How to Get a Book Deal

By Terri Stone

Print is not dead. It may feel a little under the weather sometimes, but it’s not dead. In fact, for the more visual material that doesn’t translate well to Kindles and their ilk, print books are alive and kicking. And if you have the right idea and some insider know-how, it could be your name on the cover of one of those books. Becky Simpson, who landed her first book deal in a matter of weeks, shares what she’s learned in this interview. 

Becky is the author and illustrator of I’d Rather Be Short (published 2013) and The Roommate Book (coming spring 2016). When I interviewed her, she had just sent the final pages of The Roommate Book to the publisher.

Terri Stone: Why would a creative person – such as an illustrator, photographer, designer — want to make a book?

Becky Simpson: For most first-time authors, there are faster and easier ways to make money than publishing a book. I’ve learned that I need to make the book work for me.

With I’d Rather Be Short, my first book, I didn’t understand that I could use it as leverage. When you have a book, you’re seen as more of an expert. It shows you’re qualified or at a certain level in your industry. It’s exposure and leverage. Business people use books as calling card; why should it be any different for people in creative fields?

You can use a book to get more gigs, get more money, make relationships with vendors, get speaking gigs. There are a million things you can do with it, but it comes down to knowing why you want to do it. Also, it has to be labor of love because it’s so much work. 

Stone: Do you need an agent first?

Simpson: Yes. You probably won’t get noticed without an agent. They’re the gatekeepers. Publishers have relationships with agents. I don’t even know if publishers look at random manuscripts.

There are different kinds of publishing. If you have a traditional publisher, the agent makes money only when you have a book deal. They’re working off commission. Most make 15%. If it’s a good agent they’ll earn that and more with their negotiating power. Agents will fight for you. They protect you and set up expectations.

Stone: What’s the difference between a book query and a book proposal?

Simpson: A book query is an author’s pitch to an agent. It includes a cover letter, a little about you, maybe an outline or sample chapter. Agents are particular about who they represent because they don’t want to waste their time if they don’t think your book will be published.

A book proposal is a specific pitch to a publisher. My first proposal included a marketing plan, comparison titles (other books that did well in the same category), the 100 reasons it’s great to be short, and sample drawings. For my second proposal, we included a detailed outline, a sample chapter, comparison titles, and a new marketing plan with the help of what I learned from marketing I’d Rather Be Short.  

Stone: How do you find an agent?

Simpson: is good because you can filter your search. For my book I didn’t need to submit to Young Adult, for example; I needed a gift book/humor book category. After filtering the agent profiles, I found some who looked right. Also, there’s a book called The Guide to Literary Agents.

But one of the best ways is to look at the acknowledgement sections of books. If you’re a female comedy wrier, pick up Bossy Pants and check out who Tina Fey’s agent was.

Stone: How much of the book should you complete before you start looking?

Simpson: It depends on the type of book. You want to give people the clearest possible idea of what your book will look like. A lot of people think you have to be all done before you find an agent or publisher. That’s not necessarily the case.

Even when you approach an agent, you need to know how your book ends. For a kid’s book, for instance, you want to finish the writing and draw a few spreads.

Stone: Should you do market research? If so, at what stage?

Simpson: I did for the second book. “Market research” sounds scary, but it only means you figure out what books will sit next to yours on a shelf. If you want to be in Urban Outfitters, you should know who would be buying your book there and what else they’re buying. That’s your competition, and you should put that in your book proposal.

If it’s a labor of love, just write the book, don’t overthink it. But if it’s your goal to be published and there are already 10 published books on cats wearing pajamas, first consider if this market is oversaturated, and second, how does your pajama cat book stand out?    

Stone: Who promotes the book? You or the publishing company?

Simpson: Both of you! You’ll probably have a publicist from the publisher. They’re good, and they know how to pitch TV shows, magazines, and other media with whom they already have a relationship. But you can’t rely on the publicist because no one will care as much about your book as you do. It’s very important to publishers that their authors are proactive about getting the word out. They expect you to sell the book just as much, if not more, than they do.

The good news is that publishers have sales teams who will get your book into stores. You don’t need to worry about brushing shoulders with retail buyers. Your job is to make your audience want to buy the book in the first place.

Stone: Will books make the author rich?

Simpson: The book advance I had for I’d Rather Be Short was enough to help me quit my job and start working for myself. It didn’t make me rich, but it was more than I expected. It felt more like an investment. That book led to a lot of great opportunities (including my second book that I’m finishing up). I think it even played a big role in landing this creative residency with Adobe. [Editor's note: Simpson is currently one of Adobe’s Creative Residents.] My books legitimize me and help me stand out in a sea of talented illustrators, designers and artists.    

At this point, I couldn’t live solely off of publishing money. But it has helped me jump start my dream career: working for myself on projects I love and exploring new ways to create. Writing and illustrating books has paid off in bigger ways than money can buy. I’m continually surprised by the doors it has opened, the ways it’s stretched me as an artist, and the confidence it’s given me to level up.

For more about Becky Simpson, visit our Creative Residency page.

September 15, 2015

Illustrations: Becky Simpson