Herewith some advice on agents and publishing, based on my tortuous—sometimes torturous—experience selling my first book, a memoir about helping my brother Jason recover from a brain hemorrhage.
- It's business.
When I first signed with an agent, I was grateful and excited but so intimidated and insecure that I had a hard time disagreeing or asking challenging questions. Come to the conversation ready to do business, i.e., to talk money, deadlines, logistics.
- Speak up.
The agent felt that Jason should be a co-author since he had sustained the injury and made the recovery. I wanted to write the book myself but thought if I argued this point I would lose the agent. Jason would be the first to say that he is not an author—though he has written many beautiful songs. We agreed that I would do most of the writing, starting with a proposal, which the agent would use to sell the book and get an advance. In 2010, she sent out our book proposal. Everyone turned us down. The most common response: "This is really Mojie's book." The editors could see that, of the two of us, I was the writer. Plus, Jason was missing 18 months of his memory, a period that forms the bulk of the book. We probably could have arrived at this truth sooner—and without 25 rejections—if I had said what I wanted.
- Write the book, then sell it.
Universal rejection is a hard place from which to start writing a book. Now the sole author, I wrote the first few chapters and revamped the proposal. In 2011 the agent sent it out again. Again, everyone turned it down. Then my agent left the business. I stood in the shower and cried, because now I had to write a book which had been rejected, twice, by all the major publishers and some minor ones. Your book is your product. You're in a stronger position if you can say, "Here it is. Take a look."
- Keep writing.
- Stay connected.
I made a list of authors whose work resembled mine, found their agents, and sent query letters. Nobody was interested. But a year prior, when I'd received the Howard Frank Mosher Prize from Hunger Mountain, an agent had contacted me asking if I had representation. How pleased I'd been to tell him the name of the fancy agency I was with! Now I sent him a letter, then the first fifty pages, then the proposal, and he became my second agent.
- Get what you can, literally and figuratively.
I asked Agent 1 for her submissions list from which Agent 2 could form a plan: where could we go back? Where did he know another editor who might be more likely to buy my book? In 2012 he sent out the proposal and first 80 pages of the book. Yet again, everyone turned it down. However, some editors really complimented my writing, which made me feel like the door was open to return to those editors in the future. We almost had a two-book deal at a great publisher. Near-misses, though heartbreaking, mean you're close but your timing is off. They mean: keep trying.
- This ain't your grandma's publishing industry.
Two-martini lunches and five-figure advances on a three-book deal? Good for you in 1988. The stories we'll tell in 20 years will be about persistence. My book was submitted exactly when e-books, the Internet, and the economic downturn hit the publishing industry. Change and uncertainty make people afraid to spend money. But you can't control this context. You can only control your part.
- Be prepared to do grunt work.
Agent 2 went from the big players to the small players to the religious publishers. In early 2013, I asked him to let me out of my contract so I could sell the book on my own. I paid full-price admission to the AWP conference and researched all 600 publishers that would be there, searching for medical memoirs, any memoirs, quirky books, books with nice covers. I whittled the list down to 40, which I put on an Excel spreadsheet, ranking my choices, noting editors' names and relevant titles. Armed with a one-page book proposal (synopsis, bio, marketing/sales plan) and copies of Life. Support. Music. (a documentary about Jason's story, which had aired on PBS), I went booth to booth, pitching my book.
- The readiness is all.
I ran into a friend, who said, "You should talk to the University of Nebraska Press. Your book sounds right for their memoir series." I went straight to their booth. They loved the story, my writing, and my commitment to finding a publisher—it meant I would be pro-active in helping to sell copies of the book. Oddly enough, Nebraska wasn't on my spreadsheet. Preparation met opportunity.
- Be flexible.
Perhaps you will sign with a fancy agency and sell your book to a big publisher. Perhaps you alone will sell the book to a small press. Remember: in the end, it's the accomplishment of writing and publishing that matters.