How I got my first (real*) book deal

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Photo by Jonas Jacobsson on Unsplash

*With a decent advance, royalties, and a nationally distributed publisher

When I was younger, the idea of getting a book deal seemed almost unreal, yet i knew that thousands of books get published yearly by thousands of writers who get paid to write them. I know because I’ve written eight books, all of which were legit publishing deals with decent advances against royalties. In one case, a book I wrote with my brother on kitchen design generated six figures of income for each of us over a ten year span. Yes, they were all how-to non-fiction books, the category that is probably the easiest to break into for a beginning writer. So how did I get in the door?

I did my homework

This was in the mid nineties, before the ready access to information about everything we enjoy today, however the process would not be much different now. I note this because I started by stuffing my head with everything I could learn about the publishing industry and how other writers, in that genre, got in the door. In my case, back then, it meant going to the library, but you can substitute the web or Amazon as resources.

I went to the large library in the city where I lived and read every single book on the publishing industry. I learned cautionary tales, tales of huge successes and devastating failures, tricks of the trade and tricks the trade plays on writers. I read about agents and editors, the slush pile, and the relative hopelessness some aspiring writers experience going through the process. Eventually I ended up with a copy of a book called How To Write a Book Proposal by Michael Larsen, an agent based in San Francisco (the book is still in print). I came up with a topic (more about that in a minute) and targeted a publisher who dealt with that topic. Then I wrote the book proposal exactly as Larsen directly.

I wrote thirty pages before I even reached out to the publisher

My intent was to go direct to a publisher, bypassing an agent because it was unlikely that one would want a wannabe writer with an idea that probably would not generate enough royalties to justify their time. This ruled out the first tier publishers who virtually exclusively source book through agents. Because of this I targeted a niche publisher and I wrote my proposal. It consisted of:

  • An introductory letter that served as a pitch

I sent it off to the publisher, targeting a senior editor who name I got off the acknowledgements page of another recently published title. I really did not expect a response for a number of reasons, mainly because it was a shot in the dark and the subject was about as obscure as you could get. I saw the entire exercise as practice: could I generate the concept and content for an entire book?

*Later, writing the book essentially meant filling the sections

The Woodworker’s Marketing Guide (I told you it was obscure)

At the time my brother was a professional woodworker and I was a marketing copywriter. We had discussed how terrible woodworkers were at running their businesses and I thought maybe I could help. I knew that for many hobbyist woodworkers there was a fantasy of getting paid to do what they love, so I thought I could make a case for feeding that fantasy. But it was pretty far-fetched and the publisher (The Taunton Press) had never done any titles on the business of woodworking. But they were the leading publisher of books and magazines on the subject.

A few weeks went by. I was working at home one afternoon when the phone rang. It was the editor I’d sent the proposal to. She said they liked the idea and they wanted to offer me a $10,000 advance. I almost dropped the phone. I guess I said yes and she said she’d send a contract. It’s a bit of a blur now. But $10k was a lot of money for me back then, the equivalent of $16,500 in today’s dollars. Because of my research I knew this was unusually high for a book like this, but I wasn’t quibbling! I was now a professional author with a byline on a book. Or I would be (I had ghostwritten two titles previously for area organizations but that was not the same thing- neither saw the light of day, though I did get paid).

Did I get lucky?

I realize in hindsight that getting a contract like this for your very first serious query is extremely unusual- an outlier. But I had really done my homework and that proposal showed that I was a serious professional or at least an aspiring one. And I was right about the obscurity of that subject because it never earned out its advance (advances are non-recoupable, you don’t have pay them back. Never, ever agree to anything else!). But it led to two more books with Taunton that did make money. The third title, Kitchens That Work, written with my brother Richard, who was now a kitchen designer, had a much larger advance and sold well for fifteen years in both hardcover and softcover editions. That meant royalty checks came quarterly for years with no additional effort on our parts (passive income is a beautiful thing!).

I able to do the same thing with another mid-size publisher who took a concept for a series of three books, all how-to small business subjects. As the nineties ended, I moved into higher level B2B marketing roles and only wrote books if I thought the subject was really worth it to me.

Can you do it today with the flood of self-published books out there?

Yes, anyone can publish on Amazon and maybe make a few bucks. However, the quality of these books is often so low that people looking for quality information still buy professionally published books. There is still a publishing industry out there and they need titles, especially in the niche areas like how-to. Unfortunately there is so much desperation to get published that some of the publishers have realized they can offer small one-time payments without royalties (work for hire) and still get writers to take the deal. If writing a book on those terms can lead to business opportunities as a subject matter expert, then it may be justified. That’s a different subject.

Do your homework, write a proposal, polish it with detail, and try it. You never know. That dumb book idea changed my life and made me a pro.

Written by

Novelist, Tech Marketing Writer, Growth Consultant. I have been a professional writer for over 20 years- 8 non-fiction books and 1 novel, many articles, etc.

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