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.