Here are the 4 steps to take to get a traditional book deal:
- Ensure your book is fit for market
- Find an agent
- Submit to publishing companies
- Choose an offer
Let me be clear: Traditional book deals are a thing of the past. If you do not actively reach 25,000+ people regularly before a deal, no reputable publishing company or literary agent will take a risk on your book.
In 2021, don’t bother trying to get a book deal without an existing, sizable audience.
If you have a relative or friend who works for an agency, you have a much better chance of your book proposal falling in the right hands.
For the rest of us: Self-publishing is a legitimate way to earn a living as a writer. Publishing your own book may not come with the prestige of earning a book deal. However, publishing prestige is an outdated concept, and readers certainly don’t care. Many self-publishers make more money than their traditionally published counterparts.
If you’re reading this article, I’m guessing you’re not a celebrity. If you don’t have a regular audience of 25,000 or more (and you don’t have close connections at a press or agency), just self-publish. My website and email list are great resources to walk you through the process step-by-step.
If you’re still wondering how to get a book deal, I’ll gladly tell you.
- What is a book deal?
- Traditional vs. self vs. indie book publishing
- 4 steps to get a book deal
- Tips and links to help get a book deal
This article’s links may earn me a small commission if you use any to purchase a product or service. There’s no extra cost to you! And it helps me keep writing this awesome content that you’ll never have to pay for.
Table of contents
- What is a book deal?
- Traditional Publishing vs. Self-Publishing vs. Indie Publishing
- Step 1: Ensure Your Book Is Fit For Market
- Step 2: Find an Agent
- Step 3: Submit to Publishing Companies
- Step 4: Choose an Offer
- Book deal or self-publishing?
What is a book deal?
A book deal is a contract between an author and a publisher. Sometimes called a traditional book deal, this is when the gatekeepers of the legacy publishing industry offer you an advance on book profits in return for several benefits.
How much do you get for a book deal? You can get an advance between $10,000 and $100,000 if you land a book deal. However, it is both difficult to get a book deal and unlikely that a first-time author will receive such a significant advance.
What are the benefits of a book deal?
- A monetary advance before publishing the book
- Bookstore placement
- Professional editors, formatters, cover designers at no extra cost to you
- The ability to say you landed a book deal
What are the disadvantages of a book deal?
- Massive time investment for a slight chance at a traditional deal
- Loss of control and ownership of your work and brand
- Minimal financial upside (in the long run)
Let’s face facts: Traditional media is on its way out, including traditional book publishers. Readers don’t care if something was self-published or traditionally published (as long as it looks professional). Book contracts often require you to sign away your rights for an advance.
Self-publishing is more viable than ever — and more profitable, thanks to Amazon.
I recommend seeking a traditional book deal only if:
- You are a celebrity of some sort.
- You have more than 25,000 loyal followers on social media or listeners on your podcast. (Honestly, that’s a low number.)
- You have a friend or relative who works at a publishing house.
- You would be cripplingly ashamed to say you self-published.
Traditional Publishing vs. Self-Publishing vs. Indie Publishing
Traditional publishing is the industry in which a publishing house publishes a book. This usually requires a literary agent as an in-between for the author and publishing house.
How hard is it to get a publishing deal? It is tough to get a traditional publishing deal. The chances of landing an agent, then a traditional publishing book deal, are about 1 in 1,000 — and even worse if you don’t have a massive online following.
Traditional publishers typically cover the cost of a professional editor, book cover artist, back cover blurb, ISBN number, printing costs, final proofreaders, and more. But they also take a sizable chunk out of your royalties.
They offer authors an advance, usually in the form of a five- or six-figure lump sum. This is not in addition to royalties. Instead, you won’t make any royalties until you would have made as much as your advance (called “earning out”). If you don’t earn out, you do not have to pay back the advance. It’s a risk the publisher takes by fronting cash before they’ve made a profit.
How much of a book price goes to the author? After a publisher has earned out their advance, about 5-15% of the book price is paid to the author in royalties. Not only will the publisher take a huge chunk, but you’ll also need to give your literary agent the standard 15% commission of what you make.
I know many writers want a book deal so they don’t have to market their own book. Unfortunately, traditional publishers provide little marketing support for their authors. They reserve most of their marketing budgets for their top bestsellers (a tiny fraction of books written).
Traditionally published authors still have to do their own marketing, including:
- Social media
- Blog posting
- Video blogging
- Book signings
- Email newsletters
- Promotional giveaways
- Book reviews (including paid/sponsored)
- Organizing a launch team
- Establishing a solid track record by writing good books in the first place
You may have heard of the Big 5. They’re the biggest publishing houses in America, primarily housed in New York City. The Big 5 traditional publishers are:
- Penguin Random House
- Simon & Schuster
Self-publishing is when an author publishes their own book. This is a legitimate publishing route that many authors of all shapes and sizes have chosen.
Self-publishing can be more lucrative than traditional publishing.
Although you will not receive an advance on your self-published book, you keep a lot more of the profits. Amazon KDP might take 35-70% of self-published ebook profits, whereas traditional publishers and literary agents would take 80-95% of the royalties and retain printing rights.
But to be a real author, you have to go through a traditional publisher… right?
No! This is an outdated, offensive way of thinking. “Self-published” is not a dirty word. But if you like, you can say “independently published” or simply “published” to your friends.
Although Amazon does take a portion of your profits, they command 70% of the market share for selling eBooks. And Amazon gives little to no advantage to eBooks that are traditionally published.
You can always seek a book deal after you’ve successfully self-published. Make sure your first book is a great book that earns rave reviews. Your second book should do even better.
Once you’ve gained tens of thousands under your banner, perhaps it’s time to look into traditional book publishing for your new book. (I expect you will have fallen in love with self-publishing by this point.)
I know many writers don’t want to deal with marketing their book, but don’t be fooled. Traditional publishers hardly lift a finger to sell your book unless you’re an author superstar. When you traditionally publish, you still need to market your own book at signings and on social media.
Check out my article on the Best Self-Publishing Companies (retailers and aggregators).
You could even Start Your Own Publishing Company for the tax benefits, legal protection, and other benefits. It’s easier than you think.
There’s a third option: indie publishing, sometimes called hybrid publishing or independent publishing. Different people mean different things when using these terms, but typically an indie publisher or hybrid publisher tries to combine the benefits of self-publishing and traditional marketing.
The main advantage of an indie publisher is that you usually don’t need an agent, but you can still tell your friends you landed a book deal.
Check out these 30 Publishers that Accept Unagented Submissions.
They may offer small advances but still take a large chunk of the royalties. They may provide minimal design and formatting services but could ask for the copyright (a big no-no; never hand over the copyright for your book). They will still offer little to no marketing while expecting the author to market their own book.
Feel free to look into indie publishers with a critical eye. However, many of you reading this will benefit from simply self-publishing, utilizing professional freelancers along the way.
Pro tip: Avoid vanity presses. A vanity press is a type of publishing company that charges you upfront for publishing, usually resulting in a net loss for the author. Vanity presses prey on writers desperate to get their book published. Never pay upfront to distribute your book.
To be clear, self-publishers should pay for a professional editor and a book cover designer, at least, on top of other self-publishing costs. But never pay a publishing company. While we’re on the topic, never pay a literary agent to represent you. (Same as in real estate, acting, etc.)
So… if you’re still interested in how to get a book deal for yourself, here are my 4 steps to getting it done.
Step 1: Ensure Your Book Is Fit For Market
The first step for getting a book deal is to ensure your book is fit for the market. This is a big step that entails a lot of hard work, but I’ll sum it up as concisely as possible.
To make sure you’re ready to find an agent and a publisher, first, you need to:
- Maximize the marketability of your book idea
- Write the book (for fiction authors)
- Edit the book yourself (multiple drafts)
- Recruit beta readers
- Consider hiring a professional editor
- Refine your elevator pitch (the 1-2 sentence description of your book)
Important: Non-fiction authors can get away with shopping a book proposal for a non-fiction book that has yet to be written. Fiction writers usually need a finished manuscript to land an agent and a book deal. Non-fiction writers may be able to find an agent and land a book deal before writing the book.
Maximize the Marketability of Your Book Idea
First off, before writing a book, you must maximize the marketability of your book idea. This means looking at Amazon and New York Times bestselling books in your genre.
Do not copy someone else’s idea. Instead, be inspired by the bestsellers.
Ask yourself, what do readers want? How are you going to give it to them? Agents and publishers will all want to know how marketable your book idea is, maybe more than the actual quality of your work.
Write the Book
Writing a book is a behemoth of a topic. Check out my article on How to Write a Book for more info.
Suffice it to say, a fiction book should not only look professional (error-free), it should display riveting prose, follow some story structure, develop satisfying character arcs, and deliver on promises made in your premise.
And for Pete’s sake, outline your book before writing it.
Resources on writing the book:
- Best Book Writing Software (Spoiler: it’s Scrivener)
- Best Podcasts for Writers and Self-Publishers
- How to Write Faster
Edit the Book Yourself
Yes, you need to edit the book yourself. No one should ever see your first draft besides you. Edit the book yourself at least once through, if not 3-4 times.
Resources for editing your book:
- Best Proofreading Software (Grammarly vs. ProWritingAid)
- Scribe Media’s How to Edit a Book (Self-Editing Tips From a 4x Bestseller)
- Medium’s How many times should you edit your manuscript?
Recruit Beta Readers
I’d recommend recruiting beta readers and consulting with them on their personal experience reading the book. Recruit at least 3-5 beta readers, or as many as 30.
Alternatively, you can enlist other authors to look at your work or join a critique circle, where you read their book, and they’ll read yours.
Don’t make massive changes because one beta reader took issue with a single detail. But if multiple beta readers speak up about the same thing, consider editing again.
Consider Hiring a Professional
After you’ve made your multiple self-edits, consider hiring a professional to look over your work. Editors can cost between $300 and $3,000, depending on the type of editor and the length of your manuscript.
One of the advantages of traditional publishing is that the publishing company provides professional editors at no cost to you — for their benefit more than yours.
However, if you’re trying to get the book deal for your first novel, you may want to hire a professional to make your manuscript as excellent as it can be.
Refine Your Elevator Pitch
An elevator pitch is a concise, attention-grabbing description for the book that hooks agents, publishers, and readers alike. You need to refine your elevator pitch before querying literary agents.
Your elevator pitch may include:
- Main character’s name and/or status
- Status quo and how the status quo is turned on its head
- Character motivation
- What is at stake
- Central themes
- A unique hook
Feel free to write multiple paragraphs and pare it down until you can express everything important about your book in 1-2 sentences. If you cannot get the main idea down to 2 sentences max, your book is likely too complicated and won’t sell.
Resources on refining your elevator pitch:
- Jericho Writers’ How to Write an Elevator Pitch for Your Novel (with Examples)
- TCK Publishing’s How to Create an Elevator Pitch That Sells Your Story
Step 2: Find an Agent
After your book is as great as it’s going to get, you need an agent to act as a go-between with publishing companies. For the average writer, you stand a 1 in 1,000 chance of landing an agent. This is where luck comes in (or connections).
Important: You don’t need a literary agent if you’re writing non-fiction, poetry, cookbooks, or academic books. However, an agent may help negotiate a better deal for you.
Nowadays, traditional publishing companies don’t accept unsolicited, unagented authors. That means if they don’t ask you to send in a manuscript, they’re not going to consider any writer who isn’t represented by a literary agent.
A literary agent represents a writer when negotiating a book deal with a publisher. Agents often know publishing company editors personally. The agent may also help with the creative process, typically suggesting edits to the manuscript or book proposal.
Most publishers will not offer a book deal to a writer without an agent, for better or worse.
Pro tip: Authors should never pay upfront for a literary agent. As with many industries, agents only make money when you make money. Any agent who asks for money upfront is a scam artist, to put it bluntly.
To query a literary agent, you must do some digging. Research literary agents who are accepting unsolicited submissions in your genre. (Check out Manuscript Wishlist’s list of literary agents.) Don’t waste your time querying an agent who doesn’t represent the genre of your book.
A query letter is different from a book proposal, which is aimed at publishers.
Every agent has slightly different submission guidelines that you need to follow carefully. Otherwise, they will throw away your submission without a second thought.
Literary agent submission guidelines may include:
- Title of book
- Genre of book
- Word count
- Brief author bio
- Query letter
- Number of followers on Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, etc.
- Link to author website
- Detailed synopsis
- First few pages of the book (5-50 pages)
I said there’s a 1 in 1,000 chance for the average writer to find a literary agent who is willing to take them on as a client. The possibilities are probably worse if you don’t have at least 25k followers on social media or 25k listeners on your podcast.
It’s worth noting that many literary agents are looking for authors from marginalized communities telling stories that represent their unique, underrepresented voices. For these agents, your chances of landing a book deal may be higher if you are a female and/or person of color, particularly if your book reflects themes unique to your community.
Resources on finding a literary agent:
- Jane Friedman’s How to Find a Literary Agent for Your Book
- NYBookEditors’ How to Write a Darn Good Query Letter
- Writers Digest’s 20 Literary Agents Actively Seeking Writers and Their Writing
- List of Literary Agents 2021
Step 3: Submit to Publishing Companies
Once you’ve landed a literary agent, he or she will help you write a book proposal and submit your manuscript to publishing companies (usually, up to a dozen separate companies).
A book proposal is like a business plan for your book. A book proposal may contain:
- Concise, compelling summary of the book
- Brief author bio, including following
- Marketing plan
- Target audience
- Competition analysis
- Sample chapters
Book proposals are different from query letters, which are aimed at literary agents.
Because book proposals are such a vital part of landing a book deal, some writers pay a freelancer up to $15,000 to expertly craft a book proposal that will entice publishers to put in an offer.
Don’t be modest. Although arrogance is off-putting, publishers want to know that you are uniquely qualified to write and market this book. Include your expertise, accomplishments, honors, and awards.
Just as importantly: be realistic. Don’t pretend your book will be a global bestseller when that’s far from a sure thing. Carefully compare your book to bestselling titles without mentioning the biggest names in literature. It can come off as cliché and delusional.
Your literary agent should negotiate a good deal for you. With any luck, multiple publishers will put in offers. It’s time to choose.
Check out the Creative Independent’s nifty article on How to Write a Book Proposal.
Step 4: Choose an Offer
If you only received one book deal offer, congratulations! You’re in the fortunate minority. Plus, you don’t have to choose between the greater of two goods.
If you received multiple book deal offers, you must select an offer. Money isn’t everything, but your agent can help you sort out the pros and cons of each offer.
Just because a publisher offers a smaller advance than another publisher doesn’t mean they’re less eager to publish your book. A smaller advance may simply indicate a smaller budget for that company. If your book sells well, your advance doesn’t matter in the long run anyway.
An advance is a lump sum payment that a traditional publisher gives to an author. This is not in addition to royalties. A publisher pays an author against his/her royalties. Authors need to “earn out” (sell enough books to justify their advance) before they start making royalties beyond their advance.
Most (non-celebrity) authors can expect to receive an advance between $10,000 and $100,000. However, modern publishers seldom take a risk on a book that won’t earn them six figures.
For first-time authors, marketing support is critical.
Some experts estimate that most book sales are 10% due to publisher marketing vs. 90% due to author marketing. But smaller publishers may give a smaller advance while offering better marketing support. Consider this when choosing an offer.
If you don’t get an offer, don’t fret. Publishers may reject you due to budget or book proposal errors. Feel free to try again in a few months, refine your book proposal, or have your agent look to different publishers.
Book deal or self-publishing?
If you have a regular built-in audience of 25k+ who want to hear more of what you have to say, go for a book deal. Otherwise, stick to self-publishing. Thanks to the Internet and Amazon, self-publishing is more profitable than ever!
With Amazon’s ebook marketplace booming (70% market share), self-publishing is easier and more lucrative than ever before. I’ve written some great resources on getting the most out of Amazon’s self-publishing marketplace: