The Art of the (Book) Deal

Ever since I signed my first book contract in 2016 I’ve had questions from creatives and aspiring authors about the process and how it all came about. I’ve been extremely fortunate to have had such success with my books, meaning I’ve been offered subsequent deals to continue the series. There have been a few changes and negotiations along the way, but the contract terms and my approach to making the books have been largely the same from book to book. I recently put the call-out on Instagram for any and all anonymous questions about the process, so hopefully this can serve as a resource for authors and designers in the Australian industry. Of course, these answers are completely biased as they have been only in my experience — if you have follow up questions please let me know and I can work on another post!


Did you pitch your books or did a publisher approach you?
I first met my commissioning editor at a Melbourne design market I was exhibiting at in 2015, when she approached me to say hello and commented that if I ever had an idea for a book, her publishing house would love to hear from me. I originally wrote the opportunity off as something they likely say to many designers, but when I arrived home in Sydney the next week I had an email in my inbox following up, and expressing interest in working together. We then started the discussion of what a book could look like (believe it or not, we even explored a fully photographed book of Mini Cities!) and eventually arrived at the idea for the then-not-named Hello, Sydney!. We developed the concept together, and then I got to work on drafts for the style and feel of the illustrations. My scenario is quite rare, it was a wonderful case of right place and right time, and right spot in both of our careers to work on a big project together. My commissioning editor was early in her career and I was her first commission, and it was obviously my first book, so we were both enthusiastic and gave it a lot of love and development.

Did you make a whole dummy book to pitch?
Since I was developing the concept of the book in tandem with the publishing house, I didn’t have to present or pitch a completed book. I had the dummy of the book once it was decided what size and page count Hello, Sydney! would have, and I planned around that to get a sense of layout through the book. I mocked up several illustrations after we’d decided on locations (such as Taronga Zoo and the Aquarium) and then had that style and general plan green-lit to go ahead with the rest of the book. My existing body of work also helped in showcasing my style and ability to work on large projects, so I don’t really think I was a huge risk for my publishers to sign on for a book. The products I was showing in Melbourne at the design market at the time included letterpress and foil art prints, the digitally printed silk scarves I’ve been doing since day one, as well as the City Bangles and Mini Cities. Having worked so long on manufacturing much of this product was almost the proof of concept in itself, that I could project manage and commit to a project as long-running as a book.

How much control over content and design is up to the publisher?
This will vary by publisher and book type, and also between the markets that the book is intended for. In my case, my publisher and I worked really closely on developing on Hello, Sydney! which then served almost like a blueprint for subsequent titles! There were some design choices that I didn’t choose, but it does ultimately come back to the publishers decision as they’re the ones footing the bill — and of course, responsible for selling it into the book market. The more you can be on the same team, and enthusiastic about the work, the more success the book will have as the book reps and book stores will share in that enthusiasm and sell the book better! Some of the choices that we went back and forth on were around the title too; this was a wider consensus situation, where we would brainstorm title ideas and then the whole publishing team would have a say. I had pitched a different series title, but we eventually settled on Hello…! which has worked well. My initial fears around Hello…! were that it was too generic or shared with other books if we expanded the series, but it ends up being a similar type of situation to music where albums or songs have the same title from different artists, and it’s never really a problem.

Do you work with an agent? Cold pitching vs agent assisted tips?
This is another situation that varies hugely between artists, markets, country, publishing house and book type. Working with a literary agent is a path that lots of people go down when they have developed ideas that they’re really clear on, and essentially want ‘sold’ to a publisher. In my situation, because I was approached by the publisher I just figured it all out on my own. This potentially could have been to my detriment, but I figured that since I was essentially ‘unproven’ in the illustration and book market, I would gain more from learning on the go, and learning from my own mistakes. Children’s book publishing in Australia seems to be fairly consistent across advance rates and royalties, so for me it didn’t feel worthwhile to pursue an agent for the following titles after Sydney who would take a cut from my future earnings.
If you’re thinking of approaching a publisher with a book pitch of your own, it really comes down to what you’re wanting from the relationship and what you might want in the future. Because my relationship with my current publisher is already developed, I wouldn’t work with an agent for new titles because I’ve managed the negotiations on my own. Contract negotiation is tricky and definitely not for everyone, so if that’s something you don’t enjoy or have a great deal of experience with, then it can be worth seeking an agent. An agent will essentially ‘shop’ your book around to publishing houses and negotiate for you to get the best deal. The better the deal they get for you, the better it is for them, as they take a percentage of your advance payment.

What are the benefits of self publishing vs going with a publisher?
I think the pros and cons of self publishing or traditional publishing are pretty evenly split, it comes down more to what you’re wanting to get in the long term. The benefits of self publishing would be in the creative control you have, and the sole right to all of the books financial gains. On the flip side, the cons of self publishing would be in missing out on access to exisiting relationships with bookstores that can sell your book in larger volumes — the distribution channels for your book are really important to consider. The pros of working with a traditional publisher are that there is no financial outlay or risk for you as the author (as well as ongoing royalty payments if your book sells beyond the initial advance), and if your publisher has the connections they have a much greater chance of getting your book into all the places you’d want to see it. Many book chains such as Dymocks, or online retailers like Book Depository only work with big companies to streamline their own ordering process. Another really big plus for traditional publishing is that the publisher prints, ships, warehouses and distributes the book. For me, I was more interested in partnering with a widely known publisher to develop my name and brand, and provide access to wider audiences in the long term, as opposed to making more money had I self published.

I curated these questions from the ones coming in via Instagram to be tailored largely towards publishing and getting a book deal, and have touched on the process of making the books a little more in some of my other posts. I hope the above is helpful, I’m a big believer in sharing information like this in the hopes that it benefits someone else up and coming! If you find it helpful, or if you have any further questions, please let me know in the comments or pop me an email anytime. — Megan

Megan McKeanComment