How a book deal works

So I ran a Twitter poll the other day asking people what topic would be the most useful for me to write about, as I really want to try to make this little blog as useful as possible. When I was trying to get published, I spent HOURS trawling the internet for information about the publishing process (before I was working in it as closely as I am now) and so any light I can now shed on things for other people is hopefully a good thing. Anyway, the majority of people chose ‘how a book deal works’ as something they’d love to hear more about, so here goes…(maybe grab a tea, this is quite long!)

A book deal is, in itself, a contract between you (the writer) and the publishing house (the publisher). It is legally binding, and it ties both you and your publisher into a deal which means they will publish your book, and in return, you will meet their deadlines and stipulations and you will receive either a) royalties and an advance or b) just royalties, no advance. A deal will be agreed usually by your literary agent, and there may be some wrangling between an agent and a commissioning editor or publisher before the deal is finalised – at which point, the paperwork will be sent to you as an author to sign.

Most book contracts look pretty similar, but there will be small variations between publishers so it’s always important that you read through yours as carefully as possible. Your agent can help with this, if you have one. A key part of a book contract is what rights you give to the publisher – the most common types of rights sold are UK & Commonwealth, World English Language or World All Languages. This means that if you give your publisher World English Language rights, for example, they are allowed to print your book in English only – so it can be printed and sold in Australia, America, New Zealand, etc. but it cannot be translated. You or your agent will retain the rest of the language rights, and your agent can then choose to sell the rights to another publisher. If a publisher takes World All Languages, they are allowed to translate your book into as many different languages as possible.

Another key part and one which interests many people is the financial side of things. The two most traditional types of contracts are with and without an advance, an advance being a lump sum of money that is given to you up front, often in stages – for example you might receive part of it when you sign your contract, another part when you deliver your book, and another part when your book actually publishes. You will also receive royalties, which vary between publishers. Royalties are an amount of money you will receive from every copy sold, so for example you might receive 10% of every paperback sold and 25% of every ebook sold. Different imprints will handle royalties differently – sometimes, you might get an amount after retailer discounting, sometimes, you might get an amount before discounting. Your agent will be able to ensure you get the best deal.

Lots of digital-first publishers offer a no-advance, high royalty contract, and this has some great advantages as well. It means you do not have to ‘earn out’ your advance, so essentially you can start receiving royalties sooner than someone with a high advance, but of course it does mean you do not get a sum of money up front. I know authors who prefer both contract models, so it is really whichever one works best for you.

There are other important clauses within a book contract, for example an ‘option’ clause which states whether or not your current publisher gets the first look at the next piece of work you write. The contract will also include basic things such as your word count (usually 85-100,000 words for commercial fiction), how many books the publisher is buying from you at this stage (usually one or two for a first deal), your delivery dates and planned publication dates, your responsibilities if there are any (such as being available for publicity) and your reversion rights – meaning at what point the rights to your work come back to you (if at all). Always make sure any book contract is checked over my an agent or a legal professional before you sign it, and remember – no legitimate book deal should ever ask you to pay any money in order for your book to be published! Some publishers might say you need to cover your own travel costs to events or similar, but no respected house will ever ask you for money in return for them publishing your book – that is NOT how it works! There are some vanity presses out there who try to con writers in this way so please do be careful.

So that is the essentials of a contract. In terms of what happens before you sign on the dotted line, the process is as follows. Yourself or your literary agent will send in a submission (your manuscript) to an editor (or editors) at a publishing house. It is always worth doing the research and finding editors who specialise in or are looking for the type of book you’ve written – for example, I love crime books, and I’m also currently on the hunt for some Irish women’s fiction. Different editors like different things, but you can look at what an editor has published in the past to give you an idea and your agent should have a good idea of who to target already. Submissions will often be with several publishing houses at once, and the agent will be awaiting emails or calls from editors to express interest or reject the book. Sometimes, the agent might receive multiple offers at once, in which case the book will likely go to auction – and the highest or most attractive bidder will ‘win’ the manuscript.

When the manuscript is submitted to an editor, the editor will read it as quickly as possible, although bear in mind this can take a little while as editors receive a great deal of manuscripts per week. If the editor likes the book, it will usually be passed around the other editors in the team for second and third opinions, and it might be shown to the sales team to get their take as to whether it is commercial or is likely to do well with their retailers. If everyone or the majority are in agreement, the book will be taken to an acquisitions meeting. Whenever I buy a book, I take it to a meeting with a document detailing my ‘vision’ for the book – who I think would like to read it, what other authors I can compare it to, what sort of jacket or title I think it ought to have. I also ask the financial department to run a profit and loss report (P&L) which will show me how much of a contribution to my company the book will make, depending on how well I think it might sell, and how much the book will cost to print and bind. If our managing director and several other people in the business agree with me that the book would be a good addition to our list, I will go back to the agent and make a formal offer. The agent will then either accept, decline, or negotiate and hopefully, we will reach a deal. The agent will then let the writer know, and boom – there’s your book deal moment!

The book deal process is actually not as complex as it can seem to those outside the industry, and it is always a combination of a) an editor’s passion and b) the company’s business logic that allows a deal to be pushed through. An editor might LOVE a book but the P&L may not work, which is sad but sometimes does happen. Remember that publishing is a business, and that books are subjective – just because one publisher says no to your novel does not necessarily mean another publisher won’t snap it up!

Another quick thing to add about the publishing process is that it can be s-l-o-w. It can take time for a book to reach an acquisitions meeting, and I know how difficult it can be when you are sitting refreshing your emails wondering what on earth can be taking so long – but there are lots of factors that do slow things down and silence is not always bad news. Sometimes, a key person from the acquisitions meeting could be on holiday and the meeting might be postponed, or an editor might be waiting for someone else to finish reading the novel before taking things forward. Try to remain calm while you wait, and remember, you only need one publisher to give you a yes.

You can read about my own book deal moment here.

If you enjoyed reading this article, my first book is available to buy for only 99p here if you wanted to check it out and make me a happy author 😊. Thank you for visiting my blog.

** If anyone has any further questions on how book deals work, feel free to comment or contact me and I will try to help! **


16 thoughts on “How a book deal works

    1. Hi Phoebe,
      As a 1st time author, I found your advice very informative. I wrote a children’s fiction in lockdown and put it out to publishers to guage a response, and had 4 out of 6 reply with offers. I am gob smacked.
      Thank you
      John Hughes


  1. Hello!
    Would love some advice
    A client is selling his life story
    There is a ghost writer
    They are ready to go with payment
    $300k up front
    They lifers the following
    1/3 to store
    1/3 to publisher
    1/3 to agent manager ghost writer
    Does that sound fair?



  2. I have recently written seven short children’s books. Six have been fully illustrated with the final one in illustration (scheduled to be completed in two weeks). I have a website that lists my books, I have copyrighted each and applied for a trademark for the names of my books. They are print ready. I was ready to self publish a route I took with my first book (not a children’s book) and learned pretty quickly, without access to key distributors and a robust marketing budget, there is little hope of a major hit. I do not have an agent. In every “how to” article, I see all the input on providing manuscripts, advances, etc. but my books are complete and ready to go to print. My questions are as follows: (1) What would be my next steps? (2) Can I hope for a better deal because all the work is done and ready to go? (3) Do I approach publishers on my own and send a copy of one (or all) of my books? (4) Should I get an agent? Love to have your input on this.


  3. Another great blog post, full of insights. Thank you Phoebe. I’m still a bit confused on how ‘World English language’ rights differ from “UK and Commonwealth”. Is the latter an historical overhang from ‘British Empire’ days? Would it make more sense to have all the majority English speaking countries in a contractual grouping, or does the size and publishing house setup of the US market always require them to be a separate sales entity from the UK?


Leave a Reply to phoebemorganauthor Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s