How to Land a Traditional Publishing Contract as a Freelance Writer: 5 Keys

If you’re a regular InkwellEditorial.com reader, you know that I landed a contract to write a book for a trade publisher this past December. Since I announced it, I’ve had emails from several freelancers asking me how I did it.

The truth is, I didn’t do anything. An editor from the publisher contacted me. Since I got the contract, I’ve done some digging around on the web, as I’ve been thinking, “Hmm, would I like to land another one of these contracts? How feasible is it?

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5 Tips on How to Get a Book Deal from a Traditional Trade Publisher

Here’s some insight into what I’ve learned that may help you.

I. Create a Body of Work

I’ve been a freelance writer since 1993 and have written hundreds, if not a few thousand, blog posts and web articles on freelancing. And what do you know, this is what garnered the attention of the Acquisitions Editor who contacted me. She wrote:

How to Freelance Guidebook
Even though this editor wrote that she was impressed with my bio, it was my body of work on freelancing that sold her because what did they want me to write? A book about how to freelance, which my bio clearly highlights I’m qualified to do.

I emailed her back, writing, “Regarding your project, this is something I could do in my sleep!”

Main advantage of creating a body of work when trying to land a publishing contract? It lets potential publishers know that you have the experience to tackle the subject matter.

II. Get Your Body of Work Visible on the Web

My body of work is on the web.

I have two blogs I currently update (this one and its sister blog, SeoWritingJobs.com (which is a niche blog devoted to online writing)), and an article directory which showcases tons of articles on various aspects of freelancing, and a few other niches I dabble in.

If my work had not been visible online, this editor probably never would have found me.

And by having your own site(s), if you ever decide to pitch a publisher on your own, you’ll have some place to direct them so they can see your body of work in its entirety.

This is just one reason all freelance writers need a website – one that is hosted on their own domain, as opposed to freebie sites like weebly.

5 Reasons Every Freelance Writer Needs a Website – Whether Or Not You Want a Publishing Contract

Your own writing site is your “home on the web.” It’s something you want to hold the keys to so you can:

i) Update it when you need to: Eg, pricing, services, design, etc.;

ii) Sell stuff: You can turn your site into an e-commerce outlet to sell products and services from if you want, eg, I sell my own line of freelance writing ebooks and e-classes from mine;

iii) Start to build an email subscriber list: Put an email subscriber box on your site and offer freebies to get readers to sign up so you don’t lose website visitors. Every person who lands on your site is a potential customer – either now or at some point in the future. By building a subscriber list, you have the opportunity to turn them into a customer –if/when you decide to offer a product/service pertinent to your niche;

iv) Increase your visibility on the web: By having a “home” on the web, if you update your site frequently enough – and SEO the content there – you can exponentially increase your visibility within your given niche because a lot of freelance writers don’t bother to do this;

If you’re a health insurance writer, for example, make sure to SEO your content for keywords and phrases pertinent to that niche. So if a publisher is looking for someone to write a booklet on, for example, long-term care insurance, your site/bio will pop up in search results; and

v) Deepen your web footprint: This piggybacks on the last point and is akin to creating a “credit history.” To explain, one of the factors credit agencies look at in determining your credit score is how many accounts you have open and how old they are. The longer you’ve had an account open – with a good payment history – the better it looks.

It tells possible creditors that you’re stable; that you’ve been a good credit risk for a long time.

Well the same thing applies to your freelance writing website. The longer you have one – that is updated frequently (that has a good history); the more stable you appear to potential clients. It signals that you take your career seriously and are not just “giving this freelance thing” a try; that you’ve been around for a long time and aren’t going anywhere.

Even though the editor who contacted me didn’t say it, I wonder how many other writer sites she went to that were either dead or not frequently updated before she landed on mine. Not only has InkwellEditorial.com been live on the web since 1999, it’s updated frequently, with tons of content relevant to freelancing general and freelance writing in particular – so she probably felt pretty assured that I wasn’t a fly-by-night freelancer who was going to disappear.

My deep web footprint made her feel confident that I’d been in the game for a while – and knew what I was talking about. Now do you see why this is important?

I hope so.

Main advantage of getting your body of work visible on the web when trying to get a publishing contract? It helps potential publishers find you.

III. Create a Body of Work in a Defined Niche

The world is all about niche these days. You can find it in every aspect of life – from cooking to banking. This is not by accident. My overall take is that we live in a global society.

The world is too big for any business/person/entity to be all things to everybody — except for Walmart). You can buy everything from diapers to patio furniture, and cash checks, get your taxes done and go to the eye doctor. They really do seem to take care of your every need. But, I digress.

Given this global economy, it’s so much easier to focus on serving one niche – and servicing them really, really well. As a freelance writer, it can be much easier to land jobs and much more lucrative too. How/why? As Skyword writer Ellen Miller describes in the above, linked-to post outlining how to find a niche:

That’s because brands aren’t just looking for good writers; they’re looking for good writers with very particular areas of expertise. By carving out a content writing niche and becoming a subject matter expert, you’ll see more freelance job opportunities and higher paychecks.

Main advantage of creating a body of work in a defined niche when trying to land a publishing contract? It establishes you as an expert, which makes it easier for a publisher/editor to green light your query/proposal. Again, what did the publisher I’m writing for contact me about – a book on freelancing; a niche I’ve been writing in/on/about for over 20 years.

IV. Actively Seek a Publisher

While I didn’t do this, it’s certainly something I’m thinking of doing* now that I will have one book under my belt. Even though I’ve been in publishing since 1987 and have (self) published close to 90 books (fiction and non-fiction), this is my first traditional publishing contract.

FYI, here’s a list of the top trade publishers in the U.S. Most have imprints (smaller, off-shoot divisions), which is why there are so many publishers. Many of these imprints cater to specific niches (eg, education).

I’ve done some digging around on the web on what it takes to land a traditional publishing contract with a trade publisher for non-fiction books (not fiction)); following is what I’ve found.

*Update: I do pretty well on my own as a self-publisher, so I’ve re-thought this. Number one, it takes too long to track down publishers and submit according to their guidelines. Then, you have to wait for them to get back toyou (which could take months or even a year or longer), and then, the pay — from what I’ve read from others, it just doesn’t stack up to what I earn as a self-publisher.

So if another contract falls in my lap like this one did and it’s right for me, I’ll take it. But, I won’t actively seek any out. That’s time that I could put to better use, ie, publishing more books or developing and selling more e-courses.

Writing Non-Fiction for a Trade Publisher — 3 Insights

i) Many publishers are interested in working with never-before-published authors: So this needn’t be a stumbling block, especially if you have a body of work within a defined niche.

ii) Advance/Pay: Most traditional trade publishing contracts – for non-fiction, how-to books – pay advances in the $5,000 to $20,000 range, unless you’re a famous author or the book is part of a package deal. Then, of course, it could run in the tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of dollars.

And, you usually get a cut on the back end as well – in the form of royalties on copies sold (electronic, as well as paper and hard copy versions).

FYI, here’s an in-depth explanation of how author payments are earned and dispensed by most traditional publishers.

Working with Editors When You Write a Book for a Traditional Publisher

iii) How to Approach Editors: Most publishers require a query letter and/or a book proposal: These should be succinct and to the point. And, be sure to send your query/proposal to the correct editor. Publishing houses have different kinds of editors.

For example, the editor who approached me about writing the book I’m currently working on was the Acquisitions Editor (AE). That’s what they do; they are primarily responsible for buying manuscripts and/or contracting authors to write books for their publisher.

Once the contract was signed and I finished the writing, the AE handed me off to the Development Editor, who is primarily responsible for whipping the content into shape. He’s going through the manuscript and suggesting edits, reorganizations of chapters, parts that need to be fleshed out more, etc.

Then, once he’s done, the manuscript will be handed off to the Copy Editor. Usually, as an author you won’t have any more input at this point because it’s just a matter of making sure the content is free off grammar and spelling errors and that it’s organized correctly.

Main advantage of actively seeking a publisher when trying to land a publishing contract? You don’t have to wait (hope, pray) for them to come to you. By being proactive, you exponentially increase your chance of actually getting a deal if that’s the route you want to go.

V. Write a Book

One of the best ways to prove to a publisher that you can write a book for them is to … write one. And with self-publishing being so easy these days, there’s really no excuse not to.

I started self-publishing ebooks in 2002 – long before this was a commonly used term, and before there were so many outlets to distribute to and easy-to-use technology to help you. As I said above, I’ve self-published approximately 90 ebooks – so it would be easy for them to see that that I’m the right person for the job — if they like my query/proposal.

Main advantage of writing a book when trying to land a publishing contract? The proof is in the pudding — you’ve done it; you’ve actually written at least one book.


Landing a traditional publishing contract can do wonders for your freelance writing career on a number of fronts, eg, increase your confidence and expand your client base.

It’s helped me to get a handle on how publishing houses work these days; improve my writing (the Developmental Editor has had some great insights); and given me ideas for titles to pitch to publishers.

FYI, many writers make a living just by writing for trade publishers, and one of the most lucrative areas for this is scholarly/educational/textbook publishing. Why? As explained a chapter from Getting It Published: A Guide for Scholars and Anyone Else Serious about Serious Books:

The publisher who produced the Psychology 101 text you’ve assigned in your lecture class won’t be selling it to anyone other than students, but they will buy it because it is a requirement of the course—and usually a requirement of that course semester after semester. …

… Textbook publishing addresses real curricular needs, and attacks those needs with all the powers at its disposal—high-quality production, prestigious authors and advisors, sales reps who knock on professors’ doors urging them to adopt a particular title, and a painstaking review process. A well-reviewed work of serious trade nonfiction may earn you a bit of money, as well as professional kudos.

And this is why it can be so lucrative, especially if you become the “go to” freelance writer in a particular subject. Freelancer John Soares is a prime example of someone who does this. He left his college teaching position in 1994 to focus writing for college/higher education textbook publishers as a freelancer.

He also blogs at ProductiveWriters.com, dispensing tons of helpful advice to freelance writers on topics over and beyond writing for textbook publishers.

If you read posts on popular blogs like John’s or Inkwell Editorial or any number of blogs on freelance writing, you’ll soon learn that there’s more than one way to skin the freelance writing cat. Getting a traditional publishing contract to write a book is just one more way to do it.

Your Take?

Have you ever written a book for a trade publisher? How did you get the gig? Did you like the work? What insight can you provide? Does this type of freelance writing interest you? Please share your feelings, comments, and experiences in the comments section below.

P.S.: Ready to make money as a self-published author?

ebook-publishing-packGet the complete self-publishing packagewhich teaches you everything you need to know about how to write a book and self-publish it — and start building your own publishing empire, which can land you a traditional publishing contract (if that is your wish).

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    1. Yuwanda, big congrats on landing a book contract for a traditional publisher. That’s not easy to do!

      And thanks for mentioning my Higher Education Writer site in the post. It has been a successful niche for me for many years.

      I’ve actually also written books for traditional publishers, and I’m working on new editions of two of my books right now. As you know, writing books is a lot of work, but it can definitely be both fun and financially rewarding.

      • Thank you John for your well wishes. Much appreciated.

        And you’re right, it is a lot of work — A LOT, but I’m learning a ton and hopefully will be able to parlay this into another contract.

        Continued success to you.

    2. Hi Yuwanda!

      Congratulations on your book. It must be a good feeling to be traditionally published (in addition to all your self-published books) – and a really good feeling to know they sought you out! 🙂

      You go girl!

      • Deevra:

        It was indeed flattering to be sought out, so thanks. I just look at it as it only took over 20 years of work to get a contract “out of the blue.” LOL! 🙂