Sunday, March 11, 2012

5 Things I Did to Get My First Book Deal

Do you love lists as much as I do? When a lack of motivation washes over me, I make a list of all the things that absolutely must get done. Then I spell check the list. And change the fonts. And move the title from the center to the left and back again. And then I move everything from Word into a spreadsheet where I work on the layout for an hour and a half before realizing it was fine where it started. Then I print it out three times because I noticed little glitches that somehow were missed in the hour of micro-editing. Four hours later, I'm finally ready to tackle the lead-off item on my list...right after lunch.

Assuming you too enjoy lists, I thought I'd look back on what I've been doing the last couple years as a writer and share the process as five easily digestible but critical-to-know components. I landed a deal with a well-known publisher and my first book will be released this summer, and here's a list of how I did it.

#1: Don't get sucked into believing "list" articles before you've even begun writing!
If you're thinking about writing and getting published, then the first priority for many months of your life is WRITING, not thinking about writing. I went to a writer's meeting once where a gentleman showed the same chapter he had brought in three times before and previously paid two editors to review for him. After a year, he had yet to begin writing a second chapter. Instead, he just kept thinking about someday perhaps considering the option of possibly writing more. He was looking for others to tell him exactly how to proceed in very small steps, guaranteeing success because each step had been so meticulously calculated. In reality, he wasn't moving anywhere: forward or backward. So, don't look for the perfect sequence of events laid out in articles like this one. There's no such thing. Just write and then write some more. When the craft starts coalescing and accumulating, then it's time to go out and see what can be done with it.

#2: Pick a great topic that you'll love for the next couple years!
This was easily the most important step for me. I dismissed several book ideas before moving ahead with the winner. The other ideas weren't bad and I will reconsider them later, but I wasn't IN LOVE with them at that time. I didn't want to invest two or more years into a project unless I knew it would excite me the entire way. I wanted a topic that would eventually make all my friends and family avoid me because they knew I only had one subject on my mind and that nothing else interested me. If you can find a topic like that, the act of writing becomes vastly easier and finding extra time to write becomes a daily goal.

#3: Pick a topic that makes publishers say, "I can't believe no one has done that yet."
Loving the topic is important, but you'll need to convince a publisher that lots of others will love it too. Acquisition editors have the difficult job of finding new book ideas that are cutting edge and exciting while still being based on the same old thing. So it's your job to give them just that. Find a topic that is part of a proven market share but with a unique angle that has yet to be over-exploited. In my case, I pitched a biography of a modestly successful jazz singer who made one album that is considered iconic, and then he seemed to drift off the radar. When the editor sent my proposal out to three expert readers, they all wrote back something like, "I was shocked to realize nobody has written his story yet. If you don't publish this, your competitors will." At that point, the editor had just what he needed to recommend my book to the publisher: a proven genre on an acclaimed artist (something old) that somehow slipped through the cracks (something new). This was no accident. I worked hard to come up with a topic that I knew would meet this criteria while still being something I would love to write about.

#4: Find a publisher with a history of releasing topics like yours
I will admit to you a secret I'm almost (but not really) ashamed to admit: I got signed by the first publisher I approached. I know, I'm supposed to tell you I have a drawer full of rejection notices  that tested my convictions and made me try harder, but that's not the way I wanted to do things. Instead, I spent weeks in libraries looking through books in my genre; I visited websites for all those publishers; I carefully reviewed their proposal guidelines and confirmed if they would even accept submissions directly from authors; and then I crafted a proposal as if my life depended on it. I did not just fire off an e-mail query with half an idea hoping that someone would see the big picture and give me a shot. Although I did indeed only present a snapshot of the entire book, I made it clear that I had the entire book organized and written in my head. My proposal delivered an idea that was ready to be written the moment I was given the green light. The publisher I targeted had been releasing scholarly jazz biographies for decades and had very clear submission guidelines so they were the perfect target for my proposal, and it worked. One proposal led to one signed book contract; that's a pretty good return on the investment of my time.

#5: Agree to what you can realistically do, and then DO IT!
I'll leave the in-depth nuances of contract negotiations for another day. For now, let me just address one component that will come up in the contract: when are you expected to deliver the manuscript. This could be anywhere from six months to two years, but whatever you agree to, make sure you deliver on schedule. Publishers are balancing dozens or hundreds of book projects simultaneously so even if you only need a few extra weeks to finish your manuscript, you may get bounced into another release cycle that is months later. Translation: YOU'LL GET PAID MONTHS LATER! Publishers rarely give advances anymore, especially to unproven authors, so the first compensation you'll get for your months of artistic struggle will be in the form of a far-off royalty check. And if your publisher only pays out royalties once a year, you'll  wait even longer to reach the payment month. So, pick a duration that you know is realistic, and then let nothing stop you from achieving that completion date. When you turn the manuscript in on time, you'll get paid on time, and then you get to take yourself out for that awesome first-royalty-check dinner you've looked forward to.

With the writing of the book behind me, I'm currently going through the typesetting process while gearing up all the PR. That's all the more reason to make sure you love the topic because you'll still be confronted by it on a daily basis long after you've submitted the final manuscript. Check out the Facebook page for my book at and let me know what you think.
A snapshot of me in the rapture of making a list on my laptop.

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