Jan 212008
 

Ravenous for a book deal.I published my graphic novel Therefore Repent! in Canada in August, and IDW (who put out 30 Days of Night) just released it in the US last week. I just got a copy of their edition and it looks great: they used a slightly thicker paper stock and a slightly lighter ink, but it’s otherwise pretty much identical to the Canadian edition. Even though I’m best known for writing articles on do-it-yourself publishing, I’ve learnt a lot in publishing with other folks too. So today I’m going to answer one of the questions I get asked the most:

“How did you get a book deal?”

The first couple times I thought it was a fluke, but having made four book deals with three different publishers over the past decade, I feel somewhat qualified to discuss it. But of course it’s limited in that it’s one person’s experience, hopefully people will comment as their experience differs, and questions are welcome.

Detail from the Flyboy Canadian cover.THE SHOTGUN APPROACH

Most publishers, to slow the flood, say that they don’t accept unsolicited manuscripts. With my first full length novel, Flyboy Action Figure Comes With Gasmask, having self-published before and curious about being published by other folks, I ignored this. I sent out 50 packages with a sample chapter, a bio and a synopsis as laid out by a book called Be Your Own Literary Agent by Martin Levin. From this I received five requests for a complete manuscript, and in the end HarperCollins offered me an advance of $2000, which they eventually increased to $2500.

What had happened on the inside at HarperCollins is that an intern, between her duties answering the phone, had thought the manuscript might appeal to someone. He was a guy who had been doing foreign rights and had recently moved into domestic acquisitions. He was fired soon after I signed the deal, and was probably in the position to get my book published for all of six months.

This is why I suggest sending it out to any publisher with an address, or The Shotgun Approach, over a well researched and considered submission tactic (let’s call it The Sniper’s Gambit). Maybe it seems like a good idea to only submit to the publishers who put out Your Kinda Stuff, but the editor there that was publishing YKS this season may have bombed with that list and feel like a change — or may have moved to another publisher causing your cleverly calculated submission to miss entirely. I also suspect that for some people The Sniper’s Gambit is a way to limit the pain of rejection, but really, fifty rejections doesn’t hurt ten times more than five: suck it up and cock that double barrel to give yourself a fighting chance.

The publisher at HarperCollins also sold the US rights to Avon, after a modest bidding war (see The Agent Question, below) with Tor that doubled Avon’s original advance offer to $15,000. I was so happy and stunned by how my work had doubled in value because one editor at another house had liked it that I forgot to ask for mutual agreement on the cover in the US contract, and consequently got stuck with a cover I didn’t like. (More on that in Ask For the Rights You Want, below.)

WHY INTERNS ARE YOUR FRIENDS, PART II

With my second novel Angry Young Spaceman, I decided for political reasons to leave HarperCollins and publish it independently. While this allowed me to sell the same amount of books and make more money off it in Canada, I had no plans to publish it in the US as I felt that it wouldn’t be as successful as having a US publisher put it out. (This was later proven with the dismal sales when I published my fourth book in the US as well as Canada.)

But one day I was flipping through Locus and I noticed an ad for publisher Four Walls Eight Windows, who published political books and science fiction. Hey, I write political SF! I thought, and sent a copy of the Canadian edition of Angry Young Spaceman to them along with a handwritten note — something to the effect of “I put this out here, maybe you’d like to put it out there?” It was opened by an intern there, who really enjoyed it and put it in front of the publisher, who made me an offer not only on that book but my subsequent book, Everyone In Silico. Instead of being put off by my DIY style of publishing and touring, he was supportive both philosophically and in funding the US tours. The advances were small (somewhere in the $2000-$3000 range, I forget) but it was a good match while it lasted.

MY ASHCAN’S HISTORY

Going into the comics industry with my graphic novel Therefore Repent! I was, in some ways, back at square one. The artist and I put together an ashcan (almost as encouraging a word as “slushpile“) that sampled the first chapter or so of our graphic novel, and blew the dust off my shotgun. I was pleasantly surprised at the responsiveness of the comics publishers as compared to the prose publishers: many of them emailed positive rejections in a prompt manner. One of the companies the artist had worked with had expressed interest, but when I explained that I’d be publishing an edition for the book trade in Canada (as I had with my previous three books) they said they’d have to try to convince their distributor to allow this.

Months passed by. I noticed that my pal Cory had set up a deal with a company called IDW that worked with his Creative Commons licencing. I thought to myself, they sound forward thinking and flexible! and I shot off a package. A while later I got an email from the president, and despite having the same distributor as the other guys he was able to put together a deal in a few weeks that allowed me to publish my edition in Canada.

One big difference between my deals with literary prose world and the world of graphic novel publishers is that the lit publishers generally give an advance on 10% royalties up front — meaning after selling 3000 $20 books you’ve earned out a $5000 advance and are due $1000, dig? If you only sell 1000 books, and don’t earn out your advance, then you don’t have to pay it back — the publisher gambled and lost. Now with the comics publishing deals I’ve seen there’s no advance but it’s a much higher split — 50%-50% to the publisher and the author — after the initial publishing costs (printing, promo, etc.) are earned back. So it’s a different model, and I’ll see how I feel about it in a year, but for now I’ve been impressed with the much greater feeling of partnership I have enjoyed with IDW — down to input on the print run quantity and the per unit cost.

ASK FOR THE RIGHTS YOU WANT

OK, so maybe you don’t have my specific needs of needing to withhold certain territories. But there’s probably something that you feel strongly about: don’t let it slide. The classic is the book cover. Authors complain all the time about the crappy covers they have. It sucks to have spent so long working on something to have someone slap a boring, unreflective, or cheesy cover on it ’cause some kid in sales thinks it “pops”.

You may have a great relationship with your editor, who has promised to faithfully shepherd your book through the process — but it takes years for books to come out, and by then they may have been let go or otherwise be unable to follow through. Get it in writing.

A detail from Angry Young Spaceman’s cover.And get the right words in writing. “Consultation” doesn’t mean shit. It has no teeth, legally. In my experience, the magic words are “mutual agreement between the author and the publisher” on the subjects of cover design, sales material and back cover copy, which I’ve gotten whenever I’ve asked for it. I wouldn’t suggest the author should have absolute control over it any more than the publisher should: I’ve heard editors recount horror stories of authors who come in with their “precocious” child’s pencil scribblings as a design. But consensus is not that hard, once you’re committed to it, and really, both of you are invested in getting the book out ASAP and with as much chance of success as possible.

There’s a great article (“Paperback Nabokov”, McSweeney’s #4) that shows via his letters how embarrassed and mortified Vlad was with the dumbass covers he got stuck with abroad, so there’s a long history of this. But it seems pretty arbitrary that authors still have little control over their covers — musicians are way more involved in their album covers, for instance. So if you’re inclined to feel it’s important, ask for it: the one time I didn’t ask for it was the time I didn’t make the deal myself, and sure enough I ended up with a cover that annoyed me.

In the unlikely event you kill a deal just by asking for stuff you’d like in a reasonable way, then it’s probably better off dead. In general, that’s a good rule of thumb for a lot of this. The people who’ve been accommodating and understanding before the deal was made have also been accommodating and understanding after the deal was made. And also keep in mind that after the deal is made you still have a fair amount of leverage, should you choose to use it: you’re partners in this endeavour, after all, and if they expect you to promote, tour, talk up the book once it’s out there then they’re going to want to keep you happy. Speak up, be clear and reasonable about your desires, and they’ll probably be met.

THE AGENT QUESTION: ARE YOU BRINGING A GUN TO A KNIFE FIGHT?

I’ve talked to a bunch of different book agents, and although I have one for my film option rights, I’ve haven’t had one for books yet. It’s not so much the 15% cut they get that makes me hesitant — it’s entering into a relationship I don’t feel I necessarily need and feeling beholden to someone for what they may or may not have done to get me to where I am. However, there are pros and cons. I’ll start with the cons, which are mostly for new writers, and end with the pros, which are mostly for writers who are a known quantity.

It’s hard to find an agent who’ll take you on. I always advise unpublished writers to spend at least as much energy approaching publishers directly as they do approaching agents — it’s more empowering, you’ll learn more, and if you make it happen agents will be more interested in you once you’ve published something if you choose to go that route with your next book. I also think that while there’s editors who will ignore anyone who’s unrepresented, there’s also people in the publishing world who thrive on “discovering” people. Those are the people who’ll champion your book.

It’s even harder to find a good agent. What I mean by that is one who’s suitable for where you’re at and what you’re writing. Some agents will take on everyone who looks vaguely shiny and then not really have the resources to help each individual client, save the one or two who gather some momentum on their own. I’ve always felt that I don’t really want a nice agent, someone who I can pal around with and really relate to: because then I have to ask myself, what can this person do that I can’t do myself? I need someone with thicker skin, a different skill set and a specialized knowledge of the industry — I need someone who’s as alien as possible to me without being completely monstrous. I haven’t found that creature yet, but I’m always keeping an eye out.

Why? Well, because despite having been able to sell the US rights, I haven’t been able to sell any other foreign rights to my books. And while I’ve managed to find one publisher who’s into publishing the book, it’s much better to have two interested, as the publisher at HarperCollins who sold the US rights to my book demonstrated. Publishers will pay as small an advance as they can get away with, to reduce their risks, so a bidding war will increase your advance and probably the promo push they put behind it to recoup.

So I definitely see a value to having an agent in that their access to and broader knowledge of the publishing industry can help in these cases, provided they’re sufficiently motivated. And except for those rare agents who are in it for the nurturing and the long term relationship, taking on a new writer and getting a couple hundred dollars for landing an average advance isn’t much motivation. So generally, you have to make the call as to when, if ever, the scale of your writing operation justifies taking on an employee/partner.

  26 Responses to “How To Get a Book Deal Without an Agent”

  1. [...] something about getting published and then working with publishers. It’s an essay called How To Get A Book Deal Without An Agent, and it’s very good reading for both those who are looking to ‘break in’ to [...]

  2. Once again, great advice. As an independent publisher I firmly believe that it’s possible to have great success as a self-publisher and great success without an agent, it’s just (like anything) a matter of getting out there, working out how stuff works and then putting in the hard yards!

    L.

  3. You wrote:

    “Why? Well, because despite having been able to sell the US rights, I haven’t been able to sell any other foreign rights to my books. And while I’ve managed to find one publisher who’s into publishing the book, it’s much better to have two interested, as the publisher at HarperCollins who sold the US rights to my book demonstrated.”

    That is a crime. I really like your work and think that someone should be publishing them here in the UK. What about a No Media Kings UK?

    Anywho, as always a great and inspiring DIY post.

  4. Great read, and interesting to see the differences between the comics / literary set up and different methods of distribution and approach. Thanks for posting that.

    _n

  5. Glad you dug it, guys.

    On the subject of my books in the UK, Jordan: there was a bit of distro via the books 4 Walls but I rarely hear that someone there picked it up in a bookstore, so I don’t think it was that great.

    A couple years back I did a limited mailout to a couple of publishers with the editions I had published here but nothing came of it beyond one nice rejection letter. If anyone hears of a European publisher that’d be a good match for my stuff, let me know!

  6. The UK seems to be a bit of a strange market to crack into. In terms of distribution and indie press outlets there seems to be a lot less choice than in the US and even Australia. I’m not sure if that’s the case or whether they are just hiding themselves off the internet!

  7. [...] Jim Munroe explains how to get a book deal without an agent — and why you might want to do so. (Link via [...]

  8. [...] How To Get a Book Deal Without an Agent from No Media Kings [...]

  9. I thought “Therefore Repent” was self-published. Did you or Max contribute out of pocket to the publishing?

  10. Jack: Sorry, to clarify — I self-published (and self-financed) the Canadian edition of Therefore Repent! and IDW is publishing the US edition.

  11. [...] to get a publishing deal for your graphic novel? Some great information is up at No Media Kings (via [...]

  12. Very interesting article – loved the openess and wanted to leave a note of appreciation.

    So I take it unless you are selling 100’s or thousands of copies that a writer’s life is tough on the cashflow? What is the happy number for writers to live a good lifestyle since a book takes awhile to write.

    Also will check out your graphic novel as that is my thing…great way to publicize it. Sure IDW is going to get a bunch of submissions now…;-)

  13. Yep, CL, any way you slice it it’s tough to make a living off of books. If I sell through 2000 books I make about $10,000, but when you consider that writing and publishing the book took a year it’s below minimum wage. And I get $5 a book only when I publish it as well — when I go through publishers I get $2 a book.

    Writers, even well-reviewed, decent selling authors, usually supplement their income via teaching or other ways — or, as I have, by defining a “good” lifestyle as having lots of freedom and inspiration and scraping by on an income that most would classify as poverty.

  14. Mr. Munroe
    just picked up “Therefore Repent”
    having read the 24pg sampler some months quite liked the article and think of the site as a valuable resource

    keep up the good work

  15. Great post, thanks for your thoughtful reflection.

  16. Great info Jim,

    After reading your article, I’m leaning towards no agent and no publisher (actually, I was leaning that way before reading your article). I’m confident that I have the ability to market the book myself (it’s a guide, so in some ways, it’s self promoting).

    I’m curious, how much does it cost to publish a book yourself? Of course that depends on the pages, size, etc.

    And, if a retailer is selling your books for you, how much is their “cut”? Is it half the cover price?

    Thanks.

    Marshall

  17. You answered so many questions for me, I was getting so frustrated, I was thinking of throwing my book in the trash and forgetting the whole thing.

    Thank You for all your help..

  18. Three years later this article is still incredibly helpful! Thanks for the thoughtful advice, Jim!

  19. For the publishers that only wanted manuscripts through an agent, how did you find the proper place to send everything to? Many do not list it on their website, as they try to discourage writers without agents.

  20. I know you wrote this a while ago but I was wondering what address you sent your packages to when the publisher says they do not accept submissions? Did you just send them to their general postal address?

  21. Yep, I just sent it to their general postal address.

  22. Hello Jim,

    I haven’t had a chance to read any of your books but I like your bio. Reading about how you became a writer really inspires me to take matters into my own hands and just do what I want to do. I have a question regarding publishing houses. I made a compilation of chat slang terms and turned it into a dictionary type of book. I am now trying to get someone to publish it, do you have any suggestions. Being that this is a different type of deal, I wonder if there is anything I can do to cut corners or if on the contrary, the process will be a little longer. What do you think I can do?

    • If it’s internet chat slang, I think you should work on getting it out there online & put it out there that you’d be interested in having it published. Publishers will pay attention to large internet audiences these days, but without that it’s a hard sell.

  23. Great advice! I’m going to query publishers just as much as agents. It’s always worth a shot. I wrote a VERY dirty joke book. The Joke is in your Hand! I’ve self published through Amazon but I’m having a having a hard time getting this in stores. Your article has given me another push in a hopeful direction. Thanks.

  24. Hello,Jim
    thanks for all the great info I have a question, I was recently contacted from an agent from NY who wants to work for me but wolud like down payment, & portion of book sales. I know I’m a first timer and donot wanna take the first offer thrown at me at suggestions.

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