Negotiating a book deal seems like the easiest step at the end of a hard road. You’ve written something, proposed the idea and an offer has been made. You can hardly believe its happened. A complete stranger wants to pay you for your book. Wow!

A great feeling though it is, a book deal, like any deal, requires you to become commercial in your thinking. Many authors, especially in the U.S. more often than not engage an agent to do this thinking for them. The agent does the commercial stuff for them and pockets some margin from the author’s earnings. This is kind of convenient – reaching the Publisher in the first place may have been facilitated by the agent – and the agent may have offered the author feedback and support key to the book’s eventual purchase. In large markets, like the U.S. Publishers may be too busy to handle proposals any other way, simply because of their volume.

However, the world is changing, and we can’t assume that the agency model will continue indefinitely. So, let’s consider what to do if you don’t use an agent. What differing opportunities are available from self-negotiated deals as compared to agent-negotiated deals?

An agent’s job, in a commercial sense, is to commodify your platform by auctioning your work to the highest bidding Publisher – and moving around Publishers (if necessary) to secure improved advances for future works. They are there, in the crudest commercial sense, to “show you the money” for each book you produce.

Partnering with a Publisher for the medium or long term is a different approach which creates mutual loyalty and allows strategic planning to prosper your career. This choice could be described as “show me the money tree”. Agents are capable of this as well, but good Publishers are paid to imagine your future books lining up behind the one they’ve offered to buy. Essentially, they don’t want to buy the golden egg that’s up for auction – they want to buy the goose who lays them – in the nicest sense of that fowl word!

So, agents are useful, and well worth talking to and dealing with. But I’d like to suggest that a creative partnership with one very good Publisher creates loyalty that can go a long way. When the sales team goes out to sell your book, are they selling out of the Managing Director’s brief to recoup the big advance – or are they selling the books of someone they know and respect?

Photo by Sumeetkanand.


Asking the $100 question

April 12, 2010

Recently a well dressed guy in his fifties knocked on my front door to say he was a real estate agent selling my neighbour’s house. He explained he had come as a courtesy to advise of the open house times and the increased traffic created by prospective buyers. I was pleased he had done so – I like courtesies. So at that point, I had a communicative, pro-active, courteous real estate agent. We chatted briefly about pricing in the area – he was informative and helpful – joked easily. So at that point I had a communicative, pro active, courteous, informative and friendly real estate agent.

When the conversation moved rapidly to my own house and the agent asked me “Are you thinking of selling?” it was pretty clear to me that the who conversation was merely a warm up for this question. It would be eccentric for me to suggest that he didn’t have the need or right to ask this question. He had both. I’m simply saying that at this moment all the value he’d built for me vanished and was replaced with a very blunt proposition. He then offered his business card – immediately becoming just another real estate agent.

Moral of the story? Well, I guess the moral is that if your dealings with an audience of any size is simply a preamble to a sale you have a good chance of appearing or becoming inauthentic. Getting too quickly to a $100 question – a selling type question – can be a barrier to allowing an audience to ask it for you.

In the online space, I’ve noticed that the prevailing if unspoken wisdom suggests of authors should build an audience with friendly interactions with “ordinary folk” simply to sell them their books. I’d recommend thinking very carefully about this before following suit. What could happen if you never asked the $100 question?

Why custom publishing works

February 12, 2010

Custom publishing holds the secret to its own success in its name. Its 75% of the word customer. The transaction starts as the customer says “yes” to the idea of getting what they want without baggage. Then they say yes to a sequence of chapters. If there’s five chapters, that five yesses, six overall. Once the product is built, there’s another yes to add to the shopping cart. That makes seven.

Custom publishing works by breaking down a sale into smaller transactions that each build value for a customer. A repeat sale is, in my experience, about 90% more likely as a result.

If you’re writing non fiction, give customers a non-linear option on your content. Think ITunes – do they want the album, or just a sweet little song?

Photo by myuibe

Four ways to get published

January 2, 2010

1. Just write something and send it around to Publishers

We’re all doing it, so if you’re new, think twice about taking the route of obscurity to discovery in one step. It does happen, but its more likely to happen if combined with some of the other ideas below.

2. Develop expertise points and cash in

Expertise points come through original research, teaching, experience or practice that makes you immediately relevant to a defined audience. Take a look at who publishes material to service the desires of this audience and contact them if you see an opportunity to add to their line up.

3. Do something amazing

A sixteen year old Australian girl, Jessica Watson, is currently sailing around the world solo, non-stop.
There is no doubt her story will attract a book deal on her return.

4. Know the formulas

The world of books seems to reward writers disproportionately. Original talent can go unnoticed and formulaic work can be wildly successful. There is a good reason for this – Publishers are risk averse and like the comfort of precedent when it comes to investment. Books exist in categories (crime, fantasy, romance, picture books for example) because the formulas please large numbers of paying customers and this is where Publishers continue to invest. In this sense, being “formulaic” is essential. At the Olympic Games, the figure skater who serves up the expected elements with originality and a fresh twist ends up with the flowers and the gold. Its much the same with books.

This is the first in a series of posts centering on my experience as a Publisher at Macmillan. I am proposing to deal with the following over the series, focusing on what actually happens inside the castle of old-money publishing.

1. Proposals meetings
2. How to be a career author
3. Planning a brand vs planning one book

If you have something else you would like to hear instead or further to this list please comment.


2364722127_6bb6b1c867 Proposals Meetings run monthly or quarterly in most Publishing Houses. At these meetings the whole interdepartmental assembly (sometimes fondly called the “team”) comes together to choose future projects. These meetings look at proposals with:

A. One eye on the past and
B. One eye on the sandwich plate in the middle of the table.

The eye on the past is to measure your proposal against past failures and successes. For this reason your proposal must be across the detail of the other key players in your space. The eye on the sandwiches is due to the fact that in publishing, most of us work very hard for wages not commensurate with the other occupants of town’s big end. Most of us need very strong proof that taking on a book is going to help us continue to eat.

For the proposing author, the dual challenge here is to ensure you know your category’s history and have developed a fresh twist to help make its future look like the newest, sexiest model of a favourite automobile. If you are writing speculative fiction, you must know that beyond Rowling’s dazzling monuments tower Philip Pullman and Garth Nix in their own citadels. You must tip your hat, do your training and be prepared to run an original race along the very same track as those who went before you. The same applies whether you write fiction, non-fiction or textbooks.

Your proposal must have already sold itself to the Publisher you or your agent submitted it to, so at the point of the Proposals Meeting, they are your Sales Representative. The key to keeping all available eyes off the sandwich plate and on your very best assets, is to have your Publisher emotionally connected to your work. This means:

– Writing your precious heart out in the cold, dark and lonely hours and leaving nothing in reserve
– Being prepared to walk away and start again
– Trusting the Publisher will judge the work by:

(1) The current opportunity afforded by the category
(2) Your own platform as a professional person, and
(3) The intrinsic strengths of the work

– Trusting the Publisher will get every nuance you left for them
– Following the Publisher up in brief, polite, well worded emails sent between 8-9am, and finally, a phone call

So, over to you. Can I answer a question for you? Help explain an experience you’ve had with a Publishing House? / CC BY-SA 2.0

CASH JPublishers, and Educational Publishers in particular, are spending big money by paying writers and illustrators upfront fees in exchange for the assignment of rights. This is an opportunity for talented writers and illustrators to make a living. But what are the traps? Here is a SWOT analysis from the point of view of a freelance writer/illustrator – with some insider Publisher tips.


Getting paid up front means food can be purchased and stored in the fridge. Rent can be paid. Cash flow is the key to every business. As a writer, you know that, but oftentimes creative people, for all their talents, find find basic commerce a drag. The ability to turn your hand to educational or other content to a specific brief, with narrow research time, no fuss and short deadlines is tantamount to cash flow. Further, every time you get a gig, your your name is in the public space.

TIP: Have a look at the major educational publishers’ websites. There is a wide range of products you could consider contributing to. These include children’s literacy-based readers, school and college texts, study guides and supplements. If you write well, or draw well, find an educator who knows something about a subject area, match your skills to a category I just mentioned and look for a gap in the market. The results could be surprising.


Assigning rights means you are forfeiting a royalty and copyright for cash up front. The metric for cash is usually a minimal, break-even print run x ARP / your contribution. This means, the fee equates to a publication not making a whole lot of money. As a result, you negate the risk of massive hours down the drain but miss the chance at bigger money that comes with higher sales.

TIP: If you assign rights, you should reasonably expect to retain the moral right to be named as the author of what you wrote. Look for this in any contract you may sign. There’s no point writing if you don’t get a mention.


One successful freelance gig=more offers. A good writer could reasonably expect to book a year’s work in around 8 weeks if they knew:

– the educational market as well as I do
– how to combine with educators with little commercial experience in order to supply Publisher needs.

This post is not going to unfold all of this but I’ll start with a tip.

TIP: Have a look at government departments in your country/state responsible for education and curriculum change. See what areas they are looking at. These are exactly the same areas the Publishers are looking at. Make enquiries to Publishers you find active in these curriculum areas to see whether they are seeking good all-round writers. Remember, your pitch will be strengthened if you combine forces with an experienced educator. You write the copy, they write the questions and activities. If you are an illustrator, combine with the writer and the educator to build value.


If you always write for cash, you may undermine your passive income opportunity. Royalty payments are a passive income opportunity in the sense that, with a successful publication, you continue to be paid while a book is selling. If you are only known as a freelance writer, you lose the bigger opportunity of becoming a capital A Author.

TIP A capital A Author will seldom write under any agreement other than a royalty-based contract, but an emerging writer fond of food and shelter will need to be flexible.
My advice is to build a portfolio of successful cash-based contributions and use this to help drive a royalty based deal over the line. Freelance gigs are always useful – try and keep both types of gig rolling out simultaneously, building your name and value one word at a time.

Photo by Franco Folini

A guy came in to sell me a manuscript. It wasn’t especially difficult for him to get to me. In my quarter of the publishing jungle, (Educational Publishing) unlike Trade Publishing, I’m fairly available. I think my direct line was on our website for years. I’m pretty sure my email is now. There are simple reasons for this – number one being that most of our authors are technical experts who we seek out to match our own commercial ideas. We don’t get a whole lot of unsolicited material, probably because people who make money as writers in our trade are not lauded by anyone. They simply bank cheques and gain their kicks in other ways. The writing work requires certain structure, the observance of particular editorial rituals to satisfy our sense of risk that if an unruly text made its way into print our brand would be diminished. We ask authors to pour their words into our templates. If they’re creative, they make the templates as well. In this sense we are more like content manufacturers than creatures of literary exploration.

So, to the manuscript, and the author. The manuscript was a good one. Well conceived. Well structured. I could see, even by skimming it, that it was going to sell. It said “send me to market”. I spent about 45 minutes with him, the author. He talked in clipped sentences, but with an easy tone, like a practice piece for beginning piano requiring the use of the softening-pedal. He was pretty nervous. He wanted to make sure I didn’t miss a detail. I let him point out things and tuned in and out, according to my interest and need. I made a few jokes, to put him at his ease. He smiled, but only briefly. His default look was “fairly worried” throughout. Tense. Really keen to make the deal work. He stayed a little too long. I was sympathetic. The deal was important to him. I eventually gestured towards the lifts and he asked me one more time if I liked the idea, we shook hands, and that was that.

On the way back to the corner office, one of the girls (female employees) told me her friend (her colleague), who answers the phone, had found the author rude on the phone. I wasn’t surprised, but I quizzed her. She told me a few things about the lead up to our meeting. He’d called a number of times. He’d assumed that she was fobbing him off when, in response to his question on procedure, she asked him to send the work in for me to look at. He’d assumed the deal was never going to make it unless he met me face to face and pointed out the detail. This was two years work on the line. Under pressure, he pressed hard to ensure he gained my full attention. He was snappy, short, cynical.

What he missed was this. I was already easily available. My name is on the website. Had he called the switch and asked for me, through he goes. One call, no friction, no bad report.

Lesson? Whoever it is you have to speak to to sell your work, be nice to everyone you meet on the way through.