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How to Get a Book Deal: Lessons From My Adventures in the World of Non-Fiction Publishing

March 28th, 2008 · 42 comments

A Charmed LifeBook Deal

I signed with my literary agent at the age of twenty. At twenty-one I signed my first book deal with Random House. The next year, I signed my second deal. Neither titles became New York Times Bestsellers, and I’m yet to appear on Oprah, but beyond these two exceptions I have, more or less, lived out all of the standard writer daydreams that first led me down this path. Among other things:

  • I’ve appeared as an expert on NBC, ABC, and CBS.
  • I’ve been interviewed on well over 50 radio programs and have been featured in big newspapers.
  • My books have been translated into exotic languages (my favorite is the Korean edition of How to Win at College, which features, bafflingly, images of robots watering flowers.)
  • I have had publicists and editors and agents and assistants all working on my behalf.
  • I’ve been flown around the country.
  • I’ve been projected on the Jumbotron in Times Square and put up in a $500 a night hotel overlooking Central Park.

All in all, not a bad way to spend the first half of my twenties.

The Inevitable Question

Because of these experiences, I often get asked the inevitable question: how did you get your book deal? I love talking about the process because I find it fascinating. But I thought it might prove useful to dump everything I know into one post — a definitive answer that captures all the little insights and tricks that might elude me in casual conversation.

In this post I describe everything I’ve learned about how a first-time writer can maximize his chances of landing a non-fiction book deal. This is based only on my specific experiences. But if you have writer ambitions, it’s a good place to start.

My “Secret” Process

Here are the steps in my process:

  1. Don’t write the book first.
  2. Become a non-bad writer.
  3. Identify a first-timer compatible idea.
  4. Pitch the right agent.
  5. Practice proposal yoga.

Below I explain each step in detail, and, when useful, provide examples from my experience selling my first book.

STEP 1: Don’t write the book first

For non-fiction, you don’t write the book until after you’ve signed a book deal. If you’ve already written the book, pretend like you haven’t. Definitely do not self-publish if you plan on later trying to sell to a publisher. Unless you can sell an extraordinary number of copies (think: Chicken Soup for the Soul), having an existing version will hurt your chances of getting a deal.

STEP 2: Become a non-bad writer

You don’t have to be a good writer to land a book deal. I’ve been writing seriously for 7 years and am still trying to figure out how to become good. You can’t, however, be a bad writer. Your writing has to be tolerable for 200 pages. In other words, you have to shake off the stench of amateurism before you start talking to people in the publishing world. Trust me, one of the first things a potential agent or editor will want from you is writing samples, writing samples, and more writing samples.

How do you know if you’re bad? If your only writing experience is e-mails and school papers then assume you’re bad.

How do you become non-bad? My rough rule: spend at least one year writing for edited publications.

My Experience: I started writing seriously at the beginning of my sophomore year. I eventually worked myself up to become a columnist for the daily paper and the editor of the campus humor magazine. About six months before I began shopping my book idea I started writing freelance advice articles for student-centric magazines. I ended up sending samples of all of this writing to my agent-to-be when she was deciding whether or not to take me on as a client.

STEP 3: Identify a first-timer compatible idea

There are all sorts of interesting non-fiction book ideas. Most of them, however, are off limits to a first-time writer. If you’re not famous or an established journalist, then your idea most satisfy the following:

  1. It is something that a large audience will feel like they have to buy.
  2. You are uniquely suited to write about it.

Most first-timer writers have ideas that satisfy at least one of these rules. Few, however, hit both.

If your idea is simply interesting (e.g., a book about some new youth phenomenon) then you’re violating rule #1. Interesting ideas need to be really well-written to succeed, therefore publishers will allow only established writers to tackle them. Your idea needs to be more than interesting, it needs to be something that people need to have — regardless of whether or not the writing sparkles.

Similarly, if your idea is a must-buy, but has little to do with your unique skills, then you’re violating rule #2. The publisher will look past you to someone who is a better fit. If I had pitched Random House a book on finding balance in your life, they would have tossed it right out — as a 20-year-old I wouldn’t have had the relevant experience to talk convincingly about such issues.

My Experience: For How to Win at College, I satisfied rule #1 by arguing that this book would be the only advice guide that focused on doing well as oppose to just “surviving.” Therefore, for any student who wants or needs to do well in school, my book would be a must-buy. I satisfied rule #2 because I was a student who was doing well at a good college and had been writing about these issues for national publications.

STEP 4: Pitch the right agent

Books are sold by agents. If your idea is not good enough to get an agent then it’s not good enough to be bought by a publisher. As a first-time writer, an agent is the only reasonable path to get your idea considered by a publisher. The implication: get an agent.

Roughly speaking, the process works as follows: you send a one-page query letter to targeted agents. The agents who are interested will follow-up and ask for more information on you, your writing ability, and your idea. Those who are still interested will offer representation.

If you have a personal connection to an agent, you can probably skip the query-letter stage by contacting them directly. However, if your idea does not satisfy the Step #3 conditions, they’re not going to work with you, regardless of who you know.

How do you identify the right agents to pitch? Here’s the trick that worked for me. Go to the bookstore and find books that are similar to your idea. Flip to the acknowledgments. The author will thank his agent. Google the name to see if the agent accepts unsolicited queries. If so, pitch.

How do you figure out how to write a query letter? Buy a book on writing query letters and follow the instructions. There’s no dark magic here. I used this guide.

STEP 5: Practice proposal yoga

Once you have an agent, she will guide you through the process of writing the proposal that she’ll take to the publishers. Listen to her! She’s the one who talks to editors every week. She knows what they want, what they don’t want, and the thousands of ways authors can sabotage their chances of landing a deal. So be flexible.

My Experience: I stayed true to the core concept of my first book, but it otherwise was subjected to a lot of tweaks to make it more palatable. My tone was toned down, my chapter length expanded, new topics inserted, more students interviewed. This is not how I would have written the proposal if left to my own devices. Then again, the proposal I would have written would probably have never been bought.

Conclusion

The process of selling a book idea is not as difficult as many people think. It is, however, sensitive. That is, if at any point you veer from the accepted path, you run the risk of immediate rejection — regardless of the quality of the idea. Therefore, if you’re serious about writing a book, be serious about figuring out how this world works. If you do, you might be surprised by how smoothly the experience can proceed.

42 thoughts on “How to Get a Book Deal: Lessons From My Adventures in the World of Non-Fiction Publishing

  1. Tony says:

    I’m glad I came across this post, because I’m a college student working on writing a non-fiction book!

    One thing I have trouble with is being too self critical. I think writing “non-bad” is good advice, because writing “good” can be pretty tough.

  2. Study Hacks says:

    @Tony:

    I’ve never met a writer who thinks they’re good. The problem is, I think, the better you become, the more aware you become of how you could be better. Being non-bad, however, now that’s doable!

  3. sean says:

    I am not non-bad and i am not good…Is there hope for bad writers? lol Wondering why i’d ask? because there’s a hell of a lot of bad writers out there…

  4. Study Hacks says:

    @sean:

    It’s not that hard to become non-bad, and definitely worth it!

  5. Bill says:

    Great post and sound suggestions. I’m stuck at the point of finding/pitching the right literary agent. The idea is relatively simple, but I’m just not sure who would be the right person to talk. My concept is: “Please Fire Me: 25 years, 17 jobs, one employee.” A humorous anecdotal account of my first quarter century of life and the ridiculous jobs that have kept me afloat, including financing my honeymoon by working as a clown in the underground children’s entertainment industry, being an undocumented worker in France illegally teaching English to demented French youths, being an office manager where I had to fire someone every single day, being a political consultant to a 12-person Indian tribe, and a lot more.

    I’ve got a wealth of hilarious experiences to share, several years of non-bad writing (and even some occasional good writing in there), and a concept that everyone can relate to but a first-timer can write. I just can’t figure out what category this idea falls in or how to find comparable literature. The only thing I can think of is David Sedaris-type essays that are tied to personal experiences. But I’d obviously like to fire off my idea to range of agents.

    Anyway, I hoped you might be able to steer me in the right direction. Thanks in advance for anything that comes to mind.

  6. Study Hacks says:

    @Bill:

    This type of idea succeeds or fails almost entirely due to writer skill. (In other words, it’s not the type of non-professional first-timer idea I described above.)

    My knee-jerk reaction is that any serious agent is going to want to see that you’re a talented essayist. The implication would be for you to focus on your writing, If you can essays about some of these experiences published in good venues then I think you’d have an easier time convincing a strong agent. But take this all with a grain of salt…I’m no expert once we leave my comfort area of advice non-fiction.

  7. Vlad says:

    Interesting article. I’ll definitely bookmark it for when I’m ready to publish a book. For now I’m working on improving my writing skills (as someone said – “suck less every day” :) )

    It’s interesting that you say you shouldn’t write the book before pitching it. Tim Ferris gives exactly the same advice on starting a business. Test the demand first before even making a product.

    Anyway, I think I’ll find more ways to improve my writing, for now I only have a blog. I might try writing some short stories. I always liked fiction :)

    Keep up the great blog!

  8. Study Hacks says:

    @Vlad:

    Thanks Vlad. Keep writing!

  9. Manny Stiles says:

    Jeez, I don’t suck, I don’t fear sucking and I don’t EVER have a problem with “writer’s block” – hell, I often feel like I can’t get it ALL out!!!

    I started writing on a “blog” and let my “online personna” overtake my real life abilities. I’ve put myself ina position where I am writing 20,000 words a week without effort, yet there’s little purposeful direction.

    I think I’m a great writer because my passion for stortelling is greater than my ability to be “palatable” for mass consumption. How do I tune myself to open up to greater “mass appeal”?

    What is a writer who writes because they MUST write supposed to do in this world to get the attention of an agent who will be capable of reining in and purposefully directing that spirit that consumes a wordsmith like myself?

    I’m SICK of people telling me I could write about “toaster ovens” (all fine and dandy, but I don’t like toaster ovens THAT much) and make it a good read? How do I convince an agent to mold me?

    Or better yet, how does a person like me find an agent – out of the blue – to direct my endless spew of wordcrafting and talent? I’ve tried (in my own obnoxious ways) to little avail…

    I guess responding to blogs like this isn’t helpful?

  10. Ann Mitchell says:

    I’m not college educated, so I don’t feel very qualified to have a book published. However some of the books I read are shallow and haven’t an interesting storyline. I’m 63 and would love to accomplished having a book or two published. I have so many unique stories that I know would be non-bad writing. What do I need to do to get prepared for communicating with an agent. I’m so in the dark with this business PLEASE help me.

  11. Study Hacks says:

    I have so many unique stories that I know would be non-bad writing. What do I need to do to get prepared for communicating with an agent. I’m so in the dark with this business PLEASE help me.

    If you want to try to publish a book of unique stories you have to become an established writer first. At least from my experience, as mentioned above, a first-time writer needs a topic that people feel like they have to buy; personal stories fail this test. My two pieces of advice would be to: (a) search for a unique angle on your stories; (b) do lot’s of writing. If you can start publishing in some smaller venues you can potentially pass the established writer’s test.

  12. Mary Ellen says:

    Thanks for giving your insight.
    This is exceptionally helpful.

  13. Heidi Lynn says:

    Great post. What about a non-fiction book?

  14. Heidi Lynn says:

    Jeez, not awake yet no coffee, – what about a fiction book?

  15. Study Hacks says:

    Jeez, not awake yet no coffee, – what about a fiction book?

    It’s a lot different for fiction. I don’t know enough to give specifics, but definitely don’t use what I say in this post to guide you through the world of fiction publishing.

  16. AB says:

    Hi! I’ve enjoyed reading this entry, thanks so much. I have a question: How many literary agents should you initially pitch yourself to? I wrote to one, but feel like maybe I should be writing to a bunch and see who responds. Could you comment about this process and how long it usually takes? Thanks so much! AB

  17. Study Hacks says:

    I have a question: How many literary agents should you initially pitch yourself to?

    Write to 2 – 3 that are very well matched to your project. If you get no responses (or just form letter rejections), then you need to reconsider your pitch before trying more. On the other hand, if there is real interest, but they decide, in the end to pass, then you might need to just keep pitching until you hit the right match.

  18. Andrew says:

    Great advice. I’m hoping you can tell me whether the following idea is something a large audience will feel like they have to buy: “Teaching Evolution, Finding God.” The story line: In 2006, I joined Teach For America after working for two years as a business consultant to the military industrial complex. My life was devoid of purpose and I was searching for meaning. Teach For America assigned me to teach biology to a very poor and very religious population of Filipino students on the island of Oahu in Hawaii. Having majored in Political Science at Stanford University, I had to relearn the subject of biology – including evolutionary biology. I immersed myself in the material. What I learned took my breath away. I felt compelled to share my new insights with my students, whatever their religious convictions. While every other biology teacher in my school was reluctant to teach even the most basic outline of evolution, I jumped head first into such controversial topics as human evolution, evidence for evolution, and science’s explanation for the origin of life. In teaching the subject, I not only challenged the traditional views held by many of my students. I changed their minds and I found faith in a god that is not supernatural but entirely natural – Mother Nature. What do you think?

  19. Study Hacks says:

    Great advice. I’m hoping you can tell me whether the following idea is something a large audience will feel like they have to buy: “Teaching Evolution, Finding God.”

    That doesn’t match my conception of an idea that an audience feels like they have to buy. In general, titles that meet that description offer new advice on toward a solution people really, really desire.

    Experience and memoir books are different. To sell such an idea it helps to have an interesting life (which it sounds like you have). But it also requires that you’re a good writer. (These books are very hard to make readable.) My advice would be to start working on ways of proving to the publishing world that you’re a professional-caliber writer. This usually means publication in competitive venues, such periodicals.

  20. Andrew says:

    If I’m trying to get my start by writing first for periodicals, would it make sense to start out by writing an article for my college’s alumni magazine? And then working my way up from there? What kind of periodical do I need to publish in to give me the credibility I need to pitch a book? Any other advice on how to get published by a periodical? Thanks again!

  21. Study Hacks says:

    If I’m trying to get my start by writing first for periodicals, would it make sense to start out by writing an article for my college’s alumni magazine?

    That would be great if you’re able to sell an article there. (Depending on the school, this might be difficult.)

    Another good place to start are small magazines or online magazines that pay very little or not at all. My first publications, for example, were for the now defunct CollegeBound Magazine. The key is to find some place to generate bylines and writing samples, then start laddering up to better and better publications.

  22. Alex says:

    I’m finishing up what a historical fiction novel. As I near completion, I’ve prepared my query letter and was about to begin sending it out to agents until I saw your site. Everyone I’ve ever spoken to says “finish the book, then contact agents because they will want to read your manuscript” but you say “contact before you finish.” What’s the deal here?

    Also, just out of curiosity, do you know what kind of word length tends to be acceptable for my genre. Again I’m seeing a VAST array of ranges and I don’t know where I should be. I think I’m a bit long at the moment, but I can always edit down.

  23. Study Hacks says:

    Everyone I’ve ever spoken to says “finish the book, then contact agents because they will want to read your manuscript” but you say “contact before you finish.” What’s the deal here?

    I’m talking about non-fiction publishing. In fiction publishing, which I know very little about, you do have to write the manuscript first.

  24. Diane says:

    This is probably an elementary question, but when contacting potential agents, is email preferable, or snail mail? I’ve lost 150 pounds and maintained it for 12 years – taught classes, written for newspapers, have the book done and would like to explore getting it published. I didn’t know I wasn’t supposed to write the book! (I needed it for my class though) Thanks.

  25. Study Hacks says:

    This is probably an elementary question, but when contacting potential agents, is email preferable, or snail mail?

    Agents usually specify their preference on their website.

  26. This is my first time here (through googling on how to get book deals) and I’m glad I found this blog. I’m currently in the process of writing a book (intending to have this as a free ebook), with idea brewing for a 2nd book which I intend to get published (and hence the googling). You clearly know what you’re doing and it’s amazing given your age. I’m subscribing to this blog!

  27. David Bannasch says:

    Excellent information! I think I’m right where I’m supposed to be in the process. I haven’t written my non-fiction book yet because I’m certain it’s worth a great book deal. My book appeals to a massive audience with lot’s of money to spend. I would classify the book as a “must read” within a well established field. Although there are a few bloggers in my field it’s absolutely amazing that there are no books. I’m sure the bloggers have to be thinking “book” and honestly there is probably room for more than one book on the topic. However, I’m concerned that if I take my “million dollar idea” to an agent, they will run with it and have someone more qualified than myself write it. Then I’m what, stuck trying to publish a competing book? Any thoughts?

  28. Some good info. Not sure about the phrase ‘ become a non-bad writer’ though… However, good practical advice and good luck with the Oprah side of things!

  29. Ken says:

    Great advice. I’m a huge fan of mind-hack reading and you blog is one of my favorite. I don’t know if you contract out your responses a la 4-hr-work-week style, but that your site responds to so many readers is impressive. So many bloggers, many with more time on their hands, never bother to respond to readers of old threads, yours is different and I respect that.

  30. Study Hacks says:

    So many bloggers, many with more time on their hands, never bother to respond to readers of old threads, yours is different and I respect that.

    I try to respond to questions from old threads whenever I notice them popping up in my comment moderation system. Unfortunately, some also slip by unnoticed.

  31. Charlie F says:

    Wow, I’m so glad that I found this! I’ve been mulling over
    book ideas since I was in high school (I’ve now graduated with a
    Bachelor’s degree), but all of my ideas are for extremely niche
    topics. I’ll think of topics that have greater appeal now, develop
    my blog further, and hopefully start writing regularly for other
    places for a year or so. Then I’ll revisit! Again,
    thanks!!

  32. Birgit says:

    In one of your books you tell us to never, ever skip a lesson unless it covers a book you have written yourself.
    That definition of “never” kinda stuck with me and turned into a big and crazy goal.
    Well, three years have passed, I’m 21, in my senior year, and I just found this course at our university… I’m sooo tempted to sign up, because I would have a reason to skip class ;-). (In fact, I’ve taught almost the same course as an adjunct at a summer school, but that was just a side effect).
    It’s been a while since you wrote this article, but I want you to know that it did make a difference. It wasn’t the information (expose, blah, blah) that was important, but the fact that your entire blog teaches how those crazy academic superstars are just normal kids who make a few smart choices instead of following the mainstream.
    Thank you so much,
    Birgit

  33. Heather says:

    I found this post really helpful and had a question I thought you might best be able to answer. It concerns writing articles for a magazine that would be related to the topic that one might want to do their non-fiction book on later. Does it hurt the writer’s chance at getting a full book deal on the expanded topic or “whole story” of shorter articles written for magazines on that topic? When an article is published in a magazine I read that sometimes publications you have to turn over some rights to the article so I didn’t know if it was best to keep it all for the book and just try to publish articles in magazines on different topics.
    Thanks in advance for any feedback,
    Heather

  34. Study Hacks says:
    Does it hurt the writer’s chance at getting a full book deal on the expanded topic or “whole story” of shorter articles written for magazines on that topic?

    No, it actually helps to have a published magazine article on the subject. One of the easiest pitches to make is: “Here is a popular magazine article I wrote. Let’s make it a book.”

  35. alex says:

    I want to write a book about my years in high school. I’m not going to make it about realtionships and drama but how I made it though, with family problems and everything. Is that idea over used?

  36. beth says:

    I am wondering about the world of Christian non fiction. Is it a different beast entirely? I feel I have a great story to tell about how I have survived adopting 3 siblings from state care and adding to my brood of 4 to make a grand total of 7. This would be from a Christian perspective.

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