How to strike a deal with a publisher who likes my nonfiction book proposal?
October 2, 2010 7:19 AM   Subscribe

The publisher likes my book proposal -- now what?

I wrote a non-fiction book proposal for a book that is in a niche industry. I sent it to the publisher who would be best for the publication, and he emailed me back the next day that I "nailed it" and he wants to talk on Monday. Yay! But, also, eep!

I have never published a book before, so I don't know basically anything about how this works. I want to publish the book to create a passive income stream for my future self. Also, because the book is important in my little niche industry, filling a gap.

So, when I talk to him on Monday, what can I expect? In terms of negotiating a deal, how does this work? Because its not a major publication, I don't think it justifies hiring a lawyer. (I happen to be a lawyer, but not one that works in a related industry.)

Mefites, you've done me well through the years. Can anyone give me an idea of what to expect in terms of the negotiation process, and (if at all possible) compensation? I have *no* idea what compensation on something like this looks like (structure or amount).

Thank you, loves!
posted by letahl to Writing & Language (9 answers total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
Get an agent! That's what they're for.
posted by restless_nomad at 7:23 AM on October 2, 2010 [2 favorites]

Seconding that you should get an agent. Compensation and negotiation are very different depending on what the subject matter of the book is and which publisher you're talking about. The right agent will know all the ins and outs of your specific publisher and its books, even if they aren't an expert on your particular niche market. If you're not sure how to get an agent, you can start by checking out Preditors and Editors to see who they recommend for nonfiction.

It is unlikely you will find an agent willing to rep you before you go to the meeting, so I suggest going to the meeting, writing down everything the publisher says, and then sending emails to each of the few agents you are interested in having rep you, all starting with the line "I have been offered a deal by X publisher and I am seeking representation before signing a contract." The 15% commission an agent will take is well worth it.
posted by shamash at 7:39 AM on October 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I used to work in publishing and also for an organization that provides services to (mostly literary) writers. Some of the things I would've told you if you'd called me with what you posted here:

- your publisher likely has a standard contract they'll ask you to sign. Don't be so excited to be published that you sign automatically but realise that you can ask to negotiate anything from the percentage you get (usually 10-15%) to who owns foreign rights to the movie rights (I know that's probably not too likely in your case!)

- make sure you have some sort of discussion of rough timelines for the publication of the book and what happens if these timelines aren't met (they say they're going to publish it next fall then don't for whatever reason - does it just get postponed? Do rights revert to you?)

- it's arguable if you need an agent or not - I've known very successful authors who had them and very successful authors who didn't (though obviously, most who are successful do.) The book being in a niche industry shouldn't be a deciding factor but things like whether the publisher has a strong reputation (if you can track down other authors they've published to ask what their experience was like, that can be helpful) and what types of money you think you'll bring in over the years - if it'll be a substantial sum (however you define that), you might want an agent just for the increased assurance that they'll make sure all i's are dotted and t's are crossed at the outset. (With that said, one author I know wrote an "Intro to Philosophy" book for undergrads which brought in about $30 000/year and I don't believe she had an agent - her publisher just had her do some updating/revising every few years.)

- it wouldn't hurt to hit the public library this weekend as it should have some books on "how to get published" and similar topics.

- here's an FAQ on getting published I wrote for my previous employer which may have some details I missed above. Again, that FAQ and my answers are mostly from the perspective of someone who worked mainly with literary writers so some of what I said may not be applicable in your situation.

posted by Jaybo at 7:50 AM on October 2, 2010 [8 favorites]

Congratulations! That's a wonderful thing to hear.

So, I'm a book editor at a trade publishing house in New York (the kind that publishes books that you'd find at Barnes and Noble). It sounds like you might be working with a smaller publisher than the kind that I work for, so some things might be different, but if you were coming to us, here's what would happen from this point onward.

You'd come in to talk to an editor, both for the editor to become acquainted with you, and for you to learn about how this publisher would approach your book. What do they envision for the editing process? Where do they see it on their list? Would this be an important book for them, or a book that they like but don't anticipate huge sales for? If you don't have an agent at this point, that's okay.

As soon as an offer is mentioned, though, it's really best to have an agent. An agent who specializes in the kind of book you've written (can you tell us what the subject is? it would really help us give advice) will know what kind of advance is expected in the field, and will know where your book falls within the spectrum. But beyond the advance, and more importantly, your agent will know about all the other rights and responsibilities that the contract covers. Our boilerplate contract transfers rights like audio, film, translation, etc., from the author to the publisher. For most authors who come to us without agents, that's just fine, because they'd rather we dealt with negotiating those rights with other publishers or companies anyway (the author still gets proceeds from these sales, but no longer get 100%—the percentages are defined in the contract). But authors represented by agents often reserve some of these rights because they know that a particular publisher isn't any good at placing that particular right, or, in the case of film rights in particular, because they know that they'll benefit more if they do it themselves. A good agent will pay for themselves because you'll end up with more money than you would have otherwise gotten for the book, even considering their 10% fee.

There's a lot more to it, but that's part of why you want an agent. They'll know their way around a contract.

So, I'm going to make a suggestion that may seem counterintuitive: when you go to that meeting, tell the publisher that you're looking for an agent, and do they have anyone to recommend? Publishers spend a lot of time developing relationships with agents, and the relationship between publishers, authors and agents is a symbiotic one: we all need each other. You won't be putting yourself in a bad position by doing this, and if this is the publisher you really want to work with, working with an agent who already has a good relationship with that publisher will only be to your benefit.
posted by ocherdraco at 8:02 AM on October 2, 2010 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I'm a former acquisitions editor and current (nonfiction) literary agent. On this first call, you probably won't get an actual offer--for most publishers, books need to be approved by a whole crew of people (in both editorial and marketing), so what you're probably getting here is just an initial thumbs up from the acquisitions editor. The editor most likely wants to ask you a few questions about your proposal, your upcoming schedule, and maybe ask you to make a few additions/tweaks to your proposal before it's presented. The editor may also want to run an advance figure by you, just to see if you're at all on the same page (no one wants to run a proposal by a dozen people, get it approved, and then have it fall apart in negotiation). Some publishers (especially niche publishers) pay no advance at all, while others may pay a few thousand (or more)--it really varies quite a bit, depending on the publisher.

As far as negotiation goes, the principles aren't that different from any other negotiation: Never be the first to mention a figure, and never accept the first offer you're given.

If you decide not to use a literary agent for this (or if you can't get a literary agent to take your project--which is possible if the fee is too low), the Authors Guild provides contract reviews for its membership; joining is $90. I can't speak to the quality of their contract reviews, though--maybe someone else here can chime in.

Congratulations, and let us know how it goes!
posted by carrienation at 8:04 AM on October 2, 2010 [2 favorites]

While Jaybo is right that some authors are successful without an agent, the ones I've seen most successful without agents had an agent to begin with, paid attention to how the agent negotiated and what they considered important, and then used that knowledge for future books without one.
posted by ocherdraco at 8:04 AM on October 2, 2010

Just as a point of reference for the excellent suggestions above:

Once a small group of people sold books to the same imprint at around the same time. Some had a decent agent, some had no agent, and one had a fantastic agent.

The one with the fantastic agent got a great deal and timely payment and excellent treatment; the one with a decent agent got a decent deal and decent treatment; the one with no agent got a so-so deal and then ignored and that person's book went by the wayside.

Ever since watching this, I *demand* that all my friends have their deals negotiated by the best possible agent they can get their hands on.
posted by RJ Reynolds at 1:18 PM on October 2, 2010

Best answer: Here's Miss Snark's take on approaching an agent with offer in hand.

My POV (My NF debut is coming out from a major house/imprint in something like two weeks) is that an agent is crucial, especially your first time 'round the block. My excellent agent has given me tons of perspective I never would have had, especially in situations in which I wasn't sure if I should throw a fit on my own behalf or defer/throw in the towel. I've found it invaluable to have someone in my corner and my corner alone during a wild and crazy ride.

Congratulations, and best of luck!
posted by mynameisluka at 5:02 PM on October 2, 2010

Response by poster: After reviewing the contract, doing further research, and considering my situation carefully, I decided to self-publish. I am in the process of completing the manuscript, have made good progress, and have retained an editor. I'm sure I'll end up with an Ask Metafilter question out of it, so you can get updated that way. Thank you all for your advice. It did help me make my decision.
posted by letahl at 11:17 AM on June 25, 2011

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