On the experience of shopping a book proposal

Following my piece on agents and why you want one, a brief note on shopping a proposal.

Rejection is inevitable.

You know those stories about how Catcher in the Rye or Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance was rejected by 37 publishers before someone finally saw its potential? Before I pitched my first trade press book, it seemed incredible that such books wouldn’t be snapped up; now, I hear those kinds of stories and think, Yeah, that’s how it works.

For each of my books, my agent sent out copies of the proposal to a couple dozen editors. (They go out to a bunch at once; pitching a book is like being on Tinder, and no one should have any expectation that they’re the only one you’ve expressed interest in.) In each case, we had a couple serious expressions of interest, and managed to land excellent deals for both books.

But that came after lots of rejections. The book is too vague. The book is too specific. The book is really a magazine article. The author’s an unknown quantity. The last book didn’t sell well enough. It’s not a good fit. Ariana Huffington’s book covers  the same territory. Gladwell already talked about this on p. 137 of The Tipping Point. Easily a dozen rejections.

Getting rejections sucks. You know it’s not personal, that most editors read the first couple pages and make a gut decision (they hardly have time to do more than that)— but it still feels lousy, and as they pile up, they can press on your confidence. It requires real effort to have faith that you’ve done good work, and that someone at some point will recognize it.

But getting an offer for your book is like getting a marriage proposal. You only need one good one to restore your faith in yourself, and to move forward with your life.

One of the other interesting things is that rejections tend to be kind of offhand, as very few people take the time to explain in any great detail what they think is wrong with your book and how you could make it right, expressions of interest are more detailed and specific. An editor may just have a feeling that a book’s not for them, but they’ll be able to explain exactly why they like a proposal.

However, if you get a couple publishers interested in the book, you move on to the auction phase.

How auctions work.

This will be designed and directed by the agent. As I understand it, based on the level of excitement around your proposal, an agents will decide how many rounds of bidding there will be, what kinds of rights are up for sale, and how long publishers have to make offers and counteroffers. In general publishers don’t know who they’re bidding against (though I’m sure people talk, and for some specialized books you can guess who else is going to be interested in it), or who has submitted the highest offer.

Not everyone will make exactly the same kind of offer. Publishers can offer an advance paid out of three or four installment; they can ask for just domestic rights, or world rights (which they’ll then sell on to other publishers, in order to offset their investment); there’s some wiggle room in electronic rights or audiobooks. I think the domestic versus world rights is the biggest variable. If you think your book has international potential, and if your agent has a good network of foreign agents they work with, you might take a lower offer and keep the international rights, and try to sell them yourself; or you may sell all the rights and take the higher advance.

Even if you get a nice advance, you’ll get it over three or four payments, spread out over the life of your project. For example, a $100K advance— which is really great— will probably pay out over two or three years. You’ll get a chunk upon signing. You’ll get another installment after final revisions are approved. Another check will come upon publication. Sometimes there’s a fourth milestone— turning in the draft, for example. Take six figures, spread them out over a couple years and over several checks, and it gets smaller.

And don’t forget that you have to deduct taxes and commission from that, so $100K is really more like $60K.

Finally, don’t imagine that you sign and the money is transferred instantly into your account; expect a delay of somewhere between a couple weeks and a geological epoch. I don’t think publishers are intentionally slow, but they’re also not high frequency traders or PayPal.

A couple other pieces of wisdom.

First, you’re not going to get a life-changing quantity of money. Life-improving, certainly; but unless you live very frugally, it won’t be enough to let you quit your day job. (Many writers don’t seem to do that until they’ve published three or four books, anyway, and many never do. It’s simply a fact.) However, it’ll help pay off some bills, or kids’ tuition, or a vacation after you’re done. Which is not bad given that you’re doing something that you probably would do anyway.

Second, in the marketplace, the value of your next book is mainly determined by sales of your last book. An editor might see you as having potential, or evolving into an outstanding author with a devoted following. (And that does happen. Alan Furst, for example, wrote four books before Night Soldiers, the novel where he discovered his voice as a World War II espionage writer. He didn’t make the New York Times Bestseller list until his sixth World War II book, Kingdom of Shadows. I’m sure his publisher is glad they held on through Dark Star and The Polish Officer and the other books.) But advances aren’t like salaries: raises are not inevitable. They can go down as well as up, or disappear entirely.

Finally, when you write a book, you think you’re building the Parthenon, a timeless work for the ages. You’re not. You’re making dinner for friends. Odds are your book will generate a flurry of excitement, which is awesome; then after a while, the season will end, and it’ll fade, and next year it’ll be another book’s turn. Don’t be deceived if your book gets lots of attention when it first comes out. Enjoy it, by all means, and do everything you can to keep the book in the public eye. But as the Roman said, all glory is fleeting, and ultimately writing is going to be a great opportunity to acquire new reserves of modesty and humility.

Your book might get a stable readership after that, or it might not. It’s not only the good books that have a long tail. There are tons of really terrific books that go out of print, that never quite find a critical mass of readers, that don’t have the good fortune to get one really excited review in the Times. No one can predict whether your book will be a best-seller, or will stay in print for a long time; there are things you can do to nudge the odds in your favor, but no one controls that process.

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