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Selling Your Book, From Fantasy (An Auction! Best-Seller! Oprah!) to Reality

In business, Media on October 8, 2009 at 7:33 am
Books in the :en:Douglasville, Georgia Borders...

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J-Day returns! This time, a three-part series on how — if you’re not Malcolm Gladwell — to sell and write a non-fiction book.

Next Thursday, two veteran New York City agents, Kathleen Anderson and Joe Spieler, with NYT best-selling clients, share their stories. On October 22, Kelsey Timmerman and Ulrich Boser, non-fiction authors, talk about what it took them to develop, sell and write their books.

For many ambitious writers, seeing your book on a store or library shelf is a powerful and compelling dream. A number of True/Slant contributors have written books, (Ali Eteraz’ memoir comes out this month. Congrats!), so they’ve also felt the joy and terror of achieving it. But, for most of us, selling and writing a book offers a sobering education, as so many cherished fantasies of Becoming An Author — Your life will change! You’ll be rich! You’ll be famous! They’ll make big fat piles of your book on those tables at the front of the bookstore! — quickly evaporate under the glare of commercial reality.

Do not quit your day job. Your advance, for example. Wow — $50,000! (Or whatever.) You don’t get it all at once. I’ve never heard of anyone who does. Non-writers assume you’re setting up your laptop on some Bora Bora beach for the duration, as you simply now have so much dough, you’re all set. Hah! These days, you’ll be fortunate to get your advance in four instalments over as long as two years, each of them whacked by your agent’s 15% off the top and, oh yeah, taxes. Do the math, and keep on producing non-book income.

I finally sold my first book in 2002, and that was after a number of false starts — involving a lot of hard work each time writing a 30-50 page book proposal, finding an agent to read and rep it and send it out. Not to mention nursing the wounds of rejection. I did that for at least two or three totally different ideas, (I forget how many, it was painful!), one of which was soundly rejected and went on to climb the best-seller list when, virtually identical in focus and tone, it was produced by a Big Name Writer. Ouch.

I just sold my second book a few weeks ago. Like my last book, this one went out in proposal form to 25 major New York publishers and one bought it. That means 24 others “passed”, either dropping out of the race or writing some pretty stinging emails rejecting it. Trying to sell your book, or book proposal, is not a competition to enter lightly. Unless you are already a Really Big Star, wrap your soul and your ego in Teflon!

Here are some of the elements that combined (as they must), like tumblers in a lock, to open the door to my new book. Keep them in mind when trying to sell yours:

Luck I spoke on a panel in March 2009 to a room full of people in Manhattan about freelancing. I’ve done a lot of public speaking about various aspects of writing, so this was not unusual for me — but it also gave me visibility in a city jammed with competitors also hoping to publish their books. A young woman in the audience, who had engaged me in lively debate during the panel, approached me afterward and handed me her card; she works with a Manhattan literary agent and suggested I write a memoir. It hadn’t occurred to me. I’d never heard of the agent.

Preparation I’ve spent 20 years in New York, writing for a variety of national publications and years before that in Canada writing for newspapers and magazines. I’ve been playing the best game I know how in the city that still has the richest matrix of editors, publishers and agents, all of whom read The New York Times, for whom I’ve been writing since 1990. The book comes out of a New York Times essay that ran February 14, 2009 and will also appear in different form in Smithsonian’s December 2009 issue. Publishers want proof, and a track record of it, there is an appetite for your voice and your ideas, that you already have an audience.

Timing My book will focus on retail, a field I’ve gotten to know since taking a low-level job to make some extra money. That wasn’t a choice per se terribly interesting to many people in 2007, but a year later we entered the worst recession in 70 years. Now, arguably, it matters more, as millions of others now face some of the same choices and compromises I made.

Patience/Faith I emailed the agent the day after meeting her assistant, and never heard a word in reply. For a month. Wait, didn’t they approach me? Some might have despaired, raged, wept. I shrugged, assumed it was normal NYC behavior and, if this was meant to happen, I’d find someone else to represent me. Once you know a few good writers and have the street cred to get a referral from them, an agent is not that hard to find. The agent finally emailed — her mom had died the day my email arrived. She really wanted to meet me.

Vision Kathleen did something very few agents have ever done with me. She sat for two full hours, pulling out of me ideas and layers for this book I had not envisioned. She saw possibilities and knew how to achieve them. This is rare and valuable; having met with six previous agents, I knew gold when I saw it.

Skill She is a former editor for two major houses and knows how editors think and what they need to make a decision. She and I worked like dogs all summer doing two full revisions of the proposal, which came in at 67 double-spaced pages. We were both pooped by the end. (And that’s the gamble as none of that hard work is paid for. The agent does it free if s/he thinks the book has merit and commercial appeal, and the author does it because they have to!)  But it worked. Sometimes it doesn’t.

Faith It takes tremendous mutual trust to commit to a new writer and to a new agent. You are literally hitching your wagon, and your hard-won reputation, to his or hers. I know that a proposal with one agent’s name on it will be read more quickly than another’s. But are they reliable? Ethical? Smart? Tough? Effective? Respected? Kind? Skilled? I called several veterans of the industry who had nothing but high praise for this woman. In addition to my time with her in person, by email and on the phone, that was enough for me. I also took a good look at her current projects and writers. It felt like a very good fit. She, too had to make those decisions about me.

Decisiveness The editor who wanted the book, and her boss, told us right away of their interest and what they saw in it. Even though everyone else shrugged or sneered, we landed (yay!) with a fantastic house and editors, Portfolio, a Penguin imprint. Whew!

Here is everything you might possibly want to know about how to publish a book, by the late, great Boston-based writer Sarah Wernick. Sarah was a skilled, generous, funny and much loved member of the 13,00 member American Society of Journalists and Authors, (on whose board I sit.) You don’t have to be an author to join (I wasn’t) and many of us publish our first books thanks to the encouragement, contacts and generosity of others who have. One member is legendary for his skill offering other people great titles! Our members learn a tremendous amount from one another; if you have any interest in joining, please check us out or attend our annual conference, held each spring in Manhattan.

There’s a panel October 15 at the CUNY Graduate school of journalism, focused on how to sell a book, including Sondra Forsyth, an author of nine books, and agent Susan Rabiner, whose book “Thinking Like Your Editor” is worth every penny if you can’t get to this event ($25) in person.


  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Persia Walker. Persia Walker said: Selling Your Book, From Fantasy (An Auction! Best-Seller! Oprah!) to Reality- … debate during the panel, approach… http://bit.ly/3STpNb [...]

  2. Looking forward to the next two installments, really interesting–and helpful!

  3. Thanks, Todd. It’s one of those things where you learn a lot the first time and can then feel a little better prepared if there’s a second or third chance.

  4. Finding a reputable book publisher and a talented editor within that publishing house is a mystery, and a joy when everything falls into place. As always when Caitlin posts about publishing topics, she is generous and wise. As the author of eight nonfiction books, I want to plead with Caitlin’s readers (and my readers on T/S): Please devote some of your personal budget to book buying. If practical, please buy them inside bricks-and-mortar independently owned bookstores. Wherever you buy the books, please pay attention to quality publishers. For example, W.W. Norton is the sole major independent publisher left in New York City. Books by mid-level and small independent publishers and university presses outside New York City deserve just as much attention as books available from Random House, Simon & Schuster and other conglomerate-owned giants. If potential book buyers paid as much attention to publishing brands as to brands of toothpaste, authors and readers would fare better.

  5. Thanks, Steve. It’s an good point about who’s publishing what — I’ve often noticed that some of the most interesting books are published by smaller imprints. Maybe they can take more chances?

    My current agent feels passionately that every author has an ideal house, even editor, and making that match is her ultimate goal. I know from my last (only!) book, that the “wrong” house can damage your book’s chances of success in an insanely crowded marketplace.

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