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.
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.
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.