Have you ever heard a story, in your writer-circles online or in person (remember that?) about the author who just got a book deal handed to them? I mean, the editor reached out to them and they didn’t have to query or anything???? Maybe it was in response to an article or essay they published or they met them at a conference (remember those?) or something like that. Amazing, right? Wouldn’t that just be the best?
I, too, think it is the best. And it’s actually something that happens with modest frequency. Nothing is stopping an editor from reaching out to authors directly, except their own packed schedule and deadlines. It’s totally allowed, normal, and a wonderful thing! I often get questions about these deals, so today we’re going to go over the ins and outs of them, so you know what to do if it happens to you.
So, like, how do I get one?
The primary way a book deal will fall into your lap is if you are already out there writing and publishing. Editors cannot peek into your documents folder and read the novel that’s never seen the light of day. (And Google hasn’t made that Chrome plug-in yet either so.) You cannot be discovered if you aren’t out there. I’ve seen people offered book deals from being published in (larger) journals/literary magazines, personal essays or articles online (in well-trafficked places or that go some sort of viral), from creating visual work and posting on Instagram or Facebook (that goes some sort of viral.) Do you see the thread there? It’s not and never will be if you post it, they will come. But if you’re out there sharing your stuff and it catches on, you have a much better chance.
What do I do if an editor reaches out to me?
First, remain calm. An editor (or agent) sending you and email saying I saw your piece and liked it is a good sign, but not a guarantee of anything. An offer is not an offer until you see the dollar sign. The primary things you should do is remain calm and be honest. If you have a book idea related to your piece, tell them! If you don’t, tell them that, too! They might have one to share with you! There is little you can say to jinx this scenario except a string of invective telling them they’re a moron, or just silence. Answer the email! Even if it’s just to say “thanks so much for reading!” It is absolutely ok to have conversations—multiple!—about a potential book project with an editor. They won’t steal your idea, I swear.
OMG I GOT AN OFFER WHAT DO I DO????????
This is amazing!!! YAY!!!!!! The first thing to do, again, is to remain calm. Offers do not evaporate. If an editor is saying I need to hear back from you in 24 hours then that is an editor who knows what you’ve got is hot and is afraid they’re going to lose it. Unless the offer is for two billion dollars, tell them you can’t meet that deadline but you’ll be in touch as soon as you can. In that situation, you have ALL the power. Use it.
Offers don’t just come out of nowhere, so you likely have had some conversations with this editor, and they may have encouraged you to get an agent. They may have even suggested some names to you. This is great! They WANT you to get an agent, because tbh, it’s much easier for them to work with an agent than it is to explain omnibus licensing rights to you when they could just be editing. They should give you multiple names, not just one, and may even help you get in touch with them (though it’s not hard to find agents’ email addresses these days). You can also reach out to whoever you want. The editor should also give you time to contact them, talk with them, and choose one. Again, offers don’t evaporate.
Don’t forget, too, you don’t have to take the offer. If the editor or publisher doesn’t feel like a good fit, if they want a book from you that you don’t want to write, if their vision and yours don’t match up, if it’s not enough money (I mean really not enough, not just different from your pie in the sky money dreams), then it’s not worth taking the offer. It’s never your one and only shot. If one person liked it, chances are someone else will too. It’s ok to say no. A bad deal is worse than no deal, I promise.
Ok, but won’t they get mad if I get an agent?
Nope. See above. They WANT you to have an agent because it’s easier for them to not handle the business side of things. But you don’t have to get one. I’m obviously biased and think agents are worth it, but you don’t have to get one. You should feel comfortable asking lots of questions, asking for more money (why not? no one will burst into flames if you do), and asking what different things in the contract mean. You should probably find an intellectual property lawyer but ONLY one who has experience doing specifically book contracts, because you want someone who knows if it’s normal for the publisher to ask to have first dibs on your next TWO books or ONE. (It’s one.) See? That’s why you need an agent. Anyway, no, the editor won’t get mad if you want to find an agent, even if they don’t suggest one. Contracts are not about feelings. This is YOUR book and YOUR career. Get the help you want and need.
Do agents like it when you already have the offer?
Uh, yeah! It’s a part of the job already done for us! Submitting books to editors is just like submitting queries for authors, and yeah, it’s stressful and time consuming (and fun and exciting and necessary). We do not hate it if that part is already done for us. Then, you might ask, what do I need the agent for? Well, all the things you don’t know about the publishing process, from standard paperback royalty rates, to what your out of print clause should say to if you should fight to keep foreign rights to having someone there to advocate for you if you hate your cover. Agents do more than just get you a book deal. (And no, we can’t lower our commission rate because you already have the offer.)
When might an agent NOT want in on a deal like this?
It’s possible you’ve gotten an offer from a publisher an agent finds working with to be not worth it. (There are a few out there for me. Their contracts or practices are just so bad it’s not worth my time or effort). Or an agent you reach out to might not see the longevity in your career and are looking for more career-minded authors. Or it might be from a very small press (not a bad one, so different from the above) and honestly, while fantastic in many ways, very small presses offer such small advances that it takes more time than I can afford to spend. In that case, I might pass on an author that has an offer-in-hand. But someone else with a smaller client list might be just the perfect person for it. Agents are not ambulance chasers in this regard. You don’t want one that just sees the “easy money” here (lol we all know it’s never easy money). You want someone who would want to work with you even if you didn’t already have an offer. I wouldn’t take six months to find an agent in this scenario, but you certainly could take a couple of weeks to find the right fit.
Bottom line, if this happens to you, know that this is not unusual, that agents and editors do this routinely, that you are in the driver’s seat, and that there’s no reason to rush or panic. It’s wonderful news! Enjoy it!
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This is exactly what happened on my first book, The Stewardess Is Flying the Plane. An editor thought I was a good writer, we were both passionate about film, so we hammered out a book idea together, and then she got her house to make an offer. At that point, I met an agent who worked with some authors I knew and liked, and I said I had an offer but needed somebody to tell me if I was being treated fairly on the details. She looked the contract over, got a few adjustments made, and we were off to the races!
Love this! Underline, bold, capitalize, highlight: A contract is not about feelings!