Publishing- Part III: The Book Deal

This is the third part in an ongoing series that illuminates the publishing process. Click for Part I and Part II. 

You’ve cracked the slush pile, mastered the phone call, and accepted an offer of representation from an agent. Now what?

The good news is that you now have a partner, a professional to help guide you through the process. Many consider finding an agent the end of the road; unfortunately, in today’s competitive market, that’s not the case. Most agents take the time to edit and refine their clients’ work, making sure that the manuscript arrives at an editor’s desk in the best possible position. Editors are accustomed to seeing polished submissions come from agents; un-edited or poorly edited works can be spotted immediately. No agent wants to send an email asking an editor to use a different manuscript due to several embarrassing typos within the first ten pages. And no editor assumes that those typos bode well for the rest of the manuscript.

When the agent and author are happy with the revised result, the agent sends a manuscript out “on submission.” Agents consider which editors might be best for the book. Part of an agent’s job is to get to know editors, to know their interests and what they’re looking to acquire. An agent needs to know which editor to target, especially because an agent can only submit to one editor per imprint. (An imprint– like Viking or Crown– is a smaller part of the larger publishing house, in this case Penguin Random House. I liken this most often to the magazine world; Vogue and Glamour are separate “brands,” but are both part of Condé Nast.) The agent usually emails or calls an editor with a pitch. If the editor is interested, the agent then sends the full manuscript. This depends on the agent; some send the manuscript along with their pitch.

After that, the waiting begins.

Editors can receive anywhere from five to fifteen submissions per week; most only have the time to read submissions after work hours. Books can sell weeks after submission or lightning fast; “typical” rarely enters the publishing lexicon.

Usually, an agent will define which rights her or she is selling. World rights refers to all languages and territories. If an editor purchases world rights, the subsidiary rights department of the imprint can then sell the individual language and translation rights to foreign publishers. World English gives the publisher the right to sell the book in English-speaking markets. Increasingly, agents sell U.S., Canada, and Open Market rights; “open market” allows a publisher to sell the English language edition of the book in foreign countries that do not speak English as a primary language. If a British publisher were offering a book to an editor, the editor could purchase U.S. rights only.

If an editor likes a submission, he or she will contact the agent expressing interest. Usually, a phone call or in-person meeting will take place between the editor and the author. If multiple editors are interested in the work, the author should speak to all of them. The author and editor need to be on the same page, especially regarding revisions.

The agent contacts all outstanding editors when interest or an offer comes in. Sometimes, an editor will try to “pre-empt” a book. This means that the editor must make a compelling enough offer (read: mostly money) to take the book off the table. In that case, other interested editors will not get a chance to bid on the book if it goes to auction.

An auction takes place when multiple editors are interested in a book. The agent holds the auction and sets the rules, so they vary widely. In general, the editor puts together the best offer he or she can. This can include the rights (territories), advance (which must be approved by the publisher), royalty rate and payout, marketing budget, and possible bonuses, among other things.

The advance is the largest part of this offer. An advance is an advance on royalties. If, for instance, an author receives a $50,000 advance, the book would need to earn $50,000 in royalties to receive additional royalties. Many books do not “earn out” their advances. This means that he or she will not earn additional royalties on top of the original advance.

When all the offers are in, it is up to the agent and author to decide which to accept. That’s right, no one automatically wins. Authors sometimes choose a smaller advance to work with a certain editor.

The submissions process can drag on. Publishing is a subjective industry, and editors only take on projects about which they’re passionate. Most books receive far more rejections than interest. Sometimes an agent cannot sell a book. At that point, an agent and author need to reassess whether to revise or move on.

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