How To Get A Book Deal in Ten Years or Less


So, a couple months ago I used YouTube’s
post feature to announce by way of a screen cap because it had to be a screen
cap because the announcement was behind a paywall
that I sold a novel to commercial fiction publisher St. Martin’s Press. Axiom’s End, a Stranger Things meets Arrival story set in an alternate 2000s
about a young woman who becomes the sole point of communication between humanity
and a hostile alien civilization. Okay and so for you smart asses who are
bagging on this, I did not write this. I honestly don’t know where they got
Stranger Things. Doesn’t take place in the 80s. It’s not even like you know
magical metaphysical stuff. Is it on brand? Yes. Is it too long? Probably.
Can I preorder it? Actually, you can. They got right on the ball. And I know what you’re
thinking, like oh another one of those you know, here I have been slaving away
at the Great American Novel for decades and another one of these youtubers just
has a book deal like foisted upon them. The influencers sit recumbent on the
chaise lounge and receive the offers. When, in reality, I have been working at this
for 10 f—ing years. Oh no, I don’t mean literally the same book for 10 years. It did not take
me ten years to write this–well, sort of. Anyway, we’ll get to that. And the truth
is yes, it is a lot easier for some people with bigger platforms to get book
deals than others, but that also depends on the type of book that they are
writing. In the case of youtubers and influencers, what publishers usually want
is like, you know: my life as a girl boss the book. Or: Hi I’m an Instagram model
the book. But I was like no, I like suffering.
I want to write novels. Better yet, of the science fiction variety. You know, the
science fiction. That…that biggest piece of the publishing pie.
Everybody loves it’s so in demand. It’s not. So, today I’m doing something a little
different in discussing how does one actually go about publishing a novel?
I’m going to demystify the process. Cause I know a lot of people that
subscribe to this channel are either creatives or aspiring creatives
themselves. You need to know what holy hell you’re getting into and decide… Can
I handle that many rejection letters? So how it works. If it’s your first time,
fiction and nonfiction are handled generally quite differently. Nonfiction
is generally sold on Proposal, meaning there will be between one and three
chapters of the book written, and also you’ll have like a bio and then like
some stuff about your platform and an outline of the book and you know a
section saying why I am the expert that should be writing this book. And with fiction, again for debut authors that aren’t famous, it needs to be done. The
book needs to be 100% written. Debut novels are very very rarely sold on
proposal. Outliers to the point of should not be counted. Yes, I know it happens but
it doesn’t happen very often. I mean a debut novel might be sold on proposal if
it’s by like a celebrity or you know it’s like a YA Adventure about like
beating the system written by a youtuber with more than ten million subs,
but you know, if that’s the case, they’re probably
hiring a ghostwriter anyway. I am obsessed with this shirt I got by the
by at the Pantages the other day. The CATS trailer has sent me spiraling into a
severe Andrew Lloyd Webber relapse this fall. Anyway, yes there are famous people
exceptions but in general debut novels are not sold on proposal. It needs to be
done. And by done I mean it needs to be edited it needs to be polished it needs
to have gone through several drafts and by the time you think you are ready to
go, you are wrong. Put that thing back in the drawer take it around the block a
few more times it still needs work. Trust me. You have to be able to look at this thing
and go, yes, I could see this going to print tomorrow. This is the level that
we’re at. The thing about writing especially something as, like, sprawling
as a novel, is that writers are actually not very good at judging the merits of
their own work. Shock, I know. When the truth is nine times out of ten, authors
think they are ready to go before they are ready to go. I know I was. We’ll get to that.
But now that you have written the thing, it is time for step two: Get a
literary agent. Arguably, the hardest step because this is the part in which the
odds are least in your favor. So you’ve submitted your query. You are now
in the slush pile, which is a very uncharitable name for unsolicited material because
most of it is detritus. Yes, there was a time when authors submitted
directly to publishers and they did not need a literary agent. We call those
times the 1970s. Yes there are some exceptions, but for your purposes, if
you want to get published with a major publisher and most small presses and a
huge chunk of indie presses too, you need a literary agent. They won’t even look at
you if you don’t have one. And while we are here, no you do not pay your literary
agent before you sell your book. They take a cut after they sell your book. If
there is an “agent” saying that you need to pay them upfront, they’re not an agent.
They’re lying. It’s a scam. Run away. So what does a literary agent do? Are they
anything other than a glorified filter that exists to separate the rabble from
the publisher so the publisher doesn’t have to waste their precious time and
resources anymore? Well… See, here’s the thing. You are a special flower, an
artiste floating along on the winds of inspiration. You don’t understand
contracts. The publishing industry is labyrinthine and complicated and it has
a culture that you do not understand. I know I don’t. On top of that, contracts have gotten a
lot more complicated since the 1970s Mine, for instance, was pretty
boilerplate and it still took two months between selling the book and signing the
thing. And that was pretty quick turnaround. On top of that, agents also negotiate
royalty rates and advances for you and also advise on what you should ask for
in your contract because they know what is standard and what is reasonable to
ask for and you don’t. But there is a creative element too. A lot of literary
agents will actually do a pass, do some edits with you before you actually go on
submission to publishers. They also act as sort of a go-between between you and
the publisher. You know, so they can like soak up the emotions if you have too
many. Cause it turns out you’re not supposed to yell at your publisher. They ask you how are you just have to say that you’re fine but you’re not really fine
you just can’t get into it because they would never So why are the odds not in
your favor at this stage? Well, it’s because of volume. It’s hard to find
exact stats on this. How many submissions any given literary agent gets per day. My
agent gets between 15 and 20 per day. So depending on the size of the agency, a
literary agent is going to get anywhere from several hundred to several thousand
queries per year. And depending on how much they are trying to build their list,
they may only take on a half a dozen or less. So I’m not saying you have less
than one in a thousand odds for your basic midlist literary agent. Actually, I am saying that. That brings us to step two point five, the query letter Okay so if you’re a novelist, you’re probably not very good at being concise, but the query
letter is basically a two paragraph, less than 250 word pitch. It’s basically the
copy you would read on the back of the book. It is designed to make the person
reading it be like, “Oh yeah, I want to throw down my $27.95 MSRP for that.”
It’s not a summary. You should not summarize. It is a pitch.
And it’s actually really hard to do well. A bard, a mage, and a rogue meet in a tavern
and then they hear of a quest. There’s a business centaur that owns a company and
he’s just he’s living his life until one day a plucky young virgin becomes his
secretary or something. And then, oh the pa– Yeah see I’m really good at this. So each literary agency
operates differently, but in general, the steps will be: query letter leads to
partial request, which means part of your manuscript, like first five chapters
or something. They like that, then they’ll ask for the whole manuscript. And if they
like that, then they will offer you representation. Generally, this process
will be protracted over several months unless you’re just that amazing.
Sometimes it can be really fast, but usually it’s not. Wow, you have an agent now!
Good for her. Hopefully your agent will help you out
on the creative front too because presumably they took on your project not
just because they thought they could sell it, but you know, because they like it.
And the level to which they will help you before you go on submission
to publishers varies a lot. Like it could be just like an email with like
hey maybe you should like brush this up or like you know, you use the word
basically too much. Or they could do like an entire line edit through your
manuscript. Depends on the agent. Next stop, book deal? Well, not so fast.
First we got to talk about who we are submitting to. Generally, an agent will
want to start with big five publishers because they are the ones with the money
and they are the ones with the best marketing and the widest distribution.
So what do I mean when I say Big Five? Well, basically they’re the biggest five but
also they are umbrella corporations effectively for many many many publishers.
The big five are Penguin Random House, Simon and Schuster, Hatchette, Macmillan, which is mine, and Harper Collins.
The way it works is at the top, we have the publishing house then
you have the publisher, then you have the imprint. And the imprint is where the
editor works. They are the one that’s specialized in whatever it is you are
trying to sell. For instance, my imprint is St. Martin’s Press, which is an
imprint of St. Martin’s Press, which is owned by Macmillan. Imprints specialize
in different things, so for instance you’ll have Tor Forge, which specializes
in sci-fi/fantasy. Love Swept will be HarperCollins… Is it HarperCollins?
No, it’s Random House. Well, anyway, it’s a romance imprint. St. Martin’s Press specializes in “commercial
fiction” which obviously can mean genre fiction, but you know a certain type.
Let’s just say I was rejected from more than one genre imprint for “not being
sci-fi enough.” It’s Arrival meets So Big Five publishers are
desirable not just because they are able to pay advances sometimes very big ones,
but also because they have much wider distribution. Generally, you’ll go on a
round of submission. You’ll see how that goes. Maybe it’ll sell on the first round, but if it doesn’t you probably want to do some
revisions before you go on round two. And then when you go on round two and it
doesn’t sell then, then maybe you want to start seriously considering smaller
presses or indie presses or self-publishing or trunking it.
And we’ll get to that. Okay, so let’s say you are on submission.
If there is more than one offer, then it goes to auction. And auctions are great.
They make you feel really popular but most of the time for debut authors
especially if they don’t have a big platform, this process will be protracted
over a period of several months. So while on the one hand there are an
ever-increasing number of options to get your book out there, traditional
publishing is actually more competitive than it has ever ever been. Yeah.
Especially for fiction. And that leads us to my monstrosity. Ten years, huh? “Ten years old!” That seems like…. sad. There is this expectation when you work in a new media
that people think that you’re gonna be like, you know what? I’m bucking the
system! Screw you gatekeepers. I got a do me! But no, no that is not what I wanted to do. So this is a story about traditional
publishing and rejection and all sorts of fun things. And why I never talked
about it till now. So let’s get this out of the way first.
There’s this sort of wrongish idea I see floating around that if you
have a platform of, you know, decently sized,
then you’re pretty much guaranteed a book deal. And no, wow, you know,
that’s not true. And I will find that people that even work in the industry
are surprised that like my platform didn’t get me something much sooner.
Which inevitably leads to these dipshits on reddit surmising that like well if
you can’t get a book deal despite those YouTube subs, well… woof. Which just kind of
reveals that these people don’t know how anything works. And that’s fine.
That’s why I’m here. Fundamentally, quality is secondary to where the market
is and what they think they can sell. Especially for fiction, a thing no one
should write. Okay so what did I mean by that? When I said this whole big nonsense
thing took ten years, what I mean is it was about ten years between my conscious
decision of yes I am going to pursue this thing–by this thing I mean
traditional publishing with a big five publisher–and it actually happening. Was the novel I sold the first novel I wrote? No. I’d argue that it
wasn’t even the second, but it was also kind of the first. It was the
first and–well anyway… So I joke a lot about fanfic, but the truth is fanfic is
actually really good practice and a good way to decide if that is something that
you want to pursue. And I joke about it a lot especially with the Phantom stuff,
but the truth is I was not terribly prolific until I was in college because
I had this narrative about myself that you know, I just don’t finish things… I’m
just–I just I don’t have the attention span. Too bad for me. I guess
I’m just gonna work in data collection for the rest of my life because I’m 22
and I don’t know anything. But then, thanks to the wonderful world of
fanfiction, I actually did start finishing some stuff. You know, it wasn’t
good, but I finished it. So again this was around the time that the you know
economy crashed and I went to grad school. So going into film and television
of course that’s where we’re going to start making serious attempts. Haha.
Because after all, there was no way in hell I was going to go into a creative
writing MFA on the strength of a few over-long fanfics. No. Going into debt
one of the most expensive film schools in the world during the worst recession
and living memory is a much better idea. But yeah, we’re at film school, it’s 2009,
part of the curriculum is let’s come up with some story ideas. There’s a class
called ideation. Oh, we had fun. So the first non-fanfic thing I wrote was this sad-sack attempt
at a Christian romance novel because I knew someone who worked at the Harlequin
imprint for Christian romance called Love Inspired, and this imprint was one
of the only imprints that was taking unagented authors, and I in my
infinite hubris was like, “Anyone can do that!” At least I got some practice in.
I did also write a full-length screenplay while I was at USC for a class, and no, it
will never see the light of day because it was quite bad. But then, I got an idea
in 2010 that was rooted in some items that were in the news at the time. Well,
how about that but with aliens? But no I did not start writing it then.
That did not happen until 2013, and I wrote the first draft in two months. It
was one Twilight long, because I measure everything in units of Twilight. This is
a Twilight. This book actually has really big print. It’s not that–it’s not that long.
That first draft was described by one person that I no longer speak to at the
time as “publishable,” which is probably a little bit of a red flag when the people
in your life don’t really have the heart to tell you that your word baby is a bit
of a yike. But I, in my infinite arrogance was like we’re off to the races.
I very wrongly assumed that my platform, which was much smaller than it is now,
would make me a catch. So even if the book wasn’t all that great, and sure as
hell was not ready, it didn’t matter. They’d help me fix it. I’ve got twenty
thousand Twitter followers. I think I might have done like one very minor
revision before I sent it to … like not very many agents I only think… I
only send it to a few, and one of whom I knew personally. Five thousand words to
very nicely say yikes. Which was good, because it finally
brought me down to reality and realize that like oh, actually maybe we should
take this a little more seriously. So I spent a few months on revisions and now
armed with, you know, a little bit of perspective, we tried round two. This time
I actually queried pretty widely. I got interest from about 30% of the agents I
queried, and then actually it happened rather
quickly. I got an offer of representation after about two, three months. And then I
had an agent. We did it. I hopped the hardest hurdle, right? So, what now? Well, we
revise it again. Substantially before we Go on submission. Submission round one.
Mostly big five and a couple of smaller publishers like Quirk Books. Generally a
round of submission will be between maybe 10 and 15 editors. And wow, that was
a lot of rejection. Like I got rejected so hard I don’t think I got like a
detailed rejection letter from anyone. And that whole rigmarole from start to
final “no thank” was about four months. So yeah. So what now? Well, we revise again.
Let’s try to figure out what was wrong. Another round of submissions. This time,
it was I think a few more, maybe fifteen. And this time, well, I got one or two
rejections that were quite detailed. See? Progress. One or two felt it wasn’t
“commercial enough.” The guy at HarperCollins thought I was “whip smart.”
But most people just “didn’t connect with the voice,” which is of course industry
speak for “I think you’re a shitty writer.” And here we are at the end of
2014. Two years of work and nothing to show for it. What now? You can go
downstream to smaller presses, which you know, might give you less money up front
but will still distribute as widely as any of the larger ones. Or you can go
indie or you can self publish. I mean that kind of makes sense. If you have a
platform already, self-publishing does mean you get to keep a much bigger cut
of the money that comes in for you. But there is a third option. We got us a
trunk novel. The trunk novel! Everyone has one. They don’t. So yeah. I could have self-published.
Even now, I get a lot of people asking me why I didn’t, because like, you know,
hey, there’s no shame in it. And also you’d make a lot more money with your
platform. And well, okay, first of all, I don’t know about that. I’m gonna I’m
gonna have to disagree with you there, part– And secondly I did not want to
self-publish. Like I self publish right here. Like this is what I’m doing.
That’s what YouTube is. All I do is self publish. But ultimately, the reason that I
trunked it was because I felt that the reason it wasn’t selling wasn’t
because the market was necessarily hostile to that sort of thing (which it
totally was), but because it wasn’t ready. And by extension, I was not ready. I had
not put in the work. I had not done the hours. And there are many people who
would call this flawed thinking. After all, publishing is very fickle, and they
always play it safe, and most of the time whenever you get a no from an agent or
publisher, it isn’t because they don’t like it, it’s because they don’t think
they can sell it. They don’t think it will move copies. Yeah, after my book
comes out we will…we can talk about the… the why it was a hard sell.
But the TLDR is it doesn’t really fit with any kind of publishing trends right
now. That’s it. That was actually simple. But at the end of the day, in my heart of
hearts, I knew trunk novel had major problems. Like you know, there were
definitely some contrivances. Some of it was really half-assed. It read like a
debut novel, which it was. So I put the book away. The book has been trunked.
Time to move on. Round 2. 2015/2016 we have moved on
completely. I get an idea for a new novel. Wholly unrelated to the first one. Same
genre. It doesn’t have aliens in it. I very naively thought that this one would
be more commercial despite the fact that it was still genre fiction, a thing
that no one should ever write. I very naively gave it the working title
“Commercial as F—” because I thought it would be. So I broke up with the first
literary agent. No hard feelings. Because surely I will have no problem
getting a literary agent that is more I don’t know… suited to what I’m going for.
I’m me. Huh. Looks like the lighting and setup has
slightly changed. It’s not totally because I filmed this on a different day. I still have two copies of John Scalzi’s The Consuming Fire, though. This one says happy birthday.
So I start writing “Commercial as F—” over late 2016 early
2017, and then I start querying “Commercial as F—” around mid 2017, and this one gets even less interest than the last time F—- really? This is supposed to be
commercial as f—! So yeah. I got a bunch of partial requests and a bunch of full
requests, but ultimately no offers. Asterisk. And a lot of the times it would
get rejected for reasons that would be like totally fixable. Like you know,
location or something. And it would be like oh well, I could revise that… okay.
And while we are here, the truth is these days, if your book needs a lot of
revision, or even not that much revision, agents probably aren’t going to be
interested in walking you through it. Although it does depend on the agent.
Your mileage may vary. But I did find one agent that was willing to work with it
and was really interested in fixing it. You know, “like the characters, like the
premise, but the ending is a little too bleak.” And I’m like, look it’s 2017. My
heroes are dead and my enemies are in power. What do you want? But point taken.
So she is willing to talk representation if I am able to revise the thing in a
way that she thinks can sell. But the problem is, I don’t really know how I
want to revise it. This is just where I’m at. So despite the extensive feedback
that this agent gives me, I sit on this thing for many months not quite knowing
how to fix it. But it is at this point in early 2018, a full three years after our
trunk novel has been trunked, that I go ahead and dig that one out ,maybe
thinking that will inspire me. And it is at this point that I remember what
interested me so much in that story in the first place. But it is also at this
point that the problems that had been plaguing the thing basically since its
inception become wildly obvious to me. Why is it so expository in the first
five chapters? Why is the entire third act like that? Why did I not do a
motivation better? And so trunk novel is where my inspiration goes not, “Commercial
as F—” So I start working on that instead. And what was supposed to be a
fairly modest rewrite with the intention of I guess, you know, getting the creative
juices flowing for the other one, ends up being like a complete overhaul. And by
the end of this rewrite, I have deleted about 60,000 words and written another
70,000. And so by the time I’m done with this (and this would have been about a
month after the Hobbit videos came out) I was like, hey look, a thing. I guess I have
two projects again. Sort of. And as far as I can see, trunk novel is the more
polished of the two, so why don’t we just tepidly see if there’s any interest
there. So once again, I very tepidly send out like, I don’t know, maybe ten query
letters and–No’s across the board. Okay, fine. This is clearly not meant to be.
Fine. And the flavors of the “no” are pretty much all variations on “Mmm I
don’t think I can sell that.” But here’s the thing, that revision actually did do
the thing it was intended to do, and it helps me figure out how I wanted to fix
the “bleak ending” of “Commercial as F—” So you know what? Working on trunk novel
wasn’t a total wash. So I’m working on that, and then I get an email from this
agent, telling me that she is leaving the agenting industry. Jesus Christ. All right, fine. Fine. I give
up. I give up. The end. Oh wait no, this is about like triumph or something.
Never give up. Except for I totally gave up. And this is where my #privilege comes in.
So it was almost around this exact time that this rando
in Brooklyn emails me like, “Hey, I’m a literary agent. Do you have one?”
And this was not the only thing that was going on in my life.
Like, if you watch the talk I did for XOXO 2019, which is on their YouTube
channel, this was around that time. So you know, my heroes are dead. My enemies are
in power. Not a great time. So he askes me if I have anything that I’d be willing
to share and I’m like, okay, which one do you want? Do you want “Commercial as F—”
or do you want trunk novel? And he says whichever one is more done. So trunk
novel it is. So basically, in very short order, he does pinpoint the issue with
why agents thought that they could not sell this. And one of these days, I might
talk about the issue, and no it wasn’t about like problematic content or gender
or anything. But it was very small and ultimately very fixable.
It was kind of on the level of like, hey, this takes place in Santa Monica. What if
it took place in San Diego instead? We’ll talk about it one day. So this dude (his
name is Christopher Hermelin, and he is part of a boutique agency in Brooklyn) he
signs me up. We do a round or two of revisions, and then we go on submission
the first week of January. That was on a Monday. I get my first phone call from an
editor on a Friday, and then after talking to a few more, ultimately it’s
sold in less than two weeks. Yep. Okay so, ultimately we come again full circle
with that question of why is my thing not selling? What is wrong with my
manuscript? Is it my manuscript that’s the problem or the market? And in my case,
it’s a little difficult to answer since I ultimately did sell to a commercial
imprint, and the book itself doesn’t really fall in line with any publishing
trends right now. So it does kind of remain to be seen just how much (if at
all) St. Martin’s gamble will pay off. Because that is kind of the reason that
agents are so bearish and they want things that are comparable to things
that I’ve already sold well. This, for the record, was mine.
Thank you, thank you for debuting at number one.
Readers are creatures of habit. They want things that are like the thing that
they’ve already read. So if I’m to come to a publisher with this book and
they’re like, “Okay, what is it about?” And I’m like, “I don’t know, it’s Independence
Day meets The Big Short. Mary Doria Russell’s Invader Zim?” I guess it’s kind of
fair for them to be like, “I don’t really care if it’s any good or not, I don’t
know if I could sell that.” The point here being is that it is honestly really
difficult to tell where the line in the sand is. Your work is not good enough and
the publisher/agent doesn’t think there is a market for it. So in conclusion, something something follow your dreams. I think it would have been
just as easy for me to be like, yeah I wrote a thing and it’s out now. And then
not, you know, cop to the ten years of… I guess failure is a strong word–struggle. And
then people will be like, “Wow! I guess you just magically did it on the first try!”
when in reality–no. Because it doesn’t do anyone any favors to act like even in a
position like mine, where I have a relatively large online platform, I
didn’t have to put in the work and go through a lot of rejection. But here is
what I have learned from the thing. Learning to write, learning to be a
novelist, and the publishing industry in general is incredibly incredibly slow-
going. So you have to be incredibly patient. And looking back, the best choice
I made in the whole thing was choosing to trunk that novel in 2014. So the fact
that I was able to get in another five years of writing experience actually
helped the thing get to a level where it could sell to a major publisher and
hopefully will be, you know, not hated by a plurality of you. So in some ways, I
think fiction is more difficult to publish than nonfiction because it’s
harder to really gauge demand for. But that is not to say that nonfiction is
easier. It’s just different. But a lot of people’s success really is owed to luck
and timing. These people that you hear of that get these like debut novels with
six-figure advances, and you know, they tend to be YA…
they hit at the right point in the right genre, but they also tend to be
outliers. For instance, if you were querying a YA dystopia in 2009, you’re
probably going to get different results from querying the same book in 2019.
Few years ago, author Jim C. Heinz did a survey of traditionally-published
authors to see how long it actually took them to get published, and the average
length of time was…drumroll…11 years. So what does that mean for this channel?
Is this going to turn into this shameless self-promotion channel?
Well no, not yet. I mean in six months it will. But I do imagine that this has shed some light on why
this channel hasn’t been as prolific as it has been in years past. And one more
thing with regard to pre-orders–and this applies to pretty much all traditionally-
published authors–is if you want to support an author, and you plan on buying
the book anyway, pre-orders are a great way to do that because it helps the
publisher decide where they are going to end up, you know, spending their resources.
Who gets the marketing, who gets to go on a book tour. Pre-orders are basically
their barometer to, you know, who gives a shit. So if you want to pre-order American
Three-body Problem for Girls, the link is in the description. It is available in
hardcover and Kindle right now. I guess the paperback will be like, I don’t know,
six months or a year after that. And yeah, this won’t be the last video of this
kind. I will probably be doing a lot more process/publishing industry-type
stuff in the months and years to come. Although yes, don’t worry, we will still
be doing traditional video essay type stuff too. So yeah, I know
everybody can’t wait for this youtuber book. This should be…this should be an
interesting journey that we can all go on together. Hope this was some help and
if it wasn’t, well, hope at least it was entertaining to watch. This is gonna be a long year.
Happy end of the decade everybody!

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