Writing a book

Now that Khalil is in a bed instead of a crib, I can lie down with him at bedtime. He picks a nightlight color and then David leaves us to our songs and stories. Khalil requests stories from when he was “a baby” and their banality and sweetness break my heart every time. Last night: tell me a story about when you bought me the red clock that I like. 

After stories, he picks a song. Sometimes, he wants me to sing. I’m terrible, but he doesn’t think so and I like singing. Lately, he’s been requesting my rendition of John Denver’s 1966 “Leaving on a Jetplane.” Other times, he wants to cuddle and listen to tinny iPhone speaker music. We curl up on our sides — knees touching and my right arm draped across his shoulder. His right arm snakes up and holds a section of my hair. His eyes lock with mine and his face softens. We listen to Kate Bush — “Wuthering Heights” and “Babooshka” (or, as he says, Kabooshka Monster). Sometimes, instead of a song request, he wants a feeling. How about sad music? I need something spooky. 

As a perfectionist who can fall into the trap of thinking that nothing is good until everything is, I am trying to note the good moments and let them sink in. Bedtime with Khalil makes this noticing easy; its beauty is a bullhorn, GET OUT OF YOUR HEAD AND TAKE THIS IN. Khalil’s ability to say what he needs — Put your arm around me. Tell me about the moment we met — ushers me past my self-doubt and striving right to the spot where my heart expands. This is good and I am thankful. 

I mentioned last time that I was writing a book. It’s true. In a future edition I will share more about the creative process but for now, let’s focus on the practical. Other writers spent their time and energy walking me through the steps. I’d like to pass that on.

Maybe every person reading this already knows this process, but I definitely didn’t. I guess I thought some people just _were_ professional writers and their books were automatically published? What I really didn’t know was just how hard it is to sell a book to a publisher. 

In general, the three big steps to getting a book deal are:

  1. Write something

  2. Find an agent

  3. Sell it to a publisher

What to write:

If you are writing a novel, the first thing to do is to write it. I’m not writing a novel —I’ve written a collection of autobiographical essays. 

If your book is non-fiction, like mine, a proposal may be enough to sell it. I used this website to help guide me. I also referenced the successful proposals of my friends. I did write most of my book first though, because I needed to do that to know what I was proposing. 

If it’s a picture book, which I also wrote with my college classmate, Caroline, you’ll want the manuscript done. 

Getting an agent:

For anything you write, you’ll need a query. Your query should be tight and catchy. There are lots of great articles about how to craft a query. I like this one

And get this. Most agents receive THOUSANDS of queries per year, some nearly 100,000. That’s so many. Of these, they take on 3-4 clients per year. I have had to accept that if I want to be paid for writing, I need to be ok with being rejected, often. 

Every agent has their own instructions for sending queries. Some want a query letter, the first 10 pages, and your bio. Some want a full proposal. Some have an online form and some prefer to be emailed directly. For both my picture book queries and my essay collection queries, I made spreadsheets so that I could track the agents I contacted, their responses, and their instructions. 

For our picture book, I subscribed to Publishers Marketplace (the primary source for publishing industry updates and book deal details) and then queried the top 20 picture book agents. One of them, Clelia Gore, was interested and after an introductory email, Caroline and I signed with her. Unfortunately, she left the business after a few months but we were able to find another great agent to take over. 

For my memoir-in-essays, my process of looking for an agent has been a little more scattered. Over a year ago, I had a few agent phone calls with friends’ agents or friends of friends. Those were great and gave me direction as I improved my proposal and manuscript. In the last few months, I started the process of looking for an agent but didn’t get far. I only queried a couple of people before showing my essays and proposal to my picture book agent, who said she would want to represent my adult book and not just our picture book. I was thrilled but then, as I mentioned, she left the business. There was one agent in particular who I hoped would represent me, and I emailed her before any other agent. We spoke a few times, which was generous of her, but ultimately, she didn’t think she would be able to sell my manuscript. 

Before I started sending out my stuff in earnest, I had an unrelated call with a writer and activist whom I deeply admire. I mentioned to her that my agent had recently left the business and she introduced me to her agent. Her agent, Jill Marr, and I totally hit it off and she was excited about my writing. Jill is now representing both my book of essays and the picture book. 

Phew! Maybe that’s a boring story for 95% of you, but, as I started the process of trying to write a book, I was fascinated hearing other people’s agent stories.

Selling your book:

Once you have an agent, they will help get your proposal or manuscript in the best shape possible. The goal is to get a book deal, which is when a publisher pays you an advance in order to be able to publish your book. For many authors, most of the money they will make on a book is through their advance. Again, the odds aren’t good. Editors often receive thousands of pitches from agents every year and only end up publishing a couple of them. 

An agent makes a list of editors who might be interested in working with you on your book. These editors work at publishing houses. Many people refer to the “big 5” publishers: Penguin/Random House, Hachette Book Group, Harper Collins, Simon and Schuster, and Macmillan. Each of these publishers has imprints, which are little divisions under which they publish books. 

Agents will pitch your book to a few editors, often more than one at the same publisher. This stage is pretty involved, but it’s mostly out of the author’s hands. This post gives a great rundown of the nuts and bolts from the perspective of an agent.

The nice thing is that if you make it to this point, you have an agent to walk you through the process and answer your questions. And this is where I am with my book of essays. (Caroline and I hope to share some exciting picture book news soon.) My agent has started the process of selling my book. Which means I am vibrating with anticipation. Unfortunately, finalizing a book deal takes months, so I won’t be able to give an official update anytime soon, but you can be sure I’ll drop hints on how it’s going (blink twice if your book sold). 

So that’s the deal. When someone publishes a book they: write something, get an agent, sell it. I’m going to write another post on the emotional and creative side of this (I’ve been a bundle of nerves). If you have any specific questions about my experience so far, let me know! 

Love from your fully-vaccinated Canadian friend who decided to be a writer at 36.