It took me years to realize I had a lot more people to impress to get a book contract than just an agent and a publisher.
In my mind I had it mapped out like this:
1) Find an agent, query them, wait for someone to accept me
2) Have the agent pitch a book, wait for the publisher to send a contract
Good news: it sort of works like that
Bad news: except there several steps in between one and two, and just because I had an agent didn't necessarily mean I would get a book contract
For those curious about the process, here's a look at the book's journey from final draft form to contract.
Round 0.5 - Querying an Agent
0.5 because you don't always need an agent to land a deal with a smaller company, and in some rare cases (based on platform numbers), a larger one. Some people skip right to Round One.
But let's say you go the acquire an agent path to have someone to sneak you into those publishers that only accept agented submissions and to negotiate deals for you.
This round can take years. It took me from when I started querying at 17 to landing a deal with an agent at 20 years old (3 years). Several of my own clients spent 3-5 years in the querying trenches. Some didn't take as long, but they averaged at about 2-4 years.
Acquiring an agent can range from querying ten at a time to just messaging the one that doesn't accept simultaneous submissions. Depending on your method can decide how long this will take. Some get back that same day. Some take 6-8 weeks (or months).
If they don't feel like they mesh well with your query, they'll reject you, and you start at the beginning.
Let's say an agent reads your query and likes it. Then we move on to:
Round 0.6 Sending an Agent a Partial
An agent will request to read more material. Some ask for 30 pages. I usually ask for the first three chapters.
If they don't mesh, again, a rejection.
If they like it, you move on to:
Round 0.75 Sending an Agent a Full
Sending the full manuscript. Unless you write nonfiction or early children's. By that point, you've probably sent them all you can.
If they don't warm up to the full, they'll send a rejection or requested edits to resend to them.
If they like it, you move on to:
Round 0.9 The Phone Call and Contract
They'll call you to see if you two can mesh well in a conversation, and to see what your goals are for the book.
If the phone doesn't go as well as planned, they may not offer a contract.
If it goes favorably, the agent will send a contract in which you two will go back and negotiate terms. At any point, you may reach an impasse, or you may come to an agreement.
If you do the latter, you move on to:
Round 1 Querying Trenches: Agent Style
Yay! You got an agent!
But you still have a ways to go. The agent, depending on the agency, will have you polish that query and those first three chapters until they shine.
Once they look good to go, an agent will send your manuscript to a handful of places. Although agents will differ on how many they send per round, let's say your agent sends you to 6-10 places. And most agents will send it to larger houses.
It's great because: They want to get you the best deal
It's not great because: That means longer wait times, more steps, and more rejections
Then you play the waiting game. All 10 may reject it at once. Some can take 6-12 months to get back, even after gentle nudging.
Let's say a publisher takes a liking to your query and three chapters, they'll ask for a full or edits and then the full after edits.*
*Note, some publishers like to have the full before this, but it just depends.
Round 2: Full Stage 2.0
So the publisher is reading your full. This, of course (seeing you wrote a 200-400 page book) will take some time. Some can get back as fast as a week if they really had to finish the book (and if they haven't entered a busy period such as the summer or the winter holiday season). But usually this entails months.
And they finish.
They will either reject it, ask for edits, or, fingers crossed . . . take it to pub board.
Round 3: Pub Board 1.0
If your agent sent your manuscript to a large house, you will likely have more than one pub board to appease.
Pub Board Quick Definition: A group of people who decide if a manuscript and the manuscript's author are marketable enough to make a profit for that house.
Here the acquisitions editor goes to bat for you as they crunch numbers. But enthusiasm doesn't always overturn P&L statements and a lack of an author platform.
From here they'll:
- Reject the manuscript
- Ask for details on the author's platform or market capabilities to determine if they can go to the next pub board round
- Ask for edits to the manuscript
- Take it to the next pub board*
* Some smaller houses only have one pub board, but this is usually rare.
Round 4: Pub Board 2.0 (3.0, 4.0, etc.)
Let's say the first pub board liked you, the team will take it to an even larger group. Each member has their own skepticism, whether you're dealing with sales team members or developmental editors.
Here they'll scrutinize every nook and cranny of your proposal, full, and you as an author to determine if you're the best fit for the house.
From here they'll:
- See Pub Board listing above
Round 5: Initial Offer
If they're interested, they'll likely send a statement to your agent about a proposed advance, royalty breaks, author copies, etc. This is not the actual contract.
Your agent may try to negotiate anything from raising the advance to lowering the units for the royalty breaks. And if you have multiple publishers interested, they may see which one will offer the best deal. This process can take weeks.
Round 6: Contract
If your agent negotiates a favorable statement, they'll send a contract. From here, the agent will spend weeks (sometimes months) negotiating the best deal.
Sometimes deals can break off or disintegrate if they reach an impasse, and you have to start at round one again.
But if your agent reaches a fair agreement with the publisher, they'll send you the contract.
So what does this mean for authors?
These rounds can intimidate any author. But don't get discouraged.
Our agency represents authors who have sold millions who get nos. We have authors who have sold 100 titles who get rejected at Round One.
Know that if you have an excellent manuscript and work hard on author platform, you can make it through all six rounds. It may take years and tears, but if I can make it, you can too.