5 Tips for Scoring a Book Deal (on Top of a Little Luck)

This week I had two long-time clients score big time: One secured an agent after months and months of querying. The other landed a book deal and sent out the following stats in a celebratory group email to the people who'd helped her along the way:


6 years of working on this book

20+ years of working on different novels

102 query letters to agents

7 months on submission to dozens of publishers...

my agent got me a book deal!

Yes, a super exciting moment for her, and a really great start to 2015.

I've often said that an aspiring author with enough tenacity can still land a book deal in today's difficult publishing climate, though I think this is more true for novelists than other types of writers. Getting there, however, is not just about locking down one single piece of the puzzle. You're not going to land a book deal if you just query enough agents or shop your book long enough. There's a certain kind of drive some writers have that's beyond patience and insistence and stamina. Writers like these two clients of mine have a deep knowledge that their books will get published -- somehow, some way. They're in it for the long haul, until someone comes along and gets their vision, and finally validates what they've known to be true all along: that there's a readership waiting for their book.

The wait can be excruciating. I've seen successes like these over the course of my entire career, and I always believe it's possible they're just around the next corner for certain writers I work with. But sometimes it happens, and sometimes it doesn't. Which is why I believe there are certain measurable ways you can help yourself score a traditional deal, but why I also believe it's is a combination of tenacity and luck.

Here are a handful of things these two writers did that any author aspiring to follow in their footsteps can learn from:

1. They attended to their platforms.

I've written a lot about platform (notably here and here). And while you can land a deal without much of a platform, you can't if you are not actively working on it. Both of these authors understood that and didn't stop. They blog actively, and attend to social media. One of them pursued HuffPost until she landed a column. Both of them updated their query letters every time something big happened. They realized the value of getting their voices out into the world, and took to heart the need to cultivate their young (and growing) audiences.

2. They sometimes broke the rules.

Every time I tell authors to break the rules, I invariably experience pushback, and yet, breaking the rules is where movement happens--as long as you do it with savvy. For instance, I believe in sending queries directly to agents or editors, even if their sites say to send to an info email or to send via snail mail. I believe in asking agents, upon receiving a rejection, for more information, or if they know any other agents who might be up your alley. I believe in being bold, sometimes to the point of being ballsy, when the situation calls for it.

Just yesterday a close publisher friend of mine (at a pretty big house) told me that she picked up an unsolicited phone call from a woman following up on her slush pile submission. When the woman asked her for a meeting, she was just in a mood, so she said yes. That aspiring author is a lucky woman, but she made her own luck. She gets a 15-minute meeting with the publisher of the house she wants to publish with. I wish her the best. These kinds of opportunities only come to those who seize them.

3. They sought out help, often from more than one expert.

These two authors worked with me, but they worked with other editors along the way as well. They have both been in writing and critique groups. They've both pursued a real education in becoming a writer (by which I mean university). One belongs to the California Writers Club. Both are active students of writing, and never once got complacent about their work. They pushed themselves to become better novelists, and by the time they were shopping their books, they didn't just believe they had good novels -- they knew it.

4. They engaged!

Writers should go to conferences. They should talk to agents and editors -- get face time. They should be on Twitter, "talking" to agents and editors who are active on social media. Both of these authors engaged all over the place. Which is striking, because I so often interact with writers in my coaching practice who choose not to. Some don't see the value of social media -- to their detriment. Make yourself known. Show up. Say hi.

I attend writers' conferences a lot, so I experience every kind of person, from the avoiding writer to the writer who makes me feel uncomfortable because they put me on a pedestal, to the person who is just cool, who feels like someone I want to hang out with. So, sure, maybe you're not cool, but just be yourself.

5. They had a long-term plan.

These writers both had a longer-term vision in mind. Whenever I start working with someone I ask about their publishing plans. I want to know, will you publish no matter what? I always want that answer to be yes, because I want writers to have that fire in the belly, and to want others to read their work.

If you're going to shop your book to agents and editors, you need to develop a thick skin. You need to assess your tolerance for rejection. You need to understand that you will see the worst side of this business -- people not getting back to you at all, trying to change your book project completely, giving you feedback that doesn't make sense. All of this will happen if you shop your project long enough. But the long-term plan both these women set their eyes on was landing with someone who "got" them -- and that had to happen twice for the one who got the book deal: once with an agent and once with an editor.

But lightning can strike twice, and if it hadn't I think eventually she would have pursued some form of alternative publishing. Her book was destined to be published no matter what. Still, it's good to have a sense in the back of your mind how long you'll keep at it -- six months, a year, two years, more? For some people the wait isn't worth it. And that's why it's good to lock down that plan, even if it's a loose one, right from the get-go.

Do you have a publishing success story you want to share -- a story of a book that got published against the odds? I'd love to hear about it.