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How Do Book Deals Work? A Guide for Nonfiction Authors

So, you’ve poured your heart and soul into writing a book, and now you’re faced with the daunting task of getting it published. You’ve heard whispers about “book deals,” but how do they actually work? If you’re feeling lost in the maze of publishing jargon and industry practices, you’re not alone.

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Many aspiring authors find themselves in this exact position, wondering how to transform their manuscript into a published book that people can actually buy and read. The world of traditional publishing deals and traditional publishing can seem as elusive as a unicorn, leaving writers scratching their heads and asking, “Where do I even start?”

We’re here to demystify the process. Whether you’re dreaming of seeing your book in stores or simply want to understand the journey from manuscript to published work, we’ve got you covered.

We’ll walk you through the ins and outs of a book deal, from securing a literary agent to negotiating with traditional publishers. We’ll explore what makes a good deal and why you shouldn’t necessarily jump at the first offer that comes your way.

Let’s dive in and unravel the mystery of book deals together.

READ MORE: Which Types of Publishing Are Right for You?

Art collage, handshake between businessmen, wit and money. The concept of contracting.

What Is a Book Deal?

A book deal is the holy grail for many aspiring authors. It’s an agreement between a writer and a traditional publisher, where the publisher agrees to produce and distribute the author’s work. But let’s be real – it’s not just about seeing your name in print. A book deal typically involves an advance: money the publishing house is willing to spend up-front, based on the expected sales of your book.

Now, don’t get too excited thinking this is free money. The size of the advance is usually determined by factors like your reputation and the projected sales of your book. And here’s the kicker – you’ll need to earn this back through royalties before you start seeing any additional income. It’s the publisher’s way of investing in your book and showing faith in your ability to write a bestseller.

Before we dive in, it’s important to note that typically speaking, the book deal process usually only applies to traditional publishing and traditional publishers. If you go the self-publishing route or the hybrid publishing route, This is simply because a book deal is the way a traditional publisher pays for the rights to publish your works.

Key Components of a Book Deal

When you’re diving into the world of a book deal, it’s crucial to understand what you’re signing up for. Let’s break down the key components of a typical traditional publishing contract.

Granting of Rights

This is where you tell the publishing company, “Hey, you can publish my brilliant work!” It explains the rights or licenses you’re granting to your publisher and for how long. This could be for your entire life plus 70 years (talk about playing the long game), or for a shorter period, like 10 years. These rights might cover everything from paperbacks to ebooks, and even potential TV or film adaptations.


Traditional book publishing often includes an advance: money that the traditional publishing company is willing to spend up-front, based on the expected sales of the book. The contract your publisher offers you will clearly state the amount of your advance and the sales figure that’ll be the basis of your royalties.

The size of the advance is usually determined by factors such as the author’s reputation and the projected sales of the book. Although it may seem like a publishing advance is a free ride, keep in mind that there are some strings attached. Most notably, you’ll need to earn back this advance before you see any additional royalties.

Furthermore, there’s a common misconception that advance money can be spent on rent, a nice dinner, a new car, or other luxuries. And while it is true that you CAN spend this money however you want, it’s expected that you will spend this money on the marketing of your book, not on a new pair of shoes and a Porsche.

Remember, publishers aren’t just giving away money; advances are typically only given to authors whose books have a good chance of selling well. In other words, an advance is a publisher’s way of investing in your book and showing their faith in your ability to write and successfully market your book.

If your book doesn’t sell well, you’re not obligated to pay back the full amount of the advance. But remember, the goal is to exceed those initial sales projections and start earning royalties beyond your advance. The only real way to do this is to spend your advance on really solid marketing.


This is the juicy part – how much you’ll earn per book sold. Initially, these portions will go towards paying off your advance. But once you’ve “earned out,” you’ll start receiving royalties, usually every six months. It’s like getting a bonus for all your hard work.

Now, here’s the less sexy part… If you remember the big antitrust suit against the Penguin Random House-Simon and Schuster merger in 2022, this might not be news to you, but through that we learned about 90% of all traditionally published authors don’t earn royalties.


Where in the world will your book be sold? That’s what the territory clause covers. It might allow for worldwide distribution in multiple languages, or it could be limited to certain regions. Think of it as your book’s passport – it determines where your words can travel.


This is your exit strategy. Reversion is when the publishing rights are given back to you or your estate. It usually happens when your book has been out of print for a while. It’s like getting the keys back to your literary kingdom.

How Do Book Deals Work?

There are typically five stages you must work through if you want to get a book deal. First, you must write a compelling book proposal. Then, you’ll need to find a literary agent who wants to represent you and your book idea. This agent will then workshop your book idea using their knowledge of what typically sells to major publishers.

Meeting success. Two business persons shaking hands standing outside

Then, when the idea is ready to be sold, your agent will shop your idea around to publishing companies to see who will offer the best traditional publishing contract. If you get an interested party, you and your agent will navigate the book deal process together, negotiating back and forth with the publisher until you solidify a deal both parties are happy with.

So, with that, let’s dig into more specifics about how to get a book deal!

Stage 1: Write a Compelling Book Proposal

The first step in landing that coveted book deal is crafting a killer book proposal. This isn’t just a formality – it’s your chance to make publishers sit up and take notice. Think of it as your book’s resume and cover letter rolled into one.

If you want a more comprehensive overview of how to write a book proposal that will wow agents and publishers, watch our free webinar here!

Elements of a Strong Book Proposal

A strong book proposal is like a well-balanced meal – it needs all the right ingredients. Here’s what you should include.

  1. A knockout overview: This is your elevator pitch. Make it snappy and intriguing. You should answer the questions, “Why this idea, and why now?”
  2. Your author bio: Show off your credentials and why you’re the perfect person to write this book.
  3. Market analysis: Who’s going to buy your book? Why? And how many of them are out there? Remember, the goal is to show the publisher how they will make money back from investing in your book project.
  4. Competitive titles: What other books are similar to yours, and how is yours different (and better)?
  5. Chapter outline: Give a taste of what’s to come in each chapter.
  6. Sample chapters: This is where you really get to strut your stuff. Make these chapters shine!

What is Your Path to Getting Published?

Seize your literary destiny—watch our publishing secrets webinar!


By opting in, you’re joining our vibrant community! Expect 2-3 weekly newsletters packed with curated content, exclusive updates, and valuable insights to fuel your journey. Welcome to the conversation!

The most important advice we can give about book proposals is that this is your chance to show the publisher how they will make money back from investing in your book project.

READ MORE: Book Deals and the Changing Landscape of Publishing

Tips for Writing an Effective Proposal

Now that you know what goes into a proposal, here are some tips to make yours stand out:

  1. Know your audience: Tailor your proposal to the specific agents or publishers you’re targeting.
  2. Be concise: Publishers are busy people. Get to the point and make every word count.
  3. Show, don’t tell: Don’t just say your book is great – prove it with compelling writing and solid research.
  4. Highlight your platform: If you’ve got a strong social media following or are an expert in your field, flaunt it!
  5. Be professional: Proofread, format properly, and follow submission guidelines to the letter.

Stage 2: Secure a Literary Agent

Alright, you’ve got your killer proposal in hand. Now it’s time to find someone who can champion your work in the cutthroat world of publishing. Enter the literary agent.

Do You Need a Literary Agent?

Trying to navigate the publishing world solo is like trying to find a needle in a haystack while blindfolded. A good literary agent is your guide, your advocate, and your negotiator all rolled into one. They’ve got the inside scoop on what publishers are looking for and can help you avoid the pitfalls that many rookie authors stumble into. Their main job is to shop your book idea around to different publishing companies and get a book deal.

If you’re planning on going the traditional publishing path, a literary agent is a necessity. Publishers no longer accept unsolicited work from unrepresented talent. If you are considering the independent, hybrid, or self-publishing a route, forget the agent. They’ll only take 10 to 15 percent of your book’s income.

How to Find the Right Agent for Your Book

Finding the right agent is like dating – you need to find someone who gets you and your work. Here’s how to do it.

  1. Do your homework: Research agents who represent books in your genre. Resources like New York Book Editorsand Writer’s Digest can be goldmines of information.
  2. Craft a killer query letter: This is your first impression. Make it count!
  3. Be patient and persistent: You might face rejection, but don’t give up. The right agent is out there.
  4. Look for a track record: Seek out agents who have a history of securing deals with publishers that align with your book’s style and genre.

A good agent isn’t just someone who can get you a deal; it’s someone who believes in your work and can help shape your career.

Stage 3: Refine Your Proposal with Your Agent

So, you’ve snagged an agent. Congrats! But don’t pop the champagne just yet. Now comes the fun part – refining your proposal.

The Agent’s Role in Shaping Your Proposal

Your agent isn’t just there to shop your book around. They’re your secret weapon in making your proposal irresistible to publishers. They’ll help you polish your pitch, tighten your chapter outlines, and maybe even suggest tweaks to your book’s concept. It’s a collaborative process, and it might involve some back-and-forth.

Your agent knows what publishers are looking for, so listen to their advice. They’re not just helping you sell this book; they’re setting you up for a successful writing career.

Stage 4: The Submission Process

Once your proposal is polished to perfection, it’s time for your agent to work their magic.

How Agents Shop Your Proposal to Publishers

This is where your agent earns their keep. They’ll use their industry connections to get your proposal in front of the right people at publishing houses.

They might start with a few select publishers or do a wider submission. Your agent will keep you updated on any nibbles of interest or feedback from editors.

This process can take weeks or even months, so patience is key. Remember, finding the right publisher is like finding the perfect dance partner – it might take a few tries, but when it clicks, it’s magic.

Stage 5: Navigating a Book Deal and Negotiations

Hold onto your hats, folks, because things are about to get exciting. A publisher is interested in your book!

What Happens When a Publisher Shows Interest

When a publisher likes your proposal, they’ll typically start by having an acquisitions meeting. This is where they decide if they want to make an offer. If they do, your agent will receive an initial offer, which usually includes the advance amount and basic terms of the deal.

Five Types of Book Deals

In publishing, there are five classifications for reporting a book deal: nice, very nice, good, significant, and major. These classifications were created as a way to better represent how much of an advance the publisher is offering the author in the book deal. Let’s dig into the specifics.

A Nice Deal

nice book deal typically pays an advance of $1 to $49,000. Make sure to keep in mind that you’re expected to spend the bulk of—if not all of—this money on marketing to ensure your book sells well enough to earn royalties. More on that later… In general, though, most first-time authors will receive a nice deal unless they have a truly dime-dropping, marketable book with superb writing.

A Very Nice Deal

Meanwhile, a book deal that pays between $50,000 and $99,000 is very nice. This provides plenty of financial security for the author while still allowing the publishing house to make a healthy profit. Once the author sells out their advance (more on that later), the author typically receives a smaller percentage of each sale.

A Good Deal

In general, a good deal will fall somewhere between $100,000 and $250,000. It’s rare for first-time authors to receive this type of deal unless you have a unique and marketable idea.

READ MORE: A Book Deal Case Study with Dr. Mindy Pelz

A Significant Deal

On the other hand, a significant book deal usually ranges from $251,000 to $499,000.

A Major Deal

Lastly, the cost of a major deal is usually around $500,000 or more.

But How Much Does an Author Earn from a Book Deal?

Great question, Let’s do some analysis.

Let’s say you earn a good deal of $100,000. Immediately assume 15% goes to your literary agent, which leaves you with $85,000.

Then, you have to set aside around 40% for taxes, which leaves you with approximately $50,000.

In the end, after everything is said and done, you’re left with half of what you initially earned.

Many publishing contracts are structured so that the advance is paid in multiple installments. The first installment is usually paid on signing, followed by another payment upon delivery of the completed work (assuming it meets the outlined standards outlined in the publishing contract), and then again at publication.

This allows authors to receive some initial compensation upfront, while also providing an incentive to finish and deliver a high-quality product. Additionally, publishers expect you to spend the majority of your advance money on marketing your book. Remember, publishers generally only conduct in-bound marketing, not out-bound. You’re expected to hit the pavement and be your own best salesman.

When Is a “Nice” Deal Worth Considering?

There are numerous advantages to signing a deal with a publisher, such as the increased faith the publisher has in your work, the extra money in your pocket, and the larger team that will help promote your book. With more people working on advertising and promotion, your book is more likely to reach a wider audience.

But don’t turn down a nice deal when you’re first starting as an author. The sooner you start earning royalties, the sooner you’ll start making commissions. By industry standards, a good deal for a debut novel would pay the author less than $50,000.

However, many debut novels sell for less than this amount. Most go for under $25,000. While this may not be a good deal by industry standards, it could still be beneficial for the author.

READ MORE: Want to Make Money from Your Writing? My journey from writer to business owner.

The Bidding War Process

Sometimes, if your book is hot enough, multiple publishers might be interested. This is where things get really interesting. Your agent will orchestrate a bidding war, where publishers compete to offer the best deal. This could mean higher advances, better royalty rates, or even multi-book deals.

During this process, your agent will keep you informed and help you weigh your options. It’s not always about the biggest advance – you’ll want to consider the publisher’s marketing plans, their vision for your book, and their track record in your genre. If you find yourself in this situation, chances are, you won’t ever need to worry about how to get a book deal again.

READ MORE: Is It Really Worth It to Become a Bestselling Author Anymore?

Don’t Obsess over the Money

Your writing career is a long-term commitment. Don’t obsess over the money that you could potentially make, and remember that you’re a writer first and foremost. You likely didn’t get into writing for the sole purpose of making money, so keep that in mind as you pursue your career.

Remember, the Big Five publishing houses — Penguin Random House, Hachette Book Group, Harper Collins, Simon and Schuster, and Macmillan — are likely to pay advances that are considerably higher than what an independent publisher would offer. Some presses may not offer any advance payments at all which means you won’t get any money upfront for your book.

While most people see a smaller advance as a less successful deal, you will start earning on any book sales right away. This means that in the long run, you could end up making more money overall. So don’t focus too much on the size of your advance – focus on what’s best for your book.

You will be able to tell if the publishing deal is a good one for you depending on what your goals are for your book and where you are in your career. If you’re just starting, any publishing deal is going to be a good opportunity. But if you’re further along in your career, you’ll want to make sure that the terms of the deal are favorable to you and that you’re getting what you want out of it.

Different people have different ideas about what a good publishing deal looks like. Make sure your literary agent is on your side and fighting for the best possible deal that meets your needs. You want an agent who will negotiate on your behalf and help you get the most ideal terms, including advances, royalties, and publication rights.

What is Your Path to Getting Published?

Seize your literary destiny—watch our publishing secrets webinar!


By opting in, you’re joining our vibrant community! Expect 2-3 weekly newsletters packed with curated content, exclusive updates, and valuable insights to fuel your journey. Welcome to the conversation!

What is Your Path to Getting Published?

Seize your literary destiny
Watch our publishing secrets webinar!

By opting in, you’re joining our vibrant community! Expect 2-3 weekly newsletters packed with curated content, exclusive updates, and valuable insights to fuel your journey. Welcome to the conversation!

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