In the span of six weeks I acquired a literary agent, wrote a book proposal, met with publishers in New York City, and signed my first book deal. It was such a constant flurry of activity that I didn’t get a lot of time to reflect on the process.
I thought perhaps I’d share what I’m learning as I’m learning it. Take you, the readers and the writers, on the journey with me from pitch to published book: starting with a few things I think everyone should know when they begin — some of which I knew when I started, but lots I’m only learning now, as I’m telling you about it.
1. Getting an agent is who-you-know.
I was dubious of this claim at first, thinking that it was more authentic to query hundreds of hundreds of agents until someone showed interest. Looking back, that seems not only futile, but a real waste of time. It wasn’t until I stopped querying (which I did for about six months non-stop) and started “doing stuff” that the connection to an agent happened.
When I spoke at a medical conference at Stanford University, someone who was attending my talk actually tweeted to someone who they’d met online who they thought would be interested in my talk. He was. And he got in touch with me a few days later, when I was in the airport getting ready to fly home, and asked me if I had literary representation. He wanted to introduce me to his agent.
So he did — one of those three-way introductory emails ensued. We chatted. Then we Skyped. Then I signed a contract.
Querying is perfectly valid if you’re touting a complete novel, but since I was working on nonfiction, something decidedly memoir-ish, finding the right agent for me, who could really shape up a proper book proposal, was an essential first step. And I really don’t think I could have navigated it entirely cold, as one does when querying.
2. Who your agent knows is important, too.
One very simple thing that makes a literary agent your biggest asset is who they know in publishing. Sometimes literary agents have come into the biz somewhat horizontally; perhaps they were book editors at a publisher prior to becoming an agent. They’ll have a keen understanding of the inner-workings of publishing houses, what editors are looking for, and the depth and breadth of a publicist’s connections. When they’re sending out your proposal or manuscript to publishers for consideration, they’ll likely send it to a wide-swatch, but many of the editors are people they probably interact with on a semi-regular basis, and they’ll know who might be willing to bite. Once you get some offers, they’ll also know going in what a particular publisher’s “bottom line” is — and make sure that you get it.
3. Your agent really does all the money-talk.
This was actually hard for me; as a freelancer, I’m used to negotiating my own contracts, chasing down payments, and talking money when it comes to what I’m writing. Having to essentially let go of that while my agent negotiated with the publisher was nerve-wracking — mostly because it was just so different from what I’m accustomed to. I realized pretty quickly however that I trusted my agent implicitly. She’d been really transparent about the process and had patiently answered all my questions. In the end, she got us a larger advance than I would have expected being a first-time author. Remember, it’s in your agent’s best interest to get a solid contract: they get a certain percentage of your earnings, including any advance on royalties.
4. Meeting with editors and publishers is more or less an audition.
When you show up for a meeting with an interested publisher (and their team), at this point you can rest assured that they’re interested in your book — now they’ve got to see if they’re interested in you. And vice versa! Meeting with a potential publisher is as much a chance for them to woo you. The publishing team includes editors, publicists, and a marketing team, all who will be trying to suss out if you’re an author who can carry the weight of selling your book. This includes your “platform” — like how many Twitter followers you have or blog hits you get in a month, and your overall personality — would you be a fun interview?
Especially with memoir, the author has to be able to sell the book. It’s your story after all, so publishers want to see that you’re as compelling in the flesh as you are on paper. That’s the reality of a saturated market — you’ve got to stand out. Word of mouth is still a really valid way of selling books — especially with the advent of social media, where people can make recommendations to a lot of people with a single click.
5. The process is a long one.
Beginning with the contract negotiations, the many facets of a “book deal” coming together are not instantaneous. If you’re proposing non-fiction, all these discussions happen before you’ve even written the book. So, part of your contract is a delivery date — when you’ll hand over the manuscript. From then on out, it takes at least another year for the book to be ready for release. And even then, publishers may hold a book back for a multitude of reasons. So it can still be years before you actually see your book on the shelves.
In my case, the book will be written by the end of the year but I don’t expect it to be published any earlier than spring of 2017. A lot of publishing is about timing, and a book might well be done and ready to hit the shelves a season or two before it’s released: strategically releasing a book to coincide with particular events, or times of the year where reviewers are most likely to see it, is as much about giving the book a wide release as it is making money for the author.
6. You’re not making money. Not really.
Getting a book deal is exciting, and for many writers (myself included), it was an important career marker. A totem of success unlike any other, really. But even when you get an advance, it’s not really money that you make. It’s money that is, essentially, loaned to you for investment into your book. And you won’t start making royalties until your books’ sales have earned back the amount of your advance. Even then, in the interim between when you’ve written the book, it gets published, and you start earning royalties, years can elapse. And you’re promoting your book and, hopefully, engaged in something that gives you a regular income. It’ll be years — if ever at all — before you can “live off” your book.
Even still, royalties are only a percentage of a book’s sales. A hardcover book might retail for $25-$30, but you aren’t making that amount each time a book sells. More like 7% of that. That’s about $2 per book for hardback editions, if your book is even in hardcover.
7. You won’t feel more like a “real writer” just because you get a book deal.
At least I don’t. I thought I’d magically feel “legit” when I signed a book deal, but I honestly don’t feel any different. Maybe a little more stressed— trying to balance a full-time job, my favorite freelance gigs and researching and writing my first book—but I still feel like me. I didn’t magically feel any less like a fraud, or an imposter — I’m still, even now, plagued by insecurities. But most of the writers I’ve talked to, many of whom have more success than I may ever know, still feel that way.
So, maybe feeling like a “real writer” means . . .well, feeling like you aren’t a “real writer,” whatever that is!
Although, it might change how other people see you. After I announced my book deal, people started being strangely deferential to me. You’ll be surprised how many people come out of the woodwork to say, “Oh, well, I’ve written a book but I’ve never done anything with it,” or you go to a party and suddenly everyone says things like, “I have a story that would make a great book!” I find, with enough wine, this can be pretty fun. It’s a nice way to hear stories that you might not have ever heard.
But you have to keep your close friends — those who know you— really, really know you — near to you so that you don’t get a big head, but also, so you can withstand the flack and criticism that comes with the territory. Some of which will be highly personal. I’ve been doxxed on the internet several times, and it never gets less creepy. But knowing I have a network of people in my community who love me and look out for me makes it much easier to handle. As does having the belief of an agent, an editor, and a publisher who believe in my book and in me as a writer.
[Editor’s Note: This is the first of a series of CRAFT articles by Abby Norman, in which she’ll take us along on her journey from pitch to publication.][boxer set=”norman”]