10 Lessons Learned Behind the Scenes of a Book Deal

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A few short months ago, I wrote about my path to getting an agent and a publisher, and promised to share my experiences leading up to the publication of my debut novel, ALMOST MISSED YOU, due out in 2017 from St. Martin’s Press.

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You might think that as the editor of Writer's Digest magazine—and given my earlier years spent editing nonfiction books—I would know more or less what to expect from the process. But I discovered that there’s a lot that goes on behind the scenes on the author’s side—emotions to navigate, new steps to take—that I haven’t seen discussed much elsewhere (perhaps even more so with a “Big 5” publisher).

So let’s take a look at what I’ve learned in my early months as a debut novelist-in-progress—and how it might help you know what to expect and how to position yourself for success. I’ve outlined 10 lessons overall, and will be delivering them in two installments—5 today, and 5 more on Monday. Let’s start at the beginning.

1. Once you’re offered a book contract, it takes awhile to get the, well, contract.

It was right around eight weeks for me, which my agent indicated was typical. I wasn’t really bothered by this, but my husband, who works in finance and insurance where nobody touches anything until signatures are in place, was a bit white-knuckled. He could not believe that my editor, agent and I were all already working on various things for and with each other with nothing signed.

What if it falls through in the negotiating stages? Think of having an offer accepted on a house. You do inspections, loan approvals, packing, storing and more in good faith that the closing will go through. All the while, your real estate agent (there's that word again!) is doing even more work behind the scenes on your behalf, and you have to trust him or her. Are there a few horror stories out there about things falling apart? Sure. But most of the time you walk away with the keys.

So, if you’re cut from the same cloth as my husband (and what a handsome cloth it is), know that this is more or less the norm. As long as you have a reputable agent and publisher, try to trust that things will work out.

2. Each book has its own contract.

I was offered a two-book deal for stand-alone, upmarket women’s fiction, but if you get one too (or a three-book deal, or a 12-book quit-your-day-job-and-buy-an-island deal), know that—at least in my case—what you’ve heard called a “two-book contract” is actually two separate (but identical) contracts.

My first one is for ALMOST MISSED YOU, a completed manuscript that they read and wanted to acquire, but the second is simply a contract for “Untitled #2, a work of fiction approximately 90,000-100,000 words in length.” And if that kind of vagueness scares you the way it scares me …

3. It’ll do a lot for your anxiety level if you can pin down a concept and opening chapters for Book 2 while awaiting the revision letter for Book 1.

(This is true, by the way, even if your deal isn’t for two books. You’d still like to publish another one, right?)

When I signed with my agent, she asked, “What are you working on now?” [Like this quote? Click here to Tweet and share it!]

Let’s just say I’d been going through an “undecided” phase with my writing. Truth be told, I’d been “working on” spinning my wheels and sipping gin and tonic on my deck during my regular writing hours, after the kids were in bed.

I know, I know. This breaks a cardinal “rule” of submitting—always be working on the next thing!—but sometimes you’re feeling stymied and need to regroup. Personally I think those periods of self-assessment are OK. Healthy, even.

But it might not be ideal to get a call offering representation in the middle of one such period. Especially when your new agent then sells your book in just two weeks. In a two-book deal.

Fortunately, my agent also likes liquor on ice on a crisp evening (here's looking at you, Barbara Poelle). And, when I confessed, she told me exactly what to work on next. Another women’s fiction in the same vein. Another women’s fiction in the same vein. She repeated it a few times, probably some sort of hypnotic trick she uses on new clients.

I started working up a concept immediately, and though the publisher’s offer came just two weeks later, I was knee-deep in notes by the time it did. Thank goodness.

So, while waiting to find out what revisions would be requested for ALMOST MISSED YOU, I set about turning those new, raw notes into a premise and sample chapters. I knew I’d feel better once all involved had given the thumbs up to something slightly more specific than “Untitled #2.”

4. Wait. Did I say “anxiety level”?

You’ve probably pictured the excitement that will come when you get “the call.” The squeals of elation. The uncorking of celebratory champagne.

Savor them! Milestones are meant to be celebrated! Especially the ones we’ve worked years for, dreamed of since we were young.

But if you’re like me, you might not anticipate the undercurrent of trepidation that comes with it. You know you’ve written one long and hard-fought story that’s good enough to instill a publisher’s confidence. Yay! But it’s a thing you’ve never done before. And now you have to do it again. On demand. And on deadline.

It’s the kind of problem every as-yet-unpublished author longs to have. So when it happens, yes, you’ll know you’re lucky to have this particular breed of anxiety. But you’ll still be anxious. And that’s OK.

5. It really is OK. You’re part of a team now!

Your agent and editor do not want to set you up to fail. You’re all in it together. It’s going to work out a lot better for them if you succeed. And that means they’ll do what they can to help you when you need it.

My agent loved my Book 2 premise but had some feedback on my sample chapters. I listened closely. I rewrote them and was grateful for how much better they were. While I’d never shown anyone such a raw, incomplete draft before—and you better believe I was nervous about doing so—it occurred to me then that it was kind of a perk to get feedback before I went too far in the wrong direction.

Next up, we’ll discuss evaluating revision letters, the actual revision process, the waiting game, and much more. Click here to read Part 2.

In the meantime, what have been your most valuable lessons throughout your own first forays into publishing—whether that’s a byline, a book deal or a self-publishing project? Leave a comment below to join the conversation. After all, the writing journey, like so many other journeys, is better if it’s shared.

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On Twitter? Give me a shout!

Yours in writing,
Jessica Strawser
Editor, Writer’s Digest magazine
Subscribe today—your writing will thank you. 

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