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!