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How to get a great book contract in 5 steps

Reach beyond the obvious to achieve success.

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how to get a book contractYou have a terrific book manuscript that’s ready to submit. Fantastic! Or maybe you’re past the halfway point on a new project, and you want to start thinking about the next step. Before you start stuffing envelopes or firing off email queries, take a moment to reflect on presubmission and precontract realities. Is there anything you can do now that might increase your odds for success?

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Plenty of book contract advice out there espouses the obvious: Take classes, write well and solicit quality feedback on you work. Here are five actionable, less-than-obvious steps you can take right now to stand out from the crowd and earn a writer-friendly book contract once you’re ready to put your work out into the literary world.


1. Change your attitude.

Literary agent Lisa Hagan says to strongly consider your “attitude regarding changes that need to be made to make the manuscript the best that it can be.” It’s not about ego or sticking to the original plan. It’s about producing a publication-worthy book. No one willingly chooses to work with an inflexible stickler. Be open to suggestions – especially those from publishing experts like Hagan.



2. Prepare your own pitch.

“The writing may be wonderful,” says Sourcebooks editorial director Todd Stocke, “but can I distill it down to something quickly and easily explained? Ultimately, that’s the publisher’s job – to find ways that connect the author and the readers. But sometimes those of us who do this for a living still can’t find the pitch.” Clearly share your vision for the pitch. The publisher is still welcome to come up with a different one for the back cover, catalog copy or PR materials, but sometimes you’ll bowl a publisher over with your well-reasoned, compelling pitch that leverages angles they hadn’t considered.


3. Be proactive with your BISAC.

With more than 3,000 BISAC – Book Industry Standards and Communications – subject codes available for a published book, it’s imperative that yours gets the right one(s). When Random House changed the BISAC for a strong-selling title from “Fiction – General” to “Fiction – Suspense,” the sales increased by 55 percent. Before you sign on the dotted line, make sure you know what BISAC codes the publisher intends for your book. Do some research so you have ideas ready in case they’re missing ways to increase visibility. Having the wrong BISAC can make your book essentially invisible.


“Go to a bookstore,” Stocke advises. “Spend time in the stacks, really understand where your book might sit in that store. What books will be around it? What authors am I most like? With what am I competing?” Or is your book better suited to readers finding it in other venues than a traditional bookstore? Figuring all this out can help your future sales immensely.


4. Chase down the co-op.

Most publishers have money set aside to spend on book promotions, such as using those huge cardboard, front-of-store displays at Barnes & Noble that cost thousands of dollars a week but have huge results in terms of sales. Make sure you ask any publisher offering a contract if co-op is available for your title. If not, consider offering to match any co-op, dollar for dollar, up to whatever amount you can afford. Sometimes that’s enough for a publisher to commit those limited resources your way.



5. Run from red flags.

Is the publishing company undergoing big changes? If so, be wary, warns Hagan. In terms of book contracts, she prefers to have the “right of first refusal” clause deleted. It’s not exactly a red flag, but “it saves time for future projects,” she explains. “I don’t like to be locked in.”
Stocke says one red flag is if publishers don’t have extensive experience publishing books similar to yours. They also should have initial competitive/comparative research if they’re offering you a contract. “What’s their plan for the format, the price, the size, the brick versus e-tail opportunities? How are they going to title, package and pitch it to get it in front of people? What does success look like, and what does the opposite of that look like?” Anything but good, reasonable answers here are red flags, for sure.


Far too many writers spend months on a manuscript but then fire off the final product like it’s a radioactive hot potato. Take your time to create a clear, informed plan so when you do put that well-wrought masterpiece into the hands of a literary agent or publisher, it’s with no regrets. Listen to the experts and follow their pre-submission, pre-contract advice to ensure you’re giving yourself the best chance to earn a great book contract with writer-friendly terms.


Ryan G. Van Cleave is a Florida-based writing teacher and author of 20 books, including Memoir Writing for Dummies and The Weekend Book Proposal.


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Originally Published