I’ll never forget the day my agent called me with the news.
I was in London, desperately trying to shake a fierce case of jet lag that lingered like a dense fog in my brain. I was scheduled to speak at my very first media conference on behalf of Elite Daily the next day, so I needed my mind to be as clear as possible.
I was in the hotel lobby drinking coffee when my phone began to vibrate on the table. My parents happened to be sitting across from me. They’d been visiting my brother who was studying abroad in Ireland and figured a quick trip from Dublin to London would make for some out-of-the-box family time. They were just as eager to hear what awaited me on the other end of the phone as I was.
A few weeks earlier, I’d pitched my collection of essays to a number of major book publishers. It was my first attempt at selling a book -- a dream of mine since I was old enough to open a Word document on my parents’ bulky Dell computer.
Since sending out the pitches to publishers, I’d been met with mostly a slew of rejections. Most of the rejection notes had nice things to say about my writing, but like any business, business is the key word, and selling a collection of essays by a first-time author is a risk not everyone is willing to take.
Fortunately, one publisher had shown interest. That publisher was Running Press, an imprint of Perseus Books, which was recently acquired by Hachette, a Big Five publisher. An editor agreed to meet me face-to-face to learn more about the book concept. I’d thought the meeting went well, but waiting only makes the mind grow doubtful.
Considering all my eggs were in one basket, I was as eager as I was terrified to pick up my agent’s call. She’d either greet me with a yes or no, and if it were a no, I wasn’t exactly sure what options I’d have left. I answered the phone and walked outside.
By the time I made my way back to the table where my parents squirmed anxiously in their seats, I’d officially had an offer for a book deal. Running Press believed in my work enough to take a risk on a collection of essays by a first-time author. Like my agent had told me from the beginning: All it takes is one yes.
Since that dream moment in London, I’ve been asked countless times how I managed to land a book deal. How did I get an agent? What did my book proposal consist of? How do authors get paid?
These are difficult questions to answer because everyone’s path to a book deal will naturally differ. Though, there are consistent elements throughout the process, and I figure it’ll be helpful to at least share some details of my own experience.
Getting an agent
I’m not one to discount luck, so I admit my path to securing an agent was a combination of relentless pursuit, nights of research and, yes, a bit of luck. I was able to leverage a relationship with the talent agency William Morris Endeavor (WME) through a co-worker who was working directly with one of its digital media agents. I basically made it my life’s mission to get put in touch with its literary department, and with enough “friendly” reminding, it finally happened.
Once I had the contact, I sent over a description of my book and what I thought to be my strongest essays. After some back and forth, WME felt confident enough in my writing and vision, and so I signed a contract and had my very own agent.
The more traditional route to reaching agents is with a query letter. While I was lucky to have found a way to get put in touch with an agent directly, my pitch process was very similar to a query letter. From my experience, the key to pitching an agent comes down to displaying your passion for writing while at the same time demonstrating you’re capable of understanding book publishing as a business. Great writing is always key, but it’s important to remember agents are sales people first. So don’t be afraid to apply a salesperson approach to pitching your book concept.
Other than your writing skills, what can you offer that could help your book sell? Do you have a large social media following? A personal blog? Does Stephen King happen to be your third cousin twice removed? In my case, I work for a recognizable Millennial media outlet with a readership that would be in line with my book's target audience.
It’s also important to show your knowledge of the industry. Make it clear who your target audience is. What books out in the market would yours compare to? What authors have inspired you? It’ll take more than telling an agent you’ve been working on the next great American novel for two years in the darkness of your mother’s basement while consuming nothing but canned tuna fish and Capri Sun.
Crafting a book proposal
There’s a misconception that in order to sell a book you must have a finished manuscript. This is not the case. The first thing my agent and I began working on was my proposal.
A book proposal is the document that will convince an editor your book will be a quality and marketable product. It’s a lot like a business plan for your book. Or a marriage proposal. And publishers are not afraid to say no, even if you’re down on one knee surrounded by friends and family.
My proposal consisted of the following:
1. A working title and brief synopsis of the book. You should be able to clearly state what your book will be about in one to two paragraphs. Think of it as the description that would appear on the back of your book. Here’s my synopsis:
Elite Daily managing editor Greg Dybec worries about rent, sex, love, family, and—the most Millennial topic of them all—a desire to leave a legacy. In "The Art of Living Other People’s Lives," Greg delivers a funny, brash, and insightful collection of 20 never-before-published stories on becoming a pick-up artist to get over an ex-girlfriend, late-night adventures with his Uber driver, having a Twitter-induced panic attack, picking up a gig writing about men’s underwear, and more. Greg’s writing is all at once candid, honest, and unapologetic, and his hilariously neurotic and self-analytical journey will strike a chord with anyone struggling to balance their IRL selves with their virtual ones.
2. An overview of my book’s target audience and why my book would appeal to them. This also included how I planned to market the book. It helps that I’m verified on Twitter, have a lot of media contacts who could help promote the book and work for a Millennial-focused website.
3. An author bio highlighting my previous experience as a writer. I provided the number of readers who have read and shared previous essays I’ve written online.
4. Lastly, and most importantly, the sample writing. I included seven essays that tallied up to a bit over 15,000 words. To put that in perspective, my final manuscript came in at just over 60,000 words, which will come to about 224 pages in paperback. It’s important to show the publisher enough of your work to give a real taste for your writing style and the overall direction of your book. Again, you don’t need to have the full book written -- just enough for a publisher to decide to pay you to finish writing it.
Once the proposal is complete, your agent ships it out to a long list of specific editors across various publishers who specialize in whatever genre your book falls into. In my case, my agent reached out to all the editors who deal with humor-based works of nonfiction.
The big question. Especially since, if you’re a writer, you probably grew up being told writers don’t make any money. I’ll keep this one straightforward and to the point.
Once a publisher decides it wants your book, based on your proposal, you'll receive an offer for a book deal. That offer will come with a dollar amount, known as an advance. An advance is a sum of money the publisher will pay you up front (sort of) for you to finish your book over a certain amount of time. By accepting, you are, of course, giving the publisher rights to publish your book.
Advances are fickle. Lena Dunham reportedly received an advance of $3.7 million for her first collection of essays. Of course, she’s riding on celebrity status. Though authors can receive advances anywhere from $2,000 to $100,000 and beyond.
I’ll admit I was shocked when I heard the offer amount from my agent. It wasn’t exactly a life-changing sum, but as a 25-year-old at the time, it was the largest sum I’d received in one shot, and the amount of some people's annual salaries. I was grateful beyond belief. I have author friends who have received less and others who have received a whole lot more.
The reason I said you "sort of" get paid up front is because most of the time the advance is split up into payment intervals. In my case, which I believe is fairly traditional, I received a portion upon signing the contract, a second payment once the manuscript was completed, and I will get the final payment the day the book is actually published.
Authors also receive royalties, which is a percentage for each book sold. This is where math gets involved, and I despise math. Royalties usually vary from around 8 percent to 15 percent of sales. However, an author will only receive royalties once book sales have surpassed the amount of the advance.
For example, if you receive a $100,000 advance and your book only sells $90,000 worth of copies, the publisher loses money and you don’t see any money beyond your $100,000 advance. But you still get to keep the advance. It's the risk the publisher takes.
If your book sells $150,000 worth of copies, you will receive royalties only on $50,000, since the first $100,000 of sales is used to essentially pay back the advance.
So there you have it: You can get paid as a writer. Go tell all the people who doubted you along the way.
Where I’m at now
At the moment, I’m doing my best to bask in the purgatory that exists between getting your book acquired and awaiting the final cover art and marketing push before the book is published.
I work in digital media where everything is a swirling vortex of instant news coverage and immediate virality, so it took me some time to wrap my head around the snail-pace of the book publishing process. It's definitely a marathon and nowhere near a sprint.
But it's slow for good reason. There’s something magical about having someone dedicate his or herself to helping craft and package the words you’ve so tirelessly arranged for (hopefully) a lot of strangers to one day consume.
It sort of feels like the calm before the storm. I’m not quite sure what the storm will look like once it hits, but I know it’s a storm I’ve always wanted to be a part of.
I'd be lying if I said it all feels completely real. I know as the days goes on, it will start to. But I’m in no rush. The entire process has taught me patience and perseverance are necessities when chasing a dream. And besides, isn’t the point of life to live for as long as you can in the moments that don’t feel real, knowing very well that they actually are?
Greg’s collection of essays, "The Art of Living Other People’s Lives: Stories, Confessions and Memorable Mistakes," is available for pre-order here.