Last updated on February 13, 2017
This is a guest post from Tim Ferriss of the 4-Hour Workweek.
The most common question I’ve been getting over the last few days is: how did you manage to publish your book? (or how do you get a book deal?) It’s not as straight-forward as you might think. Most assume that you should write a book and then pitch it to a publisher, which ” especially with non-fiction ” is total suicide. I created a mock-up cover for my book when we sent out my proposal to publishers, and one came back and asked point-blank: “Why is there a UPC code on this? Is it self-published or already written? We never buy either.”
Here’s how I got signed with the hottest imprint at the world’s largest publisher (Crown within Random House) as a first-time author. My basic process is this: write proposal, get another author to help you get an A-list agent, agent refines proposal and helps you sell to a editor at a top publisher (ideally after an auction) Here’s a bit more detail:
Step 2: Author Feedback
I asked for feedback on the proposal from a best-selling author, Jack Canfield of Chicken Soup for the Soul (130+ million copies sold), whom I’d become friends with over several years. How’d I meet him? I volunteered for the Silicon Valley Association of Start-up Entrepreneurs and volunteered to organize an event with a panel. I stalked Jack at one of his speaking events and managed to convince him to come to speak. Volunteering for non-profits and business organizations is the best way I’ve found of meeting people who are otherwise untouchable. Who are the best authors to target? Jack is a unique case, as I knew him, but the best authors to target are ” in my opinion ” those who had bestsellers 1-2 years ago, as they’re probably working on a second book, not being bothered by media or others much, but they have fresh contacts (agents, media, editors, etc.). Authors past the ego-inflating period of bestsellerdom are usually very nice and willing to help you if you’ve done your homework. Don’t ask them questions you can answer on Google or with one of the above books ” it will just piss them off.
Step 3: Author Referral to Agent
Jack referred me to three A-list agents. An agent can be thought of as a book’s midwife, the person who shepherds you through the process and fights for you when things get ugly (and there are a million chances for this). Can you sell books without an agent? Sure, but then there is no buffer between you and the publisher, and good agents personally know the editors who are most likely to buy your book. Just like a married couple, if you spend enough time with your publisher, there will be arguments, and without an agent to play go-between, things can get irreparably damaged with one or two stupid e-mails. I’ve spoken with several 7-figure (i.e. they get more than a million dollars as an advance per book) authors who told me that they’ve sold books without agents and will never do so again. Some will disagree with me here, but I’m happy to pay 15% of the book earnings to someone who handles all the details and egos, including mine.
I ended up signing with Stephen Hanselman, whom I liked because he is, first and foremost, a superstar editor and not just a salesman. He bought some of Harper Collins’ most successful books, like “You The Owner’s Manual” and is known for having a good eye for bestsellers. Good guy to have in your corner. He helped me refine the proposal, which ended up being around 96 pages (!), and develop the target list of appropriate editors. It’s sometimes said that getting a good agent is harder than getting a publisher. This is often true, and why you need a referral from a kick-ass author to get in the door.
Step 4: Sell to Editor
Steve crafted a cover letter and sent out the proposal to his target list of editors. “Publishers” don’t buy books; specific editors do. We set 12 meetings the following week in NYC, for which I flew in. Many pitches and many questions later, Steve set the bid deadline and we sold the book the following week to Heather Jackson at Crown. From emailing the proposal to selling the book, total time was about 3-4 weeks. It doesn’t need to take long if you have an A-list agent.
That’s it. Then you have to write the monster! From idea to launch date today, this book has taken me about 2 years of sweat and tears. It’s a looooooong process, and I don’t recommend it if cash is your motivator. There are better ways to make fast money, but there are few better ways to refine your own thinking and release an “idea virus” that improves the world. Online is great, but printed books have a certain magic and power in them that travels everywhere.