You’re at that scary submissions stage. Your manuscript is edited right down to the very last comma. It’s time to go out into the big wide world and GET THAT BOOK DEAL.
But – uh – what exactly do you have to do … and what are the odds of success?
OK, well, first things first – so here’s a brief, brief reminder of how to go about getting a book deal. If you need more info on any of the steps, then just dive into the links included – we’ve got you covered. (And for a jumbo guide on getting published, go here. That’ll be most useful for newbies, but will have something useful to say to pretty much anyone.)
How to get a book deal
You want a book deal? So here’s the formula. This formula works for anyone wanting to be traditionally published (with a publisher, that is, rather than self-publishing via Amazon.) It also assumes that you are writing fiction or mainstream non-fiction – the sort of stuff you might find on the front tables of a larger bookstore.
If that applies to you, then the formula for getting a book deal is:
Light candles, say prayers, drop scented flowers down a wishing well (lucky charms available here)
Get an offer of representation from an agent
Do any editorial work the agent suggests and which sounds sensible to you
Let the agent auction your work
Accept the best offer, which isn’t necessarily the highest one
That looks like a lot of steps, but the only actually difficult step in that sequence is the very first one. And creating a blindingly good agent submission pack is pretty simple if you use our free worksheets, available here.
What are the odds of getting a literary agent?
Those odds are somewhat scary.
A typical agent in NY or London receives approximately 2,000 submissions a year. They are likely to accept 2-3 writers from that deluge. Some agents will accept fewer.
So, as a rough rule of thumb, and allowing for plenty of variation, the chance of getting an agent are about 1 in 1000.
That sounds frightening, but you can and should apply to more than one agent, so the 1 in 1000 is perhaps more like 1 in 100.
And, in any case, it’s not about the odds. If your book is blindingly good – if you’ve written a Hunger Games, or a Gone Girl, or an All the Light We Cannot See – your odds of getting an agent are essentially 100%. So don’t focus on the odds. Focus on your book.
That’s the only part that really matters.
What are the odds of getting a book deal?
Well, you can look at this in two ways. From the agent’s end, it’s probably true that a good agent at a top class agency will sell approximately 2 books for every 3 he or she auctions. That is, the odds of a sale are about 67% – which is why most writers, correctly, think that getting an agent is the most significant hurdle between them and publication.
But that’s to look at it from one end only.
I spoke recently with one editor, who has a key job at one of London’s best publishers (a major part of a Big 5 house). In effect, that editor is as selective as it gets.
These days, he receives, via literary agents, about 12 submissions a week. Those 12 submissions equate to about 600 manuscripts crossing his desk each year.
And of those 600 manuscripts, he takes on maybe 3-4 new writers a year. (As well as, of course, continuing to publish the work of his existing stable of authors.)
In other words, he buys less than 1% of the work being offered to him. Yikes!
These stats are frankly terrifying, but they need to be taken in context. In particular:
A smaller or less prestigious publisher will be less selective. Robert Hale (for example) or Choc Lit are decent publishers, but are smaller and less selective than the big guys. They’ll offer much smaller advances to authors and they won’t have the marketing heft of their larger rivals – but if you get an offer from them, it’s still a massive compliment to your work. It’s a real publishing deal and you should be elated.
It’s also wrong to conclude that if you have an agent, you have only a 1% chance of getting a top-ranked publisher. It isn’t so. If agents are looking to auction a manuscript, they’ll typically send it out to 8-12 publishers – that is, to all the bigger publishers in town. So while an individual publisher might take just 1% of work submitted, that means an overall success rate of more like 10%. Something similar, of course, applies with submissions to agents.
The better the agent, the higher that success rate will be. A top agent will reject any work that doesn’t come up to the right standard, will seize hold of any work that does come to the right standard, and will do so with a strong expectation of selling it. Even then, no agent I know has a 100% record, but the best agents will have a strike rate of well over 10%.
So why does my Big 5 editor reject so much of what comes his way? In his opinion – and also mine – agents (mostly less well established ones) are sending work out before it’s properly ready.
You don’t want your work set out early, which means it’s time to consider …
How to think about getting a book deal
In the end, though, the conclusion has little to do with odds or stats. The 2012 British Olympic team contained 541 athletes. The US Olympic team is that little bit larger.
Either way, those numbers are larger than the number of debut novels being listed by elite UK or US publishers today. So you need to be (at least!) an Olympian-of-writing to make the grade.
That’s the bad news.
The good news is simply this:
If you are in the world’s top 20-30 sprinters, you will get selected for the Olympics. If you’ve written one of the best espionage novels of the year, you will get published.
In brutal market conditions, the standard required by top publishers is rising all the time, but the best work still gets selected, still attracts advances and investment, still gets published. What you need to worry about more than anything else is the quality of your work. Promising will not do, but dazzling is essential.
One further conclusion. We’ve always been against writers sending their work to dozens & dozens of agents. Our own rule of thumb is that if you can’t attract a Yes from an agent in 8-12 (intelligently chosen and properly presented) submissions, then your manuscript is not yet good enough. There will always be exceptions to every rule, but for the most part the rule is a very good one. If you find send submissions to 200 agents, your chances of hooking an agent improve, but I’d say that your chance of getting a publisher remains the same as before. About 0%, if the first 8-12 agents turned you down.
A little bit of boasting
Here at Jericho Writers, we know a bit about getting agents. Writers who have come to us for editorial help or for one of our courses have a success rate that is at least 10 times better than the above numbers would suggest, and probably more.
That’s not because we’re miracle workers, but because we focus relentlessly on the quality of your work. Which is what you need to do. Do that, add talent and a good idea, and you’ll make the grade.