Many writers think of a book contract as the holy grail of a writing career. In our age of eCommerce, search engine optimization, and digital marketing, nothing could be further from the truth.
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to get a book contract. But “the game” is so much bigger than that, and your potential return—financially, relationally, and in your career—is so much higher if you are willing to expand your conception of what it means to be a successful Christian writer.
Having said that, let me throw some creds down on the table. I was an acquisitions editor for church leaders at a major publisher for a year, during which I not only acquired several top-selling books, but also brokered multiple brand partnerships between my publisher and large media outlets that yielded exponential book sales that are still paying off for that publisher today. On top of that, I have worked for a celebrity-specialized literary agency to acquire and write book proposals for top NBA and NFL athletes. I’ve also done some editorial consulting for Harper Collins and Penguin.
Okay. Enough of that.
Here, I’m going to give you my model for broadening your conception to earn a much higher return on your investment—in terms of creative fulfillment, monetary success, and networking prospects—in which book publishing is merely one tool, and not the final goal.
Let’s dig in.
Why it is critical to publish on your own site first
Your highest priority should be publishing your content on a platform that you own. If you’re a writer, this should be a website. There are many fantastic platforms—content management systems (CMS)—on which to build a digital presence that you own. WordPress. Squarespace. Drupal. Joomla. There are most custom options available if you know how to code.
However, if you’re a writer who wants web platform that looks extremely professional and has simple drag-and-drop design features, use Squarespace. In 2020, it’s the very best option on the market. Squarespace has eCommerce features that allow you to sell products that integrate with PayPal and Apple Pay (which increases buyer conversion by over 60%, compared with eCommerce modules that require the manual entry of credit card information).
Why focus on “getting published” on your own site first? Here are the main reasons why you should focus on building your website before publishing anywhere else:
Your potential for visibility will be infinitely higher when Google can send people directly to you.
In other words, your SEO value skyrockets when you actually own the site that Google can find. SEO stands for “search engine optimization,” and if you don’t own your own website, Google will not send people to you—they will send people to those who are hosting your content. Google is the most powerful way of building an audience. It’s not limited by who your followers are. It’s not limited by the number of emails you have. If you have the most valuable content, Google has an algorithm to find your content and connect it to the audience that’s looking for it.
But this is only true if you own your own website. Without it, all your audience, all your traffic, and all your readers will be funneled into someone else’s audience-building funnel so that they can build relationships with those people (instead of you).
The SEO value of owning your own website, and publishing your highest quality writing there, is that you have direct access to the most intuitive value-recognition machine in the world that wants to connect you with 7 billion potential readers. If you can set yourself apart as a content authority in your specific niche, even the smallest of niches, you are tapping into hundreds of thousands of potential readers per month. And that’s just the start. Most people who know how to do SEO well are able to generate millions of visitors per month.
You can turn every visitor into a real relationship through a site that you own.
Writers often think that getting 1 million Facebook fans means something. It means far less than 10,000 email subscribers through your website. Not only does Facebook (and Twitter and Instagram) own the relationships you build on its platform—it has an algorithm that prevents you from reaching them.
On average, less than 1% of your followers on these platforms will see your posts. This means that the value of “one” follower on social media is pennies-on-the-dollar compared to the value of a single email. Companies often purchase email lists from media companies in order to promote their products, and the industry price for an email list averages $10 per email.
Keep this in mind as you strategize when and where to publish your best content.
You can make more money on your own site. Most platforms don’t enable you to sell products, subscriptions, memberships, or digital downloads through their platforms. Do this on your own website. Unlike a book contract, which will give you 15% of every book sale, your website gives you a margin of 90-95% of every single sale. That means that if you go through a traditional publisher, you’ll have to sell six times as many books to make the same money as if you sold them yourself.
You are more likely to get a book contract if you publish on your own site first.
Publishers care more about how big your audience is than how good of a writer you are. I used to ghost write proposals and books during my years in the publishing industry. What was the job of a ghost writer? To talk to “authors” with huge audiences and write the books for them. The industry standard for a ghost writer is ⅓ of the author’s royalties. That’s extremely high.
The fact that ghost writing is a common practice in the publishing industry is proof that publishers care far more about audience than writing ability. When publishers give $100,000 advances to authors, they are primarily purchasing access to the author’s audience. Therefore, the bigger the audience you can build on your own site, the easier it will be to get a book contract.
I have friends who, in my estimation, are in the top .01% of writers in the world. They have devoted their entire lives to mastering the craft of wordsmithing. Most of them are poor. Most of them have tried to get book contracts for a long time, and they have failed over and over again. Here’s why: they see themselves as being “above” marketing, brandcraft, and audience-building.
If you are devoted to writing well, and your content is high quality, the best gift you could give to your inner writer is to focus on building an audience for that writing on a platform you own.
Guest Posting on a Blog
There are multiple benefits to submitting your writing to be published on other websites.
SEO value. One variable in Google’s algorithm of determining whether you are a credible website (and therefore whether they should send people to you through their search results) is how many high-value websites backlink to your website. Publishing a post on someone else’s website is one way of securing a backlink to your site, and therefore gaining SEO value by association, increasing your overall traffic significantly.
Networking value. If you don’t know anyone at high-authority sites, find someone who regularly contributes to one of those websites, and then submit content for their personal website. When you do this, you have given them a gift—high-quality content that increases their SEO value. In return, ask for an introduction to an editor at the larger publication. Then, you’ll have access to publishing there.
When you pitch a website editor, you want to include three things: (1) clickable headline, (2) link to article they previously published that is similar, and (3) the full draft of your manuscript. Including these three elements makes it as easy as possible for the editor to accept your work. Don’t send an email saying, “I’m thinking of writing a piece on X. Would you be interested?” You’re creating a hypothetically never-ending email chain for that editor, which all editors hate. Make it a case-closed situation. Make publishing your work as easy as saying “Yes.”
Getting a Literary Agent
If you really want to publish a book through the traditional route, you need to get a literary agent. Some literary agents have extremely high standards for their writers. Others could be willing to cultivate younger authors for a few years to get them to the place where the agent is willing to pitch your manuscript to a publisher. Their relationship with publishers is more important to them than their relationship with you. So, when you’re looking for an agent, you want to make yourself sound like someone who will make them look good to the publisher, and not as a charity case.
Here are three elements that factor into every literary agent’s decision to acquire an author (or not):
Audience. Writing quality. Book idea.
If you have a huge audience, but are a terrible writer and have no idea, you might get a book contract. If your audience is already massive, publishers start seeing dollar signs and will often invest money in you as an author just to get access to your audience. But, if your audience is already large, chances are that you have easier ways of monetizing that audience than a years-long relationship with a publisher.
If you have no audience, are an amazing writer, and have no solid book idea, then you won’t get a book contract. Nobody acquires authors just because they’re good writers. Good writers are a-dime-a-dozen in the publishing industry.
If you have no audience, no writing skills, and an amazing book idea, you might get a literary agent to pitch you to a D-list publisher.
If you really want a literary agent to help you get a book contract (and having an agent does significantly increase your ability to do this), then you need to focus on building your audience before anything else.
When you finally do approach a literary agent, have a book proposal pre-written. Don’t write the book first (if it’s non-fiction). This is more important than anything. Literary agents want to have a hand in shaping the book’s angle, audience, chapter structure, and summary.
Here are the essential elements that literary agents look for in every book proposal:
Primary title proposal.
3 Alternative title proposals.
Primary, secondary, and tertiary audience descriptions.
Other books like it (how it’s better, how it’s different).
People who will help market the book.
Internal promotional strategies (your own platform power).
External promotional strategies (your network’s platform power).
Pro-tip: For more explanation of each of these points (and a PDF template in the appendix), download the eBook at the end of this blog.
If you are able to write a proposal containing these elements at first, you will appear extremely professional to prospective literary agents, and you will highly increase your chances of attaining a book contract.
Getting a Book Contract
Getting a book contract requires producing a book proposal document in partnership with your literary agent. Take feedback from them. Implement it into your proposal. That agent will work with an acquisitions editor at the publisher who will then “sell” your proposal to their publishing committee. They will vote on the book proposal, and that vote will determine whether you get a contract or not, what your advance will be, and whether they want an option on more than one book.
Many writers make the mistake of presenting themselves as writers, rather than as (1) experts (amateur or credentialed) (2) in a particular topic (3) who have a captive audience. Publishers don’t want to publish writers (weird, I know). They want to publish people who have the chops to speak authoritatively and informatively about their chosen topic, who have a pre-packaged audience who is eager to read whatever they write next. When selling your book proposal to a publisher, don’t flaunt your skills or your writing credentials—flaunt your marketing and marketable assets. Acquisitions editors are paid to make business decisions, so your success hangs on your ability to tease that instinct.
Acquisitions editors think like business people. So, in order to gain their ear, you have to talk like a business person. When pitching your book, pretend you’re pitching an app to a tech investor. Have your elevator pitch honed. Explain why it’s different. Explain why there’s an eager buying audience for the book. Explain what books like it have succeeded, and how you can be different enough to draw on that success while compelling those same readers to buy your book as well.
Step into your “marketing” shoes and sell your idea to the editor so that they know you take ownership of selling the book. The publisher will do very little to sell your book. When they sense that you feel confident you can sell your book through your promotional strategies in partnership with the publisher’s marketing team, they will be eager to give you a contract.
It’s important to consider self-publishing as a legitimate option. What do you lose by self-publishing? Surprisingly, not much. You might think, “But I want that juicy $5,000 royalty advance!”
Self-publishing requires initial financial investment (you can create something quality for under $500, or $0 if you have the design chops). It costs nothing to publish your book on Kindle and print through Amazon.
More than that, your average margin on a book sale through Amazon self-publishing is 50% of the total sale price (print) and between 35% and 70% for Kindle (depending on how you price it). This is much higher than most publisher royalty structures which, again, will not give you more than 15% on their profits.
Self-publishing is an ideal option for authors who have a growing email list, growing website traffic, and are able to generate book sales (in the form of Amazon, PDF download, or Kindle) through a trusted reputation with their audience and a penchant for adding value in every word you write. With a list of 20,000 (a small list), if only 5% make a purchase at a $5 margin per book sale, that’s $2500 in your pocket. That’s about what book publishers are offering in terms of royalty advances these days, but you don’t have to go through the years-long rounds of grueling editing to get there.
Expand your conception of a successful writing career—and even a successful publishing career—beyond the traditional route. If you do this, you’ll not only retain more creative control over your content and make more money—you’ll also increase your baseline attractiveness to traditional publishing companies so that if you want to pursue that route down the road, you can.
Publishing is built on an inverse value curve. The more you need a publisher, the less they want you. The more attractive you are to a publisher, the more money you could probably make just publishing content on your own.
20 years ago, very few people made 7-figures writing. Today, many more people have made 7-figures writing for themselves vs. traditionally publishing a book. Keep that in mind as you ask yourself: “Why do I really want to get published?” A better question is: “What publication strategy helps me achieve my personal life goals?”
In our increasingly digital environment in which the services of a publishing company can be outsourced through competitive freelance gig platforms, the margins and opportunities of self-publishing, focusing on your own website, and building your own email list, have so far exceeded the value of a traditional book contract that I often wonder: “When is it even worth it?” Consider for yourself the same issues.
Do you want a book contract as a matter of vanity—of literary optics? Or are you willing to develop a more subtle business strategy that accommodates the advantages of our growing eCommerce economy that more closely connects author and audience?