What to Expect When You’re Expecting (A Traditional Publishing Deal)

Erin Brown


The day has finally come (and if it hasn’t yet, just use your imagination for that special time in the future): you’ve found an agent you love – and more importantly, one who loves your book. Your knight or knightess in shining armor has successfully pitched your manuscript to an editor at a publishing house and you’ve been signed to a two-book deal. The world is your oyster! Now you can tell your cantankerous, idiotic boss to stuff it, put down a large deposit on a McMansion, and sail off into the published-author sunset, sipping champagne at your lavish book party and city-hopping around the globe during your book tour.

Hold up, wait a minute, let us put some reality in it.

What can you really expect once you sign a contract with a publishing house? First off, don’t quit your day job. Most famous authors didn’t get that way after their first few books. Kurt Vonnegut was a journalist for Sports Illustrated, a PR executive for General Electric, and the owner, briefly, of a Saab dealership before he was able to support himself as a bestselling author. P.D. James had to provide for her entire family when her husband returned from World War II suffering from mental illness; she labored for a hospital board in London for many years while penning her first books. Harper Lee worked as an airline ticketing agent, writing essays and shorts stories in her off-hours, before publishing To Kill a Mockingbird. John Grisham, who was an attorney, carved out time early in the mornings before he had to appear in court to write his first novels. Bottom line: you won’t be making enough money, except in very rare cases, to live off your usually-quite-small-in-the-grand-scheme-of-things book advance, followed by (probably) modest royalties when the book is finally published twelve to eighteen months later. So pace yourself and be realistic. Down the line, the money may roll in, but don’t expect to be a millionaire on day one, or two, or three hundred and sixty-five.

The next step once you’ve signed the contract is handing in your manuscript. You’re all done, right? Hah. Not even. You can expect your editor to slice and dice your perfect story. Hopefully, you can work collaboratively with your editor, but often, their red pen will rule in the end, and there might be some changes that you don’t agree with. Be open. Most of the time, you will both be working together to make your manuscript the best it can be, but remember that the publishing house now has the final say. Your end product might not read exactly how you’d planned it.

And don’t even think about designing your own cover. I can burst that bubble definitively right now. All of your cover ideas that have been dancing around in your head since you began writing? Throw them out the window. The art department will create the book design. Will you have any say? Sure, you may get to veto or vote on the cover options presented to you, but you won’t be able to sit in on an art meeting and pitch the idea that the full-size oil painting of your main character (painted by your best friend) should dominate the cover. Won’t happen.

While we’re on a reality kick, let’s talk about publicity and marketing. The publishing house does have a staff to work on these very important aspects of publishing. However, they’re also depending on you, as the author, to bring your platform and network to the table. Publicists and marketing teams at the houses are working on multiple titles at one time, so it’s a great idea to go in with your own strong marketing and publicity ideas. Before the ink is even dry on your book contract, stir up interest in your book by getting more readers to your author blog (or by god, start one!), build a fantastic website that centers around you, the author; contact your friends and colleagues who would be interested in the book (networking!), and reach out to anyone you know in media who would be willing to feature the book or do an interview. Remember that you are your best asset in the marketing and publicity process. The publishing house will be counting on you to bring a network and author presence to the table. Keep all of this in mind well before you even start looking for an agent – building a platform and online presence pre-submission is extremely helpful not only in the long run but in catching a publisher’s eye.

Finally, let’s get real about a book party and tour. Although we all have visions of some fabulous Manhattan parties lavishing praise on the book and the author, the reality is that money is tight at a publishing house and there are tons of books being published each season. Usually, only the big-name authors are getting a tour (they’re expensive!) and only big, big-name authors are getting a book party (which is mostly for accolades anyway . . . and they’re expensive!). Have your spouse or best friend host a “Yay, You’re Published!” party somewhere instead and celebrate in your own, special way. But the days (and myth) of extravagant parties and book tours are no more (or at least few and far between).

Now, it’s not all doom and gloom! Getting published by a house has lots of perks – wide distribution, reviews, production, an entire publishing team supporting you, an editor that has your back. I simply want you to be realistic about how all of this will shake down once you’ve committed to a house. However, if you’re pragmatic about what’s to come, any perks will be a nice surprise! And when your eyes are open, you’ll be able to enjoy the ride a lot more.


Erin Brown worked as an editor for almost a decade at two major New York publishing houses, William Morrow, a division of HarperCollins, and Thomas Dunne Books, a division of St. Martin’s Press. She’s had her dream job for ten years now, as a freelance editor working directly with writers in order to improve their work (and hopefully find representation and publication!). You can contact her at www.erinedits.com. You can also email her directly at: erin@erinedits.com.

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