The process by which agents pitch publishers can be confusing, as it’s often characterized by periods of waiting followed by rapid shifts in perspective. I’ll explain not only what happens, but how long it takes.
For the purposes of this blog post, I’ll assume that you already have already written a proposal and secured a deal with an agent. As I’ve described before, the best way to find that agent is to get recommended by a fellow author.
Your agency deal will also include a financial element. Unlike publishing deals, which vary, agency deals are almost all built around a 15% contingency fee: the agent receives all future advances and royalties from publishers, then takes 15% and pays you the rest. This aligns your interest and the agent’s: the agent gets nothing unless you get a book deal, and the bigger the deal, the more the agent makes. If the agent’s cut seems like a lot, read through what follows here and consider whether you’d be able to get a deal at all without the agent’s help.
Finalizing the proposal
You may have landed the deal with a well-written proposal, but that doesn’t mean the agent will accept it exactly as is. Generally, agents have suggestions. They may suggest improvements to titles and tables of contents, improvements to your list of comparable titles, and edits to the sample chapter.
When responding to these suggestions, consider that the agent has seen and made deals for hundreds of authors before you. Agent suggestions on positioning are often insightful. On the other hand, because agents handle a diverse collection of books, they generally don’t know much about your specific topic. So you should be a little more skeptical about content suggestions.
The process of finalizing the proposal may go through two or three rounds, and take onen to four weeks. Generally, the speed of that process will depend on how fast you, the author, can make revisions. And you should be fast here: every week you delay will translate into a week’s delay in getting a deal, a week’s delay in getting an advance, and a week’s delay in getting published. Plus the agent will lose interest in your book if you’re not responding.
Preparing and launching the pitch
Once the proposal is finalized, the agent will prepare a list of acquisitions editors at publishing houses to send it to. You deserve to see that list, which should have eight to 20 names on it. That list, as much as anything, is what you are paying the agent for: they know exactly who is buying the kind of book you are writing.
Remember, the agent is juggling your proposal and the proposals of handful of other authors at the same time. And the agent likely knows the rhythm of the publishing industry, including holidays, and when editors will be most likely to respond.
As a result, the process of preparing the proposal to go out to publishers typically takes two to four weeks. At the end of that time, the agent sends personalized emails to all the editors with copies of the proposal (or sometimes, offers to send a copy of the proposal).
Do not get in the middle of this process. Do not directly contact any of the publishers on the list without first checking with the agent — going around the agent is counterproductive, borderline unethical, and makes you and your agent look like amateurs. If you’ve worked with a realtor to sell a house, the process is similar — let your agent do all the negotiating. The agent knows best how to handle the publishers to maximize the chances of multiple offers.
Waiting for responses and talking to publishers
It typically takes two or three weeks for publishers to decide whether to make offers, and what amounts to offer. The acquisitions editor will meet with other decision-makers at the publisher and collaborate with them to decide how much they think the book will sell — and what size offer it will take to land it. In those meetings, your acquisitions editor will (hopefully) be your advocate, making the case for your book among all the other proposals the publisher is considering.
During this process, the editors and the agent are typically in regular communication. The agent answers questions on your behalf, and may ask you for information that the publisher is seeking.
One other thing happens in this timeframe: publishers ask the agent to speak with you, the author. You may meet them in person or by phone or videoconference. Authors often assume the purpose of these meetings is for you to impress the publisher, as you would in a job interview. But that turns out to be backwards. The publisher already knows everything they need to know based on the proposal. They will attempt to impress you based on how they marketed similar books and their awesome promotional resources. If you get to do these interviews, they’re fun, since a bunch of high-powered publishers are romancing you. Just don’t get carried away; publisher promises often don’t match up to what they can actually deliver.
Agents get a sense during this process of when it’s about time to stop dancing around and ask for bids. If at least a couple of publishers seem ready to bid, they’ll set a date for the auction.
If no publishers bite on the proposal, the agent won’t wait forever. They’ll write off the effort, and you’ll be out of luck. If a month goes by after the pitches go out you’ve got no nibbles, it’s sorry, thanks for playing. See if you can get some feedback on what they thought was missing, but be aware, it’s hard to retool a proposal and pitch the same book again.
If only one publisher is interested, the agent will get a bid from them and negotiate the best deal possible from there.
But if more than one publisher is interested, it’s time to engage the publishers in a round of competitive bidding.
There are two basic ways to do this.
One is an actual auction, conducted by phone and email, in which publishers send in bids and attempt to top each other until only one is left standing. This is what we did for my book with Charlene Li, Groundswell, and it was one of the most exciting events of my life, as I watched the bids come in by email and phone in my agent’s office.
The other approach is to request sealed bids in which each publisher assembles a best and final offer and sends it to the agent. The same agency that managed the auction for Groundswell used the sealed bids method for Writing Without Bullshit. Why? Because the publishers were quite varied, ranging from publishers of writing manuals to those focused on big business ideas. Varied publishers meant varied bids, which meant that sealed bids would generate the best offers.
Remember that even if you’ve pitched multiple editors from different imprints of the same publishing company, only one of them will end up bidding — whichever one wants your book the most. Publishers don’t bid against themselves. This is one reason that mergers in the publishing business drive down the size of advances.
Regardless of the bidding process, it typically takes no more than a day or two to complete the auction and go to a deal.
Before we leave this topic, you should know what a “bid” consists of. The most important number is the top-line number — the advance. This is money you’ll be paid up-front or later regardless of how the book does. It’s often divided into installments, say, one on signing the contract, one on delivery of the manuscript, one on publication, and one a year after publication.
The bid also includes a royalty percentage (say, 10% on the first 5,000 books and 15% thereafter) and ancillary rights and royalties, such as cuts for foreign rights, ebooks, and audiobooks. Remember that these royalties are accounted for over the months and years after the book is published, and then paid out only after you’ve accumulated enough to exceed the advance payments.
Finally, the bid should also include a proposed publication date. If it doesn’t, tell the agent to get the publishers to include publication dates so you can use those dates to make better choices.
You’re under no obligation to accept the highest advance. If you liked one publisher better than another, or feel there’s extra value in some of the ancillary payments, or prefer a publisher with an earlier publication date, you can choose a publisher with a lower advance. If the bids are close, your agent will be fine with this, or may even try to get the publisher with the lower advance to increase it. But if you pick a publisher whose advance is a lot lower than another bid you’ve received, your agent will be annoyed. Still, it’s your decision.
Keep in mind that the size of the advance loosely correlates with the amount of attention the publisher will pay to you — a bigger advance means a bigger book that will get more support.
Negotiating the details
When you and your agent have selected a publisher, you have a deal.
It’s extremely rare for a publisher to go back on these handshake deals. Doing so would earn them a terrible reputation in the industry — they’d rapidly be excluded from future book auctions. A deal is a deal, even if it’s just based on an email describing terms: you can count on it. About the only situation in which such a deal would evaporate is if you get caught in a child trafficking ring or some other situation that’s makes you, as an author, radioactive.
However, even though you have a deal, you don’t have a contract. In contrast to the acquisitions editors, who work quickly, publisher’s legal departments work slowly. I’ve seen legal negotiations take six months.
Your publisher will continue to work with you during these negotiations — you’ll be able to have productive discussions with your editor and your publisher’s promotions department, for example — but of course, you don’t get that first installment of the advance until the deal is actually signed.
Your leverage in this process is through your agent. Not only has the agent seen and negotiated hundreds of contracts — including, likely, many with this publisher — but the agent can explain what a poor reputation the publisher is getting itself by negotiating so slowly. Maybe on their next book pitch the agent will recommend against this publisher since their legal department is so sluggish. The agent becomes your designated pesterer. Sometimes that kind of pressure can help move a deal along.
After the deal
It’s often more than a year between when you sell the book and when the publisher publishes it. That’s why the pub date is one element in how you choose a publisher during the bidding process.
In the pitching process for Groundswell, which was taking place in the fall of 2007, we asked publishers when they would need the manuscript to hit a spring 2008 publication date. One publisher said “six months ago.” And while that publisher did bid on the book, we didn’t pick them.
Be aware that you’ll likely have to turn in the final manuscript six months or more before the publication date. So if the final date is 12 months off, you might have six months to finish the manuscript and turn it in.
Recapping the timeline
That’s a lot to keep track of. So I’ve pulled it all together here in one place, to give you an idea of the typical timeline.
|Dates on a |
|Agent retained||1 January|
|Finalize proposal||1 – 4 weeks||15 January|
|Prepare and launch pitch||2 – 4 weeks||5 February|
|Publisher responses||2 – 3 weeks||22 February|
|Auction, deal accepted||1 – 2 days||23 February|
|Contract negotiation||2 – 6 months||23 May|
|Manuscript due date||6 – 12 months |
after deal accepted
| Book preparation,|
|6 – 7 months||15 March |
Now you know how long things take. There’s no point in bugging your agent while the publishers are perusing your proposal — they know there’s a deadline. And pay attention to pub dates in the bids you’re getting. Because if you’re like most authors I know, you’ll be impatient to see the book (and the checks) at the end of this process.