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How (Not) To Get A Book Deal
Writers who want to publish their first book must ask themselves one question: do I have a book that is ready for the marketplace?
Hello friends. Essay Camp starts Monday. The goal is to get you writing, not focus on the marketplace, but this post is about the marketplace. It was inspired in part by some concerning minor details I noticed in a recent essay in LitHub about an author’s decision to include plagiarized passages in a (now cancelled) debut novel. Namely, that while at one of America’s top MFA programs for writing, the writer said she “knew nothing” about how the business of publishing actually works. Rather shockingly, the essay itself has since been pulled for “inconsistencies in the story and, crucially, a further incident of plagiarism in the published piece,” according to a retraction notice from LitHub. The writer who was “poorly paraphrased without attribution” in the essay (his words), who is himself an expert on plagiarism, subsequently published a very interesting and non-judgemental article about how plagiarism happens—often by accident or as a result of ignorance, or as part of a flawed writing process. The post below is not about plagiarism or the author of that essay, but touches on another issue at work in the story, which is how one finds a publisher for their first book.
Book contracts do not come to those who work the hardest or are the most deserving. At least, not necessarily. It isn’t fair, and isn’t meant to be so. Intense effort is required, but that’s not always enough. It is merely a question of whether or not what you bring to the table can solve the particular problem of an agent or an editor: they need a book to inspire and/or sell.
When I say inspire, I don’t mean that the content needs to be “inspirational.” Rather, it must inspire an editor to work with you even if they don’t expect your book to become a massive bestseller. As I’ve written before, most books do not become massive bestsellers, and nobody knows that better than agents and editors.
A book is but one flower in an editor’s bouquet of new releases. Is your book that book? Does it have an audience? Does it fit their particular bouquet? That is the question. This is a business, not a rewards system to validate the yearnings of creative souls.
A book deal is not owed to you because you are talented, have the right friends, got an MFA, went to an Ivy League school, or even because you work hard. To get a contract with a publisher to publish a book, you have to write a book that an editor thinks will sell—at least for what it is. Plenty of published books are passion projects on the part of the editor as much as the writer, so you don’t need to pen a beach read thriller to get published. But an agent and then an editor must be able to envision the audience for your book, and to connect with the material enough to want to be the one who helps bring it to them.
Most of the would-be authors I encounter in life or on social media who loudly bemoan the fact that they are not yet published have a few things in common. For starters, they often cite an arbitrary age-related deadline. They want to become a published author by the time they are 40, or 30, or even 25, and feel like a failure if they don’t. This is not an ideal creative environment in which to write a book. Maybe they do have a particular book they are working on or querying, and maybe not. Either way, the focus of the complaint isn’t usually on the work of writing, on the success or failure of a particular body of work that they are passionate about, but on wanting or failing to achieve the identity of being an author.
This is not writing, this is fantasy. And sure, there’s a time and a place for that. But these writers who are frustrated with the fact that they have yet to publish a book should ask themselves one question: do I have a book that is ready for the marketplace? For fiction or memoir, that usually means a strong finished draft of a manuscript. For nonfiction, it’s a solid proposal and at least 2-3 chapters of polished sample material. Too often, the answer to this question of whether or not they have a book that is ready for the marketplace is no.
If you don’t know how publishing works, in most instances this is how:
A writer has a book that is ready for the marketplace.
They send a query letter to agents.
If interested, an agent asks to see a full manuscript or proposal.
The agent offers representation.
The writer signs with the agent.
The writer and agent work together to prepare the book for submission.
The agent sends the book to editors (this is called being “out on submission”).
The editor makes an offer.
The writer signs with the publisher.
Do not pretend to have written a book if you haven’t. Do not imply that a full manuscript or proposal exists if it does not. Do not lie to yourself, thinking you can complete one when and if an agent asks to see it, because you can’t. Most of all, do not send your agent or editor (or anyone for that matter) a manuscript containing plagiarized passages that you “plan to fix later.”
Sometimes agents will sign a writer who does not yet have a book that is ready for the marketplace, or that can be made ready with their help within the next year. They may sign a promising writer based soley on articles, essays, or stories they have published so far, by virtue of their talent and/or persona or platform. Personally, I don’t think this is the best set-up, although I’m sure you can find writers for whom it worked out just fine. But too often I have watched aspiring authors sign with an agent before having a completed manuscript or proposal, only to struggle to complete one under the immense weight of terror and self-induced pressure. Some writers might work perfectly well under these conditions, but many flounder or even drown. The work suffers. It doesn’t get done. The agent moves on, and the poor writer is left feeling even worse off than they were before, because now they not only don’t have an agent, but have lost one.
Do deserving books get overlooked by publishers? Of course. There are many famous examples, perhaps none more notable than the billion-dollar Harry Potter series, rejected by at least twelve publishers before being snatched up by Bloomsbury and Scholastic. However it is dangerous to assume that the only reason your own work hasn’t found a publisher is because agents and editors are idiots and you’ve penned an unrecognized masterpiece. Most of the time—not all of the time, but most of the time—the work isn’t ready. The concept is good but the writing itself doesn’t sing. Or the sentences are great but the story doesn’t quite work. Or the whole thing is uneven. Or the observations are trite. Or the timing feels wrong for this particular topic. Or, yes, maybe the author has simply been unlucky. They’ve queried the wrong agents, or the agent has failed to pick the right editors, or the editor has recently bought another book on the same topic even though yours is superior, of course, or, or, or, or, or…
As I said at the beginning, it’s not fair.
All you can do is write the book you want to write. Write the book you wish existed, but doesn’t, and it’s hardest to go wrong with that. If you write a book or a book proposal and don’t find any takers, then start over and write another one. Writing a beautiful book will unfortunately not guarantee that you’ll get published, or that, once published, you’ll achieve financial and critical success. It is, however, a pretty good place to start.
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