Illustrated grid of all the elements of getting a book deal, auction, exchanging of money and publication
Illustrated grid of all the elements of getting a book deal, auction, exchanging of money and publication

Finding the perfect publishing home for a book is crucial: the partnership between a publisher and writer can be the difference between a book selling a handful of copies vs. a book flying into the bestseller lists. 

Step one: Literary agent sends manuscript or proposal to editors

The process often begins with a literary agent sending out a book - or, in the case of some non-fiction titles, a proposal - to editors, who will become the people to champion that book in their publishing house.

Catherine Cho, literary agent at Madeleine Milburn Literary, TV & Film Agency, says that she sends a manuscript only to editors “that I think will love the book”.

“Publishing is so subjective, and so I choose editors based on what their tastes are,” she continues. “I also would only choose publishing houses/editors that I know would be responsive to the book.”

Often, the book will be sent to multiple editors at the same time, although Catherine says she has a first round submission list of editors, with subsequent second and third round lists if the first “doesn’t go to plan”.

Step two: Editor shares the manuscript with their publishing colleagues

Editors will usually flag to the agent if they’re interested in a book, and a sign of their early passion is if they take the book to something called the ‘acquisitions meeting’. 

This is where an editor brings in colleagues from across the publishing house, including sales, marketing, publicity, production and finance, to decide whether they want to publish a book. This decision takes into account lots of different factors, such as: where the book will sit in the market, which type of reader it is targeted towards, or if there are other similar titles and how they have been received. It’s also where the team estimates how many copies the book might sell, and what level of advance they might be able to offer. 

Step three: Editor makes an offer for the book

If the editor - with the backing of their sales team - decides that they want to ‘acquire’ the book (i.e. offer the author a publishing deal), they will send an opening offer to an agent. This offer will be accompanied by a pitch of how they would publish the book.

"That offer might come quickly, or it might take months for a book to be picked up by an editor", says Catherine. "But don’t be disheartened if it takes longer than you might expect - sometimes books which go on to be very successful can take a while to get snapped up. Publishing moves in trends just like film or fashion, so maybe your book isn't quite right for audiences at that moment, but that doesn't mean it's always going to be a no.

“If a book seems to be particularly ‘hot’, in that editors can tell that there will be lots of competition, they may offer a pre-empt. A pre-empt is an offer that is generally ‘too good to refuse’, with the intention that the book is taken off the table.

“When an editor makes a pre-empt, they generally give a short time period before the pre-empt expires, so that can be a difficult decision for an agent and author to make.”

Catherine says that the hope is that more than one editor is interested in the book, in which case an auction will be held. The process is different for each agent, “but the usual practice is that there is a round of opening offers”.

She continues: “Then an editor will have the opportunity to meet the author and present their vision for the book. After this meeting, an editor will make another bid, and then the top bids will be asked to make a ‘best bid’.

“If editors within the same company are interested, there are generally rules preventing them from bidding against each other, so there will be a 'house bid' so each editor from the same house is bidding the same amount.”

Step four: Accepting an offer

So how, if more than one person is interested, does the author and their agent decide on which publisher to sell a book to?

It can be tempting to just go with the most money, and Catherine is honest that this is a major factor “if there is a significant difference between the advances”.

But, she adds, there are other things to think about: “Will the imprint be making the book a ‘lead’ title, meaning it will be their focus for the season? What is the publisher’s vision for the book? Does it align with the author’s vision? Are there competing titles in the imprint that may take away from the author’s publication?

"Authors will often personally connect with an editor and their editorial vision, and that can make a very compelling argument for wanting to work with a specific editor, even if the offer isn’t necessarily the highest.”

Even with the help of an agent, it can still be overwhelming to decide who to sign a book deal with. Catherine advises that authors ask lots of questions: “Authors should ask their agent how they see the book being published. Where would the book sit on a bookshelf? Who are the comparable titles and authors? Does an editor want to position it as a literary thriller when it’s actually more commercial?

“The main question to ask is about vision and whether these visions align. If an editor wants to push a book in a certain direction, this will affect the choice for the cover, the authors they approach for blurbs, the retailers they will aim for. These are all things to consider."

Illustration: Mike Ellis for Penguin

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