I’ve received a lot of questions lately about the traditional publishing process and getting a book deal, so I figured I’d answer them for everyone—in case you’re curious. Even if you don’t plan on writing a book, or plan on ever pursuing traditional publishing, it’s hopefully pretty interesting. I’ve avoided most things that require a gatekeeper in the past, so this is very new to me.
I will note that I’m definitely not an expert in this subject, since I only have the one experience so far. Read this more as a “one person who’s done one thing once” than my usual writing, which tends to come from decades of experience and deep(ish) thinking.
Why traditional publishing?
First, I wanted to learn more about it. I’ve done quite a bit of self-publishing (70,000+ sales across four books) but I knew zero about how the traditional side worked. I wanted to figure it out, and the most effective way I learn is by actually doing, so that’s what I did.
Second, I love the idea of experimenting, so I was curious to see what my experience would be like and how sales would work with a publisher also promoting my book.
Third, I wanted to get the book’s story out to as many folks as possible. Most of you on my list already get the value of not blindly growing a business in all directions, since it’s something I’ve talked about for years. And the book will totally be for you (it’s 100% original content too). But there’s a whole other bunch of folks who think business works in a certain way and looks a certain way and that success is fairly narrowly defined. I want to propose a counter-intuitive argument to that way of thinking for those people. And I think a traditionally published book can accomplish that.
Finally, I want to improve my writing. I already write good-ish, but having a talented team of folks pushing me to do even better is a total win. I’m not even talking technical writing either—I want to get better at making points and valid arguments, telling stories and making my words remarkable. By surrounding myself with people whose sole job is to enhance my writing (so it sells more), I can accomplish this.
Why get a literary agent for the traditional publishing process?
Quite a few people have asked why I chose to go with an agent, instead of going directly to publishers.
As I mentioned, I knew nothing about the industry, so I wanted someone on my side, to make sure I got the best deal possible. That’s what an agent does. But an agent also helps authors write their book proposals, which are the biggest part of landing a book deal. They help think up the best way to position it (since they know the industry), they think of the best editors at publishers to pitch it to (since they have contacts and business relationships) and they make sure the proposal itself is written as well as it possibly can be.
My agent has also been my Yoda (my guide for non-nerds) through this whole thing. She knows exactly how the process works, why, and how to get the most out of it. She gave me the information I needed to make decisions as well what to think about when writing the book proposal. And she helped me position my voice and style to work best for the audience I wanted to reach. She’s been absolutely invaluable in this process.
I’ve heard from several folks that finding a great literary agent is as important as finding a publisher, and I believe it.
How’d you get an agent for the traditional publishing process?
First, I asked. It sounds silly, but for those of you who’ve been on my list since last year, the first email of 2017 I mentioned that I was looking for agent. I was floored by how many people replied, saying they were an agent, they knew an agent or they had an agent they wanted to introduce me to. People were happy to make intros for me, I suppose because they all knew my writing inside and out, having been readers for a while. And a few were folks I’ve gotten to know over the last few years.
I spoke to 4 agents total. It would have been 5 but the 5th had some email issues so we didn’t get a chance to talk. There was also a 6th agent who I just didn’t hear back from in time to even consider. I wanted to move quickly, so I went with an agent who was up for the speed in which I work.
I chose the agent I did mostly as a gut decision. Talking to her felt easy, she completely understood what I was after, got the vision of the book’s topic and even had a lot of awesome suggestions on how to make it even better and more captivating. It also helped that she came highly recommended from a rad friend and fellow author/friend, had a great track record, and knew my genre well. The second choice also seemed like an amazing agent and was recommended to me by a good friend too.
I can’t speak for the agents that said they were interested in working with me (all but one wanted to), but I have a feeling it’s due to a combination of the platform/audience I’ve built, my consistent practice of writing, how my previous books performed, and how viable the idea I had for the book is (in terms of what can sell in the market right now). I also think having a very warm intro to each certainly helped—so I wasn’t just some schmuck off the street peddling a book idea.
So… how’d I get a 6-figure book deal?
The first step in the traditional publishing process was to write a book proposal. This is what my agent shopped around to editors at publishing houses. The book proposal is basically a book in short form. It covers a hook, a specific marketing plan, your current platform, a chapter summary (“In this chapter I will explore/discuss/interview”) and who you are as an author. It took about three months to write and is almost 60 pages.
I can’t stress enough how important it is to have an engaged audience across multiple platforms, but especially a mailing list (since we all know mailing lists convert better than anything else). Publishers, editors and agents want to know there is already an existing audience, a decent-sized one (reaching tens of thousands of people per month or more), out there craving your words and ideas. This is the proof they need that your words are hitting a chord with others. From what I’ve gathered, the whole process can only happen once you’ve demonstrated that you’ve built up a following, have lots of “influencer” connections and have a good track record of releasing words that resonate with others on a consistent basis.
Once the proposal was done, my agent started talking with specific editors at publishing companies that might be interested. From there, I had phone conversations with editors to talk about who I was as a writer, my vision for the book and the philosophy behind it. They were intellectual rather than salesy conversations (which I thoroughly enjoyed) with ridiculously intelligent and curious book nerds. The conversations also seemed to involve a lot of questions about my lifestyle too (since they are all NYC people and I live in the woods on an island), which I found both funny and entertaining.
Almost-final thoughts on the traditional publishing process
I honestly think the surefire way to get a great book deal is to have a killer agent. I know some folks who’ve gotten book deals directly from publishers, but most of them made less money and gave up more control because they’re not experts in the publishing industry.
Agents go to bat for you, they work their existing industry connections and know the business inside and out. They take care of things you wouldn’t even think to do like setting deadlines for bids (which can encourage multiple offers/auctions). They pitch you as an awesome writer, because pitching yourself can be… awkward.
To summarize, here’s how I got a book deal:
- I worked for 20 years in the field I write about, and never stopped trying to learn about it and notice it. I’ve had just as many mistakes as wins, so there’s a lot to write about.
- I wrote for many years, consistently, and built an audience on a mailing list to demonstrate to agents and publishers that people were already paying attention.
- I always looked to make real human connections with others, so when I needed to ask for help, there were lots of offers.
- I found the best agent ever.
- I self-published 4 books prior, which sold over 70,000 copies in several languages.
- I wrote a solid book proposal.
- The book proposal (and agent) found a great editor and publisher.
My journey, however, has just started with the book I’m working on, since I only just submitted the first draft.
Just so we’re clear here
You don’t need any of the above to publish a book. This just illustrates one way, of many, to do it. The only thing you need to publish a book is to give other people a way to get or buy it.
For many people I know—they want to write a book and are stopped because the above doesn’t work out for them. It could have just as easily not worked out for me. If that had happened, I would have written the same book, and self-published, just as I’ve done 4 times before. I’m happy about my agent and editor, but I’d have been just as happy to log into Amazon and publish it myself.
In order to publish a book, you just have to write a book and share it—that’s it. That can mean saving it as a PDF and sending it to all your friends, clients or students. That can mean putting it on Gumroad or Squarespace for sale. That can mean saving it in the right format (or paying someone a few hundred bucks) to upload it to Amazon’s KDP or CreateSpace platform, so your book is for sale where every other traditionally published book is also for sale. Amazon lets anyone, self or traditionally published, essentially put their books on the exact same digital shelf.
You don’t need an agent, a publisher or even a design to do any of that. Your book is still a book, and the only thing stopping you from putting it out into the world, a lot of the time is you. There are zero gatekeepers required to publish your book, those are completely optional.
Just because I got a book deal this time doesn’t mean I’m not still a huge advocate for saying fuck it to gate keepers and doing things your way, on your terms. If you’ve already written a book that’s not out there, stop waiting for permission, stop waiting for agents or publishers or anyone else to approve of it. Proofread it one more time, save it as a PDF and start selling the crap out of it.