Kaboom! Pow! Crunch! (aka Trying To Sell Your Book)

Books behind the bed
Image by zimpenfish via Flickr

The magic formula for selling a non-fiction book proposal might go something like this:

Talent+Timing+Idea+Voice+Competition+Agent’s Reputation+The Proposal Itself+Big Name Books Just Like It That Sold Like Mad, but Not Too Much Like It+Room Left In The Marketplace For A Book Like The Best-Sellers On A Similar Subject, But Different+Editors’ Balls+Sales Team’s Enthusiasm+Zeitgeist+Writer’s Credentials/Platform+Big Names Who Will Blurb It+Big Names Who Will Review It, Preferably Favorably+Prior Platform+ Future Appetite For Topic (by this writer in his/her voice)+Writer’s Prior Reputation+Writer’s Previous Book Sales+Writer’s Ability to Be Fabulous In Every Possible Medium for Publicity Purposes+Writer’s Pre-Existing Blog with Millions of Eager Readers+Writer’s Website Already Set Up And Paid For+Oprah Producer Ready to Take Your Call+Writer’s Ability and Willingness To Line Up Dozens of Interviews, Articles And Events to Make People Demand This Book+Writer’s Ability To Be Witty And Charming on Live Radio And/Or Television, Looking Lovely And Remembering  You Must Never Swear+Mental, Physical and Emotional Stamina To Complete Book On Deadline+No Seriously Competing Books Showing Up In The Meantime+Author’s Grateful Ability To Live On Very Small Advance (30% upfront, 15% to agent, 15%, or more, to taxes.)

If there’s a more spine-testing endeavor than trying to sell a book proposal (maybe a play or a film or a work of art), I don’t even want to find out what it is. Having worked this summer with a veteran agent who is not, thank God, the sort of wide-eye naif telling me How Great I Am or How Big This Will Be, our 67 double-spaced pages are now on the desks of a bunch of editors. The trick is this. We have to really believe in its potential value, or why bother? But if we care too much — OK, if I care too much — the old ego can take one hell of a beating as it makes the rounds and, inevitably, takes a bunch of hard hits.

It’s amazing how much even a very short-yet-brutal rejection paragraph can send you back into your corner, reeling, looking for your cut-man (the poor agent, who has to get every one of their authors through this necessary process.) If you’ve ever seen the terrific film “Sideways”, and you’re a writer or would-be author, you’ll never forget the poorly masked desperation of Miles talking, from a California vineyard, to his New York agent, who is so callously, coolly, professionally nonchalant as she tells him he’s done, that his manuscript has not found favor. “They’ve passed on it,” she says. What a word. You pass potatoes. You pass gas. When someone “passes” on your book, it hurts, no matter how many decades you’ve been writing for a living.

While it requires a strong sense of self-confidence to even propose a book, find a good agent and get a proposal ready for what you both hope is a sale, you have to stuff your hopes deep into a box until it sells. If it doesn’t? You can’t just shrug it off as if you really didn’t care very much. If you care too much, wallowing starts to look like an option. It’s a no-win.

We’ve already gotten a few “no’s” and yesterday I cried uncle. “Do you want me to step sending them?” my agent asked, after forwarding me the latest rejection e-mail. Yes, I said. Hell, yes!

My first, and so far, only published book hit 19 rejections in the year 2000 when we first sent it out. My agent, then a hungry newcomer building his stable, took me to lunch at Balthazar, one of Manhattan’s loveliest restaurants, after deciding to rep the book within one day of reading my proposal. We ate Kumamoto oysters and he asked me about my ambitions. It was clear he was wooing me, an odd if pleasant feeling in a business where rejection is a given. He thought that book would sell fast, for lots of money. He named a number so enormous and fabulous it felt like ordering a unicorn. It didn’t sell at all, and I gave up. A year later I asked him to try again; six more editors said no, some of them in fairly nasty language. I was deeply grateful, then as now, he even knew more people to send it to, and was willing to keep trying. The very final editor, a young and ambitious woman at Pocket Books, said yes. Ka-ching. This time, the same executive I sat across the table from in early 2002, who even attended my book party, rejected this new proposal with one impersonal sentence. Ouch.

And so I try to stay calm and not hope too much (at all). I’ve been through six experienced and well-known agents over the past 15 years, and, through one of them sent out several different non-fiction proposals that didn’t sell. While some books, of course, sell very fast and for very large sums on money, many other books never will. It’s the cost of playing the game. And you can get burned; one agent flatly rejected one of the proposals, an idea that became a best-seller by a Big Name WSJ writer.

No one ever talks publicly about the ones that didn’t sell. It’s not the sort of thing you should admit to, failure. But failure to sell a book, or a proposal, is much more the statistical norm than the rare bazillion-dollar book deals that win public acclaim and make so many fellow writers, even multiply published authors themselves, not just the crazed wannabes, gnash their teeth and rend their garments in envy. The pilot light of hope rarely dies, selling magazines like Writer’s Digest and Poets & Writers, and forever fills writing conferences and night-school classrooms and workshops and graduate MFA programs with people hungry to see their name on the spine of a book. Which, if it happens, might make you want to produce another one, and another. I know, thanks to worldcat.org, that my first book now sits in 575 public libraries worldwide, the furthest away (so far) the Moreland City Library in Brisbane, Australia, although it’s also available in New Zealand and Hong Kong. A friend once sent me a photo from his cellphone of three copies of my book on a library shelf in Las Vegas. I felt like waving. I certainly felt happy.

We’ll see…

10 thoughts on “Kaboom! Pow! Crunch! (aka Trying To Sell Your Book)

  1. Great piece Caitlin. It’s really refreshing to hear such an honest take on what I’ve heard can be a difficult, humbling, and even maddening process. Best of luck in your search for the perfect publisher. I’m sure you will find a good home for your book.

  2. Caitlin Kelly

    Thanks, Matthew. The process can be nutty, frustrating and often pretty opaque until you’re in the thick of it, sometimes smacking your head.

  3. thomasmedlicott

    Caitlin, I could read that kind of real world stuff all day long – and you write it well! I still really don’t understand what a blog is and what you, as a contributor, get out of it. Except for a few comments I wrote on New York Times articles, Trueslant has almost been addicting. Not only do I follow several writers, including you, but I have made dozens of comments and had several “called out.” You see, for decades I’ve wanted to be a writer, thought of my eye as that of a writer, my ear as a writer – but I just couldn’t pull the trigger and actually write. Back in the early seventies I had a voracious appetite to read Henry Miller. Friends of mine lived in Big Sur and became friends with Henry’s oldest children. They also met Henry and he inscribed one of his books to me, giving his regards and telling me to “hang on for another ten years.” That ten years has come and gone and although Mr. Miller was a late bloomer, he none the less rose to prominence. For now, I’ll contribute with comments of admiration and reflections from my own experience. Tom Medlicott

  4. Caitlin Kelly

    Tom, blogging is a mixed bag. For some, it provides very real income, those with many thousands of visitors. For the rest of us, I think, it’s a place to write freely about issues we care about, and hope it makes sense to a few people. I’d never blogged before and had resisted it for a long, long time. But I enjoy the give and take, very unlike print publishing. I find some of the T/S contributors really interesting and look forward to their work; it’s brought me into a new community of smart writers and that is something I really value – working alone at home is so isolating as it is.

    A blog, for me, is a platform to say stuff other editors won’t pay for, or pay enough for, or just can’t jam into their narrow editorial framework. That freedom is pleasant. I have such a crazily wide range of interests and experiences and when I can use it here, that’s helpful for me.

  5. Can you imagine someone telling an unpublished William Styron or Joan Didion that their “platform” isn’t big enough and they need to start blogging, create a really great Facebook page, and invest in some new clothes and a hip hair cut so they’re more telegenic if they ever get on a talk show?

    Publishing these days would indeed tell them both that, whether they were known or unknown (“Bill, can we talk about grooming. . .”). It galls me to no end that simply writing a great, sellable, readable book targeted to a receptive audience is no longer enough — you also have to be some kind of performer, because you, the author, must be entertaining, not just your book.

    I do and don’t read rejection letters. Sometimes I’m curious, sometimes I could care less. The only thing that ever caught me off guard was seeing a copy of my first book of fiction for sale, used, on Amazon, for $2, two weeks after the publication date. That was when I knew for real that my work and I are expendable. A book is “product.” An author is. . .the last person to get paid.

    But so what? No one gets out of life alive. You might as well do the greatest thing you can think of while you can.

  6. Caitlin Kelly

    I agree with you, Scott. The commodification of writers as cute/appealing PR people (creating and paying for our own websites, etc. included) is something that may keep some great-but-less-publicly-amusing writers out of the mix. I suspect fiction writers get more leeway in this respect but a non-fiction writer now has to shout — eloquently — from the rooftops that his or her book even exists. I love doing radio (not TV) so I enjoy that aspect of it, but I know for others it’s a chore.

    And, as a fellow author, you know that a “great, sellable, readable book targeted to a receptive audience” is a scarily moving target and an editorial judgment that is really subjective. One of my rejection letters dismissed my voice as “earnest” when she prefers snarky. Sigh. Whatever. It feels like trying to get a two-year-old to taste some broccoli. If it ain’t exactly what they want, forget it.

    I don’t regret any of the tsuris of writing/selling my first book. It was the happiest time of my life, which is why I do hope to get the chance to do it again.

    1. This might seem insensitive, but I really enjoyed that whole J.T. LeRoy hoax. Laura Albert, the real author, was terrifically, even diabolically calculating, and having “J.T.” (played in public by Savannah Coop) trade on HIV-positive status went beyond the pale. But I liked the fact that a novel-reading audience that wasn’t satisfied with the novel itself and needed a darling author, or was at least willing to throw open its arms for one when it shouldn’t, was given exactly what it deserved: another total fiction.

      That whole thing worked because we’ve lost all sense Formalism gave us and insist that authors must be marketable entertainments themselves.

  7. Caitlin Kelly

    I have to disagree on that point, Scott. I hear you and understand your POV about what a circus it’s become. But, to play devil’s advocate, who is insisting authors be marketable entertainers…publishers or readers? As you know, book sales are not growing and such cheap/dumb stunts get buzz and publicity (which PR people love)…so where does this craziness start and when, if ever, does it stop?

    Will books, and authors, and book marketing keep shaving into narrower and narrower slices of smart/serious/cheap/dumb, with each, hopefully, finding their niche and their audiences?

  8. Pingback: Thank you! Merci! Gracias! Danke! | Broadside

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