Writing Your Book, part XII: Stepping Into the Business


If you’ve been following my “Writing Your Book” series from the beginning, then you know that our book is finished, we have gone through our rewrites, and when we left off, we had gone to a couple of conventions to market ourselves and make some connections with editors and agents who might help us get our book book published.  Well, today we’re going to talk a bit about the business realities that face the beginning writer when those offers finally start coming.

Let’s say that the networking we did at MagicalWordsCon has paid off and we have not just one, but two agents interested in representing us.  One of them is a young agent from the Big Name Agency in New York City.  The second is an older agent from his own agency — Friendly Agency in, say, Ann Arbor, Michigan.  How do you decide which of the two is right for you? Well, there are pluses and minuses for both.  BNA is located in the heart of big-time publishing, and that can be hugely helpful when it comes time for your agent to sell your book.  Negotiations over a lunch in Midtown can be far more productive than phone or internet discussions.  Having a young, hungry, energetic agent is a good thing, and when that agent has the resources of a big name agency behind her, she can be a terrific advocate for your work.  That said, FA has advantages of its own.  You’d be working with an older, more experienced agent who has, over the years, established relationships within the industry, despite not being located in NYC.  Chances are that FA, because it is a smaller agency, has fewer clients than BNA, and so you’ll probably get more attention and quicker responses to your work.  From a monetary standpoint, there is probably little difference between the two.  The industry standard is that the agent takes 15%.  And while the NYC agency might have a higher profile foreign sales department (for selling the translation rights to your books to publishers in other countries) chances are that an agency as well established as FA can handle foreign sales, too.

So, again, how do we choose?  There are a couple of factors you want to think about.  When you’re figuring out who your agent is going to be you want to find someone with whom you have a good rapport, someone with whom you feel comfortable.  Your agent doesn’t have to be your best friend, but you and she should be able to work together, speak frankly about your career path, and make business decisions together.  No agent will sign with you without familiarizing herself with your work, and so she should also have a sense of where she thinks your career is headed.  You need to have a frank discussion about your career path and professional development with any and all potential agents to make certain that your vision of your future matches theirs.  I once had an agent tell me that he was excited about working with me, and that he was looking for a  more collaborative relationship than most agents might normally want.  He thought that we could work together to develop project ideas.  I thought, “Um, no thank you.”   I didn’t like this idea at all, and so didn’t go with him.  In the end, choosing an agent is an intensely personal decision.  Yes, you can change agents if your first choice doesn’t work out, but it can be a wrenching decision — almost akin to a professional divorce.  Writers might work with several publishers and editors over the course of a career, but most of us would rather keep the same agent.  Find someone you like, someone you trust, someone who respects your work, someone who sees you going in a direction that matches your ambitions and goals.

Okay, for the sake of this discussion, let’s say that we go with the young agent from BNA.  We hit it off with her when we talked business, and we want that big name agency in our corner.  She begins to market our work.  She sends it to fantasy editors at the major houses:  Tor, Roc, HarperCollins, Del Rey, Ace, Orbit, Bantam, as well as to Baen, which is more geared toward SF, but still publishes fantasy titles, and Pyr, a smaller house that is doing some very nice work right now.  You both have high hopes.  For a couple of months you hear nothing (which, your agent assures you, is perfectly normal) and then the rejections begin to trickle in.  One editor says that he likes the writing but the story is too familiar.  He wants something more original.  Another says that she loves the story, but that the writing style bothered her.  One loves the character but thought the narrative dragged; another loved the story but couldn’t get excited about the main character.  Yet another one just loves everything about it — he thinks it’s fresh and entertaining — but he really can’t see how they’d market it.  One of them likes it and would love to buy it, but has just bought something pretty similar and can’t imagine the house will want to publish two books that are so much alike.  (Yes, I’ve heard every one of these over the years.)

Finally — FINALLY — your agent calls you with good news.  One of the houses has made an offer.  It’s not the house you necessarily thought you wanted as your publisher, but who cares, right?  It’s a publisher!  It’s an offer!  For your book!  You have arrived!  Your series is going to be published!  “What’s the offer?” you ask.

“Well,” your agent says, “they only want one book right now.  They’re not ready to take a chance on a several books with a previously unpublished writer.”

“Oh.”  You’re disappointed, of course.  You wanted to sell the series.  But still, one book is better than nothing.  “Well, what are they offering for the one book?”

“They’re offering a $7,500.00 advance split three ways.  $2,500 on signing, $2,500 on D&A [Delivery and Acceptance — when you turn in the book and your editor says, yes, this looks good], and $2,500 on publication.” [The term “Advance” is short for “Advance against Royalties,” which basically means that this money you see up front will be subtracted from the royalties you earn on sales of the book.  Once sales have earned you $7,500.00 — the term for this is “Earning out” — you will begin to see royalty checks.]

“Oh.”  You ponder this.  “When do they think it will be published?”

“Probably in June of 2012.”

“Oh.”  So over the next twenty months you’re going to earn a total of $7,500.00 from writing.  Minus the 15% your agent takes.  Minus taxes.  Resist the urge to figure out what you’re making on an hourly or per word basis.  It’ll just depress you.

“They’re offering a hardcover/mass market deal,” she goes on, sounding inexplicably upbeat, “which is great.  The June 2012 publication date is for the hardcover.  The mass market paperback will be out a year or so later.  You’ll get 10% royalties on the first 5,000 hardcovers sold, 12.5% on the next 5,000, and 15% after that.  For the mass market you’ll get 6% on the first 100,000 copies sold and 8% after that.”  [Royalties are figured on the book’s cover price.  So 10% of a $27.95 hardcover earns you $2.79 (and a half a penny).  6% on a $7.99 paperback earns you just a fraction less than 64 cents.  Minus that 15%…]

“Will we sell more than 5,000 hardcovers?  Will we even get close to 100,000 paperbacks sold?”

“Well,” she says, “probably not.  But these numbers are standard.  We get to keep the foreign rights — we’ll try to get it translated in Europe and Asia.  And who knows, maybe you’ll get lucky.”  She can hear your disappointment.  “Believe it or not, this is a very good offer for a first book,” she tells you.  “You should be very happy.”

And you know what?  She’s absolutely right.

We’ll continue this next week….

David B. Coe

25 comments to Writing Your Book, part XII: Stepping Into the Business

  • David, this was wonderful! I’ve heard all the contradictory editor comments about the same piece of work too. It’s disheartening and frustrating.

    And sometimes the money sucks. (Just sayin’.) And then you stop and think — I have a (10? 20?) book in print. And a foot in a door that is hard to get through.

    You said it all!

  • You’ve nailed it. I’ve also heard this stuff — including the one where they say they’d buy your book if only they hadn’t just bought something too similar. If I had been a month faster, my book would’ve been published and the other guy would be getting the frustrating, maddening rejection. In fact, I’d say that no matter how crazed, excruciating, and gut-wrenching it can be to actually write a book, dealing with the business side is ten times worse. So much of it is out of your hands — and considering that we writers all have a bit of a control issue (after all, we are the gods of our written worlds), this can drive one insane.

  • L. Jagi Lamplighter Wright

    > Minus taxes. Resist the urge to figure out what you’re making on an hourly or per word basis. It’ll just depress you.

    LOL. I hadn’t taken it down to hourly, but I did figure recently that for the past ten years, I’ve made about $2000 a year.

    Nice article, David.

  • The more you now about this business, the more of a miracle it is that anyone in it has any hair left at all. That’s why I’ve said for many years now that you had best be in this because you love it — becuse lottery tickets are a better investment. That said, I DO love it, and all the lunatics who inhabit it. You’d have to chase me away with a pretty big stick.

  • Faith, thanks. Those contradictory editorial comments just kill me. They leave me feeling angry and helpless — the times when I’m most ready to just chuck the whole writing thing are those times when I’m dealing with trying to sell a new project. Bleh. Glad to be in the middle of a series….

    Stuart, what you say about control is absolutely true. I think many writers tend to have control issues anyway, and the business side of things is a) so far beyond our control and b) so central to our ability to do this for a living, that it really can drive one up the proverbial wall. Did I mention that I’m glad to be in the middle of a series….?

    Thanks, Jagi. My first several years, my income was down around that level. Now that the Prospero books are out your income is going to start going up. Enjoy the ride!

    Edmund, yes, I’m with you. I love what I do, and I’m willing to put up with a great deal in order to keep doing it. Which is good, because in this business I’m certain to face a lot of crap.

  • Just a short comment to the wannabees out there who are getting a dose of reality and are thinking about quitting. Two things:
    1) If frustrations are all it takes to make you quit then you didn’t love it enough. Edmund hammered in the most important part — do it because you love it, not because you have a financial goal. Then the frustrations are a side effect, not the entire career.

    2) You don’t usually get all the frustrations in one huge dose. It is spread out over the writing / publication / marketing time. And in between there are joys, successes, and worlds that you *can* control. It really is a good life.

  • Good, solid stuff, David. I look forward to more ugly specifics in future installments 🙂

    Since you raised the issues of evaluating agents can I just add what everyone should know already: DON’T PAY ANYTHING. There are lists available of disreputable agents which you should look at, and while some of the information there may be arguable, you’ll notice that charging fees (for “editing” for instance) is often a sign that the “agency” is really just a way to make income off writers without actually selling their work.

  • A friend of mine got an offer for a four-book series from a small publishing house with a reputation for doing basically no marketing, but he accepted it because it was the only publisher biting. He now has four books out there that no one is buying because no one knows they exist.

    Ignoring for the nonce the various things an author can attempt to self-promote, is it better for a first-time author to keep peddling and hoping to find a more aggressive publisher, or to accept what he can get and resignedly add “published author” to his résumé?

  • Faith, yes, thank you for that. I’m not trying to discourage anyone. This is a great career — I wouldn’t trade my job for anything in the world. The frustrations are real, but so are the moments of elation and the daily satisfaction that comes from doing something I love. But you need to go into this with realistic expectations. The chances of getting rich off of a writing career are very, very slim. The chances of making a real living at it are pretty thin, too.

    A.J., that’s a great point. Any agent who asks for payment of any sort is a crook. Agents make money by making money for you. That percentage is their livelihood. If they’re asking for other payments something is not right. Run away.

    Wolf, that is a terrific question. Going with a small publisher is not necessarily a bad idea. Some small pubs do a great job of getting the word out about their writers, and they can turn out beautiful books. But you need to have an idea going in to a publishing contract what kind of support you’re going to get from a publisher. One way to get that is to ask (or have your agent ask) a publisher to give you the names of some of their recently published authors. Chances are these authors will have websites and chances are they will respond to emailed inquiries about publicity issues (and other issues as well). The situation you describe is a difficult one. Those books have your friend’s name on them, which means that he/she has sales numbers that other publishers can look up. In this case, signing that contract has hurt him/her more than it has helped. Generally speaking, I would say that going after a contract with a big house with a proven record of promoting authors is always preferable to going with an unknown publisher with no such track record. Yes, it’s good to get that publication. It feels good. It validates us and our work. But if the only publisher biting on the books was a small press that has trouble publicizing and distributing its books, then chances are the books needed more work. Impatience can be a killer. I apologize if that sounds like I’m being harsh with respect to your friend. But sometimes we need to understand that when our books don’t sell to the publishers we hope will buy them, it means that the books aren’t ready for prime time. Hope that’s helpful.

  • David> Thanks for the great post on the business. I admit, though, every time I see a “business of writing” post I cringe because it freaks me out. The notion of actually writing a publishable novel is hard enough–but THEN the fun starts with the business!

    So, I’m pretending for now that all I have to do is the first: write the great novel (get to the point at the beginning of the post) and it will all be fine. I know, of course, that isn’t the case, and I file all the info in these posts away in my brain for later. But I’m big into the “one step at a time,” thing. First the novel, then the query letter and pitch (which I’ve been practicing even before the book’s done) and the synopsis. THEN the business part. (Like working on my Phd: first the exams, then the prospectus, then chapter one… until I got to getting a job… NEXT: TENURE!)

    Then I decide which color my fancy car will be when I’m a bestseller. Wait. Did I type that part of the fantasy outloud? Oops.

    But I do write because I love it, more than for any hint of money. Heck, at least being in academia prepared me for that! I’m so ready to deal with an industry that expects a mountain of work, a good attitude, and almost no pay! 😀

  • Emily, I totally understand that reaction. I’ve been in the business for 15 years, and I still cringe when I think about aspects of it. Concentrating on your book is absolutely the right thing to do for now. But it pays to have realistic expectations going in, and to know what the steps are when the time comes to take the plunge. That’s the spirit in which I offer the post.

  • David, I hope that MWCon can be a reality someday.

    I may not be quitting my day job anytime soon, but telling stories (and learning to tell them well) means too much to me. I can’t help it!

    Just to clarify … is it generally okay to query multiple agents at once? I know that multiple publishers at once doesn’t usually fly (with the publishers, at least).

  • Moira,

    Actually it’s okay to query multiple agents AND muliple publishers at once. A query is nothing more than asking who is interested and who is not. The trick is in keeping track of al of that, because eventually someone is going to ask you to submit your actual manuscript (or at least part of it). That’s where you can get into trouble — making multiple SUBMISSIONS. If and agent or editor asks for an *exclusive,* then you need to not send it out to anyone else. However, fr your own safety anf sanity, set a time-limit on that period of exclusivity. I’ve known too many new writers who were all-too excited and ready to grant an open-ended exlcusive, only to find that the other party sat on the book for six or nine months (sometimes longer), only to reject it in the end. Talk about deflating! Three or four months is more than enough time for someone to evaluate a manuscript. If you have an agent, they’ll establish these kinds of perimitters with the publisher/editor. If you’re flying solo at the moment, be prepared to establish them yourself.

    In the meantime send out as many queries as you can reasonably keep track of, and worry about the rest later on. Having multiple agents/editors interested in your work is exactly the kind of problem every writers wants to have.

  • Thanks for that clarification, Ed. Moira, what he said. 🙂

  • Ryl

    Nah, not frightened at all — a bit intimidated, maybe, but not scared away, because I’m better off knowing about the fire swamp and all the ROUS’s in it before stepping into that territory. Great sales would be *really* nice, but the characters want their stories told, regardless.

  • Well put, Ryl. The characters couldn’t care less about royalty rates and sell-throughs and all the rest. They want their stories told. Period. And it’s up to us to write them.

  • Yes, you can change agents if your first choice doesn’t work out, but it can be a wrenching decision — almost akin to a professional divorce.

    If I’m not misinformed, isn’t it also recommended that if you wish to fire your agent, you should do so before attempting to attract a new one? Which means that you’re having to do all this query dance all over again. Another point for being very careful about your choice from the start. 😀

  • Thanks Edmund and David. I guess I got that all mixed up.

  • Misty, that’s right. The community of agents in our genre is very small, and you really don’t want your current agent hearing from your future agent that you’re out “shopping”.

    Moira, I get those mixed up all the time too.

  • Great post and fantastic overview! There are many writers out there perfectly happy to hand their work to agents and say “here, you take care of it,” and not worry about anything beyond that. I’m not one of those authors — even though it’s out of my control, I’m almost obsessed with things like numbers, comps, etc etc… I’m just used to thinking of this as a business which means I need to know everything that’s going on. Don’t know if that makes it any easier, but it gives me the illusion which is good enough 🙂

  • Thanks, Carrie. I tend to be the same way. I like to know all that’s going on, and more to the point, I want to understand it all, which means that I have to do a bit of leg work when new situations arrive. But this is my career, it’s my business. I ought to understand every nuance, right?

  • Young_Writer

    Thank you, this was a lot of help. I’m planning on being positive and think, if I pomote my book enough, those publishers might take the rest of my series. Then with a little more work, I’ll be a mid list author, and that’s good enough for me. 🙂 Thankfully I won’t have to worry about moeny and running a household for a while. Same with publishing.

  • Alexa, being positive is always a good idea. Promoting your book usually comes after you’ve found an agent and publisher. The best thing you can do for your career right now is keep on writing, keep on reading, and turn out the best books you possibly can. And when it comes time to start looking for an agent, present yourself with confidence and courtesy. But as you say, you have some time yet. 🙂

  • On the point of exclusives and querying multiple agents, I read on an agent’s site that if you query them, they don’t want to you be querying other agents because they don’t want to have wasted their time. When I read that I immediately thought: well, when I submit to you I don’t want you to accept any other author’s work because I don’t want to have wasted my time. 🙂
    In IT in Australia this is similar to the recruiting agents. They all want to be the only agent you go to but the reality is that not every agent has every job. So it’s kind of a dance where I tell them they are the first agent I’ve approached and I’ve only just started looking for work. The important point is to always keep up with who’s submitting your resume to who and tell the agent as early as possible that you’ve already submitted to that employer. I imagine it would be similar with writing. Every agent would like to imagine they are the first and only agent you’ve approached and some have on their website: don’t submit to us if you’ve submitted to someone else! However if, after query, the agent asks for your manuscript as an exclusive I think you’d better make sure it is exclusive and time limited otherwise you’ll get a bad rep because I’m sure agents talk.
    Still, I write because I like it. I have other qualifications that make me money, writing makes me happy and the business side only makes it more interesting.

  • Great points, Scion. Yes, as Edmund mentions above, if you submit on an exclusive basis you have to make certain that you put a time limit on it. But I personally believe that in querying agents you have every right to query more than one at a time (and when I switched agents back in 2000, I did just that). I like the idea of saying, “Hey, you’re not limiting your work to one author, why should I limit my queries to one agent?” But the real reason for multiple queries is the time factor. You don’t want your search for an agent to take years. And the only way to make sure it doesn’t is to query several at a time.