How long does it take to sell a book?

Let’s assume you’ve got an agent. Let’s assume that you’ve done all the editorial work you need to do at this stage. Let’s assume your book is something that has potential global reach, whether fiction or non-fiction. In that case, the process will probably work a little like this:

  • Your agent rounds up a possible 8-12 editors. That’ll mostly be editors who work at large publishers (though often in semi-autonomous imprints or companies), but there’ll be 2-3 smaller indie publishers as well, more than likely. Your agent will introduce the editors to the book, check they’re available (not shooting off on holiday, going on maternity leave, or whatever), then more or less simultaneously get the book out to them. Books always used to be sent on paper. These days it’s often electronic.
  • You wait! Your agent will decide when to stir the pot and will, crucially, be looking for that first offer. As soon as she gets an offer – anywhere from 3 days to 4 weeks, typically – then …
  • She’ll start calling everyone on the list, setting deadlines, coaxing offers, jogging the whole thing higher. That auction chemistry is critical and delicate. Get three rival offers from three rival publishers and you should do well, except that many notionally independent publishers are connected (eg: Transworld / Orion / Hodder / Headline) and these guys don’t bid against each other. A small publisher (Quercus, Faber, Profile, Atlantic) may be a really good publisher, but they won’t be able to fight the big boys on advances, so the financial outcome does depend very much on where the interest lies.
  • then your agent will call for ‘best and final’ bids, then close a deal.
  • A contract may take a while to follow – I’ve known it take as long as 6 months – but an oral agreement is nevertheless something you can depend on. These agreements never sour.

So much for your home nation deal (ie: the UK if you’re British; North America if you’re North American). Your agent will then start to attack the major overseas markets. Most agencies will have someone in charge of foreign rights, who’ll be talking to publishers and/or sub-agents in Germany, Japan, France, Italy, Spain.

Your agent will also have a sub-agent in the US (if she’s British) or the UK (if she’s not). That sub-agent will be also start hawking your book around. Don’t be too comfortable though. Although it’s relatively easy for US authors to get a UK deal, it’s much harder the other way round. What’s more, books that seem obviously US-friendly are often the ones that make no impact. Ones that seem obscurely British / quirky often do well (Hornby’s Fever Pitch is a famous example). And even quite major British authors – Jilly Cooper, Ian Rankin – barely make a dent in the US.

And once those major markets have been dealt with, your agency’s attention will start to turn to all those obscure places – Bulgaria, South Korea – where small but meaningful deals can be done. India and China, by the way, may well buy your book, but won’t do so for much money. I think the largest advance I’ve had from China has been about twice the biggest advance I’ve had from Bulgaria. Although there are a lot of Chinese, they aren’t necessarily all about to buy your book – and though piracy is much less than it was, China still doesn’t love to pay too much for legal copyright.

This entire process can take about 12 months, quite easily, perhaps more. And by the time the last paperback publication advance drops into your account from Slovakia, you’re quite likely not just onto your next book, but the one after that.


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  • Thank you for a very informative article. You’ve answered several questions of mine, all at once! I’ll be back for more.

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  • Patricia

    My MS has been with an agent for almost two years and every time I question her the answer I get is ” two more editors rejected it”. I just don’t know it this is how it works or whether I am being taken for a ride. I have to initiate any correspondence (only by email). Would appreciate your feedback. I live in Canada and my Agent is from the US.

  • Harry

    It’s sounding dodgy to me. Agents do need to communicate and who are the editors? What’s the remaining plan? You have a legitimate interest in getting truthful answers to those questions. Often enough that agent caginess arises because they can’t sell the book, have stopped making any effort, but can’t bea picking up the phone to say so. Which isn’t OK.