How I Sold My Books

Over on Twitter, author Wesley Chu has been leading a discussion on how authors sell their books — whether by submitting the full manuscript, by submitting a partial, or by proposal. This lead me to think about how I sold my own books. So, for informational and educational purposes, this is how I’ve sold each of my books to their respective publishers. I’m going to divide these up into fiction and non-fiction categories, and list them (mostly) in order of publication.

Non-Fiction:

1. The Rough Guide to Money Online: Sold by my agent selling me to Rough Guides as a suitable author, them telling me what they wanted from the book, and me writing an outline that satisfied their needs.

2. The Rough Guide to the Universe: Sold via outline.

3. Book of the Dumb: Publisher wanted this particular book and wanted me to write it; we discussed what should be in it and I went off to write it. Note the publisher did not come to me out of the blue; I had contributed dozens of pieces for their “Uncle John’s” series of books by that point.

4. Book of the Dumb 2: Publisher: “Hey, let’s do a sequel.” Me: “Okay.”

5. The Rough Guide to Sci-Fi Movies: Sold via outline.

6. Your Hate Mail Will Be Graded: Brief proposal (the material already existed).

7. You’re Not Fooling Anyone When You Take Your Laptop Into a Coffee Shop: Book specifically of pieces on writing, spun off from Hate Mail and actually published first. I basically said, “Hey, would you like these as a separate book?” and Subterranean Press said yes.

8. 24 Frames Into the Future: I was the Guest of Honor at Boskone and NESFA, the organization that runs the con, likes to published a limited edition book from their guests. I pitched a book of my film columns; they said yes.

9. The Mallet of Loving Correction: Me, to Subterranean Press: “Hey, wanna do another Whatever collection?” SubPress: “Yup.” This proposal-to-acceptance process took roughly 15 minutes, making it the quickest I ever sold a book.

Fiction:

1. Old Man’s War: Wrote it, put it up on Web site, it was discovered by Patrick Nielsen Hayden of Tor, who made on offer on it.

2. Agent to the Stars: Wrote it, put it up on Web site, it was discovered by Bill Schafer of Subterranean Press, who made an offer on it.

3. The Ghost Brigades: Patrick Nielsen Hayden: “So, you should write a sequel to Old Man’s War.” Me: “Okay.”

4. The Android’s Dream: Part of a two-book deal I signed when I signed with Tor for Old Man’s War. Pitched it on the sentence “man solves diplomatic crises through the use of action scenes and snappy dialogue.” Patrick Nielsen Hayden said, more or less, “Sounds good, go write it.”

5. The Last Colony: Patrick Nielsen Hayden: “So, you should write a third book in the Old Man’s War series.” Me: “Okay.”

6. Zoe’s Tale: Me, to Patrick Nielsen Hayden: “This sequel I’m writing to The Android’s Dream isn’t working and I’m shelving it. Would you take another Old Man’s War book as compensation?” Patrick: “Why, yes. Could you write it kinda as a YA?” Me: “Sure.”

7. Metatropolis: Audible director Steve Feldberg wanted me to do an anthology; I fleshed out an idea with him, recruited the other authors, and acted as editor. Originally published in audio; Subterranean Press expressed interest in the limited hardcover rights; Tor asked for the paperback rights.

8. The God Engines: Me: “I want to write a dark fantasy in which really terrible things happen.” Bill Schafer: “Dude, sold.”

9. Fuzzy Nation: Wrote for my own amusement with no intention of selling it; my agent Ethan Ellenberg declared he could sell it and did, to Tor.

10. Redshirts: Me, to Patrick Nielsen Hayden: “Hey, I wrote this thing. Want it?” Patrick: “Why, yes.”

11. The Human Division: Tor wanted to experiment with online distribution; I’d been wanting to go back into the Old Man’s War universe. We agreed the two aims could work together. There was no proposal in terms of the content, but there was definitely a roadmap created by all the interested parties in terms of how the thing should work, theoretically. THD was in fact probably the most intentional and built-out, in term of design and distribution, of all the fiction books I’ve written to date.

12. Lock In: Brief proposal to Patrick Nielsen Hayden.

13. The Human Division 2 (not actual title): I think we all just assumed this would happen; I don’t recall directly pitching it or being directly asked for it. Both Lock In and THD2 were part of a two book deal with Tor.

There’s additionally the novella I wrote earlier in the year which I’ve sold to Tor (e-book), SubPress (limited hardcover) and Audible (audio), the details of which I will announce a bit later. That one I wrote up and then offered up to each publisher; each then accepted it for publication.

In addition to all the books I have published (and THD2, which is not written but will be, soon), there are three projects I specced out to a greater or lesser extent but didn’t write. One was the sequel to The Android’s Dream, which I sold after the first book came out; that contract is unfulfilled to date. I plan to get around to it again at some point. Another was a two-book series which I sold on proposal; it was shelved when another very similar book became a bestseller and I didn’t want to appear to be cashing in on that book. The contracts in question were applied to Zoe’s Tale and Redshirts. The third was a YA proposal that I wrote at the request of the publisher; the proposal was accepted but we couldn’t come to terms financially, so there are no contracts to fulfill.

Looking at all the projects to date it’s clear I sell either on full manuscript or on proposal (with or without an outline). I have never sold a book on a partial manuscript, and it seems to me anecdotally that selling on a partial is an unusual circumstance, although I could be wrong on that (see the word “anecdotally”).

If I were advising someone on selling a first novel, I would suggest — and I believe most editors would back me up here — that you have the full manuscript in hand before you go shopping. Having a partial in hand when you are an unpublished author doesn’t suggest you know how to finish a novel, and for a publisher, having a finished novel is actually key. Yes, this means doing work without a guarantee of a sale, but, well. If publishers want to buy from partials, there are a lot of already-pubbed authors who they know can produce that they can worth with. So I would have the whole thing ready to go. It’s what I did, in any event.

52 Comments on “How I Sold My Books”

  1. One was the sequel to The Android’s Dream, which I sold after the first book came out; that contract is unfulfilled to date.

    Arrghhghghhgh!!!!

    That is all.

  2. …it seems to me anecdotally that selling on a partial is an usual circumstance…

    Sorry, was this mean to be “usual” or “unusual”? I’m guessing (from the ‘an’) that it’s “unusual,” but it could work either way (…sorta.)

  3. [If I were advising someone on selling a first novel, I would suggest — and I believe most editors would back me up here — that you have the full manuscript in hand before you go shopping. ]

    Definitely. Editors know that far more people start novels than finish them. A completed ms is the minimum entry requirement, unless you happen to be the star of a popular sf tv series –in which case you can rest assured they’ll hire someone to write the novel for you. Or so I’ve heard.

    My own experience: I’ve sold completed mss; I’ve sold novels on the basis of a character introduced in a short story in F&SF (we’ll take three, the publisher said); I’ve sold them based on an outline; I’ve sold one on the basis of a conversation in the bar at World Fantasy Convention; I’ve sold one (currently being serialized in Lightspeed) on the basis of a couple of episodes — and I’ve only recently figured out who the villain is and how it ends. Thank goodness; serialization is like walking into a river without knowing how deep it is.

    The thing is: you have to show them you can write, and also that you can go the distance. After that, there are many different paths into the woods. And out again, which can be the tricky part.

  4. “Another was a two-book series which I sold on proposal; it was shelved when another very similar book became a bestseller and I didn’t want to appear to be cashing in on that book.”

    It was 50 Shades of Grey, wasn’t it?

  5. I know this isn’t directly on point, so feel free to Mallet me if you like. These are just some things I’ve been wondering about wrt the writing/publishing industry.

    Do authors/publishers actually deal with dead-tree manuscripts anymore, or is everything in electronic format until the final dead-tree book is published? Do you have any thoughts about how much longer the dead-tree format can/will survive? I

  6. Jennifer R. Ewing:

    None of my books were ever submitted to the publisher in paper form, and my first book was published in the last century. I assume at this point nearly everything is submitted electronically. Certainly the last several books I’ve published nearly all of it was handled electronically, although I do occasionally get page proofs in printed form.

  7. Scalzi: KMe, to Patrick Nielsen Hayden: “Hey, I wrote this thing. Want it?” Patrick: “Why, yes.”

    I must say, your conversations are surprisingly short.

  8. Any plans to take the Android’s Dream sequel off the shelf and get it out here? I want to read that!

  9. I’m really interested in the books you sold after posting, because I’ve always been told that publishers wouldn’t even look at something that had been previously posted online. Obviously that’s changed with self-publishing, but I’m thinking your books were sold a bit before the current boom of publishers buying self-published novels. How did you have the guts to just put the manuscripts out there?

  10. Patricia S. Browne:

    “How did you have the guts to just put the manuscripts out there?”

    Because I wasn’t actively trying to sell them (because I was being lazy, mostly). I assumed that once I put them online they were unsellable. I was wrong, but it’s still not a bad assumption to have. That said, most people these days would probably self publish through retailers (Amazon being a most well-known) rather than just put them up on their sites like I did.

  11. For what it’s worth, I came upon your site in the 90s from a referral from Jessamyn West, who had her own blog, librarian.net. She’d said something like, “Finally, an alien meeting that made sense,” whereby I downloaded your Agent to the Stars onto a floppy, took it to work, and had trouble not bursting into laughter all the time. I’d send a couple dollars now and then on a re-read. I think Jessyman lived in Seattle then. Geez, think I found her through prior referrals.

    Millennial way to build a fanbase, I guess.

  12. goober question time! Lets say you have a deal to write a book (as you appear to have on at least a couple of occasions) and either you find you can’t come up with it or you do & the publisher is not pleased with the work. What happens then? Particularly if it is book 2 of a 2 book deal. Just curious as you hear of this happening to writers sometimes.

    Not sure if yo have read much of Donald Westlake but he has an interesting novel called “The Hook” about an established author trying to take advantage of an unpublished one in order to meet a contract obligation when he has run dry. It contains interesting discussions about the publishing industry that I assume are not too far from reality.

  13. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt – New Jersey, USA – I write. And I blog. And I love every minute of it. Some day I will be known by the single name - Liebja (lee-ebb-jah), which, as far as I know, I invented when I was 14. A long time ago. My debut novel is now available on Amazon - Pride's Children: PURGATORY. First of a mainstream love story trilogy.
    Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt

    I see that I’m following your fiction pattern of putting the first couple of books up on your own site – but I’m not hoping (thought always open to the possibility) that someone will come along and offer to publish them.

    Times have changed – but I still like the idea of putting your work up when you think it’s good enough. I have a acquired a small but dedicated bunch of people (some who leave lovely comments) who have been with me for quite a while (the first scene went up in Feb. of 2013, and we continue at a finished one a week). They will all get free copies of the published version – they deserve it, for patience if for nothing else.

    A main difference: you had a lot of experience as a non-fiction writer for pay and publication before you started fiction; I do not. And, different genres (though I write SF occasionally, this is mainstream). But I find all kinds of useful advice on your blog – thanks for doing that.

    I’m especially fond of the applications of the Mallet.

  14. Frankly: Oh my God Westlake.. One of the funniest (and sometimes scariest) writers of the 20th Century. No one should fail to read High Adventure (best buried joke in memory), Dancing Aztecs (the definitive summary of the New York experience, or Kahawa (a terrifying portrait of Idi Amin, as well as a thriller).

  15. Theophylact: I loved the who Dortmunder series, some truly great story telling. “High Adventure” was indeed great as was “Kahawa”, I have not read “Dancing Aztecs” I’ll have to add it to the stack. I thought “The Hook” was interesting because of the discussion of publishing. The one that really gets me though was “The Ax” – its about a middle aged man who is laid off & with few opportunities for his skills sets out to kill people who would compete for the job & then the guy who has the job. It is interesting because he obviously is not your average killer (there is some of the Westlake dark humor in there) and a couple things I won’t give away. As a middle-aged guy who did a stretch of unemployment I would view the book as sort of dangerous.

  16. So, I’m curious– how do you decide which publisher to approach with various books? You mention that you sometimes took a book to Tor, and other times to Subterranean Press. Is there some kind of criterion you use to determine which is a better fit for the book, or do you just try to alternate between them?

  17. Richard Whiting:

    Tor typically gets first crack at my novels; SubPress typically gets first crack at original novellas and shorter/quirky works.

  18. Wow. I now have one more of your collected works than I was previously aware, Sir.

    Also: I have inadvertently accrued a small collection of misc. bathroom books, to the point where I am now determining and negotiating re the location of a bookshelf browsable from the seated position.

    Take a beerk, leave a beerk?

  19. I’m with Chris way back at the first comment.

    The frackin’ High Castle, man. (Heh…) Just tell me I’m not gonna die waiting for that book. :D

  20. Pabkins – Sacramento, CA – I'm often found tucked away reading a book, watching anime, sketching, painting, or creating some new creature. Just follow the sounds of creepy maniacal laughter....beware my crazy is catching.
    Tabitha (Pabkins)

    Really enjoyable seeing how each of your books got picked up. As easy as “Want burgers for lunch?” – “Yes, sure let’s do that.”

  21. This to people in the publishing industry.

    Why would sub press buy hardcovers and TOR paperbacks? Is there something in their business models that would make them want one or the other?

    John said he did not fullfill his contract for Androids Dream 2. I thought authors get money up front when they get a contract? Do these contracts have dates in them that require you to pay the publisher back if you dont fullfill the contract?

    This was very interesting. The morale of this store is that once you sell you first few books and they do relatively well its alot easier to sell more.

  22. So do you ever accidentally say “Neil Patrick Harris” instead of Patrick Nielsen Hayden, the same way I seemed to several times when reading this article?

  23. Guess:

    SubPress bought limited rights; Tor bought trade rights. They essentially address different markets.

    With the Android’s Dream sequel, I got an advance, yes. I offered to refund it; Tor prefers to keep the contract open in the hopes I will eventually get around to writing it. Note that this is a reasonable choice on the part of Tor; it means they’ll get the book at a rather substantial discount to my current asking price per book. That being the case, the most amount of the advance on that contract is almost negligible.

  24. Shawn – Ohio, USA – Early to bed, early or whirlybird or something. Bored now, bye. Don't step on any Lego's 'cause it _Hurts_!
    Shawn T

    “[The sequel to Android’s dream ain’t workin’]” – Makes sense to me: It’s been much longer since I read ‘The Androids Dream’ than ‘The Human Division’ and as I recall ‘TAD’ was a book while ‘THD’ ended with some big questions that meant “continued in the sequel(s).”

  25. I thought I remember reading somewhere, possibly in the forward of Agent to the Stars, that you wrote that book first specifically to see if you CAN have the discipline to write a full, cohesive novel. But here you listed Old Man’s War first. I know you said this list is “mostly” in order of publication, so does that mean you wrote OMW second, but it got picked up first?

  26. To anyone who finds this interesting. There was a post on the sfwa public site a few years ago by an author whose first few books did not sell well and he got dropped by his publisher. He had to reinvent himself. He started writing in shared worlds and had some success with that. I can’t remember who it was, but it was very good.

  27. @John

    “SubPress bought limited rights; Tor bought trade rights. They essentially address different markets.”

    I didnt realize there was a different. To outsider a novel is a novel.

  28. OK, the contractual relationship between Zoe’s Tale and High Castle (or is that book better styled Untitled Android’s Dream Sequel?) is confusing me. The first mention of Zoe’s indicates that you offered to write it in place of UADS. The next mention is that the contract for the first of the canceled/postponed two-parter was applied to Zoe’s.

    So… UADS wasn’t working. You offered to write (what became) Zoe’s Tale in order to fulfill the obligation to deliver a novel. But, when the two-parter was canceled/postponed, rather than pay you the terms of the UADS contract for Zoe’s, they instead payed you for part one, and the UADS contract is still open, with (I assume) no set deadline to deliver the book. And that’s why you keep saying that UADS will get written “eventually”. Meanwhile, you don’t have an open contract for the two-part series, and could potentially resell that idea to anyone, but will probably sell it back to Tor again because, a) you have a good relationship with them, and 2) they have already expressed interest but are waiting on timing.

    Do I have that right? ‘Cause, jeepers, that confusing.

  29. Doc Rocketscience:

    I am unlikely to revisit the idea that I sold the two book deal with. And it was me who suggested Tor use ZT to fulfill one of the books in that deal (I did the same with Redshirts).

  30. Ooookay. Think I got it now. And to think, my only contractual concerns are if the district will once again raise my class sizes and out-of-pocket cost to get health coverage for my wife. (Spoiler alert: they will. Amazingly, I don’t feel the need to ironically thank Obama.)

    I am curious what popular book(s) your two-parter was too similar too. I’m happy to develop my own head cannon John Scalzi version. The biggest problem is figuring out where to fit the courtroom scene. :D

  31. Let me guess, the stumbling block for the Android’s Dream sequel is finding a first sentence that can top the original, right? I can see how that would be difficult. Oh well, until it comes out I’ll just assume that you consider my money tainted and thus do not wish to have all of it that you possibly can.

    Seriously though, I hope inspiration strikes and you can pull it off the shelf. It was the first book of yours I read and it’s still one of my favorites.

  32. Carl Rigney: My understanding (from attending an author reading by our host in a now-defunct Washington DC bookstore) is that “Judge Sn Goes Golfing” and the first chapter of the then-projected Android’s Dream sequel are one and the same.

  33. Hey, quick question for clarity because I’m not sure which way to go.

    While it worked for you, you wouldn’t recommend having a book available online (even if its for free), while you’re shopping it around to big cigar smoking publishers with watches on chains and things?

    For an unpublished unknown does that shoot yourself in the foot if you’re trying to make a sale? Cause I quite like the idea of having the work out in the wild and getting feedback.

  34. [While it worked for you, you wouldn’t recommend having a book available online (even if its for free), while you’re shopping it around to big cigar smoking publishers with watches on chains and things?]

    Since JS is traveling, I’ll try to answer: and the answer is no.

    I’m a midlister, not in Scalzi’s league, but I’ve been around the business for a while. Right now, I’m serializing a science-fantasy novel in Lightspeed, with the episodes remaining on-line indefinitely. I asked my agent if there’d be any chance of selling it once it’s finished its Lightspeed run, and he said, “Not really.”

    So I’ll put it together as an ebook and POD paperback, and self-publish.

  35. I’m curious to find out what the two-parter that got shelved was; I’d guess, based on the timing, it was something involving a group of individuals isolated, armed, and told that the last one surviving would be the winner. Or it could be something else! But that feels like the kind of thing John would be interested in trying, and something that everyone involved would choose to shelve when another book using the concept came out. It’s not really an idea worth rescuing if someone else gets there first.

  36. While it worked for you, you wouldn’t recommend having a book available online (even if its for free), while you’re shopping it around to big cigar smoking publishers with watches on chains and things?

    As I remember the history, he shopped them around first, didn’t get any takers, and then put them up online. They weren’t online while he was trying to sell them. That makes a difference.

    And that other unsold 2-book thing was too similar to World War Z. It’s all somewhere in the archives of Whatever if people really want to dig for it.

  37. Was the proposal that got shelved when you didn’t want to appear to be taking advantage of another book’s wild success the SF “oral history” I think you once mentioned here (or elsewhere) that you shelved after “World War Z” went to bestseller status?

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