Getting a publishing deal. How does it work?
I have a book out on submission at the moment. Being on submission means that a book has gone to agents or to editors, and you're waiting to see if any of them like it enough to want to publish it. Being on submission means that rejections are coming. That's pretty much unavoidable, I'm afraid. It means refreshing your inbox 75 times a day and veering between wondering what it must be like to get a six-figure deal in a preempt and thinking that you are the worst writer who ever existed and should go and live in a cave.
But there are lots of different types of publishing deals, so I thought I would go through some of them and explain a little bit about what they are and what they mean for you, as a writer. This assumes that you are looking for a publisher. Self-publishing is a different animal, and there are plenty of people who know far more about it than I do, should you be interested in that. I'm going to talk about what happens when you submit to a publisher, with and without an agent, what sort of deal you might get, and what it means.
Digital only publishing
There are many, many digital only imprints. The number exploded as Amazon did. Anyone can set one up. Generally, these are publishers you can submit to yourself, without an agent. The book will usually be published in digital format (ebook) only. Because of this, you won't see the book in Waterstones or WHSmith or Tesco, and you won't have a paperback book to give to your mum (which may or may not be a bad thing). You won't get an advance, so they won't give you any money up front. You'll only get paid once the book is published and starts to sell, and you'll get a pre-agreed % for each copy. Not all digital imprints are equal. Some which are part of Big Six publishing houses and these are generally a bit more difficult to sell to, but overall it is easier to get a publishing deal with a digital imprint than a traditional deal, because digital imprints take on more titles. The benefit to digital publishing for publishing houses is that it allows them to put up a massive number of titles very cheaply. The vast majority of those titles will sink without trace. But one or two will take off and cover the cost of all the ones that failed. You'll get a cheap cover, minimal editing and probably very little marketing but you won't have to pay for any of it, and you might be the breakout title. Might. Get yourself in with one of the digital imprints that really knows how to play Amazon (such as Bookouture) and you could make a decent amount of money. Realistically, you'll sell a couple of hundred copies and earn enough to pay for a meal out.
This is the sort of publishing that most people think of when they talk about books. A trad deal is the one that gets you physical books in bookshops and an advance. These deals require an agent (there are cases where writers have got this sort of deal without, but they are very much the exception) and they are with publishing imprints that you cannot submit to directly. So how does this work? Generally, once you've signed with an agent (a challenge in and of itself, I know), the agent will then put together a list of editors who they think will be interested, and send them the manuscript. Then you sit back and wait. It can take months. It could take over a year. It's horrible. Most of the time, there won't even be any news. There'll be nothing. Silence. Eat cake and don't quit the day job.
The editor may then reject it.
If they like it, they will share it with their team. The team may reject it.
If the team like it, the book goes to acquisitions. This is when the editor asks the finance department if they'll pay for it. If the finance department says no, it's rejected.
Only if the book passes all 3 stages will an offer be made. This doesn't just cover how big an advance you will get (which can run from a few hundred quid to millions) but also how big a print run, whether you'll get hardbacks or just a mass market paperback, and the marketing budget. Just as some digital publishers are better than others, some trad deals are better than others. Books with big money attached sell more copies.
Just as before, a small budget book with a small print run can break out. But this is unusual. Realistically, you'll see one copy of your book in Waterstones, none in a supermarket, you'll earn a couple of grand and pay for a holiday. You're more likely to get a deal like this if only one publisher is interested and you only get one offer. Most trad books are published this way.
Things get exciting when more than one publisher is interested. If you have multiple offers on the table, this is when the book goes to auction (it's not like the auctions on the telly, though. There's no mumbled shouting of numbers). Your agent will tell all interested parties that they have competition and set a deadline for offers. If you're very, very lucky, you might get a preempt, which is when a publisher will make a limited time offer before the deadline rather than have to try and outbid the others. Once offers come in, you and your agent will look at all of them and your agent will probably ask for more money. You don't have to take the offer with the biggest advance if another one has a better marketing strategy, for example.
This is when things get serious. Start looking for an accountant. You're about to level up, publishing wise. You will have sleepless nights and moments of mild panic. It will be like waiting for exam results. Eat more cake and don't quit the day job.
In this situation, when the book is hot, things can move very quickly and you may only be on submission for a few weeks rather than a few months. There's an expectation that you won't talk publicly about what is happening, so don't share anything on social media until you've signed and it's in the Bookseller. If you have this sort of deal, with a bigger budget, then other things will also come in to play. The book may be chosen as a lead title, which means that the publisher will make it the focus of their marketing efforts. A bigger marketing budget means that you may have a shot at things like the Richard and Judy book club (if you weren't already aware, there's a fee involved with this. Publishers pay to have a book considered). You may get a table spot at Waterstones. Supermarkets are more likely to agree to take the book. All of these things will add up to bigger sales. You get what you pay for. You should also be aware that it could still be another 2 years before the book hits shelves. Publishing can move quickly when it wants to, but most of the time it is very, very slow. You'll probably be paid in 3 chunks - some when you sign, some when the finalised manuscript is accepted, and the rest on release day.
So that's publishing deals in a nutshell, but there's one more thing that I want to say, and it's this:
Do not sign with a publisher that expects you to pay for anything. If you're asked for money upfront, alarm bells should be ringing. This is vanity publishing. Trad publishing deals don't ask the author to cover any of the costs. Nor do agents.