One of the questions I’ve been asked most often since The Back-Up Plan came out last July is “how do you get a book deal?”.
There’s something so wonderful about the thought of YOU, unashamedly and unabashedly all you, in a 250 page hardback: it’s no wonder that ‘be a published author’ is on the bucket list of so many. And it was certainly mine for the first 25 years of my life, ever since I wrote my first (as yet unpublished) masterpiece, ‘Roger and the Ghost’, age 7.
My dream came true this time last year as I signed a contract to write my first book (because obviously I’ve now got the bug and want to write MORE), a memoir called The Back-Up Plan.
The experience was everything I thought it would be and more, an emotionally and sometimes physically gruelling experience, and the product of the hard work was something totally beyond my expectations. Something I am so incredibly proud of that I’m still pinching myself on the regular.
When it comes to writing I know how difficult it is to get your arse in gear and actually write instead of hanging around on Twitter asking “how do you get a book deal?”. Read on for my thoughts on the most productive ways you can achieve this dream, and the advice is all yours as long as you dedicate your first book to me.
How Do You Get A Book Deal?
Practice, practice, practice
I always knew I wanted to write a book and, although I wasn’t 100% sure what it was going to be about or the form it would take, I knew I had to get better at writing to do it. I had to work on my storytelling, my long-form pieces, my dialogues. You wouldn’t step out on a tennis court having only played a couple of times before and then expect to be paid to whack a ball around, would you? No! You’d practice for weeks, months, years before becoming a professional.
That’s why my blog was absolutely crucial in my development as a writer. I look back at the pieces I wrote back when I first started this website in 2009 and cringe: though my personality still shone through, the way I scribbled my raw and unedited thoughts down left something to be desired.
Spending 8 years here honing my individual voice and skill writing 1500 words a week left me in really good practice when it came to writing a book (and being paid for it).
If you haven’t already, start a blog (and if you don’t know how, please sign up for my mailing list: I’ll be running a course on this exact topic next month).
A wise woman once said to me “if you don’t read you’ve no business writing”…
A wise woman once said to me “if you don’t read you’ve no business writing”, and I’ve never forgotten it. Read everything: read what’s recommended to you, what looks good in the library. Read the news, read blogs, read the back of cereal packets, read instagram captions.
Write for newspapers and magazines
My mum always told me I was a great writer but it wasn’t until I started getting paid to scribe in magazines and newspapers that I actually believed her. I mean, if I’m getting paid to write a column for The Telegraph on subjects as ridiculous as the age gap in Cheryl Cole’s relationship (hard hitting news, am I right?), I must be doing something right.
Writing for others and to a brief was also a fantastic way to become more succinct in my writing as previously I’d been so used to always scribbling to my own agenda. If an editor asks you for 700 words you damn well need to stick to 700 words, and having to be this tight on word count and subject points means you soon learn the tricky skill of self-editing.
Build an online following
It almost seems counter-intuitive that one of the things that will most sway a publisher towards you has nothing to do with your book or your writing skill, but in a world where print media is secondary to online publishing your digital influence becomes very meaningful.
When you write a book for a publisher they need to make sure they’ll shift the copies they print. With the given that you’re a wonderful writer – of course you are – the only other way they can make sure this will happen is if you have an existing audience to be marketed to.
So work at your Instagram, work at your Twitter. Craft your Facebook page: wherever your following is strongest, work hard at building your audience.
To sell a book to a publisher you’ll need to find a niche that you can represent in a way no author has previously
Figure out your niche
To sell a book to a publisher you’ll need to find a niche that you can represent in a way no author has previously. For me this was easy: I had a unique, what I felt was lighthearted and comedic, spin on parenting as it relates to divorce, and though I wasn’t thrilled the niche I’d carved myself was such I went with it.
Maybe you have a fascinating family with experiences you can draw on – for example, I can’t wait to read The Most Difficult Thing by Charlotte Philby, the granddaughter of Britain’s most famous communist double-agent.
Whatever your experience that sets you apart from other writers, make sure you exploit it to your advantage.
Work out what you want to write and structure it
This might sound like a silly point – you’ll have an idea of what you want to write, whether that’s a crime novel, a memoir or a kids’ book – but your ideas won’t fully take shape until you write them down. And I have found that just starting at Chapter 1 and word-vomiting on the page isn’t the best way to do this.
Start off with a short synopsis, a really tight paragraph explaining your idea and your book. Why will people pick up your tome over others? What’s unique about it?
Then write a longer description of the book, about a page long. Pull out a couple of key scenes or themes that you’ve been thinking of and include these – this is your place to demonstrate the highlights and uniqueness of your project.
Next, outline your chapters and, if you’re writing fiction, your characters. List the chapters and detail a few paragraphs on each: the scenes, the action, the curveballs that may get thrown. This will help you to see the flow of the story, refining how it will read.
If you’re writing a fiction proposal to submit to a publisher, this document you’ve just produced will form the basis of your proposal. Whichever type of book you’re writing it’ll become your bible, your very own how-to guide.
Don’t be afraid of refining or changing it as you’re going along; it’s important to self-edit throughout the process and your synopsis and outline should be no different.
Connect with authors
Not only is it inspiring to see the work other authors are doing, it’s also useful to get an insight into their working world, their inspirations and stumbling blocks. Follow your favourite authors on Instagram and Twitter, monitoring what those you see as your competitors are up to.
Pitch at agents
If you want to sell your book to a publisher, you’re going to need to find an agent. Use the information you gleaned from the authors in your niche to find agents who may be interested in representing books relating to your niche.
When it comes to fiction it’s a good idea to finish your book so it’s in the best possible shape upon submission. Send your one-page overview – refined to the nth degree – to your prospective agent, making it clear you’ve done your research on them and including all pertinent information about you: brief descriptions of your achievements and a confident outline of why they should choose you as a client. Include a link for them to download your manuscript if they wish (you can use a bit.ly link if you want to track how many people click through).
For non-fiction follow the above advice but enclose your book proposal. From this the agents will be able to decide whether or not they think there’s a market for your book. If they don’t but they still want to work with you they’ll be able to help you refine your proposal further before submitting to a publisher.
Connect with publishers
Though I already had an agent, my own initial ‘in’ to Hodder & Stoughton, the publishers of my book, was on Instagram. Unbeknownst to me I’d been followed by Charlotte Hardman, one of Hodder’s publishers (she’d worked with the brilliant Hurrah For Gin), who DM’d me asking if I’d ever thought about writing a book.
“Only every single day for the last 25 years!” was my response.
I met with Charlotte and she outlined the kind of proposal she was looking for. I went away, put together what I thought would be a solid representation of a book that would work for the both of us, and put it forward to her.
A week and a half later I had a book deal in my hand. Well, in my inbox.
The Back-Up Plan was published seven months later! An author – me – was born.
I LOVE talking about my experience of writing and publishing my book and will be sitting on a panel with Discovher on 7th February at 10.30am in Central London. And my inbox is always open! firstname.lastname@example.org.