How Book Publishers Decide What to Pay Authors

Literary Agent Joelle Delbourgo: "The first sentence of the query letter will tell you whether or not I’m going to get to the second sentence."

Literary Agent Joelle Delbourgo: "The first sentence of the query letter will tell you whether or not I’m going to get to the second sentence."

Joelle Delbourgo worked in the executive suites of major publishers before she started Joelle Delbourgo Associates, her own literary agency. Her last in-house job was with HarperCollins.

I’m not sure the skills that make you a good editor-in-chief are the same as those that make you a great literary agent, but unlike most, Delbourgo has managed the transition successfully. Her agency has grown to three people and just celebrated its tenth anniversary.

The authors she represents are extremely lucky to have her. She is incredibly articulate and passionate—not just about the books she represents, but about the publishing industry in general.

Joelle is interested in non-fiction offering groundbreaking new ideas, and research based books that shed new perspectives on issues.

If you want to impress her, here’s what it takes: “I’m really looking for originality, I’m looking for things that are distinctive, I’m looking for people who really created a platform over a long period of time or just absolutely beautiful writing that grabs you from the first page.”

If you’re an expert and/or leader in psychology, business, health, medicine, women’s issues, philosophy, science, or history, she’d be a good agent to approach.

She’s also seeking literary fiction and commercial fiction including women’s fiction, non-category thrillers, and suspense and mysteries.

Joelle is someone, like former Oprah producer Karen Melamed, who is influenced by the visual ( “When I look at a query letter,” she says, “the way that it looks physically on the page actually influences me to read it or not.”

Of course, the writing has to be good, too:  “The first sentence of the query letter will tell you whether or not I’m going to get to the second sentence. It is so important to craft this well and to speak in your voice.”

Don’t be discouraged if she turns you down, though.  It’s not just a matter of falling in love with your book. You could have a great manuscript, but Delbourgo could be the wrong person to market it.

She’s most likely to be interested if she has a particular editor to target:

“I have to feel like I know exactly who I want to talk to about this book. [For example,] I know that Michael at St. Martin’s Press is going to love this book and I can’t wait to talk to him about it . . . So it’s not just what are these different houses publishing, but what do we know about the different editors based on years of talking to them and having lunch with them and discussing books with them and knowing things about their personal lives that are relevant.”

If you’re keeping score, add that to your list of reasons why it’s worth the 15% it costs to have an experienced agent represent you, rather than trying to get published yourself.

Delbourgo also let me in on a secret that makes a difference in how much an author gets paid. It’s common knowledge that publishers want of examples of successful books that are similar to the one that’s being pitched.

But she surprised me when she said, “They prefer to have an internal model. So every publisher is really looking at their own list, [and saying]‘Is there a book that we published that is similar to this book?’ ”

When you think about it, it makes perfect sense. After all, it’s easier to crunch numbers you actually have than to guess what the numbers were for some other publisher. As an editor, you can go straight to your own accounting department and ask for the fundamental comparisons that go into deciding whether or not to publish a book: How many books were distributed? How many actually sold? What were the marketing costs?

Delbourgo says, “Those are . . . the questions they use to structure the profit and loss statement they’re going to build to determine what kind of advance they can pay you.”


There were many more highlights to my interview with Joelle Delbourgo than I can cover here, including up-to-date information on what publishers are looking for right now in the various categories of books she represents.

You can enjoy this interview (along with three other one hour interviews with agents) for fr/ee when you sign up for Agent University, the 6 CD set that tells you how to land the best agent for your book and your career.

Agent University also comes with a CD that gives you details as to how publishers decide whether or not to buy your book—and how much money they can pay you. You also get 2 hours with a former Oprah producer on how to get booked on national television shows.

Plus the first three people to order will also get a free 20 minute consultation with me on any topic relating to writing, selling, publishing, publicizing or marketing your book.

I’m giving away Agent University for FR/EE because so many agents want authors to be more educated. (There is a nominal charge for shipping and handling.)

Agent University is available at:

If you want to get published well, you need to give yourself a solid education on the publishing industry.

Here’s what Joelle Delbourgo says: “What you’re doing  . . .is good for us [agents,] because the more authors know and the more they understand the business the more successful they can be.”

I’m looking forward to continuing to help you understand the business.