Anatomy Of A Book Deal

Recently I was interviewed by a reporter for the local newspaper about the Norton deal (it should make Monday's evening edition, and if it’s also online I’ll be sure to post a link). To prepare for the interview I went back over some of the dates and thought I’d share them here for anyone who’s interested (so this isn't really an anatomy so much as a timeline). As my buddy Joe Schreiber told me, it’s amazing how fast the deal was closed, and it’s true -- unless you’re Stephen King or James Patterson, book deals don’t happen overnight. They take weeks, sometimes months, and that’s if you’re lucky. Anyway, here’s the breakdown:

On March 31, I sent Gay an e-mail pitching my idea for an article about how short can you make a story until it’s no longer considered a story.

On April 14, I had written and uploaded the article into the Flash Fiction Chronicles website. It was officially in the queue, with two or three articles before it. (Note here that Gay had asked me if I wanted it launched on Friday or wait until Monday; she suggested we wait until Monday, as not much traffic passes through during the weekend, so that’s what we went with.)

On April 20, the article was posted and the Hint Fiction Contest was announced. A few blogs picked it up immediately and the news began to spread.

On April 21, MediaBistro mentioned the Contest on their website, and the thing blew up. Entries streamed in nonstop, not to mention that same day W.W. Norton approached me and my agent about possibly doing an anthology of Hint Fiction.

On April 22, Hint Fiction had an oh-so-brief mention at The New Yorker blog.

On May 1, Norton officially made an offer. My agent did his agent thing and negotiated for more money.

On May 6, Norton made a new offer. We accepted.

On May 11, my agent closed the deal and gave me the go ahead to announce the anthology to the world.

All said and done, from when the article was first posted to the closing of the deal, less than a month had passed. 

Now here are some points worth noting:

  • I sometimes hear ignorant writers say “Why would I want an agent who takes 15% of my money when I could keep all of it?” Okay, that’s one way of thinking about it, but the truth of the matter is the more money an agent makes for you, the more money that agent makes, so of course they’re going to try to make as much as possible. (There's more an agent does, of course, but for our purposes right now let's concentrate on money.) After all, there’s a reason they are agents in the first place -- they know how to negotiate. My agent was able to increase the first offer by over 30%. And, remember, he only gets 15%, so that’s a hell of a lot more money for me. Also, agents do the dirty work as the intermediaries, so that there are no hard feelings between the publisher and writer. A writer can try to negotiate his or her own rate, but unless you’re Dean Koontz (who now works without an agent), you will never get as much money from a publisher as you could with an agent.


  • The Internet is full of liars. I’ve been fortunate enough to know Stewart O’Nan for many years now, and when I asked him to judge the contest he was more than willing. But how would anyone know that? Nobody ever asked for any proof. I just posted on my blog that Stewart O’Nan would be the final judge, and everyone believed it. Hell, MediaBistro believed it, and that’s why they picked up the story. See where I’m going with this? Fortunately I’m an honest person and would never try to pull off a hoax like that, but who’s to say that Joe Blow over at the blog down the street who’s sponsoring a contest with James Lee Burke as the judge really knows James Lee Burke? Just saying. 


  • Luck plays a major factor. Hard work does too, of course, just as perseverance, but being in the right place at the right time ... you can't plan for that. Had I told Gay I wanted to have the article posted that Friday, not many blogs might have picked it up, and MediaBistro may never have mentioned it, and Norton may never have approached us ...


  • Viral kicks ass. Sometimes it just happens, and sometimes you can help it happen. I stole an idea from Joe Konrath for the second part of the Hint Fiction Contest. Joe went on a blog tour, stopping by over 100 blogs in a month's time, and that really helped spread the word about him and his book. I used the approach where if people mentioned the contest on their own blog, I'd put their name in a hat for a random drawing. Not a massive turnout, but pretty big nonetheless. Had I not originally offered that second contest, who's to say what would have happened? (Also note here that over the course of two weeks, Hint Fiction went from a Google hit of less than 100 to over 2,000.)

So yeah, there are some things worth thinking about. Some what-ifs and what-could-have-beens and what-might-not-have-happeneds. Heavy stuff, no?