Writing a book is an incredible way to amplify a message, maximize your business’s impact, or make your expertise accessible for public consumption. If you’ve chosen to go the route of traditional publishing (more on making that decision here), you’re probably wondering how to get a book deal. If you navigate the process well, your book idea has great potential for launching your name into fame.
Don’t get too excited, because there is no hack for how to get a publishing deal. The word “arduous” comes to mind to describe the process! Each step that we outline below might take weeks to complete. You might have to rewrite your favorite chapter right when you thought everything was ready to go. As the great Roman writer Seneca put it, there is no easy way from the earth to the stars.
But the rewards of getting a book deal are…pretty great! Your book will be edited and designed to appeal to an audience you’ve been longing to reach. Your title could appear on best-seller lists and in window displays at major retailers. Your name will gain a level of credibility and “expert status” that few other endeavors guarantee.
Traditional publishing is a tried-and-true way to amplify your career. Because it can be a daunting experience, we’ve broken down how to get a book deal into three fundamental stages. If you are excited to get your book idea into print with a publishing house but aren’t sure where to turn, let this be your guide! (If you’re not quite sure about how you want to publish, we have a piece on different paths to becoming an author here.)
Step 1: Write a book proposal
Before you pitch your book to anybody, it’s essential to have a proposal. Think of a book proposal like an elevator pitch. It’s a business plan for your book that describes the concept, content, marketing plan, and why you are a person whose book is worth reading.
Your agent will decide whether to work with you based on a proposal. Your proposal will convince a publisher to make you an offer. No matter how cool you are, your book proposal is the first impression that matters in the publishing space. In short, if you want to get a book deal, write an impressive proposal.
Different publishers will have different formatting guidelines, but the concept is largely the same for all nonfiction books.
There are five basic sections of a book proposal, totaling around 50 pages. Here is a summary:
- Title Page. Make sure your name, book title (& subtitle), contact information and website, and agent’s information are all included. Try to capture the overall concept of your book with your title and subtitle.
- Overview. This short summary serves to hook the reader on your book concept and get them excited for the rest of your proposal. Make a solid case for how much your book can accomplish: the need it meets, why it’s so timely, and who will benefit from it. If you haven’t narrowed down your book idea to solving a problem or meeting a specific need, hold your horses! If you don’t have a structured, original argument, your book proposal will fall flat. Get clear on your concept before you continue.
- Table of Contents & Sample Chapter. This part is pretty intuitive. Having an outline of the specific sections of your book demonstrates how you will make your point. A sample chapter gives your publisher insight into your writing and argument.
- Marketing Strategy. Publishers expect you to pull your weight when it comes to marketing. Show that you’re filling a needed gap in your field by providing a competitive analysis of similar titles. Outline a promotional strategy to get your book into the hands of your target audience via whatever means fit best with your goals and existing platform. Launch teams, social media campaigns, and speaking tours are just a few ideas!
- About the author. This is the section in which to brag on yourself and prove that you are an expert. A traditional publisher will expect you to have a significant platform from which to launch the marketing strategy. Showing that you have an audience waiting to read your book already will add important credibility to your marketing plan. Provide evidence that you have the followers, fans, and subscribers to catapult your book to success.
We take a more detailed look at the process of writing a proposal in this piece. While some publishers might have additional specifications, having these five sections in place is essential for the next important step: finding an agent.
Step 2: Find an agent
Unless you have a remarkably trustworthy inside connection to your dream publisher, we highly recommend all first-time authors work with a literary agent. You don’t have to pay an agent up front, but they will get a commission from your publishing deal. The standard for an agent’s commission is 15% of royalties and advance, and it is usually well worth the benefits!
An agent assists you with just about every stage of landing your publishing deal: career guidance, relationship-building, negotiating, and helping you weigh different offers. A literary agent saves you from an exhausting cycle of trial and error by leveraging already existing publishing relationships. Most publishing houses won’t take unsolicited proposals, but have a network of agents they trust. The editors will have developed high expectations, so a good agent won’t work with you if you can’t prove your potential. A clean, compelling proposal will usually do the trick!
Without a doubt, the best way to find an agent is through a referral. If you don’t have many friends who are authors, don’t resort to googling “literary agents near me” quite yet. With a little strategizing, research, and time, you can find the best agent for your publishing goals.
Start at your local bookstore (you know, the one you want to get into). Find the section where you want to see your book someday (the genre, not the most noticeable window display). Browse the recently published titles. Take a peek at the acknowledgments and copyright pages and start taking down names. The agents and publishers that you see again and again should be at the top of your list. This will keep you from going on a wild goose chase after a book deal with a trendy publishing house that is a poor fit for your idea.
While you’re at it, follow the authors of those books on social media. Maintaining a large network of authors in your space will help you expand your platform and keep tabs on the competition. Moreover, as you regularly engage with other writers on social media, you will build lasting professional relationships. Once you’ve forged that bond, you can reach out and ask for their input or advice on your own publishing journey. A valuable agent referral is just one of the great benefits you could reap from building such a relationship.
Step 3: Pitch to a publisher
So you wrote a proposal, connected with an awesome agent…what comes next? While your agent will do a lot of the work during this stage, the pitching process will keep you on your toes as it’s full of suspense.
Choosing the right publisher
An editor won’t bother reading your proposal if a glance at the title reveals it’s a genre they don’t even publish. Even if you have the most original idea ever, don’t put yourself at a disadvantage by making a hard sell to an unlikely publisher. You rarely get a second chance to make a first impression. Target the right publisher with the right content and you will save yourself many failed first impressions.
Your agent’s experience will help you select publishers to whom your book will appeal immediately. That could be a big name like HarperCollins or it could be somewhere small but very targeted to your genre or industry. Once you narrow down the list, your agent will reach out to acquisitions editors with your proposal.
The publisher’s decision
It feels like you’re so close to getting your book deal…but this part takes a while. An editor will evaluate your proposal and decide if it’s worth passing onto the next stage. These editors could be looking at 20-40 proposals a month, so staying out of the initial rejection pile is an accomplishment, even if it’s only the first step!
The acquisitions editor might seek input from other editors and higher-ups before the proposal reaches the final decision-maker: the publishing committee. At the publishing committee meeting, sales, editing, and marketing representatives will decide whether to make you an offer. You have a good chance of making it past this stage if: your concept is a good fit, you’ve demonstrated a substantial platform from which to market, and your writing sample is compelling.
Patience is truly the only magic bullet for getting a book deal, because this process could take a few months. A polite follow-up might be worthwhile after three months with no response…or it might just be time to set your sights on new horizons.
Negotiating the deal
If your agent sends your proposal to multiple editors at once, you could get lucky and have multiple offers to compare. Or maybe you got an offer from the first publisher on your list, but it includes lots of stipulations and a lower-than-ideal advance. After weeks of waiting, you might suddenly feel overwhelmed by the slew of decisions.
The expertise of an agent is invaluable in this stage. An agent is trained to recognize if the fine print of the initial offer includes anything that could harm your career long-term. They will spot contractual red flags and help you keep control over your intellectual property. Sometimes, it is best to let an offer go rather than fighting for your rights as an author. But in many cases, some shrewd negotiation can result in a mutually agreeable compromise. So long as your book is profitable, the publisher will be happy. If you prove your willingness to help them achieve that goal, they will be amenable to your negotiations.
After you sign on the dotted line, you’ll get part of your advance and start working on your manuscript. While your book might not hit the press for a few more months (patience, remember), congratulations, you’ve nailed down your first book deal! (There is always a slim chance that things fall through, but with a trustworthy publisher that is highly unlikely.)
A book deal is not a magical unicorn that enters your life and transforms it immediately. The path from pitch to publishing requires both long waiting periods and quick drop-of-the-hat decisions. But no matter what your goals are beyond being an author, publishing a book represents a massive unparalleled boost for your career. With a skilfully composed proposal and an agent with your best interests in mind, you are well on your way to the NYT bestsellers list!
If you found this piece helpful, we have a great podcast with editor Chad Allen all about this process–especially the ins and outs of working with an agent! You can listen to this “inside look” at the publishing industry here.
While you mull all of that over, here are a few rapid fire FAQs about how to get a book deal. Happy publishing!
How much money do you get for a book deal?
You can expect an advance of $5,000 — $15,000 plus 10–15% royalties
How difficult is it to get a book deal?
Getting a book deal if you don’t already have a platform is pretty difficult. If you’ve established yourself within an industry as a thought leader/expert, you are well-prepared for proposing to publishers, but it will still take time!
How can I get a book deal fast?
Unless you’re as famous as Oprah, you don’t. Perhaps it’s time to weigh the pros and cons of self-publishing.