Writers are told the main road to a book deal starts with getting a literary agent. With more and more publishers accepting non-agented submissions, landing an agent may no longer be a necessity. Two years ago, I secured a book deal for a travel memoir without an agent. However, my future as a published author took an unexpected turn when the deal fell apart. It turned out the publisher didn’t have a stable business model. When I started to see the red flags, I decided to walk away. Considering the number of start-up publishers out there, this is bound to happen. The following steps can help ensure your book deal is a success from query to first-run printing.
Small publishers vs. large houses
In recent years, large publishing houses have been signing fewer books from first-time authors. And sometimes, authors whose titles didn’t meet sales goals were dumped by their agents.
The financial end of publishing impacts a company’s entire business model, which means small presses aren’t in a position to offer top-dollar advances like The Big Five traditional houses. With smaller budgets also comes an inability to gamble on a book based on a proposal that might never make it to the market. Dennis Johnson, founder of Brooklyn-based independent publisher Melville House says, “We can’t work in hypotheticals, so I only want to see finished work.”
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Howard Shapiro, director at Pittsburgh-based publisher Animal Media Group that opened its doors in 2012, notes another difference: “With a smaller catalog, we’re able to offer each author personal attention and don’t treat them like a number. We feel this keeps them engaged throughout the publishing process, which helps when the book hits the market.”
Identifying the right publisher
An essential part of identifying the right home for your book, and a good place to start, is to research publishers to create a targeted list and avoid presses that won’t be around long enough to produce your book.
Visit each publisher’s website, and while you’re reviewing their titles, keep an eye out for red flags: an outdated or hard-to-navigate site, unclear submission guidelines, a suspect (or missing) mission statement and previous books with a lack of media presence. Click around to see if the publisher is posting informed content through social media. You can’t judge a publisher by an online presence alone, but it will give you an idea as to whether the company is worth querying.
“Writers need to do their homework,” says Johnson, who advises exploring a publisher’s catalog as a crucial first step. “This is the most important aspect of the querying process. Read what publishers have published and know what they do before you pitch them.”
I’ve worked on submissions for publishers, and queries that weren’t in a genre we published were immediately discarded. Publishers have an endless stack of submissions, so don’t waste your time or theirs by submitting work they don’t publish.
Writing the query and cover letter
A query is your chance to convince a publisher to take a look at your work. Once it’s sent, there is no taking it back, so make every word count. A standard query consists of three paragraphs.
Paragraph 1: Explain why your work is a good fit and reference the publisher’s existing comparable titles. If you’re unfamiliar with their books, it will show, and the query will read as a general one sent to every single publisher. Most publishers will stop reading right there.
Paragraph 2: Briefly describe your manuscript.
Paragraph 3: Your bio highlights writing experience, such as credits, an online presence and media contacts. Although Johnson advises not to inflate your credentials, Shapiro gives specific pointers: “An established online following or media presence is a major factor. I want writers to know the market for their book and its intended audience.”
Publishers invest a significant amount of time and money into each writer they sign. Therefore, they expect the same from you in the form of a polished submission. Each component in querying a publisher is vital to landing a book deal, so a writer can’t afford to overlook any detail.
And, Johnson adds, “A bad cover letter will ruin any shot at a book deal.”
How to land the book deal
My experience working in publishing has allowed me to see queries that worked and others that failed. Even with this knowledge, I used several beta readers to critique my query. I relied on fellow writers and encourage you to do the same. My readers found areas in which my query could be stronger; I wouldn’t have gotten a deal without them.
Whenever I prepared a query, I made sure to follow submission guidelines, knowing the smallest mistake would compromise my chances for a book deal. Some publishers might want to see the first 10 pages of manuscript in the body of an email, something specific in the subject line or just a query. Each publisher wants something different, so whatever it is, follow their guidelines exactly.
Once you’ve submitted the query, it can take months until you hear back. When they reply, it might be a no. The rejection stings, but don’t take it personally. If a publisher passes, move onto the next, reworking your query to match new guidelines and comparable titles. If several months pass without any word, send a follow up email – but not any sooner.
If you pitch someone and sense something is off, such as the publisher being stretched thin, understaffed or disorganized, take note. This can lead to errors throughout the publishing process, missed deadlines and difficult communication, all of which could result in a lackluster publicity campaign.
Landing a book deal of your own comes down to research, a great query and following submission guidelines. If a publisher passes, stay the course and keep querying.
Kevin Finley is a freelance writer and the founder of Leabhar PR.
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