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How to Get a Book Deal

Those who follow my illustration and writing career will know that two weeks ago I announced my new book, The Secrets to Ruling School (Without Even Trying), which will be published by Abrams Amulet on September 1st, 2015. Selling a book can be a challenging experience and I thought that this would be the perfect time to talk about how an aspiring author/illustrator can make that dream a reality.

Have something someone wants to buy

The first thing you need is a marketable idea. Publishing is a business first and foremost and, at the end of the day, your book needs to be something that will appeal to enough readers to justify the costs and labor to produce it as well as turn a profit for the publisher. So, review your idea first to make sure it fits in line with what’s in the marketplace yet is unique enough to stand out from the crowd. Different is great. Unmarketable is not.

Create a sample document

Contrary to what some people think, you don’t need a finished manuscript to sell your book. You can simply get by with an outline, some sample chapters, and any relevant art that will showcase your project. It just has to be enough so that an editor can see your vision clearly and get excited about it. For a children’s book, for instance, all you really need is a sketch dummy with two or three pieces of final art. Anything above that is probably overkill since, once an editor gets his or her hands on it, you’re going to have to redo the entire book anyway. For a novel, it can be anywhere from a complete manuscript; to a nicely prepared pdf with some sample chapters, a little write-up, and a general plot overview. It all depends on the strength of the idea, how execution-dependent that idea is, and your cachet in the industry. Whatever you decide to present, though, it needs to be awesome. You want to put your best foot forward so create something nice that will make your project shine.

Get an agent

Yes, you can sell a novel without an agent. However, it is a million times easier to sell a novel with one. Literary agents typically take around a 15% cut and will know all the right editors to submit your work to (and will also help you develop your manuscript further so it’s perfect before it’s submitted to publishers). So, how does one get a literary agent? Well, that’s complicated and could be a post in and of itself. The short answer is to do some research and submit query letters to agents or get referrals to them. If your manuscript is marketable enough, it won’t be the hardest battle you’ll have to fight.

If you can’t get an agent, try sending it in unsolicited

Sometimes, you just won’t be able to get an agent. It’s not the end of the world. If that’s the case, you can try sending your manuscript to publishers who accept unsolicited materials. Additionally, you can also try sending query letters to editors at publishing houses who don’t traditionally accept unsolicited manuscripts. If your query letter is strong enough and your idea blows them away, they may request your manuscript! Then, it’s no longer unsolicited!

Go social

Sometimes books get published, not because of their quality, but solely for the reason that the publisher knows they’ll sell. Picture the worst written celebrity books you can think of. Now you get what I’m saying. What those authors have is a platform. It’s a guaranteed audience for the book. If you can build up your own platform, that might be enough to move the needle in your direction. Luckily, you don’t have to be a movie star in this day and age to have a platform. If you can create enough of a social media presence (I’m talking at least 250,000 followers), that will certainly help. In fact, if your presence is strong enough, publishers may even come to you!

Make contacts in the industry

Perhaps the best way for you to get your book published is to make contacts in the industry. I’m not gonna lie, this is where it’s beneficial to live in NYC. The majority of the industry is here so it’s easy to hobnob with the gatekeepers and make connections who will be receptive to your work. However, if you don’t live in the Big Apple, you’re not at a total loss. There are tons of conferences all across the U.S. where you can meet and interact with editors and agents. For children’s books, for instance, the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators has tons of events that you can attend. Look for conferences and other mixers in your area where you can meet industry pros. One thing to remember, though: editors are pitched to constantly so hold off on pitching right away. Focus on building real relationships first before eventually bringing up your book if a natural opportunity presents itself.

Self Publish

Finally, if all else fails, there’s no shame in self-publishing as proof of concept. All anyone needs to do is look at the success of books like Fifty Shades of Grey to see that can work. If your self-published book is extremely successful, big publishers will be champing at the bit to pick up your title.

Final thoughts

This is just a brief overview of how you can get your book published. Every author has a unique story and will most likely have a combination of all, some, or none of these things. The key thing to remember is that, above all else, your book is an item that will be sold. As such, making sure it’s something people will want to buy will ultimately be the thing that makes a publisher scoop it up.

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Neil Swaab is a freelance illustrator, art director, author, and educator based in Brooklyn, NY. He's an instructor at Parsons the New School for Design and the illustrator of the New York Times bestselling book Middle School: My Brother is a Big, Fat Liar by James Patterson and Lisa Papademetriou. His new authored and illustrated book, The Secrets to Ruling School: Class Election, comes out this September from Amulet Books.

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