It took me over 25 years to get a proper book deal. I wrote 5 books that never went anywhere, then self-published a trilogy and finally got a deal with my ninth novel, Empire of the Saviours. The irony was that I had been close to giving up; for (despite the fanmail I got concerning my self-published trilogy) I was beginning to think I was deluding myself that I had the necessary talent to join the writing elite; and Empire of the Saviours had been rejected by every other publisher in the country and every literary agent (idiots) to boot! But then, to my utter bewilderment, bafflement and confoundment, Gollancz (the market leader for fantasy) offered me a global three-book deal. People of such good taste and discernment! But how had it happened? I still half expect Candid Camera to jump out and announce it’s all a hoax. What strange alignment of the stars, twist of fate, or combination of magical ingredients could have brought success when all else had failed?
To answer simply, I’m not sure there’s any simple answer. I doubt whatever I tell you will allow you to replicate the exact same chain of events leading to success. However, you may glean a few insights from this page that help your statistical chance of discovering some sort of breakthrough of your own.
- Follow every lead like a detective (keeping notes in a little book like Colombo). Here’s the chain of clues and events. Pay attention! So, I self-published a trilogy and started doing book signings (see my other pages on how to go about this). When I was signing in Leeds, Justina Robson (big time scifi author) came in by chance, bought my book and advised me to get on the convention circuit, where I could pitch face-to-face to agents and publishers. I duly attended EasterCon (big scifi convention at Heathrow – not cheap, mind you) and pitched to Gillian Redfearn, who was senior commissioning editor for Gollancz at the time. I made sure to mention Justina’s name. I gave Gillian a copy of Necromancer’s Gambit and my sales stats. In return, I got her business card (crucial, since publishers do not usually list contact details on their websites, to avoid being deluged with enquiries). I waited six months and phoned Gillian, but she had no memory of who I was (unsurprisingly)! The copy of my book had become lost, so I sent her an electronic copy. Six months later… nothing. By then, I’d pretty much finished my new book and was outselling JKRowling and Terry Pratchett with my other stuff in the north-west, so phoned again. Gillian said she’d changed jobs and I should email my stuff to the new editor, Marcus Gipps, for whom she gave me the email address. I emailed the great man and a few months later I had a deal.
- Provide evidence. Now, let’s not go thinking I got the deal purely cos I’d written the best book ever (although Empire of the Saviours isn’t too bad – if you don’t like it, I’ll buy it back off you! LOL!). Remember, the same book was rejected by everyone else. As much as Gollancz were persuaded by my literary merit, therefore, they must also have been strongly influenced by my sales stats… and the audience I maintain through my website, facebook, twitter, Amazon, and so on. It’s partly a numbers game. If you are going to approach a publisher, you need to give them some sort of concrete evidence of the commercial potential of your book. Stop worrying too much about how good your book is: the primary question is whether it will sell. Mills&Boon and Pepper Pig do not sell themselves to publishers based on quality, do they? What if you don’t have sales stats to provide? Well, get onto Kindle and start selling already! Then tell the publisher about how many people have read your manuscript on a forum. Tell them what score your manuscript has had in reviews. Give them a forecast of how many books you are confident of selling in your first year if they publish you. Money and profits are measured in numbers, so give them numbers!
- Develop your writing CV. Your cover letter to a publisher should be populated with stats and facts to demonstrate your commercial potential as a writer. If you have worked for 10 years as a journalist, you should say so. If you have an MA in Literature, say so. If you have been short-listed for a short story prize, say so. If you have a website with a large audience, that’s always attractive. If a well known author has said something nice about your work, quote them. Do you have any ISBNs to your name already?
- Research and organisation. Despite the information in the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook, do you know which publishing house owns the Gollancz imprint? Do you even know what an imprint is? Do you know who Gollancz partners in your country? Do you know the business inter-relationship one publisher you’re approaching has with another? Do you know what a small/independent press is? Do you know the difference between a desk editor and a commissioning editor? Do you know who the best person to contact in the publishing house is? Have you managed to find their email address? Do they generally accept ‘unsolicited manuscripts’? Do you know a way round their veto of unsolicited manuscripts? No, I didn’t know answers to such questions until very recently, and it took me years to work it all out. Why so long? Cos the info isn’t centrally available. You’ll have to piece it all together by asking questions here and there and using some tangential deduction. Once you’ve worked out who the right companies and people are, you are then ready to start targeting them. Now, you’ll be chasing a few targets at once, so keep careful notes of contact info, what you sent them and when you sent it. Keep a careful note of replies and what follow-up action you are now going to take. It’s called ‘business relationship management’. Even if a relationship appears to have ended in failure, keep your records so that it’s easier and quicker when you reapproach the same contacts with your next book.
- Put your money where your mouth is. If you genuinely believe your book is good but that it isn’t even being read by agents and publishers (who are always swamped anyway), you should be prepared to put your time and money where your mouth is – by getting the book ‘out there’ via Amazon’s Kindle platform (free) or via self-publishing (paid for). Let it prove itself in the market place. If you genuinely believe you have something of value to sell, you will invest in going to a convention so that you can pitch to agents and publishers. Are you the nervous sort who thinks they would fall apart when trying to pitch to someone? Then I’m sorry. You probably don’t have the necessary skills set or temperament to be a successful author in today’s world. You can’t just be the creative, sensitive type living in a garret for the rest of your life. If you’re that introverted, where do you even get the courage to go out to buy some milk? Stop feeling sorry for yourself and get out there. Yes, it’s like Dragon’s Den.
- The author is a part of the product. As the above begins to describe, the character of the author is just as important when it comes to getting a deal as the quality of any potential manuscript. Many authors get deals before they’ve even written anything, and that’s because they know how to sell an idea. They should instil confidence in the publisher. They should come across as anything but precious. They should appear hard-working and willing to redraft their masterpiece over and over, still delivering to deadline. If you have worked successfully in a business environment, therefore, make sure any prospective publisher is aware of that.
- Self-representation. You can find the points above daunting, but if you’re smart you’ll also find them empowering. Self-belief and determination (and all those other words they used to write on your school report) are real things. How else are you going to sustain your drive over the course of the 25 years it took me to get the deal? Don’t rely on others (and their weaknesses): rely on yourself instead (and play to your strengths). If you can’t get an agent, that frees you up to tackle publishers directly yourself. Many publishers will say they only deal with agents: say to them on the phone, ‘That’s fine, as I’m self-representing.’
- Treat agents with circumspection. You might think of literary agents as gatekeepers trying to keep you from accessing publishers directly. They stand in your way and check your credentials. ‘Your name’s not on the list – you can’t come in.’ They defend the walls against the likes of you and the mob. They have as many clients as they can already handle, thank you very much, so please join the back of the ever so long queue or try someone else. But there are only a dozen agents in the UK for your genre, so there’s no one else to try, to which they say, try someone else. It can seem like a vicious circle, an exclusive club, or a mafia. Adam then pipes up with: ‘Gollancz have just offered me a book deal. Does anyone want to represent me?’ There’s then an embarrassing fight as agents try and grab 15% of your deal, albeit that they can’t quite explain what value they are offering in return. No, I’m not saying they’re all parasites. They can be extremely useful if your manuscript still needs a bit of an edit and you still haven’t got yourself a publisher, but they rarely have skills you don’t already have (or your friends already have). They have contacts and access that you don’t, and that has a commercial value, obviously, but we’re in the information age now and the internet gives us more contacts and access than ever before. Where there’s a will, there’s a way.
- Increase your chances of getting lucky. Try a range of different approaches to getting a deal. Think of each tactic as its own lottery ticket. The more tickets you have, the better your chance of winning. Getting a book deal does rely on luck, I’m afraid, as unjust as it seems. If Justina Robson hadn’t happened to walk into Waterstone’s Leeds, if Marcus hadn’t been new to Gollancz and without other manuscripts to read, if this and that, then I might never have got a deal. But you can make your own luck! If I hadn’t self-published and got off my backside to do a signing, if I hadn’t bothered to go to the convention, etc. No one deserves to get a book deal: some people just work harder on getting lucky than others is all.
- Don’t blame yourself, just work on your timing instead. Don’t give up just cos you’ve had a few (hundred) rejections. There might be nothing wrong with your manuscript at all. Instead, the publisher may already have a similar book they’re about to publish. Or steampunk might not be selling very well that year. It’s nothing to do with the quality of your book. It’s the market! Apparently, the script to the hit TV series Lost sat in a Hollywood executive’s desk for 12 years until someone decided the world was ready for it. You see, you might actually be a visionary and ahead of your time. The world’s not ready for your genius. Don’t scoff. It happens. Look at Stig Larson – he only became massively successful after his death. A tragedy. So how can you improve your timing? Well, write several books, synopses and opening chapters (including that one you’ve been putting off for too long), so that when an agent or publishers asks if you’ve got ‘anything else’, you can produce something suitable, as if by magic.
- Keep going. Nine out of ten people fail because they give up. And yet practice makes perfect. I got a book deal with my ninth novel. That ninth novel is a million times better than the first book I attempted. Authors do improve. You might not be able to see it, but the longer you write, the better you get, even if you occasionally have to take a step backwards before you can take two steps forwards. Is it worth the years of extraordinary effort? Well, I don’t regret my 25 years of trying for an instant (despite the divorce and struggling to pay the bills upon occasion). Imagine the regret and ‘what if’ I’d have to live with if I hadn’t even tried! You will sometimes wonder if you’re mad or only destined to be published posthumously… but you still take some perverse pleasure in such ponderings.
- Just say yes. If a publisher offers you a deal, you should always accept in principle. Never turn down a publishing deal unless you’ve got a competing (and better) offer from elsewhere. If in doubt, take the deal, since no publisher wants to rip you off so badly that you will refuse to let them have any of your future manuscripts. A friend of mine turned down an offer in his early twenties and has spent the last 15 years trying to secure any offer from any publisher ever since. Yes, he regrets his youthful folly and cries himself to sleep every night. You will be offered an ‘advance’ by the publisher (around £10,000 in the UK) per book (but a paltry $5,000 in the US), yet you should understand it is a ‘loan’ that you have to pay back through book sales. If you don’t sell enough books, though, you are never asked to pay back the advance (as it is the risk the publisher takes in all this). They will offer you 7.5% royalty from the cover price of the book in hard copy, but you should ask for 10% (or more). They will offer you 25% or more on the cover price of the e-book. Then you think: ‘How do I really make money then?’ Well, if your agent or publisher sells the publishing rights for your book to a publisher in another country, you get 80-90% of what the foreign publisher pays to buy those rights (between £1K-£5K). Therefore, the more countries the publishing rights are sold into, the better for your bank balance.
And that’s it. A lot of hard work. You will often feel like a fool or fraud along the way, but you’ve got to be able to swallow your ego and do what it takes. Established authors do understand what you are going through. They are not sneering at you. They are not treating you with contempt. They are looking at you in amazement, seeing themselves in your eyes and wondering how they ever managed it. If you offer to buy them a drink, they will invariably smile and accept. And then they will buy you a drink or two in return (well, I will anyway).
Excellent advice. You are very generous in offering the benefit of your hard won experience.
If the reader imagines that this all sounds similar to job hunting advice, that’s because that is exactly what it is!
Really interesting, thanks for sharing. A lot of this is new to me but I certainly feel better equipped to enter the “big bad literary world” with some of the advice you’ve given.