The Ultimate Guide: How to Land a Book Deal
Note: We cover a lot of ground and answer a TON of questions in this article. Click the links below to be taken directly to the section covering each respective topic:
Let’s get started…
Landing a book deal is something many people, young, old and in-between often dream about. It’s exciting. It’s rewarding. But more than anything, it’s hard.
It takes a lot of grit, knowledge, connections and determination. Yet, lucky for everyone, all it takes to get you there is a well-thought out and well-positioned strategy to execute on, which is exactly what I’m going to equip you with today. This is the framework I used to go from never writing a blog post in my life to signing on with one of the top agents in my genre to represent my upcoming book.
To get to where I am, I first started writing for free on Medium, and became a Top Writer on the platform. From there, I leveraged my work to land a spot as a regular contributor to a mid-sized blog, where I became one of the most shared writers on the publication. After that, I used all my writing to land a spot as a columnist for Inc. Magazine, which I eventually leveraged to sign with a world-renowned business book agent who helped me iron out a book deal.
The process wasn’t easy or pretty, it was hard as hell and I made a ton of crucial mistakes along the way. That being said, I wish I would’ve had the guidance that I’m going to share with you today two and a half years ago. It would’ve saved me time, money and energy.
My goal for this piece of long-form content is to leave no questions unanswered — but if I do, you can always reach out to me and I’m happy to help ;)
Without further ado, let’s get moving.
Disclaimer: Please keep in mind, while the steps laid out in this article are meant to expedite the zero to book deal process, they are by no means a “quick fix” or tips for an “overnight success” solution. The insight in this article is simply a blueprint. From there, it’s up to you to put in the legwork and follow this game plan to get to where you want to be.
Where Do I Start?
Good question — this is a tough one, but here we go.
1.) Be active online.
To start on your path to landing a book deal, you’ve got to begin (if you haven’t already) with publishing content on free, open platforms on a very specific niche. These platforms could be YouTube, Medium, LinkedIn, Instagram, Google+ or something different (…okay, maybe not Google+, but you get the point).
Remember that your actions have to back up your claims. If you want to write a book on raising dogs, but your social media profiles are all about raising wild warthogs, then agents and publishers are naturally going to question whether or not your heart is invested in the subject in addition to questioning your expertise on the topic.
If you go out of your way to publish content on a specific topic, ideally the topic you’re trying to get a book deal on, then you’ll be ten steps ahead of the competition even if your content isn’t performing well.
Why? Because it proves you don’t just talk the talk. It proves you’re actually an expert in a given field and that you’re SO passionate about this topic that you go above and beyond to put content into the world related to it.
A question you might have about this is which social media platforms you should be investing your time into. This isn’t an easy question to answer. In fact, it’s extremely difficult given how fast the social media landscape moves (and with it, the ripe opportunities across the landscape) in addition to every business and entrepreneur being different and possessing a wide variety of strengths and weaknesses.
Yet, right off the bat, there are few things to consider:
Whichever platform you like best--you should almost always choose that one.
Try to identify the platforms right in the sweet spot between being an emerging platform and an established platform. AKA: one that is new enough to not have everyone and their grandmothers publishing on it, yet isn’t so new that it might collapse on any given day.
Pick a platform where you can easily showcase your writing ability — Medium, Steemit, Instagram captions, etc.
2.) Pick your niche.
No matter how versatile or talented you are in your writing, if you want to streamline the process of getting traction and building an audience in today’s cutthroat marketplace, then you need a laser-focused niche. This is simply non-negotiable.
I can hear the chirps from some readers now: “But, Dakota — I don’t want to put myself in a box! I don’t wanna write about the same thing day after day, month after month. I just have so many different interests.”
While I understand where this mindset comes from--because I once thought the same exact thing--there’s simply no getting around this reality nowadays.
Let me put it to you this way...
If J.K. Rowling published an article tomorrow about how riding unicycles will save the world from destruction, millions would read it. Millions would share it…
But the only reason they would is because, at FIRST, J.K. Rowling was really amazing at ONE thing: writing the Harry Potter books we all know and love.
Similarly, if Arnold Schwarzenegger published an article tomorrow about how it’s absolutely necessary that kombucha be served with every McDonald’s Happy Meal, millions would read it. Millions would share it…
But the only reason they would is because, at FIRST, good ole Arnold was really amazing at ONE thing: lifting weights, and then putting them back down.
You see what I mean here? If you want real business results, you HAVE to start small. Plain and simple. There’s just no other way to cut through the noise in the age we live in if you don’t have one million dollars to spend on advertising.
Here’s the “Golden Rule of Picking Your Niche” I always tell my clients and readers when it comes to building an audience online. Make this statement your guiding light — the thing you refer back to in order to keep you on the right track and not get distracted.
“I want to be the go-to authority on [insert your niche] on [insert your social media platform(s) of choice here.”
When I was first starting out with writing online, here was mine: “I want to be the go-to authority on social media on Medium.”
This made my decision-making process binary and easy. Every interaction I had, article I wrote or comment I responded to was either getting me closer to this goal or further away.
The same can apply to you. Start small — then, expand your focus later.
How Do I Get Started on Medium?
If you’re looking for a way to break through all the noise online when it comes to writing, then Medium could be the thing that takes you from zero to infinity.
Medium is exactly where I got my start in addition to a number of other writers who now have book deals in the works like Sarah Cooper, Benjamin P. Hardy and many many more.
The platform was created by Ev Williams, co-founder of Twitter and Blogger, so his track record speaks for itself. It’s often been dubbed the “YouTube for Writers” by the social media marketing community.
Here’s the easiest way to start gaining traction today:
a.) Get on a publication
I usually don’t like to speak in absolutes, but for this rule I always do because it’s a non-negotiable rule for success on Medium:
Unless you’re Bono, Oprah or Barack Obama, you NEED to get published on a publication if you want to find success on Medium.
Here’s how to do it.
To see a list of the top publications on all of Medium, visit this site here: www.toppub.xyz.
To get published on a publication, first search a publication for their particular submission guidelines. If they don’t have a document dedicated to outlining their guidelines, then dig up the email address or Twitter handle and send the editor a link to your completed draft for the article you want published.
If the editors don’t get back to you in a reasonable time frame (~one week), then move on to another publication. Don’t get discouraged here. Oftentimes, it takes a few tries.
To avoid overlapping on being on multiple publications , give the editors a deadline for getting back to you with a “yes” or “no”. If they don’t, then pursue other publications.
Once you get published once on a publication, it’s MUCH easier to get published again because you’re able to automatically submit a draft of an article to that respective publication for review — and get sent directly to your editor’s inbox.
b.) Continue Writing Great Content
This is an obvious one, but it’s always surprising to me just how much bad content is put out there online. If you want to get big on Medium, you should be writing at least 2–3 top notch articles per month.
c.) Network with Top Writers
Private Notes are one of the most badass features you can use on Medium, yet they’re totally underutilized. If you’re trying to get in touch with a writer, then leave them a thoughtful comment as a Private Note on their article.
Tell them what you found most interesting in their article.
Let them know how you plan to apply this information in your own life.
I’ll let you in on a little secret…I’ve never NOT responded to a Private Note left on my articles. They are used far less often than you’d expect and a direct line of communication to the writer’s inbox.
Additionally, the way Medium’s algorithm works is if Top Writers engage with your content by Clapping or commenting on it, your article will be boosted and is much more likely to be shown to the members of that author’s audience.
Final Note: If you’d like another example of how Sarah Cooper (a Medium pioneer and successful author) went from Medium to book deal, here’s the link to a great article she wrote on the topic.
How Do I Know If My Book Idea Is Good or Not?
Another question you might have when it comes to getting a book deal is trying to determine whether or not the book idea is good or shitty.
Valid question. Luckily, today it’s easier than ever before to get proof as to whether an idea catches the interest of an audience or not. Why? Well, because you can immediately measure the interest level of individuals by publishing content on one of the many platforms available to you online.
To see if a potential book idea has pull, use your platform, whether that’s social media, a blog, a publication you’re a regular contributor to, an email list or something else entirely to test if it resonates with your target audience.
It’s just that simple.
You want to know how I landed my book deal? By writing a Medium article on the topic.
I’ll be honest, I had NO idea the article I wrote would do well. In fact, I initially was worried it wasn’t my best work.
Despite that, I wrote it, hit publish, sat back and watched as it spread like wildfire across Medium.
I said to myself, wow…that was surprising. Then, I asked myself what I could do to continue to capitalize on that momentum. To do that, we took the article, expanded on it and made it into a 10-page cheat sheet available for download on our website.
Low and behold, the cheat sheet began to elicit an amazing response. Now, we had two proof points for how well the content was resonating with people.
After we kept getting questions that asked us to elaborate on the ideas laid out in the cheat sheet, I decided to make the jump and expand the idea into a book proposal — and I couldn’t be happier that I did.
The Key to Landing a Book Deal Is Becoming a Thought Leader
As is evident in the process laid out in this post so far, the key to landing a book deal is by already having “street cred” and influence in your respective industry. If you don’t, while it’s not impossible to snag a deal, it’ll be a hell of a lot harder.
The hot buzzword for anyone who has influence in their industry is a “thought leader”. Thought leaders are in a terrific position to land book deals. Why? Because they’re giving public speaking engagements on the topics related to their niche.
They’re publishing content to an engaged audience on the topics related to their niche.
They’re talking on relevant podcasts on topics related to their niche.
More importantly, they’re in a position to constantly get feedback on the ideas they are putting out into the world — into the ecosystem of their respective industry.
Now, I’m not saying becoming a thought leader is easy. It’s extremely difficult, but what I am saying is that it’s easier than what most people think. To do so, just like you did on Medium, you first need to stick to a laser-focused niche.
From there, it’s all about branding yourself based on that niche, creating and publishing content centered on that topic, and looking for opportunities in the marketplace to stand out.
For me, I saw an opportunity on Medium when I first began writing marketing articles — as an early adopter, I had much less competition to battle on the platform, allowing me to rise to the top relatively quickly.
There will always be another opportunity on the online marketplace, so keep a close eye. Sometimes, these come in the form of algorithm changes, other times as completely new social media platforms, and often times as new features on already established social media platforms (Instagram Stories, Facebook Live, etc.).
To read more about how to become a thought leader fast, read this post I wrote on the topic here.
How Do I Write a Kick-ass Book Proposal?
After you have your book idea and validation for that idea, the next question is HOW to write a kick-ass book proposal?
While the answer to this question varies from genre to genre, the template that I used to pitch my business book is the one I’ll share with you today. If you don’t think this will fit into your own book idea, then do some digging online and you’re very likely to find a suitable template.
a.) Mission Statement
Think of this piece being the “elevator pitch” for your book. What is it about? Why did you write it in the first place? Why do you think it’ll add value to those who read it?
This section should be quick and easy — anywhere from 2 to 4 short paragraphs in length is ideal.
b.) About the Author
This is where you need to flex and let it all hang out. Don’t hold back here when it comes to selling yourself and your credentials.
When I first wrote my proposal, the feedback my book agent gave to me was that I was being far too humble in my About section. So I rewrote it and made it more grandiose.
…Then I got feedback again. He said it still wasn’t enough.
The key here is to look at yourself objectively — what can you add in to make yourself come off as professionally polished as possible?
Tip: Remember, these publishing houses get an absolutely obscene amount of inquiries and proposals every single day, so lay it all on the table to increase the likelihood they partner with you.
Wait, another tip: Add photos in this section that validate your claims and make you appear as credible as humanly possible. If you have pictures of your public speaking gigs, then put them in this section. If you have pictures of you hanging out with Mark Zuckerberg or shaking hands with the Pope, add ‘em in.
c.) Target Market
Do your research and find the approximate amount of consumers who could potentially buy your book. Remember, because of the rise of ebooks, your book can be bought by anyone around the world, so keep this in mind when you’re trying to pin down the exact number of potential buyers. The bigger the better.
For instance, if you’re writing a book on entrepreneurship, don’t JUST put in the number of entrepreneurs in the United States and beyond here. Instead, include those who are aspiring entrepreneurs, freelancers or those who are building a side hustle to supplement their income. Oftentimes, these are the people who are most hungry to get new knowledge through books anyway.
d.) Positive Review
This section is where you show how the idea for your book is already resonating with audiences. For instance, if you first published your book idea as a Medium post to test the waters, then put the positive comments you received on it in this section.
If you run a meetup and you tested your book idea with your members, then ask them to write down what they liked about the workshop. Then, gather these reviews and put them in this section.
Remember, the more validation and proof you have that this idea resonates with your target audience, the more likely you are to land a book deal.
e.) Competitive Titles
This section is self-explanatory. A simple search through Amazon will give you your answers. The main point of this section is to illustrate how well books similar to your potential book sold — think of it as another key of market validation.
f.) Marketing and Promotion
Here’s where you give a play-by-play strategy on how you’re going to market your book. Try to be as straightforward as possible. Tell them exactly what you will do. Leave no room for guessing.
For reference, I included everything from the podcasts I knew I could be featured on to the targeting options I would use for Facebook Ads to the conferences I will be speaking at to promote my book.
g.) Potential Blurbs
Are you well-connected in your industry? If not, then you should be if you want to increase your chances of becoming a published author. In this section, include any of the noteworthy, credible figures who you’re confident would read your book and provide you with a blurb.
Not only will this show agents and publishers how strong your network is, but it will also stand as a possible promotion tool since these people might promote your book to their own social media audiences.
h.) Media & Speaking Appearances
If you have had the opportunity to appear in the media, spoken at any events or write for any publications, then here’s where you should flex your muscles. Again, book publishers want to minimize their risk when creating a book, so by showing you have already captivated audiences with your ideas, you’ll be putting their minds at ease.
i.) Table of Contents & Chapter Summaries
You guessed it — here’s where you put in 1–2 paragraphs explaining each and every chapter you will have in your book. Don’t be too long-winded here. Simply state what the chapter will cover, why it’s important and move forward.
Bonus Tip: Make It Eye-popping!
This was something I had no idea about when I completed the first draft of my book proposal. I just assumed that book agents would want the stock-standard, minimal proposal with Times New Roman, 12-pt font.
I was wrong. Instead, the feedback I got from my book agent was to make it much more lively. Include original graphics, high resolution imagery, links to your work for reference and more. Make your book proposal as eye-popping as you can without it being distracting.
If you’re not design-savvy, don’t worry. Google Docs provides a number of awesome templates you can use here.
Final Note: If you’d like another example of a book proposal, here’s the link to the book proposal template I modeled my own off of. It’s not exactly the same, but it works.
How Do I Write a Great Query Letter That Will Get Noticed?
Now that you have your awesome book proposal, proofing, and more, it’s time to get the attention of publishers and agents. The route I typically recommend is approaching agents directly as opposed to publishing houses given most do not accept unsolicited submissions. Below, we’ll go over how to craft a rock-solid query letter to send to agents and how to find agents to reach out to.
The first thing you’ll need to do is create a query letter. While many websites and blogs out there may tell you there’s a clear-cut structure for every query letter, I’ve found (along with a number of my friends who’ve snagged book deals) that as long as the email has the following components, you’re all gravy:
A quick blurb on who you are and what you do for a living (title, etc.)
A short intro on what your proposed book will be about & why it’s different than similar books
Why you’re qualified to write the book
Ask the agent if they would like to see your proposal
Include links, links, and more links!
Today, one of the luxuries we have that wasn’t available in the days of paper proposals is having external links. Remember, your job as the writer who’s pitching is to save as much time as possible for the busy agent while eliminating the doubt the agent might have about representing your work. With links, you’ll be able to back up all of your talk and answer follow-up questions without ever having to go back and forth with the agent.
Below is the email pitch, verbatim, that I used to get the attention of the my current agent who’s representing my business book:
Hi [John Doe],
I hope your day is going well!
My name is Dakota Shane and I wanted to reach out with a pitch for a book expanding upon the ideas laid out in an article I wrote, which gained immense readership and positive response: The 7 Mindset Shifts Needed for Successful Social Media Marketing.
I am qualified to write on this topic because I am a Top Writer on Medium in the Social Media and Business categories. My articles have been read by over 500,000 people world-wide, shared by over 80,000, and have been featured alongside icons like Gary Vaynerchuk & Ryan Holiday (here are some examples of my work: 1,2,3).
In addition, despite only being 24, I have been featured on Social Media Explorer, Social Media Today, PR News, Google's Medium publication The Startup Grind, and more. I am also the co-founder of a social media agency.
I realize social media topics are generally cast to the side by publishers given how fast the industry moves and innovates, but this book will be different. The primary reason is that it will cover the mindset shifts associated with successful social media marketing, and not the tactics used on specific platforms. This will make the book relevant and timely for decades to come.
Please let me know if this is something you would be interested in. Thanks for your time and I hope to work with you soon. Have a fantastic day.
See? Nothing fancy about this email at all. It showcases all of my previous work, minimizing risk while gaining credibility for the agent you’re sending to. By including my credentials, the agent will be reassured they’re time isn’t being wasted by an outlandish book pitch that won’t ever sell.
Where to Find Book Agents
a.) Google It
You can never go wrong with first consulting the all-knowing prophet known as Google. The agents who appear high in search engine results are oftentimes the successful ones who have the cash to advertise their business extensively.
By compiling a list of these agents and putting them into an Excel or Google sheet, you’ll be able to easily keep track of who you’ve sent emails out to, how many you’ve sent out to, and more.
b.) LinkedIn Search
Using LInkedIn’s search function, look for those with the job title, “Book Agent” or “Literary Agent”. Send them a connection request, and be sure to include a note about why you’re reaching out to them--it’s always better to get to the point than to dilly-dally.
c.) Leverage Your Network
Do you know (or sorta know) someone who has published a book? If so, ask them about the process they took to get there. Whether it’s an intro, a blog post they found really helpful outlining the process, or simply a piece of advice, getting the information directly from the horse’s mouth is never a bad idea.
d.) Attend Relevant Conferences
Literary agents attend conferences just like writers, publishers and entrepreneurs do. If you get the chance to, attend conferences where you know agents would be at. Then, begin to network and build relationships with them. Whether something positive comes about immediately or later on down the line, you’ll be happy to did.
e.) Use PublishersMarketplace.com
With this website, you’re able to sift through a laundry list of literary agents across all different genres. Although the website looks like something straight out of the 1990’s and there’s a $25 monthly fee to become a member, I’ve heard from many trustworthy individuals that the site is a worthwhile, safe investment.
What Should I Do While I Await Responses From Agents and Book Publishers?
Keep creating content, rinse and repeat. It took my agent 10 months to respond to my initial proposal.
Always be creating content and always be building up your network. The more high-profile thought leaders and influencers in your industry that you can have promote your book, the more secure the agents and publishers will feel in representing and investing in the book.
Should I Self-Publish If I Keep Getting Rejected By Agents and Publishers?
My personal opinion when it comes to this topic is one you probably won’t like: it depends.
Here’s the deal. Self-publishing is a terrific option in that it cuts out most of the middlemen involved in the book publishing process. That being said, the disadvantages, including the logistical hurdles involved in doing all of the grunt work yourself, span far and wide.
That is why I always say this when asked about self-publishing. Unless you have a large, highly engaged, loyal audience, I would not recommend self-publishing. With traditional publishers, as long as they’re reputable and have a strong track record of success, will give you the distribution, marketing, connections, etc.
All you have to provide is the words and thoughts on the page--and as authors, this is what most of us want in the first place.
The goal of this piece of content isn’t to you lie to you by pretending the road to snagging a book deal is easy. It’s hard as hell and will take an immense amount of work to accomplish. The point of this piece of content is to equip you with the knowledge and tactics to save yourself time and energy doing the wrong things, and to answer the most common questions I get asked when it comes to landing a book deal.