The Challenge for the Debut Author

What are the chances of a debut author getting a contract with a major publisher? What if the author does not have an agent?

It’s always hard to get the first contract for any author. It’s a little like “American Idol” with hundreds, if not thousands, of people in line hoping for their chance.

In non-fiction it can be a number of things that help with the process.

  • The “Platform” is crucial for many publishers. They want to have the confidence that they can sell a boatload of copies right away to your built-in constituency. But not every debut author has an overwhelming “platform.”
  • The type of book you are writing can be a factor. For example, a devotional with a clever hook can be just what the publisher is looking for because devotionals often are not celebrity driven. Jesus Calling is an example. That was Sarah Young’s first book.

But if your book is on an evergreen topic like marriage or finances you need to have something very unique or a massive platform to attract a publisher’s attention. There are too many “classics” in those categories. Or they have a dominant player like Dave Ramsey in that space.

  • It may be that the author has top-level endorsements as part of the proposal. The author is well known and respected by a number of “famous” people who have agreed to endorse the book before it has even been published. I saw this turn the heads of a publication meeting. Their first reaction was “who is this guy” but when they saw the endorsements they knew he was something special.
  • The author may have met an editor at a conference and made a personal connection there. I’ve seen this happen dozens of times. The editor loves the project and can cite their experience with the author when the book is pitched in-house. I have a client who was speaking at an event…afterwards an editor from a major publisher, who was in the audience, came up and asked about writing for them. Book seven will come out next Spring.

In fiction, we often say, “it is all about the story.” But that’s really just one factor.

  • If your brilliant novel, set in the Civil War, arrives right after the major publisher has contracted another author’s Civil War novel, yours won’t be picked. But it may be the other way around in your case. Yours is chosen and someone else gets the boot.
  • It is fascinating to watch the ebb and flow of popularity with various genres. Historical fiction seems to be in a cycle about every five years. It’s hot, then it’s not, then it’s hot again. Recently dystopian novels were all the rage, but not any more. The editors were fatigued by all the submissions and the marketplace ended up close to a saturation point. Romantic Suspense is getting a lot of attention these days, but soon those slots will be filled and something else will become the new flavor.

Think about other genres, like Amish. Ten years ago it was unbelievably hot. Publishers and writers were diving into the genre with abandon. Now it has settled into a strong category with a few dominant authors. Breaking in as a debut Amish author can be done, but it takes special story telling skills to get the attention of the editor whose line is already “full.”

The question we started with had another aspect. What about the unagented debut author?

It is possible to get a deal without an agent. Primarily the writers conference or an editor approaching you is the main way that happens. There are stories of the unsolicited proposal hitting the major publisher’s desk and becoming a bestseller, but those stories are told because they are so rare and exceptional.

The issue for the unagented author is not getting the deal, it is the contract itself. If you don’t want an agent but would rather use a literary attorney, that is fine. Just make sure you know what you are signing. Those contracts can be onerous if you are not careful. I teach a class called “Landmines in Your Book Contract” for a reason!


21 Responses to The Challenge for the Debut Author

  1. Avatar
    Cherrilynn Bisbano May 15, 2017 at 5:32 am #

    Steve, Thank you for this poignant information. I’ve learned so much from you and your guest bloggers.

  2. Avatar
    Judith Robl May 15, 2017 at 6:00 am #

    Your blog today, Steve, is a dose of reality that we all need.

    So when and where are you next teaching your Landmines class?

    The information you and your cohorts publish on this blog is practically a doctoral degree in writing and publishing.

    Thank you all, Dan, Karen, Steve, and Tamela.

  3. Avatar
    Henry Styron May 15, 2017 at 6:05 am #

    Steve, I really appreciate all the wise counsel you and your fellow agents take the time to give to your readers.

    Mine is a question that may have been addressed somewhere else. If not, it would be wonderful if you or Dan or Karen or Tamela could take it on sometime. What advice would you give the would-be published author who honestly believes in his own work but, quite frankly, isn’t having to actively look for ways to fill up his spare time? (insert grin here.)

    Hypothetically, suppose there was a writer who had a finished novel, and he believed in it, but various kind and courteous editors and experts and agents have told him it needs more polishing and he needs more platform and he just needs to keep working on it and submitting it. And, hypothetically, suppose he saw the sense of this and was perfectly willing to do what’s necessary (and has been working on it) but he has other projects and duties vying for his time and energy as well, and he doesn’t want to shirk his responsibilities TOO much to continue to focus on this one project but he doesn’t want to give up on it either.

    So, I guess, what this hypothetical author could theoretically be wondering is what advice you might give him on striking a balance between sacrificing everything to pursue this dream on the one hand and chucking the whole thing in the recycle bin on the other?

    He’s not hypothetically discouraged, or anything like that. He’s just trying to follow the path of wisdom.

    Thanks much, Steve, and God bless. Hope everything’s going well for you.

    • Avatar
      Katie Powner May 15, 2017 at 7:40 am #

      I think I’ve met this hypothetical writer, Henry. I think I’m one of them myself! Hypothetically speaking. For what it’s worth, I would tell this hypothetical person that there is no hypothetical with God. God’s plan and purpose, His will, are solid and foundational and concrete. So when we trust in Him and give our plans and hopes and desires and talents over to Him, we don’t have to worry about what we’re hypothetically going to do. We just do what we feel He wants us to do and let Him take care of the rest.

      Easier said than hypothetically done, I know!

      • Avatar
        Henry Styron May 15, 2017 at 7:55 am #

        Katie, if the author in question did in fact exist he might theoretically find that to be excellent counsel. In all our ways acknowledge Him, and He will direct our steps, indeed.


    • Avatar
      Steve Laube May 15, 2017 at 11:02 am #

      Hypothetically it is a good blog topic for another day.
      Theoretically one of us may have some advice.
      Practically it cannot be addressed in the comment section.

      • Avatar
        Henry Styron May 15, 2017 at 11:36 am #

        Thanks, Steve. If a hypothetical author with that supposed concern had been following this thread then he theoretically wouldn’t have realistically been expecting any practical advice at this point in time.

        But in theory if an agent might want to devote some future blog topic to it, then possibly some readers who value and appreciate the advice graciously given on this blog would conceivably look forward to it.

        You know, maybe.

  4. Avatar
    Jeanne Takenaka May 15, 2017 at 7:24 am #

    Steve, thank you for this informative post. I think one thing that surprised me was how important a top level endorsement can be. It makes sense, I just hadn’t considered it before.

    I imagine, you having been in the business for as long as you have, you’ve seen a lot of “trends” and ebbing and flowing of genres. I think there may be hope in that . . . For those who write in a certain genre. It may not be selling right now, but perhaps it will again in the future.

    Thanks for this thought-provoking post.

    • Avatar
      Steve Laube May 15, 2017 at 11:06 am #


      So you are calling me “experienced” or “old”? !!!!

      Yes I’ve seen genres trend hot and cold for years in fiction. And in non-fiction too.

      Around 2005 I could not sell a new historical (medieval) novel by an author who was on the current besteller’s list. I was shocked. It eventually sold to the author’s current publisher, but had no takers from any other house who was doing fiction. Instead, at the time, they all wanted “chick-lit.”

      Two years later an editor called and asked if I had any historical fiction proposals to look at. Why? Because the “chick-lit” fad had died and the publisher had no inventory of other genres. I reminded the editor of turning down a bestselling historical novelist just two year prior….

      And thus reiterating that “timing” can be a factor for your book idea.

      • Avatar
        rochellino May 15, 2017 at 11:40 am #

        Steve, based on your sage advice it must have been a debut author that inspired this classic from 1973. Your comment immediately brought it to mind. Thanks!

      • Avatar
        Jeanne Takenaka May 15, 2017 at 2:20 pm #

        Steve, experienced. Definitely experienced. 😉

        Based on what you said it seems like there are certain genres that are “classic” and some that are trendy. The classics come back around. And perhaps the trendy ones have their time of fame and then are no longer popular….

  5. Avatar
    Carol Ashby May 15, 2017 at 7:34 am #

    Steve, what fraction of the debut authors that an agent talks with at a conference end up getting asked to submit a proposal? What fraction get representation? I know you can’t give exact figures, but ballpark estimates would be nice.

    Same question for proposal requests from editors.

    Thanks for all the wisdom you share!

    • Avatar
      Steve Laube May 15, 2017 at 11:13 am #


      That is actually an impossible question to answer definitively. Any answer would depend on the conference, the number of conferences attended. Whether is is a fiction-only conference like ACFW or a mixed group of writers like Mt. Hermon. Or a small weekend conference with only 30 in attendance.

      Plus “asked to submit a proposal”? I’ve seen editors who say “send it” to everyone they meet. 100%. They don’t have to say “no thanks” to someone’s face. They are unable to read anything in the meeting or at the conference so they say “send it” so they can look at it later.
      Unfortunately the writer hears “They want to publish ME!” when all that was said was “send it.”

      I’ve also had writers who try every sales technique known to “close the sale” with me in their meeting. If I’m not that enthused or have said something like “this needs work” the writer replies with a “so can I send it?” I can only reply with a “when you think its ready, but not as is.” That writer may only hear “Steve said I could send my proposal.” So is that a “requested proposal”?

      Unfortunately Carol the question is not one I can answer in a way that can be measured. Sorry.

  6. Avatar
    CJ Myerly May 15, 2017 at 7:52 am #

    I love reading the blog posts here. I am learning so much. I hope to someday be a debut author. You all do a great job of providing realistic information while encouraging us would-be authors.

  7. Avatar
    Glenda May 15, 2017 at 8:29 am #

    Hi, Steve! As a hoping-soon-to-be “debut author”, I’m actually looking forward to the challenges!

    With God’s help, the wisdom of those in whose footprints I pray to follow (Many thanks to you, Karen, Tamela, and Dan!), and “bleeding at the typewriter” (Hemingway) the path to published a journey worth the taking.

  8. Avatar
    Joel Comiskey May 15, 2017 at 5:52 pm #

    Hi Steve, great blog, as usual. I read all the blogs from your agency daily. You said on the most recent blog, “I teach a class called “Landmines in Your Book Contract” for a reason!” Where can I find this class? How can I listen to it?

    • Avatar
      Steve Laube May 15, 2017 at 6:44 pm #

      I’ve given that class a few times over the years (ACFW and Blue Ridge come to mind). I don’t have a recording of it myself and needs the handout with the offending clauses in writing for it to make sense. Since it is on the more advanced end of the spectrum I am rarely asked to teach it. Last time there were only four people in the class. I suspect those who have agent assume their agent can handle the issues presented.

  9. Avatar
    David RAWLINGS May 15, 2017 at 6:22 pm #

    Thanks for the blog post and your advice Steve, as always.

    What I’m learning about timing: I’m shifting my mindset away from the constant refresh of my inbox in case an agent or publisher just emailed me in the past two minutes. I’m now using that time between completed manuscript and acceptance/rejection by the agent/publisher to improve the manuscript.

    I’m trying to view time as something I plow back into my writing and work on my craft, which is being shaped for the better. Now the story I thought was complete is now somehow richer, quirkier, slicker, deeper or has an as-yet-unthought-of twist. Or I have another novel to offer. Or my platform is bigger than it was.

    It’s hard, but the F5 button on my keyboard is eternally grateful.

  10. Avatar
    Christy Wood May 16, 2017 at 4:50 pm #

    Very helpful and encouraging. Thank you! Being a potential “debut author” is intimidating…this gives me some direction and hope.

  11. Avatar
    Sheri Dean Parmelee May 17, 2017 at 10:05 am #

    Thanks for the information, Steve. Platform is my major stumbling block right now. I was a sty-at-home mom for years and no one has ever heard of me. Try to get a book deal with those credentials!


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