.
Your agent will take 15% of that advance. The amount you receive will be subject to taxes. Please consult with an accountant to find out what to do in your circumstances. My accountant advised me to set aside at least one third of my earnings to cover taxes, both state and federal. Because I’ve done this, I’ve never been caught by surprise when it came time to file.
CAN YOU EXPLAIN ROYALTIES?
Royalties are a percentage of each book sold that is paid to the author. The amount is calculated on the catalog retail price of the book. If you’re self-published, this is going to be different.
Throughout the industry, royalty rates are pretty standard.
10% for the first 5,000 copies sold
12.5% up to 10,000 copies sold
Paperback Trade: 7.5% to 10%
Mass Market: 8.0% to 10%
eBook: about 25% of net proceeds received by or credited to publisher’s account
(This one is tricky, especially considering how eBook prices fluctuate and how publishers calculate what “net” is.)
If a hardcover is $22 retail, and 12,000 copies sell, the royalties will look like this:
(10.0%) 5,000 copies at $2.20 each=$11,000
(12.5%) 5,000 copies at $2.75 each=$13,750
(15.0%) 2,000 copies at $3.30 each=$6,600
Total Royalties Earned: $31,350
If a paperback is $15 retail, and 10,000 copies sell, the royalties will be:
(7.5%) 10,000 copies at $1.13=$11,300
If an eBook is $6.99 retail and 10,000 copies sell, the royalties will be:
(about 25% net proceeds) 10,000 copies @ $1.75=$17,500
Keep in mind, what’s noted here are gross royalties—not net. You’ll share a portion of your gross royalties with your agent, likely 15%. For example, if you earn $1,700 in royalties, your agent will receive $255. The rest is yours…well, sort of, because you have to pay taxes on the remainder.
Obviously, in most cases, you’ll earn your royalties through print and eBook sales, unless you’re published only with an eBook.
By the way, most authors receive lower advances for subsequent books. Here are two articles about adjusting expectations and how to handle your finances as a writer.
2. A response to the previous article: http://terribleminds.com/ramble/2019/09/17/how-to-be-a-professional-author-and-not-die-screaming-and-starving-in-a-lightless-abyss/
I HAVE A PUBLISHER WITH A CONTRACT. WHAT’S NEXT?
From the moment your book is “acquired,” meaning it goes under contract with that publisher, you will wait between 12 and 24 months before it appears in bookstores. (I’m going to break this out by quarters instead of by months. My first book came out 10 months after acquisition, and my second came out 15 months after acquisition. The stages were still the same.)
Your editor will thoroughly read your manuscript. You will receive an editorial letter which outlines your editor’s suggestions. The letter could go on for pages and pages. Phone calls and emails will fly back and forth for a while. You won’t always agree. There may be changes you refuse to make, and some that are totally reasonable. If you’re lucky, this will be a smooth, collaborative process. If you’re not so lucky, this could get uncomfortable, complete with agent intervention and yelling.
The finer points of your contract should be ironed out by now, and you’ll sign on the line.
Publicity and marketing team members will read your book and begin to come up with ideas. The publishing team will also begin to talk about cover design. Depending on the in-house excitement over your book, strategy meetings might start.
You’ll probably get the first set of page proofs to copy edit. Some writers are NOT included in this process. Talk to your editor if you want to participate.
Toward this end of this period, plain galleys might be printed. These are rough mock-ups of your book. The interior pages might look like manuscript pages, double spaced. The cover will probably have the title and your name but no art. These are used to send to key contacts in the industry and to writers who might blurb the book early. (A blurb are those kind words from another writer that appear on the book jacket or on the inside front pages.)
You might see drafts of the cover art. Unless you’re wildly famous, you have no veto power or say-so about your book jacket. You’ll possibly be asked for your opinion, and your team might consider your suggestions. Some writers don’t get to participate at all; the final book jacket just simply appears, like it or not.
Advance Reading Copies, called ARCs, will be printed on paper, and an electronic version will be made available to reviewers on sites such as NetGalley. The cover art will be on the front, the inside pages have the final design, and the back cover will include a synopsis, anticipated tour stops, and publicity/promotion plans (such as ads, interviews, etc.).
Depending on how hard your book is being pushed, copies will be sent to industry “big mouths,” long-lead magazines (e.g., Entertainment Weekly, O, People), media contacts (print, TV, and radio, on the national and local levels), and pre-publication review sources (Kirkus, Publishers Weekly, Library Journal).
Some will be sent to authors to solicit blurbs. You and your editor should work on a list of potential blurbers together, and a cover letter, written by your editor, and ARCs should go out from your house. However, be prepared that your editor might give you little or no help to get blurbs. You might be expected to ask friends to blurb and to cold contact authors you don’t know to ask for their endorsement. Old-timers like myself know that it’s poor etiquette to ask a writer to solicit other writers. This is—or was—part of an editor’s job. For a new writer, an editor’s help is crucial to potentially acquire blurbs from bestselling authors. If you are put in the position to do most or all of this work yourself, you will find that most writers are respectful and understanding.
Sales team members will give ARCs to bookstores. Again, the number that goes out depends on how hard your book is being pushed.
You will get to see final page proofs. This is your last chance to make any changes to the text of the book. Some are minor (mine have been just a few tweaks); some are substantive (I’ve heard of writers taking out huge sections). Most of the changes will be little details like punctuation and grammar.
Your publisher’s catalog for the next season will be released, which includes your title. (Once upon a time, there were three book seasons—fall, winter/spring, and summer—but that’s not really the case these days.)
The publicity and marketing teams will begin to finalize their plans for your book. A lot of changes can happen here—no matter what the back of your ARC says. If they are scheduling a book tour for you, it could end up much bigger, or smaller, than originally planned. You could end up with no advertising—or multiple ads in major newspapers.
Around this time, your publisher will finalize a decision about the print run. Some of this is based on bookstore orders. A literary novel could start with 2,000 or fewer copies in print. A book a publisher expects to be a blockbuster, usually from an author who’s already a bestseller, could have an initial print run in the six figures or beyond. (Think Harry Potter.)
Your publisher will decide if it will invest in co-op for your book. (This is less common than it used to be.) A co-op is special placement in a bookstore, most often a chain, paid for by the publisher. This includes the tables and shelves right when you walk into a store, end caps (the little shelves on the sides of bookshelves), and special cardboard displays. Few books are chosen for such positions.
Not every book gets a pre-pub review from one of the major sources, but if you do, this is the time your publisher will hear from from Kirkus, Publishers Weekly, etc.
Your book may have been nominated for honors months ago. ARCs were sent for this purpose. Toward the end of this period and within weeks after publication, you’ll find out whether your book has been selected for any honors such as Barnes & Noble’s Discover Great New Writers and IndieNext Picks.
Everything will be finalized regarding publicity and promotion, including your tour, if you have one.
WHAT SHOULD I EXPECT FOR MY BOOK’S PUBLICITY AND MARKETING?
(This is applicable to authors who are traditionally published with a major house or small press. Only some of this information will apply to self-published authors.)
For a debut writer, there is no learning curve—it’s a vertical lift. No matter how well informed you think you are from the beginning, the good and bad surprises happen along the way and will knock the wind out of you sometimes.
What you’ll read beyond this point are scraps and tidbits I’ve gathered. It’s based on my own experiences and that of fellow published writers. I hope it’s helpful to you.
To start, let’s be clear on the difference between publicity and marketing. These definitions come from M.J. Rose and Randy Susan Meyers’s article, “The Difference between Marketing and Publicity.”
Marketing is paid placement on blogs, radio, TV, newspapers, etc. These show up as ads, advertorials, promotions, blog tours, and more. With marketing, if you pay for it, it shows up. You hire a marketing company and they buy the space. The attention is guaranteed to be there.
Publicity is the opposite. You pay a publicist to pitch your book to newspapers, magazines, blogs, TV, radio interviews, and reviews. You are paying for the publicist’s effort to get you some attention. A publicist’s rate of success is determined by the quality and quantity of her connections.
(To read the entire article, visit https://janefriedman.com/difference-marketing-publicity/)
Now, a few questions for you…
What are your expectations for your book?
Is it enough for you that it’s published?
Do you care about sales numbers?
Do you care about good reviews?
How hard are you willing to work on your book’s behalf?
How much are you willing to spend financially to give it a chance?
I bring this up because there’s a reality you will have to face if you’re traditionally published. You’ll be assigned a publicist, but that person will have several other titles to promote that season. They will have a lot on their plate. The budget and certainly time will be limited. Unless you’re “it” that season—the imprint’s “lead title”—or already a bestselling author for the house, chances are very little will be done on your book’s behalf.
How do you know if you’re “it?” If you’ve been told outright your book is the lead title. If your house plans to send you on a book tour to several cities either in the region where you live or across the nation. If there are plans for major ad placements in print newspapers and magazines as well as on high-traffic websites, blogs, and online book retailers. If there are plans to schedule national radio interviews. If you’re actually getting interviews in major online or print publications BEFORE the book comes out. Things like this.
If you’re not “it,” that doesn’t mean there will be no effort made by your house. Your publicist will at least send out advance reading copies (ARCs) to try to get reviews and to spread the word in the industry as well as pull together a press release that will be blasted to hundreds of media outlets. It’s only fair to tell you, however, that the lead titles from all the various imprints are going to get the vast majority of coverage.
Before I get into actions you can take on your own to publicize and promote your book, I want to address the option of hiring your own publicity and/or marketing team. Keep in mind that even bestselling authors hire their own teams to supplement what their publishers do. This is an option open to everyone, regardless of where they are in their careers.
If you hire a publicist yourself, that person/firm will have a limited number of authors to manage. These firms require you to sign a contract with them four to six months in advance of your book’s publication date. Some firms will work by the hour (usually with a minimum number of hours to start), but most firms have a set contract. Depending on the firm and what you want, this could cost from $1,500 to $20,000 or more.
You could choose a publicity firm which sticks with the traditional way of doing things—reviews and interviews through print, radio, and TV. Some publicists specialize in radio campaigns, booking several interviews (10–20, depending) in a couple of days to blitz the airwaves in key markets. Another option is web publicity, an approach targeting blogs, review sites, and other online venues to promote a book.
You should hire a firm with proven experience and a network of contacts. Ask writer friends, your agent, and your editor for referrals. There are good, reputable firms out there, and you want to make sure you get one. It makes a difference if the staff has worked specifically in and/or in support of the book industry. Also, many firms have specialties, so if you wrote a thriller, you wouldn’t want to work with a firm that mainly does young adult fiction.
It is a complete crap shoot when you hire publicists and marketers. They cannot guarantee you’re going to get any attention at all, and if you do, they can’t promise it will be favorable. You might spend $5,000, $10,000, $20,000 and have no way to determine whether that made a difference in your book sales.
Also, if your publisher isn’t putting a lot of effort into publicity and marketing, whatever you do on your own probably isn’t going to have much bang for its buck. Typically, a book gets attention if it’s appearing in multiple, high-profile places, such as a review in the New York Times AND a mention in People Magazine AND a review on the hottest literary website AND… you get the picture.
That’s not to say you shouldn’t hire out. Some writers take a long view and consider whatever they spend on publicity and/or marketing as an investment in their career as a whole, working to build name (or “brand”) recognition.
Personally, I’ve hired out for three of my four books. It might have helped one, it definitely helped another, and it did little or nothing for the last one. Given the circumstances of those books, with hindsight being 20/20, I probably wouldn’t have spent the thousands I did.
WHAT CAN I DO ON MY OWN FOR PUBLICITY AND PROMOTION?
First, get your hands on these two books.
What to Do Before Your Book Launch by M.J. Rose and Randy Susan Meyers
Online Marketing for Busy Authors: A Step-by-Step Guide by Fauzia Burke (more appropriate for nonfiction writers, but there are some helpful tips for fiction folks)
Both books are practical guides to get you organized months before your book’s release. It’s going to have much better information than I offer here.
Regardless of whether you decide to rely solely on your in-house publicist or hire additional support, you can do plenty on your own. Publicists are typically willing to help you be successful with things you do yourself, so ask their guidance and suggestions.
HAVE BUSINESS CARDS OR POSTCARDS ON HAND. Get some business cards made that are specific for your writing life. Many writers get some printed with their book jackets on one side and their contact information on the other. Or, you can have postcards made with the same information, adding a blurb or review quote. This way, if you’re in conversation with someone, you can whip one out and hand it to the person with whom you’re chatting.
SOCIAL MEDIA. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc. are all tools to help you promote yourself as a writer. Each person is going to have his or her own “style” online, and it may take a while for you to figure out what yours is. Take a look at the Facebook pages and Twitter feeds of other authors to see what they do.
MAINTAIN A CLEAN DATABASE OF EMAIL ADDRESSES. If you haven't published yet, keep a good list of email addresses and possibly snail mail ones of EVERYONE. As a debut author, you should send an announcement about your book to every single person you’ve ever had contact with. (I guarantee you’ll be surprised who’s excited for you.) After that, though, establish a mailing list which people have to subscribe to. Invite all those people you contacted when your book came out, and from then on, send author-related newsletters and emails ONLY to those people who signed up for your list. This will keep your list in good standing with whatever service you choose, like Mail Chimp, Tiny Letter, or Constant Contact. To keep your list clean, consider sending out a monthly newsletter or something else a few times a year.
GET A WEBSITE. This can be as basic as a website which has information about your book(s) and how to get in touch with you. One trend in author websites is to have “content-based” sites. Basically, that means a visitor will go to your site and see your blog or some other regularly-updated information. The intent is to get more, as well as return, traffic to your site.
KEEP A BLOG. You can make this a part of the aforementioned content-based website or something that stands alone. Many writers have a blog long before they get published, and this serves as a good way to announce you have a book coming out. Whether you start one before or after you get published, a blog serves as an ongoing way to connect with readers who like your work. Another option is to collaborate on a blog with colleagues. That takes some of the pressure off of having to come up with new content all the time.
NETWORK WITH OTHER WRITERS. Social media makes this easy. Before, you had to meet fellow writers in school or at conferences—which are still good ways to connect. Anyway, it’s a good idea to follow other writers online, comment on their posts, share their posts, and congratulate them when something special happens. And of course, it’s considered good form to share announcements their new books. Those writers with blogs will sometimes guest blog for one another or allow space for “blog tours” when a colleague has a new book out.
And whether you believe it or not, fellow writers are your allies. It behooves us to support one another and tell our readers about our colleagues’ work. I often make the joke that writers are lucky because we’re not subject to brand loyalty—it’s not Coke over Pepsi—readers can enjoy us all, any time.
SCHEDULE A BOOK TOUR (MAYBE). At a minimum, it makes sense to have a “book launch” for your new book in the city where you live and to schedule events in places where you know friends and family will show up. Your in-house publicist will likely be glad to help you schedule these events, although you should be prepared that person might not do anything at all to contact local media to publicize them.
There’s a lot of debate about whether a book tour makes any difference. If your publisher isn’t going to pay for your travel, you will have to cover the expense yourself. Assuming you go to several cities and secure media (reviews, listings of the events, maybe a radio interview), you’re at least getting exposure for your book. If you’re not a well-known author and you’re going to places where you don’t have friends and family, you should expect to see very few people at these events. Sometimes no one at all, unless you count the bookstore staff. In my personal experience, independent bookstores are thrilled to host authors and don’t seem that upset when the turnout is low. And the staff at these stores tend to be incredibly nice and supportive and remember which authors were nice to them in return.
Some cities have more than one bookstore. If you have an event at one store, it’s totally okay to visit the other stores to “sign stock”—which means you autograph copies they have on the shelves. Also, if you’re driving from one city to the next, consider stopping at any bookstores which are along your route.
I’ll hammer this point again—if you decide to tour, make an effort to get local media coverage at each stop. Sometimes, bookstores are good about getting the event on community calendars, but few, if any, will try to get reviews or radio interviews. You could ask your in-house publicist for a list of contacts and do it yourself. If you’re going to hire a firm to do publicity and you want help with scheduling and promoting a tour, be sure to find out upfront if they’ll do that for you.
VISIT LIBRARIES AND SCHOOLS. No matter what kind of book you wrote, your local library would probably be willing to host you for a reading. Some libraries will sell copies to benefit the organization, and others will expect you to provide your own books to sell (you’ll likely keep all the profits). It will be up to you to contact the library to see if they’re interested.
As for a school visit, that can happen because a teacher invites you to speak or you have some contact at a school which would be open to your visit. Typically, these talks are general—about what it’s like to be a writer, what your process is, what it takes to get published. Sometimes, you might get a chance to talk to a class which has read your work.
MEET WITH BOOK CLUBS. Send out an email to all of your friends in the city where you live and ask them to recommend your book to local book clubs. You can also check with your local library and bookstore(s) to see if they know of any you could contact and/or that you’d be glad if they’d refer clubs to you. Typically, the clubs meet at night at someone’s house where there’s food and beverages. Usually, the majority of group enjoyed your book; rarely will anyone trash your book to your face. Another option is to visit with book clubs at a distance either by phone or Skype. Mention you’re willing to do that on the “contact” page of your website.
APPEAR AT A BOOK FESTIVAL. Most states host annual book festivals which feature not only writers from that state but also others from across the country and world. Often, the writer has to pay for her own travel and expenses to attend; a publisher won’t usually spend the money. When you get on the festival’s schedule and correspond with the director or coordinator, ask to sit with a panel of other authors. If you’re not well known, you will have very few attendees at an individual session—a panel gives you a better shot at a wider audience. Chances are, you won’t sell many books at the festival, but this is an excellent way to meet other writers and make connections.
FIGURE OUT YOUR NICHE. What’s special about your book? What audiences do you think would be interested, ones your publisher might not have targeted? You could spend some time and effort figuring out how to connect with specific potential readers. For example, my second novel, The Mapmaker’s War, deals with issues of gender and power, and it’s a perfect text for women’s and gender studies classes. It also has many connections to Jungian psychology. My outreach has involved faculty in WGS curricula and Jungian societies across the country. In your case, be creative about your connections.
ANY OTHER INFORMATION YOU HAVE TO SHARE?
The following I can’t document, but this is what I’ve picked up through hearsay.
Pre-orders are THE THING now. Once, it was essential to push sales within the first six weeks (see the next tidbit), but now, it’s about getting people to purchase your book online weeks before it’s released. The implication—if it’s not a bestseller before it even comes out, you’re starting from behind.
Only 10 or 15 years ago, a book had six weeks to take off. That began the day it was released. If your book wasn’t climbing a bestseller’s list within those 42 days, there were two options left. Possibly, it could be one of those sleepers, a book which gets attention slowly through word of mouth. More likely, it would quickly fade from everyone’s attention. There was always hope for the paperback edition, assuming you were published in hardcover first. However, the six-week rule applied then, too.
Another time issue is related to when a book rolls into remainder. Typically, a year passes between a book’s hardcover and paperback releases. (Some books have a shorter span than that.) By the time your paperback is out, your hardcover will likely be in remainder. If you had a paperback original, or if you only have a hardcover, your book will likely go into remainder after about a year as well. This means that any extra stock that a bookstore has not returned to the publisher is sold to customers at a highly reduced cost—60% or less than the retail price. What you should know as a writer is that you will earn anywhere from mere pennies to nothing on these books that are sold.
For those who still go to physical stores, the first 80 feet in a big-box bookstore are the most important. A man who worked in sales for a major publisher for 40 years told me this. What’s with those 80 feet? It’s the magic zone where all the new releases vie for your attention. (Remember the mention of co-ops?) Any books past that point, he said, are basically forgotten. An occasional browser will venture beyond this zone, and generally, that reader has a specific title in mind.
If you hope to have a long career as a traditionally published writer, this article is not a comfortable read, but it is insightful. https://www.janefriedman.com/establish-long-term-writing-career-insight-from-two-literary-agents
TIDBITS OF INTEREST
Lists and databases of literary magazines and journals
Poets & Writers Magazine—http://www.pw.org/literary_magazines
American Booksellers Association—http://www.bookweb.org/
Association of Writers and Writing Programs—https://www.awpwriter.org/
Writing Advice by Lawrence Watt Evans (I found this very informative.)—http://www.watt-evans.com/writingadvice.html
Jamie Chavez—Writing Tips and Articles—http://www.jamiechavez.com/for-writers.php
This Itch of Writing—http://emmadarwin.typepad.com/thisitchofwriting/resources.html
Chuck Wendig (great advice with rude language, worth the read)— http://terribleminds.com/ramble/2017/05/16/a-hot-steaming-sack-of-business-advice-for-writers/