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Keys to Landing a Book Publishing Deal, Part 1

A publishing deal with a Big Four New York publisher (yes, it used to be Big Five, but then HarperCollins bought Simon & Schuster. So it goes.). For most authors it’s the Holy Grail, the Promised Land, the brass ring. It can also seem as remote as your odds of winning the latest Powerball drawing. Still, most authors I’ve talked with get all starry-eyed at the thought of flying to Manhattan, sitting down with their agent at a table at Macmillan or HarperCollins, and inking a big, fat contract with a big, fat advance.

Fat chance, right? Well, maybe. Depends on what you do. See, as coveted as the Big Five book deal is, landing one isn’t magic. I’ve helped about 20 of the authors I ghostwrite for get such deals—a lot of them for six figures. So it can be done.

But like most things that are infinitely desirable, landing a book deal from Penguin Random House, Macmillan, Hachette, or HarperCollins (or their second tier but equally desirable brethren such as Workman, Kensington and SourceBooks) is HARD. It takes work, and it takes smarts. And while I can’t help you with the first, I can with the second. So here are 7 things you should definitely do to improve your odds of getting a deal.*

*”Improve your odds” means just that: your chances get better. There are no sure things unless your last name is Rowling or Winfrey.

  • Know the market. The most important quality any unpublished author can have, other than being a sharp writer, is being original. Whatever genre you’re writing in, fiction or nonfiction, learn the marketplace. What’s come out recently? What’s coming out? You can read Publisher’s Weekly or Publisher’s Marketplace and find out. Are there lots of other books like yours? Are they selling? Could you spin your story or your concept to make it truly unique? That’s going to help you.

  • Get an agent. I know, I know. Easier said than done. But truly, literary agents don’t cackle with glee when they reject your queries about representation. They just don’t think you’ll be profitable for them. Yes, agents make money off your sales and they want to pay their mortgage. Stop demonizing them and start understanding them. First of all, yes, you need an agent. You won’t get in the door at a big New York publisher without one. Second, you need to be a good risk, which means you need to be marketable, be a terrific writer, have a great idea, and know how to promote yourself. If you’re all those things, keep querying. Find agents at Publishers Marketplace or AgentQuery. Follow their query guidelines to the letter. And keep querying. It can take dozens of “no”s before you get to yes.

  • Build your platform. One of the chief reasons agents and publishers reject books is because the authors have no way to reach readers. This is slightly less important for fiction, but it’s still important. Remember this: You will not get a book deal on the strength of your book alone. You need a platform. What’s that? It’s all your ways of reaching readers who will buy your book. For all practical purposes, that means social media, your blog/video blog, your email list, and any publishing you do on places like LinkedIn, Medium, HuffPost or Thrive. If you don’t have the ability to reach at least 100,000 people through those channels combined, then stop what you’re doing right now. Step back from trying to get a deal for one year and just build your platform. Period. Tweet. Post. Blog. Publish. Podcast. Record video. Comment. Connect with readers. Build your fan base. You’ll thank me later.

  • Assume no one cares about your book. The worst mistake I see authors make, time and time again, is assuming that their book is so wonderful that they don’t need to build their platform, know the market, or do anything other than drop it on an agent’s doorstep. Surely, when agents or acquisitions editors read the wonders in the manuscript, they’ll fall all over themselves to write a big check or offer a representation agreement. Uh…NO. Doesn’t work that way. Unless you’re a once-in-a-generation talent, world famous or have two million Twitter followers, publishers and agents alike will look for reasons to say “No” to your book. So assume that you’ll be in for an uphill battle. Be knowledgeable and professional. Know the market. Have a strong platform. Understand marketing. Be grateful for any responses or advice you get.

  • Ask for advice. Speaking of advice, don’t be shy about asking for feedback from agents or publishers. How can you improve your query or pitch? How might you make your writing better or tweak your idea to make it different from the thousand other books out there just like yours? When you have access to the experts, pick their brains. Most will offer advice if they have time. It’s up to you to take it. My recommendation: take the advice you don’t like especially seriously.

  • Be persistent. Success in publishing always lies on the other side of a mountain of rejection letters (or emails; I’m showing my age). You’re going to fail a lot more than you succeed when querying agents, or when your agent queries publishers. You may never find a home for a book you love; it could take you years to land an agent who “gets” your work. Don’t give up. If this was easy, everybody would do it.

  • Package yourself as a pro. There are a lot of amateurs in the world of books and authors. I would argue that 90% of wannabe authors don’t know the business, don’t know proper etiquette in reaching out to publishing professionals, think their work is way better than it really is, and haven’t a clue how to market themselves. Don’t be them. An agent or editor will be more likely to want to work with you if you come across as a player, a polished pro. That means 4 things.

  1. First, hire a pro to design an attractive, professional website that showcases you and your work.

  2. Second, grab your name as a web address and get an email address that ends in (A gmail address screams “Amateur!”)

  3. Third, print nice business cards that say something simple, like “Author” or “Journalist.”

  4. Finally, be restrained, polite and patient. Remember that agents and publishers are out to meet their own needs, not yours. Help them do that and you’ll have an edge.

Now, go write.

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