And how to get a book deal yourself …
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?
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:
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 The 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 you have any real control over.
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 they auction. 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. There are many smaller publishers out there, but they’re 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. A promising book will not do, a dazzling book is essential.
One further conclusion. At Jericho Writers 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 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
At Jericho Writers we have helped many writers not only find their perfect agent, but go on to become bestselling authors! Through our Agent 121 meetings, and our AgentMatch service (available to members)we help make those author dreams more attainable. And that’s not because we’re miracle workers, but because we focus relentlessly on the quality of your work and ensuring you know where to look for the perfect match.
So keep honing your craft and ensure your story is tight, make sure you really understand what the market is looking for (and therefore agents and editors too), get your query letter polished to perfect, and get your list of ideal agents just right. Once you have that all in place, you’re on your way.
After all, the only way you can fail is by never giving it a good try in the first place!
Jericho Writers is a global membership group for writers, providing everything you need to get published. Keep up with our news, membership offers, and updates by signing up to our newsletter. For more writing articles, take a look at our blog page.