Friday, August 15, 2014

How to Get a Six-Figure Book Deal

By Eric Nelson

Most people think the two most important ingredients are a good idea and good writing. But these are just table stakes. Those two things alone may not even get you a $15,000 deal. A good idea and good writing gets an editor's attention. But then they have to consider this as a business proposition, and they're looking for one of the four following qualities.

BIG FOLLOWING. This is where the vast majority of sixfigure deals come from, including all authors who have published books already. When you read about these people getting a six figure book deal, everyone says, "of course they did." To justify a sixfigure deal, publishers are wondering if you can sell 40,000 or more copies. So they want to see proof that you have 40,000 people or more who might buy your book. That could be an eblast list, Twitter or LinkedIn following, or a list of Facebook friends or YouTube subscribers that's bigger than 40,000 people. Ideally your following is several times that number, as the conversion rate is probably closer to 10% on average. Your following could be speaking to groups that total more than that in a year. It could be that you regularly write for an outlet where you generated three or four times that many pageviews, or appear on a broadcast where you generate ten times that many viewers or listeners. If your proof of a following is a single product--a TED talk, an oped--the audience has to be hundreds of thousands or millions because of the low conversion rate. The best proof of a following is that you've written a book that sold over 40,000 copies.

BIG SUCCESS. By this I mean that while you may not be a household name, your accomplishments are. This means you are a person who has been the subject of lengthy profiles in national publications. Usually that's a celebrity: actor, athlete, musician, or a politician. But it can also be something everyone would recognize as a big deal, even if they don't recognize your name: Google executive, astronaut, Nobel prize winner, life-saving hero, and so forth. If you think you are really important in the world you come from, but you have never had had an article about you in a big circulation publication (Time, Rolling Stone, Gawker, Wall Street Journal) your success is not the kind of success I'm talking about.

BIG BUZZ. This requires a consensus of expert opinion. Think of it like a first round draft pick. He may not be famous yet, but by the time the draft comes around, "everyone" knows he will be. If you fell like you are the next big thing, that's not good enough. If your big deal friend says you are the next big thing, that's not good enough. You need every big deal person in your area to know you're the next big thing. This is the point of getting famous people to blurb the book. But the point isn't to show that you know famous people. It's to lend credibility to the story you're telling about how quickly this consensus is forming around you. This is usually where big fiction deals come from, as by the time the editor presents the book to her team, it feels like the whole in-the-know literary world is buzzing about the book. (It's not uncommon to see the movie rights to a six figure fiction debut were sold before the actual book was sold.) Not only does your proposal need to make you sound like the next Seth Godin, Seth Godin himself has to already be telling people that, too.

BIG PRESTIGE. This is the least likely way to get six figures, but it's still possible. There are certain things that can help you get to a big deal, even if you're not famous, don't have a big following, and have not been on the subject of fawning profiles. Those things are: Pulitzers, academic book prizes, major grants, long fellowship titles, proximity to political power, and so forth. The hope, for the publisher, is that the author's previous accomplishments will turn into excellent media coverage, and a manuscript that makes year end best-of lists and book prize shortlists, and that will provide the following.

If you're not in one of these four categories, is it impossible for you to get a six figure deal? No, but it's far more likely you're going to get a five figure deal (or for fiction, a four figure deal) if you get a deal at all. Most of the six figure deals that don't fit this are because the editor mistakenly THOUGHT the book belonged in one of these categories, but didn't realize this author wasn't as prestigious or successful as they'd hoped.

At least if you want to get a six figure deal, now you know what you need to do to dramatically increase your odds.

(This post originally appeared on LinkedIn.)

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