Getting Your First (Great) Book Deal


Moderator: Rita Arens, BlogHer and Surrender, Dorothy


  • Ali Eteraz,

  • Kamy Wicoff, She Writes

  • Laura Mazer, Perseus Books
Neeti Madan, Sterling Lord Literistic, Inc.

Rita: Ali Eteraz, he’s a memoirist and short story author. And Neeti, you just heard Jenny talk about, she is Jenny’s agent. And Kamy who is an novelist and is with She Writes. And Laura with Perseus Books.

Rita: Let’s hop right in. The big conversation in the industry is how publishing is changing. Options that weren’t there in the past. The first question I want to ask: How have the options affected how you’re acquiring work?

Neeti: Hi everyone, I did this panel with Rita 6 years ago. If you hear Jenny talk about the panel that was overwhelming and she walked out, that was me. As far as how the new methods affect things: I work with a section of book publishing that is with large traditional houses. That a small percentage now. There’s self publishing. Small houses. As far as trends in traditional publishing … I’ve been in publishing. for 15 years. People say isn’t ebook/selfpub. terrible? Aren’t people reading less? In truth people are reading more … but they’re reading all of the same books. I think a lot of the changes that have changes are good changes. I think it’s making more people read. Don’t get me started on Amazon.

Rita: From there can Laura tell us about how you decide how to acquire? How do you decide if a book will do well?

Laura: I’m not going to defend the pub. industry because it’s definitely broken. It comes from a long history that I won’t bore your with. In traditional publishing, there are all of these people who work with you toeditor/copy/pub. Most books do not earn out their advance. 60% don’t. As far as 88%. Not even necessarily big advances. If we’re going to invest in a book, we need to somehow figure out if it will bring back our investment. I have to judge, make a best guess. One thing we look at in proposals … where have you taken this before, blog/online/ have you been on TV/ where have you tested your argument? Has what you bring risen to the top? It makes me want to bring you in and get you to rise and bring us back what we put in. While we do need to sell books. we need to look at the proposal and see if it’s got what’s going to take to bring back in the investment.

Rita: Kamy, can you tell us how you don’t have the exact same challenges?

Kamy: I’m an autho.r I have one book that came out in 2006. It was ages ago. It was what was considered a good advance then. I had that experience I know what that looks like. Focus was kind of shifting from the house to the author. I did hire a publicist. I spent money I hoped would come back. You have this idea that you’re going to have this team of marketers … it didn’t happen then. You can’t expect that. I call that the 99% vs. 1%. It’s only about 1% of the people that get the focus from the publishers.

I started the community called It’s about helping each other. What are the best practices? How can we help each other?

We will take everything that happened at Seal Press. Bring in the same quality team, but the authors will invest up front. She Writes is not looking on what will come in on the back end. But, is it a good book? We think it’s ready. We think we can make this author happy and proud of her work. The royalties work differently. There isn’t an advance. You get 70% royalty. 80% on an ebook royalty rather than 25%. I feel like we’ve created something badly needed. In between a traditional house and self-publishing. Our authors get to have more control. We’ve been a place where people come when they haven’t been able to get published. A lot of people who have gotten “ I love it … but we can't do it.” I have a novel coming in the spring. I got a big offer from a big house, and I turned it down. I want to see if this is something that even a book with an offer can use to succeed.

Rita: As writers it’s important to be realistic and have goals. Personal and financial. My personal goal is to have the respect of my peers. Ali, can you tell us a little bit about your goals?

Ali: I guess before I jump into business I want to talk a little about writing, which is where it started. Me as a writer before me as a promoter and marketer. The business can go bankrupt. The writing is just there. The agent process. I had books it took agents 6 months to say no to. Another deal I had an contract 24 months before it would come out. What do you do in the meantime to sustain you? Sometimes you forget you have a book coming out. You have to have something. We have to be aware of the business. I am of the generation of bloggers that I had a book deal from my blog. A lot of these things weren't formal yet. You played things how you felt. Had a lot of time to try. I spent a lot of time making it the best. In this age, by hook or by crook, anyone can get published. As a writer you have to step back and say yes, you can rush this as a process. But you should step back and spend the time to?

My book coming out in September is something different. I didn’t go with the tradition press. It was experimental. I went to a mid-size press where they had more space to accept my work. To give me more control where I wanted to go. Where I wanted to take my work. You want to take your work to the people who would responding. With my next book, I’m going where I want. I’m not going to NY/Chicago. I’m only going where I can drive. I’m doing what I want. Last time I was exhausted. Like I’d been shot. It took me two years to recover from that emotional bullet. I was someone who had network, I had support, I had those things. Sometimes you just can’t do it. I’m not going to waste my time with a traditional house. I’m going to go to a hybrid where I have the space. You should always subject yourself to editorial fascism. Some writers who have been vetted might be talented but …?

Rita: Yes, you have to cut the arms and legs off the baby right? (haha) Let’s talk about how you get that vetting. My agent was good. The bigger process just didn’t work. My books went to a medium size and then smaller press. I was somewhat embarrassed that my work couldn’t be sold to Big Five. What I learned in pitching was invaluable to me. Could you talk about the pitch? The hook and the genre …

Neeti: A lot of authors start with an agent search if that’s where they're going. Ali told me I was opening myself up to a deluge of submissions by doing this panel. This panel is about all of the options. There are many ways to go about publishing. The thing is, be realistic. Do you have a book? Do you have a blog, and a following? But, your blog isn’t your book. A book shouldn’t be a re-purposing of your blog. For the kinds of books that many of you are working on that are probably narrative—who is the reader? Why does someone need to read a book rather than your blog? Who will be the audience? Does your audience need a book rather than your blog? Is my book one that I think has such a large general readership that I want to go with a traditional publisher? One way to find out is from trying to find an agent. Make sure you go to the right agents. Not every agent releases every book they represent. It’s a particular kind of marriage between and author and an agent. I don’t represent a lot of bloggers. I represent some. Jenny Lawson is one. I did the panel in 2008. I didn’t know who Jenny was. She had that interesting interaction with Heather Armstrong. I went and saw her blog and read. I thought her blog doesn’t need a book. Her blog exists. But, I just thought that she had a book. She had something to put out.

Laura: When you’re ready to promote yourself. To put yourself out there. Be the owner of your own expertise. I get a lot of questions about why you need such an elaborate pitch. It used to be that you had specific people that you went to for genres. But through time we find that everyone is more generalized. Certainly there are a few topics that I have a precise understanding of where a book would go. Other things I won’t. I need you to tell me where the audience is. I need you to tell me how wonderful the readers are. I need you to convince me because you’re the expert. If I don’t know anything about your topic, I rely on you to be the expert and explain it to me.

There are a lot of steps to getting in front of the boards … the sales team, the marketers. We have to convince all of these people that your book is awesome. I need you to give me something small that I can hand it over to these people. I need to be able to give a benchmark for how your book could do. The more data points you can give me to support the need for your book, the easier for me it is to pitch. Did you know that in the beginning asking for an advance on your book was shameful? Now the size of that advance is an arbiter of how well the editor thinks your book will do.

Kamy: When you submit to us, you’re put into one of three tracks. First your book is perfect and ready to go. We’re not looking at your audience or readers. It’s perfect and ready. It’s needs proofreaders and to get out in the world. And we help you get there. We have sales reps. They sell you to the trade. Where you control where your book goes. We work to help get your book out. The second track is you're almost there. It’s solid. We think you need a copy edit. The third is there's something here, you need coaching and direction. The book is still yours; you shop it. This is promising there’s something there … but we ask editors to get it where it needs to be. We help our authors get there. The catch-22 is that you need a platform to get your foot in the door… but having the book will help get you a platform. Our job is to work with you, and then the book is yours to work like you want. If you then want to go to a traditional publisher you’re welcome to do that. It’s your book.

Rita: I’m going to let our panelists answer questions to give their experience.

Question: Ashley 2 questions…. I have question about protecting work. If I submit something and I’m nobody. Could it just get another name slapped on it and stolen?

Ali: It doesn’t happen. I’ve never seen that happen.

Question: I wanted to add comment to Neeti. We had agent pitch us to put together a book proposal. We had our proposal shopped around. In the time that our agent was taking to not sell our book we got bigger and better and grew. Now we’re having our book come out.

Neeti: People do think that. Great agent, now my job is done. Not true. This happened to one of my largest clients. They said, I see you have a platform. I see you have a following. We put a pitch and shopped it, but the editors said no. We decided we needed to do a very different book than we pitched. We changed what she was doing and immediately had 10 offers.

Laura: I love that. I get authors who are great but what she’s pitching isn’t what she should be doing. This is what is in your wheelhouse. Then we try that and it takes off. That’s why you take the time on all parts of your proposal.

Question: Is it best to just take you manuscript or child/baby and just throw it out to agent/publisher house?

Ali: It depends on how long you want it to go. Do you care about the money; do you need in advance? How long do you want it to take? Do you want to try for the big houses or no? There’s a lot more versatility now.

Rita: I really like what Ali said about how different times in your life lead you to different places.

Ali: Like in film and music. You have someone working with Paramount. They're also working on an independent film. I’m not bound to one type of submission. I’m not bound to one type of writing. Compare yourself to actors and musicians.

Kamy: My thing is a little different. I heard this jazz musician talk about how he was going to go on his own. He was going to self-release. And no one thought he was a vanity musician.

Question: Self pub/trad pub. Does the market speak? I have a large platform. A successful blog. I write on cheating. I have this platform to myself. I knew there was a niche, and it’s been good. I self-published. On my first day I was #1 on Amazon for divorce. Do people ever go, “Hey, I have to convince you I have a message? Or do I have to give you my numbers and stats?"

Kamy: Plenty of traditional houses look as those self-publishing numbers and then acquire. Really look at those offers and think about what you want to do. You have to know what your goals are with each project. You have to know what you want to do with THIS book and with MY career.

Ali: A lot of young agents will just ask for your sales numbers.

Laura: I don’t want those too high because you may have made your sales. Don’t want them too low.

Question: We live in this digital world. We’re distracted. What is the target size? What is the target length for a book?

Ali: The standard everyday book is 80,000 words. 100,000 is getting heavy. 60,000 is a little under. 50,000 is not a book. It’s a booklet.

Rita: I check that every few months. My book was about 70k. I’ve seen them down to 55k. There are tons of publishing people on Twitter. See what people are saying. But if you have 80,000 words and they're not good … you know?

Question: For pitch … do you want the full book, a few chapters? Can you say what you prefer?

Neeti: Novel … we want to see the whole thing. Non-fiction … ideally I would hope someone would send a proposal like I submit. If I get asked … I ask for the first 3 chapters. Many of the books I represent now don’t come in to me that way. I like to help people craft their proposals. I would love something to come in done.

Rita: I would have it not only done, but I would have ridden that thing through 12 people. Do not send your rough draft. It’s painful. Once you’ve written the written it right, you’ve burned bridges.

Laura: Your pitch should sing. It should say “Hallelujah” It should be pretty. Give us all the ammo you have to champion you.

Question: Needing a book platform? Positioning your platform and where?

Laura: Book publishing is a long road to travel to create your initial platform. Maybe if I were building I would pick something a little less high-maintenance than publishing.

Kamy: We work with each author. Some we don’t pitch. Talking about getting to your best work. There are a lot of bad actors out there. Just having something that resembles a book doesn’t mean it’s been through this vetting and process. Seek out true expertise and subject yourself to it willingly.

Rita: Kamy & I are part of a Google group of authors. If it’s a business book, you’re launching the book to get speaking opportunities. You just want something to sit in the back of the room to sell when you speak. Try to get the speaking gigs. Are you trying to get into the airport book store ? Then you need a big house. To publish for the speaking gigs … go small.

Ali: L I did the stats. 1% people get a deal. If you want to be a blogger, be a blogger. I wasn’t in the 1%. If you want to blog blog. If you want to write, write. Ask why you want to write?

Neeti: If you are thinking you want to do a book to get to this other place … you shouldn’t do a book. It’s not what I do. If you just want to write a book and see people read it, then write the book.

Question: Since journalism school, I’ve been working on getting that work published. It’s all turned into … you should really write a blog. I’ve dragged myself through this process. I feel like every blog post I write is ripping away from my book. Is the She Writes the thing for me?

Kamy: Yes. If you have a great book, and it’s there and ready, we’re here. But if you’re still working on a readership,the realistic message around sales and audience is the same. With us we’re there and we can do the book. Beyond that most books don’t earn much. The reason to do this … when we started…. we wanted to understand realistically making your best book. Your most beautiful best book. That platform matters to all authors now. You can still have a well done book.

Rita: Someone told me when I published my first book it wouldn’t change my life, and I said “No! Yes it will!" You still have your family and friends. They won’t really understand why you wanted to do it in the first place. It really helps you focus on writing. You really get that writing a good sentence feels good. Your life won't change unless you're a dick.

Laura:You could have a website. You can populate it. Something just to say you have a standpoint. You have a place.

Ali: I think a community helps. Until I got there, I was extremely isolated. I would shoot out emails to authors and they would ignore me. Now I have the community.

Question: Is it necessary when you send the query letter to have your full proposal ready?

Rita: I would. I would have it done.

Laura: I wouldn’t sit on it long. I would have it done.

Rita: There are templates available online.

Neeti: I can tell the author exactly what to write. If it’s a book and I see an audience. That said, if you send a query, you better have something to send right away.

Ali: To Neeti … would you rather have something complete … or something that is ready for you to work with, edit?

Neeti: I want to know that you have what is going to help. I’m happy to edit, but if it’s done, even better.

Question: Non-fiction question. How might you position a collection of essays?

Neeti: I consider essays non-fiction. Narrative nonfiction. If someone sent me a collection of essays that was phenomenal, I would totally take it.

Ali: You shouldn’t wait to publish in book form. Publish in essay form. Get them published. Then you can bring the collection as a whole. Get your work out. Let people see it.

Neeti: Most reputable journals aren’t going to claim your rights.

Laura: For what it’s worth, short stories don’t sell as well as full novels.

Rita: If you look at how some people have done it successfully, you can see a through line. Chronological order might work. Structure is really important when you’re looking at memories.

Question: In the short essay space, a lot of feedback is I write, don’t show.

Ali: Your writing just has to be interesting. And good. And evocative. Good writing isn’t going to come from rules. It’s going to come from what you’re writing. If you want to get to that status that you want to get to …. you just have to work. You have to own your work. What do I want to be good at? Then I would apply the rules.

Kamy: If you’re getting consistent feedback … you have to take note of that. If it keeps coming back to you, you have to pay attention. The resistance on people is to take the criticism. You have to HEAR what people are saying about your work. What you’ve been resisting may be the thing that unlocks what you’ve been looking for. It’s what makes you professional.

Question: We’re not She Writes, but we’re friends. We publish short ebooks for and by women at about 10,000 words. One of the beautiful things about digital is that it can be any length. If you read something that feels really padded it could be that 10,000 words could have been enough. We take only highly polished works. So if it needs work go to She Writes first. (haha)

Related Links

Stop Fellow Authors! Before You Take That Book Deal Please, Read This in which Kamy talks about her decision to say no to a deal from a Big Five publisher and go indie instead.

Not Self-Publishing but Not Traditional Publishing: What is the Third Way?, in which Brooke breaks down the different kinds of publishing now available to authors, from self to traditional to partnership.

Partnership Publishing Defined: What Authors Need to Know, in which Brooke elaborates more on what a partnership publisher like She Writes Press does.

Distribution 101, in which Brooke wonks out but also explains a critical difference between self-publishing and partnership or traditional publishing.


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