Hello there! If you are reading this, chances are you are a first time or aspiring author. Or you’ve been writing a while, with a desire to sign a book deal with a major publisher. This blog post is for you! I am an author published under Randomhouse/Penguin Books.
First, a little about my journey. I wrote my first novel in my last year of law school with literally zero writing or publishing experience. I was propelled by the story itself with Jesus taking the wheel because clearly, writing was my true calling. (There is no other explanation for this act of wonder) The same weekend I graduated from law school, planned a book launch (with a play based upon my first novel Sunday Brunch) with over two hundred people in attendance. It was as beautiful and grand a weekend as you could imagine; The stuff that dreams are made of and like an out of body experience. Why? Up to that point I was a super shy spirit wandering the earth with minimal confidence. I want to be more detailed of how all this came together for a broke law student but that’s a story for another day. So, for now lets talk…BOOK DEAL! Isn’t that why you clicked on this blog?
Okay, a moment of transparency, a book deal wasn’t even on my radar. I self-published my first book before Amazon KDP or Ingram Spark was invented. I did self-publishing when it was rarity and had no one to ask lots of “how to” advice. I wrote the book, hired an editor, cover illustrator, had the book formatted, sent it to a printer and shipped the books myself. Phew…and I relentlessly and fearlessly marketed Sunday Brunch as if it was already a bestseller! I obtained news features, developed relationships and sat in rooms (Includes Essence Magazine headquarters) that no first time, no name (except by the name of Jesus) author should have been in. So, after all that effort, I made a connection with a publishing professional who was seriously interested in offering me a book deal. I pressed pause because I didn’t have an agent. After networking I was able to connect with a very reputable agent who sold the book a few months later.
This all sounds easy but there were lots of questions, conversations, bumps and delays in the process. Fast forward to today, the industry has changed a lot. Due to social media and e-books, book publishing has gone through growing pains. However, I believe these few nuggets of wisdom are timeless and applicable. Without further delay, here are the five things I learned as an author in contract with a major publisher.
Recognize that a Publisher is a Business
Although you are the writer and the artist, there is one thing that brought your work to this publisher…money. It may be a work of art, your passion project, your book “baby” but at the end of the day a publisher sees the potential to make money. Think about it, if you own a business (hello self publishing) what type of investments would you make? You’d invest in quality products that will ultimately give you a great monetary return on your investment. So, money and the potential to make money off your book will drive many decisions.
Read and Understand the Fine Print (and Hire Someone who Can)
What comes first the chicken or the egg? (The agent or the book deal); the very lawyerly answer...it depends. However, if you are offered a book deal, find a literary agent or lawyer with experience in negotiating literary deals. Be clear about what type of authority you give them under contract. The goal is to understand what you are committing yourself to, rights are you keeping and giving away; how you are going to get paid, what creative input you have and for how long. Again, the key is understanding. Unless there is a bidding war over your book, there may be little wiggle room beyond the standard negotiables for a first-time author. Do you research, trust, but verify.
I Now Pronounce you Author and Publisher
This is a marriage. If you are or have ever been married, you'll understand this statement. It is a series of compromises. And you need to know how to communicate your wants and needs. I was very fortunate to have a seat at the marketing and creative table for my novels, but it didn’t mean that I always got my way. I remember getting into an epic battle over the cover of my novel Sweet Magnolia. EPIC. But for the intervention of God, there may not have been a Sweet Magnolia. I had to compromise, but this was a lesson in losing the battle and winning the war. God was trying to teach me a about grace and to trust in Him. I fought fiercely for my vision, then felt like such a loser. Several weeks later, I was notified that the book was chosen as one of Essence magazine’s first National Book Club Selections, with a full page spread in the magazine. Huge back then and now. Remember I said compromise? My contract stated my publisher and I had to come to agreement over the cover. Define “agreement?” This is the part where you remember you are on the same team and you must pick and choose your battles. Some of the challenges are about what the publisher may think is best for the book versus what you may believe what would sell to your audience. You may even be right, but the publisher has hired marketing people with numbers and contracted illustrators for the book. It may be bigger than you and you must trust the process. Your agent (and God if you are like me) will help you find the way. You must also not make the perfect the enemy of the good. Speaking of the enemy, it is not your publisher. I hate the phrase, “Sometimes you have to play the game.” Instead, I’d advise: Know the rules of the game, build great relationships, develop allies, frame requests considering what’s best for both parties and know your non-negotiables. Above all, this is a business relationship and you are not just representing yourself. Find the win-win.
Market Yourself (Period)
Authors have visions in their head of the red-carpet treatment. Oprah calls to tell you your book has been selected for her book club. You see yourself sitting in the chair next to her for Super Soul Sunday or she’s offered to make a TV series out of your first book. These things have and can happen but…they are not the norm for a first-time author. I’m not watering down your goals but just in case things don’t happen this way you need some real-life advice. If you have a book deal, you need to still market your book as if you don’t. If you are not great or don’t have the time to market, hire somebody. Or until you can, market so you can understand your readers. Start at a basic level with social media. Take a webinar. Trust me when I say there is enough free information out there to begin. My first novel became popular because I did a certain amount of marketing each day. It was a numbers game. I tapped into every paper, radio show and magazine for visibility. I put myself on tour. I wore out my Nissan Sentra to the point that the entire bumper fell off one day when I drove into a shopping center. It was as funny then as it is now because purpose will give you a sense of humor. Relentlessly marketing my first book taught me: 1) The value of relationships which served me again and again 2) Confidence 3) Resilience 4) Creativity on a budget and 5) Fearlessness. I developed a short, long and faith-based pitch. I knew my book, characters and audience in a way I could sell it to just about anybody at any time. So, I had confidence in my product and market. Ultimately, a publisher is in part a distribution tool. The advantage was the ability to see my book drop in national and international bookstores simultaneously for instant reader access. As stated earlier, the book industry has changed. Bookstore chains are fading out, so once again reader access is in a constant state of evolution.
Understand how you get paid. If you have a publishing deal with a major publisher, imprint or small print that is reputable, you should not pay anything up front. Most likely you will receive an advance and royalty payments after you have earned that amount in book sales. That payment may be quarterly or semiannually. You should receive an accounting via a royalty statement which also will include the percentage owed your agent. (Typically, they get 15% or per the terms of your agent agreement) I will share my agent experience in another post. Some authors want a huge advance and to have a long-term book deal. Which in theory sounds great. But what if after the first two years you hate your experience? Or the publisher merges with another company and the editor you loved working with and advocated on your behalf quits? These are all things to consider. For the most part I enjoyed my relationship with Randomhouse/Broadway books. I was part of an inaugural imprint called Harlem Moon under the leadership of Janet Hill, a very seasoned and respected Editor. She had a passion for the books in my genre and was a fierce advocate for all her authors. To this day she is someone I respect and admire. My advance for my first and book deal was more than average, and I still receive royalties. Each publisher and individual royalty/payment structure will be different. At the end of the day understand every detail before you sign and talk to people in the industry with experience for advice.
Truth? There is no perfect publisher and no perfect authors. This is a journey with lots of ups, downs, bumps, victories and lessons. Do your research, review your contracts and don’t be afraid to ask questions. If a book deal with a publisher is your goal, make sure you understand the genres they publish and their submission guidelines. Be prepared to work hard, be teachable and advocate for yourself when necessary. Book writing, marketing and working with a publisher is an act of patience. It is a long game. Arm yourself accordingly. This post is based upon my experience so continue to do your due diligence on the subject. Have specific questions? Feel free reach out via my contact page.