Today we have a guest post from author Jessica Thompson. Her new mystery book, A Caterer's Guide to Holidays & Homicide, was just released. Though an adult book, her advice is for every writer. If you'd like to check out her new book click HERE.
What to Have Ready BEFORE that Book Deal
We all know (hopefully) that you need to write a book and have it fairly polished before you can hope to sign a book deal, but what else? What do you need to have ready before signing with an agent, getting to crunch-time with indie publishing, or signing with a small publisher, like I did? I was surprised by how fast everything moved the second I signed those papers.
Following is a list that I hope you find helpful if you are just starting out. If you have some experience, comment below to add to the list!
Some items here you may know, or have guessed like I was lucky enough to do, but give the list a scan. Too many new authors are surprised, rushed, or caught looking unprofessional when the time comes because they don’t have these things ready.
Alternate Title Ideas - Even if you love your title, your publisher may not. You will need to work together to find a title that fits into your branding and theirs. Have your top choice as the manuscript’s title, but have a few other ideas in your back pocket. What I Learned - My original title for “A Caterer’s Guide to Love and Murder” had been murder to choose, and even then, I didn’t like it. Before my book deal, I had settled for “Batters of the Heart” because it was punny and cute, indicated love, food, and violence/murder, and fit into the cozy mystery genre. No matter how much it fit, on several levels, I still hated it. I thought, “Well, that’s why I’m trying to find an agent or publisher. They can tell me what to do!” How wrong I was. The creativity is your job. The publisher will work with you, but they are not going to do things like that for you. Instead, I had to hurry, ask everyone I knew, and grope around in the dark as fast as I could for a better title. I wish I had thought of some more ideas before the rush began.
Professional Head Shot - You will need to get, if you haven’t already, a great picture of yourself. These need to be completely and immediately ready for things like the publisher’s website and social media when they announce that they have signed with you, and guest posts or other marketing efforts on blogs, in magazines, and any kind of social media for yourself or editors and reviewers. It should not be a snapshot or a cropped down snippet of your head from a family picture. Get a photographer, get a location, and get at least one, but probably more like five, great pictures of yourself. They should make you look competent, professional, smart, and they should be very high resolution. If possible, get a variety. Some specific to your genre, but some not. Some with books, some close-up, some smiling, some serious . . . you get the idea. What I learned - I am lucky enough to have a sister that is a professional photographer and a friend that renovates and stages beautiful homes, and I learned that people are very willing to help someone who is trying to launch a career. My mistake was to make all my pictures smiling and bright. After I signed with “Darkstroke Books” (whose reputation is like it sounds) I regretted not having some variety in my headshots, like serious faces and dramatic lighting, too.
A Longer Bio - By long, I mean a couple paragraphs. No more than a page. People want to hear about you in order to connect with something about you, but they don’t actually want a play-by-play of your entire life. Make it interesting, concise, include some accolades and awards, but don’t make it long enough to get boring. This bio you need ready immediately for things like the publisher’s website,
About the Author page of your book, and at the end of guest posts while you are marketing your book. What I learned - Do include some personal facts, because it helps if readers can find something interesting about you that they can connect to. I have been surprised how many people have connected to my tidbit that I help on my parents’ longhorn ranch. I’ve received pictures of them, pictures of their kids or relatives in Austin or on ranches, and personal messages sharing their love of farms, longhorns, cows, Texas, or helping their parents.
A Shorter Bio - I mean super short. Two to three sentences. This is your same tasty bio but boiled down as far as you can until it is a thick syrup. Instead of listing awards, you’ve won, package it down into “award-winning.” Instead of listing your family members, condense it into “family.” You get the idea. What I learned - For either bio, but especially for this one, don’t give your reader a chance to get bored. My longer bio starts to drag its feet a bit towards the end. List one fun fact about yourself, one accolade, and the most basic info. Then end it!
Even Vague Ideas for a Cover - Before all the hubbub begins, do some research. Look around at other cover art in your genre, figure out what you like, think about how your manuscript feels, and have a couple ideas of what you want your cover art to look like. It’s okay if they are vague, but have something to use as a jumping-off point while talking to your publisher. Want a landscape, a person, or a cartoon? What colors do you think match the tone of your manuscript? Even better, collect some pictures to use as examples or sketch an idea yourself. What I learned - Again, your publisher will not do all the work here. I didn’t know what I wanted, so I planned to rely on my publisher to know what sells, what works, what fits with their branding, etc. Unfortunately, that’s not how it works. Instead, I had to spend time pouring over examples, Adobe Stock photos, random Google searches, and finally found some inspiration from some caterer’s website. Save some grief, gather ideas now.
List of Possible Marketers - Once you sign those papers, you will need to immediately start marketing. Whether traditionally publishing or independently publishing, or somewhere in between, you will be doing a lot of your own marketing. What is your plan? Are you paying someone a lot to do it all for you? Are you going to pay for mini-marketing packages from certain websites or organizations? Or are you going to keep it to the plethora of free resources? That’s what I did. I made a list of bloggers, YouTubers, bookstagrammers, review journals, fellow authors to trade reviews with, Facebook book clubs, and local bookstores that I contacted, worked out mutually beneficial deals with, and relied on to help market and spread the word. Keep a list! No matter how much you think you will remember, keep a list of people you mean to contact, have contacted, made deals with, need to check in with later, etc. Even the people that have agreed to give you a review might need to be prodded and kept track of after the initial agreement. What I learned - I wish I had made this list before getting my book deal, hence its presence in this article. I crammed for days to put together a list, but I could have saved myself a lot of time and headache if I had already had this list ready!
Prepped Guest Posts - As you start to reach out to bloggers, bookstagrammers, etc, many will ask you to guest post on their blog, in their magazine, etc. Most of those guest posts will be an article, like this one, about some topic on the craft or business of writing. Some will be specific about what they want, but in my experience, many will not. If you write two or three articles ahead of time, I guarantee you will find a place to use them. What I Learned - I didn’t want to write guest posts. I still felt like the new kid that had nothing useful to contribute to a world already crowded with experienced writers. But as I started writing about the things that people asked me, like how I found my genre or how I get over imposter syndrome, more inspiration for future articles came and I gained more experience than I could then contribute to subsequent work. Guest posts became fun!
I listed these items in the order in which I needed them, but your experience may be different.
These items are not in order of importance! If I had to pick one thing that has been the most important and the thing I was most glad that I had before my book deal, I would say a great headshot. Remember how a picture is worth a thousand words? I would argue that it’s worth even more. It’s the first impression that everyone will have of you, from the querying process to the readers. People at every level of publishing and marketing, even though it may not be fair, will judge you based on this picture. Speak to their subconscious mind by having a professional-looking headshot. If you want a website to help you choose which picture to use, try photofeeler.com
Not only is it important, but this is most likely the first thing you will need after signing that deal. Or even before. To announce that you have signed with a publisher or agent, they will probably ask for a bio and a picture. A bio can be adapted from what you have or banged out on the spot, but a professional picture needs to be scheduled, taken, edited, and delivered to you. That takes days at least! Taking and having that photo before the deal also means you can start using it before. Lay the groundwork before that book deal by having a lovely social media following that knows your face, or the best version of your face you can muster.
While all of the items from this list will be helpful to have ready ahead of time, the professional headshot is also the most common mistake I see from other writers. I’ve seen dozens of authors, way more qualified than myself, that look like hobbyists or amateurs based on their fuzzy snapshots.
Don’t fall into that trap! Be prepared!