The Art of the Deal

- by Karen Sandler

In August 2011, I attended the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators conference in Los Angeles. One of the more fascinating and informative workshops was The Art of the Deal, all about how a book is acquired. Presenters Brenda Bowen (agent with Sanford J Greenburger Associates, on the right) and Alessandra Balzer (VP & co-publisher of Balzer + Bray, an imprint of HarperCollins Children’s Books) used their roles as agent and editor to “act out” the process. (note: Brenda worked for Alessandra at Hyperion).

They opened their talk with a short discussion of how an editor and agent like to work, that it’s both a business and personal relationship. Then they started their “case study” of the acquisition of a fictitious debut literary novel.

First our agent finds the book via query, referral, or blogs. She reads 10 pages and requests the full. The agent likes it and calls the author to offer representation. Of course the author says yes.

As preparation for submission, the agent asks the author which editors he really likes, including who would be his dream editor (in this case it’s Alessandra). They get the book polished and ready.

The agent starts with a phone call & shmoozes a bit (Brenda and Alessandra actually acted this out, asking about pets and such). The agent then makes a mini-pitch. As the editor listens, she has an inward and outward reaction.   For instance, she might not be thrilled, but at least in Alessandra’s case, she still asks to see the book to be polite. If the agent says the book is going to be big, the editor gets excited. Note that the agent won’t say this about every book; she would lose her credibility. So when she does say it, it holds weight with the editor.

The editor invites the agent to submit. The agent makes sure to tell the editor that the author has lots of other books in him. She also talks about the platform the author has—a widely followed blog or Twitter feed, a popular fan page on Facebook.

The agent writes a submission letter, opens by saying it was great talking to Alessandra, mentions the book’s title, author, and genre. She describes what’s different about this book, but also includes a comparison title. She includes a short blurb which tells the whole story (i.e., not just back cover copy), but it’s short. It doesn’t lay out every spoiler. The agent says how many years the author has been working, that this is his first submission, that he’s willing to do social media, etc. Sometimes the agent will use the sign-off, “I think this will go quickly.”

Then it’s on to the acquisition decision. At Harper Collins, the process is pretty formal. Rather than feel constrained by the acquisition committee, Alessandra likes to know what the sales group/marketing, etc. thinks.

The agent has told the editor what the hook is, so the editor is going to use agent’s letter. When she reads the manuscript, she loves it! Alessandra noted that she reads to reject, so her saying yes is a huge milestone.

The editor is the advocate for the book. She keeps an eye out for what it needs. She takes it to the editorial group and they have feedback.

She writes a memo to the acquisition committee (apparently it’s a form she fills out, at least at Harper Collins). She lists the maximum advance she’ll be willing to offer. She works up the P&L (profit & loss) cost, marketing, how it might sell in paperback, and puts in all in the memo. She might mention that she knows the pacing is a little off (or whatever the main critique of the book might be). She list similar/compatible books, for example, “It will fit in with 13 Reasons Why,” or “It’s Hunger Games meets Runaway Bunny.” (much laughter here)

Side note about print runs. An editor gets to know the right numbers by instinct. At a house as big as HarperCollins, if an editor projects a print run of 5000 books (which would be small for HC), the book probably won’t be acquired. This number would vary depending on the publishing house. On the other hand, picture books don’t have the numbers they used to. Publishers tend to print as few as possible, but they can quickly go back for an additional print run.

The agent will let the editor know that she’s sent the manuscript out to other editors at other houses, but the editor has it exclusively at HarperCollins. As a side note, Brenda mentioned that an agent always wants to know who will tolerate multiple submissions, and she needs to know who reports to who. An agent shouldn’t submit to two editors in the same imprint.

The agent tells the author it’s been submitted. As soon as some editors show interest, all editors get more interested.

On to the acquisition meeting. Who’s there: Sales, marketing & publicity, finance, inventory control, associate publisher, publisher. And here’s Alessandra’s first offer:

Advance: $20,000

Payout: $10,000 on signing, $10,000 on delivery

Territory: World English

Hardcover Royalty: 10% up to 20,000 copies sold, 12.5% after

Softcover Royalty: 6% up to 75,000 copies sold, 7% after

E-book: 25% of net

If there’s another editor interested, the agent won’t ever say who that editor is, but editors will try to guess. Sometimes if there’s other interest, an editor will bow out. Also, offers will come by e-mail. And in our fictitious case, another offer comes in, from Editor B:

Advance: $15,000

Payout: $5,000 on signing, $5,000 on delivery, $5,000 on publication

Territory: North America

Hardcover Royalty: 10% up to 25,000 copies sold, 12.5% after

Softcover Royalty: 6% up to 75,000 copies sold, 7% after

E-book: 25% of net

And from Editor C:

Advance: 2 book deal, $17,500 each

Payout: $15,000 on signing, $7,500 on delivery of book 1, $7,500 on delivery of book 2, $2,500 each on publication of books 1&2

Territory: World, all languages

Hardcover Royalty: 10%

Softcover Royalty: 6%

E-book: 25% of net

and the offer expires at 5pm the next day

The agent talks with the author, discusses the pros & cons of each deal. Then she has to talk to Alessandra and Editor B about Editor C’s offer and deadline. The agent says she would love to place it with Alessandra (because that’s the author’s dream editor). Alessandra knows she can probably get the deal if she offers a 2nd book.

The agent knows there’s room in the editor’s offer. If the agent asks if it’s Alessandra’s best offer, Alessandra doesn’t necessarily reveal what her best offer is. She might go partway (increasing the offer, but not to the max) and discover that’s not enough.

The agent solicits further offers from all three, asking for their best offer. She might also want to know what the editor’s vision for the book is because that will impact the author’s decision.

Here’s Alessandra’s final offer:

Advance: $25,000

Payout: $12,500 on signing, $12,500 on delivery

Territory: World English, UK split 75/25

Hardcover Royalty: 10% up to 20,000 copies sold, 12.5% after

Softcover Royalty: 6% up to 75,000 copies sold, 7% after

E-book: 25% of net

Audio 50/50

The agent and editor argue a bit over audio. The editor says it’s a deal-breaker, the agent says the author does voice-overs and wants to keep audio, Alessandra reiterates that it’s important now to HarperCollins to keep audio rights

The agent consults with the author. The issues to discuss: a one book deal vs.a two book deal,

editor styles, publishing house strengths.

If Alessandra doesn’t get the book, she’ll want to know okay, who got it? The agent won’t reveal this, but Alessandra will try to figure it out.

Here’s further information that came out during question time:

Including e-book rights in the deal is non-negotiable at HarperCollins (and probably most other publishers).

An editor will want to know what else you’ve got.

When asked what it meant when a HC editor said “Tell me if there’s any interest in this book,” then hadn’t gotten back to the writer for a few months, Alessandra said that the editor might be interested but is busy. She might want to take it to other meetings, but won’t always have had a chance to read it.

When asked how much art and how much science goes into projecting books sales, Alessandra said they use somewhat general numbers 10k, 25k, 50k. Comparison titles are the heart and soul of the process (they use Bookscan sales).

The best manuscript submission format for graphic novels is screenplay format, with a pdf of some of the spreads. Be careful who you send to because not every publisher handles graphic novels.

For a first timer, both Brenda and Alessandra agree it’s best to submit to an agent first rather than an editor.

It’s okay for an author to let her agent know that since HarperCollins has a great illustrator, she wants to submit there (i.e., to specify a house based on a particular illustrator).

When asked if a YA editor would be open to adult crossover, Alessandra said yes, the editor will probably pass a YA book over to the other side.

Grab bag:

Delivery dates are specified in the contract.

With multiple offers, editors want to know what they have to beat, but you don’t want to make them feel they haven’t been told the truth, e.g., if offered $20k, the agent will will come back asking for $50K, which the editor will think is crazy, so the agent will say there’s a number between $20K & $50K that would be acceptable.

“Interest” means I read it and liked it, while an offer is binding.

Competing offers means auction.

Yes, put awards in cover letter.

Brenda doesn’t want non-fiction or early readers.

Alessandra doesn’t want non-fiction or straight historical.

6 comments

  1. Great post! Thanks for all the terrific inside info on deal-making. I was fascinated.

  2. Very informative! My 11th book just came out this year, but there was still information here that was new to me.

  3. Thank you. I felt like I was there. Great post.

  4. [Here by way of April Henry]

    Excellent post! definitely one for my ‘Picks of the week’

    Thanks for sharing :)

  5. This was wonderful, the next best thing to being there! ;-) Thank you for taking the time to write it all down for us. Very informative and interesting.

  6. I’m glad you’ve all enjoyed it. SCBWI LA was my first experience “blogging” a conference. The Art of the Deal was my favorite workshop.