I’m writing this post because there’s an unspoken rule made for writers like me, who are interested in how to get a book deal, that we’re not supposed to talk about money. We’re supposed to be glad we are actually making any money at all. The trope of the starving artist is no joke, with thousands of examples to prove it.
Money oppression requires silence. You don’t talk salaries. You don’t talk costs. You don’t talk profit.
Writers don’t talk advances. They don’t talk fees. They don’t talk honoraria. I obeyed all the rules for a long time, but now I’m not.
I want to talk to you about money and how to get a book deal.
How to Get a Book Deal — Let’s Talk About One Kind of Advance
A talented writer friend who took my course in creative nonfiction recently wrote me an ecstatic email. “With everything from our class in mind, as well as at my mother’s urging, I polished up a proposal to a university press, sent it Saturday, and the editor called me this morning. Like, called me on the phone! He was clearly excited…saying he thought it would fit perfectly into their list. My heart flew right out of my chest.”
She had a book deal!
A few days later I heard from the writer again. She had received the contract, which turned out to be a Memorandum of Agreement. This legal agreement gives the publisher the right to refuse the manuscript once it’s finished, if he doesn’t like it or if he doesn’t get peer approval. If he likes the manuscript, the terms are “surprisingly low,” as my friend told me. To be exact, the terms are a $500 advance, payable on acceptance, and 7% royalties. The press gets audio and other rights.
How to Get a Book Deal — Another Kind of Advance
This week I had another conversation with a friend who writes cookbooks and thinks a lot about how to get a book deal. For their most recent cookbook they received an advance of $100K.
Now they want to do another cookbook, so they contacted a respected agent, who said she won’t sell a book unless she gets an advance of $200K. That was shocking. I know these deals happen, but they rarely happen with literary books, which is my bailiwick.
There was a caveat—this agent won’t take on clients unless they have at least 50K followers on Instagram. Shocking again.
I’ve known a number of books now that have come out of New York authored by folks who were adequate writers but who had very hefty followings on social media. Rachel Rogers’s We Should All Be Millionaires is one of these (147K followers today), as is Asia Suler’s Mirrors in the Earth (102K followers today.)
Within the last few months I fielded a much-welcomed offer for a nonfiction book. The offer was an advance of $4,000. You can see the terms below. This may be the best that this press can do, and I hear that. Tectonic plates are shifting in the publishing biz.
Also within the last couple of weeks I received a heartwarming inquiry. A lovely acquisitions editor at a press had read an essay of mine that published in The Bitter Southerner and asked if I was interested in writing a book about this subject.
“Hearing from you makes me proud,” I wrote back. “Thank you for your interest in a book. Having a phone conversation about this might be our easiest route forward.” I suggested the phone because I didn’t want to write out my thoughts.
Turns out we couldn’t mesh our schedules for a conversation, and I decided not to string the editor along. So I wrote an email:
First of all, I thank you again for thinking of me and for being in touch. I think it would be the bomb to write a small book about this subject; and you seeing the essay in TBS & getting in contact is a huge honor to me.
I’m in a new place with writing, and I doubt that we can work together, so there’s no need for a phone conversation looming on our calendars if there’s little chance of this working. Here’s why.
I’ve always published with small, literary, mission-driven or academic presses. About a year ago I had an epiphany about being a poor, broke artist, and I made the decision that I was done with that life.
This is why I self-published my last book, a novel.
My royalties for my first book were 7.5 & 6.5 percent. That royalty rate, combined with a working-class childhood, a poor money mindset, and the fact that I am a woman, kept me in poverty for years. I am no longer in the business of writing to keep middle-people, so to speak, in business. That means publishers, agents, publicists, Amazon, and on & on. For years, literally, I had no health insurance, while I worked for folks in the publishing industry who had great salaries, benefits, health insurance, vacations, etc.
I have all that now, and I would never go backward.
Therefore, if you can negotiate a royalty rate of at least 40 percent, I would be glad/delighted/honored to talk with you about a manuscript.
You can see that there’s probably no need for us to talk. I’m sure you can find another great writer to do a book on this subject. In fact, I could probably recommend one of my writing students to you.
Thank you again for being in touch. I hope our paths cross one fine day.
Rereading that email just now, I do feel a little cringe, that I was audacious enough to write that. You can read between the lines how passionate I am about this. That my writing student had just received an offer of a 7% royalty—and was going to accept it because at least it was an offer (!)—probably led to my sauciness. Or is it addict honesty?
I received a nice reply. “If any of your former students working on nonfiction reach out for advice about publishers, I hope you’ll consider mentioning our press to them. Just, of course, if it comes up organically and they are at a career stage where working with a small publisher might make sense.” I will. Definitely.
It’s important to note that none of this is personal. Our society has no malevolence toward writers. The wonderful folks who are buying books would no doubt love to offer decent money. So I have only love for anyone in the publishing industry these days. We are all suffering from late-stage capitalism in a failing industry.
Where does this leave us?
Still writing. Hoping for better times. Figuring out other ways to make money.
Where does this leave writers who always have dreamed of publishing a book?
Same. Still writing.
We do it because we love to do it and love is free or we figure out a way to monetize it that makes sense to us.
Have more questions about how to get a book deal? We take at least one class meeting in each of my courses to explore this in-depth. I’d love to help you with your publishing goals.