The Path #4: Pitching My Book to Publishers
In this series, 'The Path', I'll discuss my journey, as it's happening, in going from manuscript to commercial publication for the first time. As always, keep in mind that experiences will vary; this is just what my path looked like.
In the last post, I talked about what happened after I signed with my agent -- spoiler alert: a lot of revision. In this month’s post, I’ll talk about the exciting period wherein my agent pitched my book to publishers for possible sale.
So, after about 11 months of revisions with Sarah The Agent, we both felt ready to (finally) put the book out on submission in October 2019!
Though that previous 11-month revision phase was a long and at times trying process, I wouldn’t change it. The fact is, my book needed those revisions, and I learned a lot about my own writerly pitfalls, quirks, and weak spots. It was an incredible learning experience, and it was never lost on me that all of the work and effort and belief my agent was bestowing on me was done purely on spec. She had not made a red cent on me or my work in all that time. That’s belief. That’s dedication.
The long runway to pitch also helped me feel a certain kind of closure and peace about whatever would come next: I'd been flexible, I’d listened, I’d taken criticism, I’d worked hard, and the book was better for it. I had put myself in as good a position as I could ask for. Whatever happened or didn’t happen, I could hold my head high knowing I had done all I could reasonably do to make it something worth investing in.
In contrast to the long slog of the revision process, the pitch/submission process felt fast and furious. Which was a welcome change!
On October 22 (a Tuesday), while I finished up minor tweaks on the manuscript, Sarah sent me the “pitch letter” she would be sending out to the various editors/publishing houses on that coming Thursday, October 24. The letter is exactly what it sounds like; more or less a one-page sales pitch -- very similar to what writers send as query letters to agents -- describing the book’s ethos, plot, and market context. The letter I saw was six paragraphs which broke down like this:
Para 1: Opening hook. “I have the perfect end of October book, ripe for the cold, dark evenings ahead…”
Paras 2-4: Plot synopsis.
Para 5: My book contextualized with other recent comparable books in the market. Sarah used the following titles: Whisper Network, Big Little Lies, Dark Places, My Dark Vanessa.
Para 6: A few sentences about me, the author (bio).
I gave Sarah my approval on the letter on the 22nd, and on the morning of the 23rd we had a call to go over the process of how the pitch would work. After our call, she sent me the list of editors/publishing houses she intended to send to. It included everything from Random House to Ballantine to Viking to Scribner to Knopf/Doubleday to Sourcebooks to Simon & Schuster.
So here is how the pitch process actually worked.
On the morning of the 24th Sarah spent the morning sending out about 30 emails to various editors at various publishing houses who have a focus on the type of book I had written -- an upmarket thriller. Each editor would get the pitch letter and the manuscript. Then, we simply had to wait. Sarah assured me that more than likely, we would have an answer back from everyone, one way or the other, within 2-4 weeks. Again, this felt like a very condensed timeline compared to all that had come before! So while it was a bit nervy waiting to hear back, dealing in a handful of weeks seemed doable.
Sarah -- in her infinite wisdom -- also suggested that we handle responses in the following way: she would give me weekly updates about rejections and not plague me with every one that came in as they came in. If I wanted to hear the feedback from those rejections, I could ask her and she would supply it. If anything substantively positive started to brew, she would be in touch as it happened. This is a good idea and I would do it this way again. Because ultimately, for me -- and I think for most writers -- this phase is mostly rejections, and that can decimate any confidence you might have, or any joy you might take in the excitement of the process.
As Sarah kept telling me: you only need one!
On November 5 (about 11 days into the submission period), I got my first call request! I had already received several-to-many (can’t quite remember) rejections by this point (things really do move fast!), though many of the rejections were “positive,” Sarah told me. Which, while you’re in the thick of a rejection barrage feels sort of obscure and ungraspable and unhelpful. In reality, however, it’s great to make a good impression with these editors even if they don't bite! Of course it is! Because if you have another project later on, you’ve already primed them in a favorable way, which never hurts.
So -- the call request!
A wonderful editor at Crooked Lane Books had contacted Sarah with interest. Sarah explained that call requests, which are very standard in the process, were sort of like casual job interviews -- it meant they were very interested in the book but that they wanted to talk me to get a feel for two main things:
Would we work well together? Do we click?
Are our visions aligned for the book/story?
If the editor was still interested after the call, Sarah explained, we would likely receive an offer fairly quickly -- within a day or two.
The call was actually really fun, in large part because job one for the editor on the other end of the line is to indicate to you, the author, how much they love your book! Their job is to butter you up!
So, there are lots of compliments and nuanced expressions of what she connected to in the manuscript, which is all incredibly flattering and sort of shocking after such a solitary process filled with revision upon revision over, in my case, two years. You’re reminded that hey -- this is a living thing with value that is brand new to someone! And that is a wonderful revelation after so much time grinding and grinding on your own.
After this initial lovefest, she open up the conversation to ask me things like:
What made you write this book?
How did you come to this story?
And other interesting questions about the characters, plot, etc. Which is fun to talk about! Because, of course, this story and these characters had been living inside of me for so long and now, finally, was someone new to talk to who knew the world, too!
And these questions gave me a lot of room and latitude to talk about my process and organically convey a sense of my personality. It was all very conversational and enjoyable.
After this, the editor got a little more business-like. She talked about where she saw my book in the marketplace and what I could expect from them, broadly, in terms of PR support, etc. She then asked me if I would be comfortable with a revision process, and then gave me a few specific examples of places in the book where she might suggest changes be made, and I responded to that. She also expressed her mild concern with the fact that my first book (AMERICAN VAUDEVILLE, Mammoth Books, 2016) hadn’t sold very many copies. It was a small press literary novel, so this wasn’t a shocker to anyone. But places like Barnes & Noble look at these Bookscan stats about sales and use that information to help them figure out which authors to bet on when ordering stock. If my past track record doesn’t look so hot, they may not take a chance on this new book -- even though it is very different from and much more commercial than my first book. Because of this, she asked me if I could see myself being comfortable with writing under a different name. Internally I did NOT like this idea, but I gave a general answer about the possibility of being open to considering something like that.
She wrapped up by reiterating her love for the book and a hope that we might work together. And that was it!
Helpfully, my agent was on the call -- which is standard. Having your agent on these calls is great for a few different reasons:
First, you have an experienced and expert set of ears also hearing everything you’re hearing. And even though the editor we spoke to could not have been more lovely and kind, it’s still a sort of nervy experience, and it could be easy to forget exactly what was said.
Second, Sarah was able to gently and professionally insert questions on my behalf that I would not have thought of myself about all sorts of business-end things, though editors are careful not to tip their hand about things explicitly regarding PR budgets, etc.
Third, Sarah took notes of the call so we had a record of events that we then went through, together, right after the call. We hung up with the editor and then she called me right away to talk through everything.
The next day, on November 6, the editor from Crooked Lane sent my agent an offer to buy my novel, which was incredibly exciting! The offer was simply in the body of an email laying out the proposed advance amount, rights they would like to acquire for that amount (world rights vs. North American, etc), and a few other things. It was simple -- maybe 200 words total.
This is truly where it is invaluable to have an agent.
Sarah was able to help guide me about what was a fair offer, if the submission pool was still active and favorable enough to hold out for other call requests/offers, and what rights it made sense to sell or not sell.
Sarah was also the one who did all the direct communication with the editor, which helped to keep me, the author, a sort of neutral party in the proceedings. Sarah indicated to the editor that we were grateful for the offer and were considering it, but wanted to give all publishers a chance to respond before we made any final decisions.
And so we waited for any other news.
I got another call request from Amazon’s Lake Union Publishing (also on November 6, same day as the Crooked Lane offer).The editor there was SUPER pumped about the book, but when she went to feed it up the food chain to get the permissions to go ahead with a call, she was ultimately denied, kind of at the last minute, which was a bummer. The editors above her were not as excited about it as she was, so that call fell apart. It was an interesting learning experience. You can send your book to the right editor, who might love it, but if it doesn’t get buy-in up the food chain, it ends up being dead on arrival.
Then, I got a third and final call request from Sourcebooks, one of the largest independent publishers in the United States, on November 7. We ended up scheduling a call for November 12. The call was very similar in structure to the Crooked Lane call, but what I found on this call was that -- just like finding your perfect mate or your dream wedding dress -- things just organically felt right. And felt good. Everything with the other editor and publisher had been lovely and exciting, too, and yet I found myself drawn to the editor at Sourcebooks and all the things she told me about organization. She also didn't express concern about my past book sales or a need to change my pen name, which was sort of a relief.
I had an offer in hand from another publisher, and yet after my call with Sourcebooks, I felt like a middle schooler crushing hard. I found myself hoping against hope that Sourcebooks would get in touch again, make an offer.
It turns out they did get in touch, and they did make an offer.
GOING TO AUCTION
It was at this point that it became clear that the Crooked Lane and Sourcebooks offers were the only ones that were going to come in. We had heard back from everyone else.
So Sarah set up an auction -- which I know sounds like a dramatic word for a situation only involving two possible buyers. But that’s what it’s called and, hey, that’s kinda fun.
On Thursday, November 14, Sarah sent out the “closing notice” alerting Crooked Lane and Sourcebooks about the terms of the auction, including that their deadline to email Sarah their final offers was Monday, November 18.
It was a nervy weekend.
When the final offers came in, both advance amounts were higher than originally offered. But ultimately I ended up choosing Sourcebooks, which was a really rewarding thing to do -- because my heart and my head were in concert. I wanted to work with Sourcebooks, based on the call I had had, but I knew I had to see what the offers said before I could make a truly informed decision. Luckily for me, the decision was easy because as an all-around offer, my agent and I both agreed that the Sourcebooks offer was better. I was thrilled!
We accepted the offer that day. Two days later, I was put back in touch with that wonderful editor at Sourcebooks I had spoken to on the phone the week before! Editors, I learned, hold such an interesting and key position within publishing houses, as evidenced by my experience. They receive pitches and manuscripts from agents just like mine, work their way through them, pick their favorites. Then they have to champion those books to the higher-ups at their publisher to get permission to even call the author. Then after the call, they have to work with their team members to put together an offer (if they’re still interested, of course). Then, after the sale, that same editor becomes YOUR editor for THAT book that they just read, championed, and bought!
It’s really quite a soup to nuts job.
So. I had reached the mountaintop!
After a lifetime of dreaming of becoming a professional author, many years of schooling in the writing arts, four novel manuscripts, two separate agent-acquisition attempts, a year of drafting, a year of revising, and one month of pitching to publishers, I had done it! It remains one of my proudest achievements and most exciting memories, and my work with that magical editor, MJ, has been everything I could have hoped for. (More on that in a future post).
NUTS & BOLTS
By November 21, the official “deal announcement” was up on Publisher’s Marketplace, the industry stalwart for publishing industry news.
We received the first draft contract on November 26. I reviewed this carefully with my agent, who answered all questions I had, and made requests for amendments for more favorable terms for me in some areas. After Sarah and I were done with it, Sarah sent it on to the contracts department at the literary agency for review and approval.
On December 10 the contracts department sent me back the “redline” of the contract, wherein the agency’s lawyers made suggestions for edits to the contract for me and Sarah to review and approve.
The contract was finalized and signed by all parties on January 14. So from the digital “handshake deal” on November 18 to the legal contract being finalized was a span of about two months. I received the first portion of my advance “upon signing of the contract,” which in reality meant early March by the time the check got to me.
Important real-world note here: my agent gets 15% of my advance earnings, and I arranged to have that taken out by the agency before the final checks get to me. So my first advance payment (half of the overall advance) was half minus 15%. From that I had to pay taxes at the self-employed rate. I suggest seeking advice from a professional about this part, because things can get squirrely if you’re not a math and tax code whiz (I am not a math or tax code whiz). At the end of the day, after agent fee and taxes, I pocket roughly half of each advance payment that comes in. In my case, my advance is split into two parts -- one half upon “signing of the contract” and the other half upon “acceptance of the manuscript” by Sourcebooks as ready for production (so, after the revision rounds). So, for me, that will likely happen in the next month or two (I JUST finished final revisions for my editor -- woot woot!).
ONE MORE THING
I will note here that after my book sold to Sourcebooks in mid-November, my agent felt that there could be some opportunity to pitch the book to UK publishers. Sometime in December, we followed the same protocols as we had done in the states, with the submissions and offers being facilitated by Levine Greenberg Rostan’s UK sister-agency Abner Stein.
I received an offer (just the one) from Titan Books on January 28, which I giddily accepted.
So when my book comes out next year (2021), it will, at the time of this writing, be published in the United States and the United Kingdom, which is incredibly exciting.
The Titan Books (UK) advance is broken down into four parts, and I have yet to see any of that due to the particular structure of it. But that, too, should change soon. The structure for that deal is also affected by the fact that it is for TWO books; which means that they bought the UK rights to my next publishable work in the same genre (even though it’s not written yet).
It’s possible my agent will think it is prudent to try to sell more international rights for this novel further down the road, but a lot of that depends, I think, on how well (or poorly) the book does when it is released next year. Here’s to hoping things go well!
The most exciting thing about this for both me and my husband, who is also a book nerd, is that there will be two book covers. I am so stoked for that, I can’t even tell you.
In next month’s post, I’ll talk about what the next steps were with my editor now that I had “inked” the deal.
Until next time...
Wear a mask.
Black lives matter.
And happy reading,