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.
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.
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.