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What Really Happens When You Land a Traditional Book Deal?

As we approach the end if Write Nonfiction in November (WNFIN), it seems appropriate to take a look at what happens when a writer actual reaches the goal of becoming traditionally published. Let’s imagine you’ve done all the things the WNFIN expert bloggers have written about during the last 28 days: You’ve written a great book, query and proposal; you’ve come up with a great pitch; you’ve developed a great promotion plan; you’ve built your platform in a variety of ways; you’ve designed a super website; you’ve even created a brand for yourself and your books. Now you have that coveted publishing contract in hand.

Many aspiring authors have a real shock when they discover the realities of becoming an author. The process of turning their idea into a book isn’t what they imagined. It seems they’ve envisioned a life and “job” that no longer exists—and maybe never did (at not least not exactly as they thought it did).

Today, on the second to last day of Write Nonfiction in November, Stephanie Chandler, author of From Entrepreneur to Infopreneur: Make Money with Books, eBooks and Information Products and The Author’s Guide to Building an Online Platform: Leveraging the Internet to Sell More Books and founder and CEO of Authority Publishing, reveals to us the myths and the realities of landing a traditional publishing deal. I’ve known Stephanie for several years, and I’ve heard her speak on numerous occasions; she truly knows the ins and outs of the traditional publishing as well as the independent publishing industry. She’s built a business around her books and she’s done a great job of branding herself as well. I respect her and her opinion. So, I’m pleased to have her cap off the month with this expert guest post. If after 28 days of reading WNFIN you still think you want a traditional publishing contract, read this and make sure you know what to expect.

What Really Happens When You Land a Book Deal: Publishing Myths and Realities You Need to Know
By Stephanie Chandler

For many aspiring authors, the prospect of landing a book deal sounds like the ultimate ticket to success. While a contract with a major press can come with some perks, there can be some unexpected surprises along the way. Here’s what you need to know to get into the game with your eyes wide open.

Myth: Once you hand over your manuscript, your book will be on bookstore shelves right away.

Patience is essential when working with a traditional publisher. It takes most major publishers about a year to complete your book and put it into distribution. With the amount of red tape they have going on, the process takes much longer than most realize. Just don’t expect to see your book on shelves within a few months, as this is highly unlikely unless your book is rushed to market under special circumstances.

Myth: Your book will be produced exactly as written.

Each publisher has different editorial processes, guidelines and goals. Your developmental editor may want to rework sections of your book or ask you to add or even remove content. Though you will be involved in the editing process and asked to turn it all around quickly, you may or may not like the proposed changes and you may or may not have a voice in the ultimate outcome. Some book deals end up getting cancelled during the editing process when the author and publisher fail to agree on changes.

Myth: You will have input on the cover design.

Cover design is an area where you will probably have little input. The publisher will design something and may send it to you for review, but requests for changes are not likely to be met. This is a point in the process when you may have to accept that your work is no longer exclusively yours.

Myth: Your book must be finished before you pitch it to a publisher.

This is actually true for fiction books—publishers want to see the whole story before a deal is made. But nonfiction books are an exception. During the pitch process, most publishers want to see an outline and two or three sample chapters. If they like your work and offer you a book deal, you can actually negotiate the remaining time needed to complete your manuscript.

Myth: Big Press = Big Marketing

Don’t expect much marketing at all since most publishers don’t have big marketing budgets. The bulk of responsibility almost always falls on the author. You might appear in the publisher’s catalog, in a press release, and may get featured at a trade show, but don’t count on them landing you an appearance alongside Matt Lauer. Those efforts are reserved for established, big-name authors. Smaller publishers may actually work a little harder to assist with marketing since they have more riding on the success of each title, but as a rule, authors should set expectations very low.

Myth: Once you land a book deal, your author career is set for life.

Just because you sign a deal with a publisher, there are no guarantees that they will want your next book, even though your contract will likely stipulate that they get first right of refusal on your next book. Your first book must perform exceptionally well before the next book will be considered for publication.

Keep in mind that you may not want to publish another book with that same publisher. There are many reasons why you might want to move on—creative differences, other publishers that are a better fit for your genre of writing, or you may decide to pursue self-publishing opportunities. This can be a catch-22 as you must give your current publisher the chance to evaluate your next book idea before you can be released from your contract. (Hint: if you want out, pick an idea you know they won’t want!)

Myth: Authors make tons of money.

The vast majority of authors will tell you that there is not a lot of money to be found in a traditional book deal. Sure you get an advance check, which on average comes in around $5,000 to $10,000, unless you are a celebrity. Then you have to earn that back before you will see another dime.

Perhaps most surprising is what authors earn in royalties from book sales. You can expect to make around $1 to $2 per book sold and with numbers like this, you’ve got to sell a lot of books to generate a substantial royalty check. To make matters worse, most publishers only pay authors twice per year, so don’t expect to see your monthly income increase because of your book. Some authors create other revenue opportunities around their books from things like speaking (which can command $2,000 to $10,000 fees), consulting and related information products.

Myth: You can purchase your own books at cost.

As surprising as this may seem, your contract with a publisher will probably allow you to buy your own books at just 40% to 50% off of the cover price. So if you have a book that sells for $20, you will be lucky to buy your copies for $10 each. Since the publisher’s cost is likely far less than $10, they are still generating a significant profit from your orders. This is a point that can be negotiated so remember to ask for a deeper discount when you receive your contract offer!

Myth: If you self-publish, you kill your chances of landing a book deal.

If you self-publish a book and achieve some success by selling 1,000 copies or more, you can actually improve your chances of landing a traditional book deal. Publishers want authors to come to the table with a ready made “platform.” This means that they want to know that you have an audience. Selling a significant number of books proves that you have that audience and raises your appeal. Just ask Christopher Paolini, the teenage boy who wrote and self-published “Eragon,” or Richard Paul Evans who wrote “The Christmas Box.” Their self-publishing success stories landed them multi-million dollar book deals.

I know several authors who have been approached by major presses, which can demonstrate an interesting shift in power. In one case, an author who publishes instructional books for a specific trade quickly turned down a rather substantial offer. He simply makes too much money on his books to give his margin away. He also didn’t want to give up control since he has built his own distribution channels so that his books are devoured by his target market. The publisher didn’t relent and instead returned with an even bigger offer. He turned that one down too.

There is still much to celebrate about receiving an offer for a book deal with a traditional publisher. The added credibility can bring plenty of opportunities with the media, speaking, consulting and much more. But it is important to know what you’re getting into before you venture forward so that you can navigate the waters like a pro.

About the Author

Stephanie Chandler is an author of several books including From Entrepreneur to Infopreneur: Make Money with Books, eBooks and Information Products (John Wiley & Sons) and The Author’s Guide to Building an Online Platform: Leveraging the Internet to Sell More Books (Quill Driver).

Stephanie is also founder and CEO of Authority Publishing, which specializes in custom publishing for non-fiction books. A frequent speaker at business events and on the radio, she has been featured in Entrepreneur Magazine, BusinessWeek, Inc.com and many other media outlets.