Winning a book deal is every writer’s dream, but it can be a nightmare. The book world is complex with many layers.
The manuscript & book outline
First, you need a book or book outline. For fiction books, the agent or publisher wants a manuscript not an idea. For non-fiction books, they want at least a detailed outline of each chapter and the book’s purpose.
The book proposal
Second, you need a book proposal. These can take many forms, but the key information is the target audience and other similar books.
Publishers want to know the book will sell when it hits the bookstore shelves. Publishers need to make money or go bankrupt. A publisher will not pick up a book with a small audience.
Third, you need an agent (most of the time). Some smaller presses don’t need an agent; it’s one more person to share the profits.
Agents receive hundreds of proposals per month. You need to make your proposal stand out. But, always follow the agent’s directions on what they want in the proposal. The proposal isn’t where you get creative. Be creative in your fiction book, not in the proposal.
A lucky four-leaf clover
Fourth, you need luck. Sorry, it’s a fact. There are many Stephen King’s out there never published. It’s how it goes.
You hope that the person who reads your proposal is having a good day and open to your type of book. Remember that books are subjective. The agent might only represent five thriller books each year. They would represent your book but might have signed other writers with a similar book.
Daniel Mendelsohn (New York Review of Books) hated Alice Sebold’s novel “The Lovely Bones” but it flew off the shelves faster than they could print them. Daniel is considered one of the best literary fiction book reviewers on the planet. So don’t be surprised if one agent hates your book and another loves it! Reading is subjective not objective.
My book experience
Now I will tell you about my experience in hopes you can glean some value. A friend and I conceived of a book idea. We thought of a concept and what we wanted the book to look like.
My friend is a university professor and publishing another academic book. He mentioned our book to his editor who loved the idea. As luck would have it (like I said luck is important), he was going into an editor meeting and asked if he could mention our idea. We agreed, what harm could it do? We had no proposal and hadn’t even started writing it.
The editors loved it and we had nothing but an idea. My friend’s editor asked if we could have a book proposal, the first 20 pages, and an agent for Monday. This was Thursday afternoon. My friend said no problem.
Panic mode set in!
Finding an agent
The first thing I thought of was a friend who had a book coming out in a few months. So, I called and sent him an email. Unfortunately, he enjoys going camping with his family and his cell turned off until late Sunday evening when he came back to the real world. I knew who his agent was, so I still contacted his agent. His agent was on vacation. Help!
I did super-fast agent research and narrowed it down to ten agents to contact. I called all ten agencies to find out how to submit and the urgency of a Monday deadline. All ten agencies showed interest and sent how they wanted the proposal.
The crazy weekend
My friend started writing the first twenty pages and an outline. I did the proposals. I sent the proposals with a cover letter saying we needed an agent by Monday. Also, I called to make sure they received the proposals.
Four agents responded on Friday. We set up four phone calls that weekend.
All four agents were helpful and knowledgeable about what we needed to do next. Funny side story, one agent on his private island had bad cell service and disconnected. Twenty minutes later, we received a call back from him. He took his boat over to the mainland where he got better cell reception. We knew he was extremely interested!
After listening to each agent, my friend and I narrowed it down to three agents. The one agent we didn’t consider had a book like ours that she represented. We were not confident she could sell two similar books at the same time. Sterling Lord Literistic, well-known New York Agency, became our representative. It was a good decision.
The agent represented us to my friend’s publisher and found other publishers. We didn’t go with my friend’s publisher. We went with a bigger publisher with a larger marketing budget.
Now comes the sad part. This was back in the mid-to-late two-thousands when the largest American bookstore chain went bankrupt. Borders bookstore had thrown the industry into financial chaos. This hurt the mid-market publishers the most. The “Big 5” can survive a hit like that. The mid-markets couldn’t survive.
We were with an imprint of a “Big 5” publisher who produced ten new writers each year. They scaled back to only five new writers. Luckily, we were fourth on the list.
More bad news continued to rock the book world because of the Borders bankruptcy. After a few months, the publisher reduced to three new writers. They sent our book to the book cemetery.
My friend and I didn’t get our book published, and I’m happy with that. I no longer take part in the religion that was the target audience.
The positive aspect of my experience is I’m aware of how the industry works. I’m pitching a new book to publishers and confident that another book deal is possible.
I hope you learned something about the book deal process to help you on your journey.
Please share any experiences you’ve had in the book publishing journey…
Christopher Oldcorn is a writer and journalist. He holds a BA in Psychology from Laurentian University, and a post-grad in Research Analysis from Georgian College. Christopher studied at The Centre for Investigative Journalism (Goldsmiths, University of London). Recognized as a Top Writer in Government, Politics, Books, & Climate Change.