How Long Does It Take to Get a Book Deal with a Traditional Publisher?

Hour glass on pebbles representing time waiting to get a book deal with a traditional publisher

If you are looking to go the traditional book publishing route with a traditional publisher, the length of time it takes to get a book deal with a traditional publisher can be infuriatingly ambiguous. Traditional publishing is a quagmire where the notion of “average response times” cease to exist, where the process can move like molasses…until it doesn’t. Which makes it even more unpredictable. Because sometimes *whispers* – things can go really fast, too.

So how long does it take to get a book deal with a traditional publisher? Are we talking days, months, or, God help us all, years? For the purposes of this article, I’m talking about the length of time it takes after your agent submits your book to publishers for sale – not the length of time it takes to write a book or sign with a literary agent. If we added those factors on, we would certainly be talking years, in almost all cases.

The depressing answer is: there’s no fixed answer. This is publishing! But there are variables.

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Agent relationships vary

Literary agents have different relationships with different editors. As a result, they may get more attention from certain editors, pushing your book up to the top of their reading pile. They may take editors out for lunch, or call them, or simply send an email. All of these tactics work, but they may result in different lead times. All relationships vary, to the extent that some editors might not even care who the agent is, as long as they love the book.

Agent submission strategies vary

Some literary agents like to blast every editor all at once in a giant round. This could lead to a faster book deal with a traditional publisher. However, it’s risky, as it could mean your book dying on submission straight away, with no opportunity to rework it, and no other recourse than to simply write another book. Other agents like to submit smaller rounds to editors, drip-feeding, closely monitoring the feedback and passes, and making tweaks with you as they go to make your book more sellable. This can increase the likelihood of a sale, but also drastically increase the length of time your book is out on submission.

Editor reading time varies

Ever picked up a book and eaten it up in a day? How about a book the same length that you just can’t seem to ever finish? It works the same way for editors. Editors will pick up work in priority order, and there’s no way to know or understand what that priority looks like. Also, acquiring new books is a small part of their day job. An editor’s priority will always be on the existing books under contract that they’re already working on.

What is an editor’s average response time?

It depends. Just don’t expect to hear back from each round along the same timeline. Some passes will trickle in, some will take months to even open the email containing your precious manuscript, and some may even ghost your agent. It’s just the way it goes. Equally, when an editor loves your book, you’ll know about it. Things will rev up. It really is all or nothing in this game.

The number of yeses you need varies

Newsflash: publishing is extremely competitive. You may have worked hard to perfect your query and land your dream agent, but now you’re entering the upper echelons of publishing: the road to the prestigious book deal. Your publishing dreams are being held at the whim of acquisitions editors at (possibly) Big Five publishing houses. Not only do you have to impress important editors, you might have to also impress other important people, including editors, sales and marketing teams, finance (for the bottom line), and PR. It all depends on the size of the publishing house and the number of cooks in the kitchen – or at the acquisitions meeting. So while one yes from an enthusiastic editor is extremely positive, it doesn’t necessarily guarantee a book deal. I know, bummer, right? But – and hold on to this – it might.

There is no average time out on submission

You may have gathered by now, there is no average time. Your “on submission” experience is yours, and yours alone. Being on sub is a frustrating, soul-crushing time, where you will likely question everything you ever thought about yourself and your talents as a writer – unless your book sells overnight, which has been known to happen.

Be kind to yourself while you wait it out

Forget any semblance of control; being out on submission is a wild experience, and one that’s totally out of your hands. The constant refreshing of your inbox, waiting (in vain) for a solitary scrap of news from your literary agent as to how your baby (book) is doing out on submission, can really take its toll. Be kind to yourself. Take walks. Write another book. Congratulate yourself for getting this far: not many people can say a) they wrote (and finished a book), b) secured an agent, and c) had your book presented to top-notch publishing folk as a valuable product to be considered in exchange for actual money.

How long is too long?

It’s not unheard of for books to sell within a week. Or it can take months. Or a year. For anything that’s been dragging on over eighteen months to two years, it might be time to move on – but your agent will advise you and will almost certainly have a back-up plan. A good agent should be in it for the long haul. Sadly, it’s a fact that the longer your book is out on submission to publishers, the less likely it is to sell. However – it does happen. And as a fallout from the pandemic, editors have been taking far longer than usual to respond. So be patient. You never know – you might sell your book years after finishing it.

What happens after you get your book deal?

Once you get a book deal with a traditional publisher, then what? Your book gets published soon after, right? Well, no. On average, it take about two years from the ink on your book publishing contract to dry to your book appearing on shelves. TWO YEARS. Wild, right?

Why getting a book deal with a traditional publisher really takes so long

Because: publishing. Here’s a great Twitter thread I read recently from a Senior Editor at Barefoot Books that shed light on the way things move at an independent press (hint: also extremely slowly).

What can you do to speed up getting book deal with a traditional publisher?

Absolutely nothing! The factors that land you at a book deal are often out of your control. Concentrate on controlling the things you can control: write your book, and write it well. Then write another one.

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