A Charmed Life
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:
- Don’t write the book first.
- Become a non-bad writer.
- Identify a first-timer compatible idea.
- Pitch the right agent.
- 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:
- It is something that a large audience will feel like they have to buy.
- 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.
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.