Columns > Published on February 6th, 2012

Ask The Lit Coach: "Is It Possible To Sell A Novel On Three Sample Chapters?"

For this issue of Q&A with The Lit Coach, I'm answering a great question I received on Twitter. 

Question from Glory S. in London, England

What are the chances of getting a book deal based on a 3 chapter submission [and earning an advance] that pays for living expenses while finishing the book?

I can unfortunately see a more seasoned author/agent/publisher rolling their eyes at this one, but it's a very good question to ask, actually. The quick answer is slim, dear, but there are variables to consider. Let's break this one down.

First, if you are a "new" author, that is you've never been published or you've had some lit journal/mag success but this is your first submission to publishers, the chance is very, very slim. Like, less than a 1% chance - those who work in the business like to offer a sliver of hope because, you never know - there's always that rare exception.  

If you're querying agents or editors, they may want to start out reading the first three chapters (or first fifty pages) and then, if they like what they read, they'll request the rest of the book. But when an agent sends their client's work to an editor who has requested the author's work after the pitch, the editor will want to read the entire manuscript. Now, that doesn't mean the editor will always read the entire manuscript. Sometimes it's their assistant who will screen your work before they give it to the editor who actually requested it. Or sometimes the editor will see immediately that the writing just isn't strong, in which case they'll stop reading by page 5 (they're not obligated to read the entire manuscript just because they asked for it). If your agent has a solid relationship with the editor and the editor knows what kind of quality to expect from the agent, the editor will read the manuscript themselves. 

More seasoned authors with a few successful books under their belt will have the option to make a deal based on three chapters and an outline for the book, yes. They've earned the right and more importantly, their sales figures are in black and white. They've proven themselves a successful investment - they look good on paper. 

If you're writing nonfiction (not memoir), yes, there is a good chance you will sell your book based on three samples chapters and a thorough book proposal. Memoir needs to be presented in its entirety, like a novel, because of the narrative thread - editors want to see where the personal story takes them. 

Now, let's talk advance

Considering the near impossibility of scoring a book deal on three chapters as a new author, that makes the last part of your question equally impossible, but let's consider the money you earn for your work and what that means.

It's an exciting/weird/tumultuous time in publishing right now, so it's hard to say. I know a few established literary authors, very quirky, who sold their manuscripts for near six figures - something I would have never anticipated, especially now. And yet, everyone's shouting out, don't quit your day job because nobody's giving out fat advances anymore (which they've been saying for a decade). I think the reality is, large advances are very few and far between and for new authors, they are a rarity. If you find a publisher who loves your book, they will likely make a conservative offer on your book, both in print run and advance and will wait to see how that first print run goes. If the book sells well, they'll take the book to press again, etc.  Something else publishers are considering, a first "print run" as an eBook, which is a genius idea - the publisher will see how well the E version sells before they make a further investment in the print version. I think you'll be seeing this kind of publishing deal a whole lot more and really, it makes so much sense. 

Now, let's say your book is nonfiction, "how-to," or a book you need to travel for to write. You should absolutely factor in the research and travel time you'll need to write your book, along with the expenses you'll incur. And be reasonable. What is the bare minimum you need to get by while writing the book? The price tag goes up, of course, if you're already a very well established expert/author who can guarantee big sales. Have a budget in mind, discuss it with your agent and make sure you both agree what your time is worth before they move forward to sell the project.  

Are small advances better than large advances? 

First, I always advise writers to use their advance to pay for book publicity while using their paychecks to pay for living expenses, but I know that's not a reality for a lot of writers, and I'm no Suze Orman, so take my grand financial advice for what it's worth. But investing in the best book PR you can afford is the wisest thing you can do with that advance money. That means (hopefully) BOOK SALES! Which means, you earning out your advance, which means you'll earn royalties! YAY! 

Small advances are great because, ideally, you'll earn that advance back in sales more quickly than you would with a large advance - and that looks great on paper. Publishers want to see that you've earned back what they've invested in you, especially when it comes time to shop your following books. They've got to see a return on investment and that you've sold through a few good print runs before they consider making another offer (and this goes for ANY publisher you try to sell your work to, not just your original publisher). So, in a way, small advances are nice because it's easier for you to earn back and look like a rock star. 

Large advances are fabulous because, well, it's more money. You have a larger PR budget and some cushion to help pad your living expenses. But still, a large portion of that advance needs to go right back into the book - PR, events, travel expenses, etc. Remember, you need to earn that advance back in book sales before you start earning royalties, so the more PR money you devote to your book, the better off you'll be. 

Now, this next bit may sound harsh (and it may not even apply to you) but it needs saying. If you are desperate for money to live, then your first priority should not be your book. Being creative is on the tip top of Maslow's hierarchy of needs pyramid, while food and shelter are on the bottom - meaning, you have to achieve your base needs to be successful with your self-actualization gigs. Wait tables if you have to, scrub toilets, sell sweaters, whatever. Do what you need to do (legally, of course) to earn money to live. The money you receive for your book needs to go back into the book. Don't even count on it, really, to pay the rent at first. It's going to take some time to pad your bank account with the money you earn from your book. You follow? OK, I'm done harping. I gotta lovingly crack the whip once in a while, you know.

The bottom line to all of this is, if you're working with an agent, communicate what's acceptable and what's not before you enter into contract negotiations. And be open to eBook negotiations. If you're not agented, become as educated about the process of selling a book as possible before you enter into contract negotiations. 

Here are a few resources I recommend

Negotiating a Book Contract by Mark Levine

Putting Your Passion into Print by Arielle Eckstut and David Sterry

Jane Friedman - Media Professor and Publishing Expert

Thanks for your question, Glory! And good luck to you - let us know what happens with the book. 

That's all for this week, LitReactors. Now go do something worth writing about! 

About the author

ERIN REEL is a Los Angeles based publishing and editorial consultant, writing coach, columnist, blog host of The Lit Coach's Guide to The Writer's Life and outspoken advocate for writers. A former literary agent with nearly 10 years in the industry, Erin has worked with a wide array of writers worldwide. She has contributed to Making The Perfect Pitch: How to Catch a Literary Agent's Eye (Sands, Watson-Guptil, 2004); and Author 101: Bestselling Secrets from Top Agents (Frishman & Spizman, Adams Media, 2005).

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