Wednesday, August 16, 2006

The Who, What, Where, When and Why, Or...How the Hell Does a Book Get Sold Anyway?

Everyone says that getting your book published is nearly impossible, but I'm curious why. Once you have an agent, shouldn't this be an easy process? Don't they just have to find an editor who likes it too?

Ha! Excuse me while my husband breaks out the defibrillators because I just nearly died laughing.

***insert zapping sounds here****

Okay, now that I've fully (or nearly) recovered, let me explain how the process works, taking you from pitch to (hopefully) sale. Sure, to answer your first question: having an agent helps. No doubt. Without an agent, you're swimming upstream and likely to drown. With an agent, you're lucky enough to be in a boat, but you're still heading upstream, and who knows if your boat has paddles. Which is to say, that representation aside, selling your book is still damn hard. Here's why.

Once your agent deems the ms ready to go out, she (or he) compiles a list of editors whom she suspects will adore your book. She calls them and pitches the book. Some of these editors might not adore your book at the very sound of the premise and will decline the ms, but most - if your agent has done her homework - will say, "send it on over. I wait with baited breath." So she sends it on over within the next few days.

From there, you'll wait anywhere from several days to several months for feedback. The rate at which you hear answers largely depends on a) how well your agent pitched the book (i.e, if they're frothing at the mouth, they'll most likely read it asap) and b) how much other interest is generated and how quickly that comes in. For example: when we sold TDLF (The Department of Lost and Found, my novel, for newbies), we were lucky enough to have a few editors request a sneak peek over the Christmas holidays, and when everyone returned to their desks on January 3, we already had really positive feedback. You can bet your butt that my agent was then on the phone letting all of the other editors know this...which meant that everyone else read within a week.

Regardless of when your ms gets read, if the initial editor likes it, that's just the first step. Getting published is not unlike a hurdle race: you have to jump over a hell of a lot of them before you reach the finish line. From there, this editor sends it to 2-4 (on average) "second reads:" other editors at her imprint who have to agree with her enthusiasm in order for the book to move on. Additionally, if this editor is a hardcover editor, she needs to get the paperback editor to adore the book as well. (Though the paperback editor might also be one of the second readers.) So...as of now, we have anywhere from say, 3-5 people who all have to greet your book with unbridled passion. Don't believe me? Here's an example: we got a very positive first read from an editor at a huge imprint at a huge house. From the get-go, both my agent and I thought she'd be perfect. Her second reader agreed. Her third reader agree. Her fourth reader, "liked it, but found it a little depressing." Guess what? Ding! The buck stopped there. Do not pass go. Do not collect $200.


Okay, but assuming all of the second reads fawn and flutter over your ms, what happens next? An offer, right? Nope. From there, the ms or concept (as well as your platform - remember, we discussed this last week?) is run by marketing, who assess how likely your book is to actually sell and if it will sell, how well it will sell. If you've written about a lesbian Eskimo who decides to venture to the mainland and have a sex change, and marketing decides that no one wants to read the saga of a lesbian Eskimo who decides to venture to the mainland and have a sex change, then...ding! After all, money talks in this industry. (You might not actually know that they've dinged you immediately, however, because - and I'm not 100% clear on this - I believe that the marketing team presents their opinions at...the all important acquisition meeting, which we're moving on to below.)

So...now, we're up to what? At least half a dozen folks who have to be smitten with the book. See how this gets tricky? And now, we're into the all important acquisition meeting. You've cleared all the aforementioned hurdles, and this is where the original editor lobbies to buy the book. Should be a breeze, right? Ah, not so much. See, publishers only buy so many books and they only have so much money to spend, so they literally go in front of their peers and argue why the imprint must. have. this. book. now. If this editor is armed with strong second reads and positive marketing feedback, she'll likely get the green light. But not always. Again, real life example. A few days before my offer deadline (the day that my agent had set for all offers to be on the table), one editor insisted on calling me to "woo me" to her imprint. She was rabid for the book. Her second readers backed her up. Marketing was on board. Slam dunk. My agent was hesitant - normally, you don't speak with editors until they've decided to definitely offer - but this editor's enthusiasm spoke for itself, so my agent passed her my number. The convo went swimmingly. I was elated - this imprint would be my new home! I was sure of it.

Guess what? Said editor (for whom I harbor no ill-will - this really wasn't her fault!) got into the acquisition meeting and couldn't get her boss - the head of the imprint - to sign off. He "didn't want to publish a book about cancer." Ding!

The good news is that if your editor can push your book through the acquisition meeting, you'll get a call or email from your editor with a formal offer. And there's nothing sweeter.

Whew! I'm exhausted just posting about this whole process. You can see how tough it is, and why, in my opinion, most books that get published really do deserve some respect - it's not an easy road to navigate. (Which doesn't explain your next question: how does so much crap slip through the cracks? I dunno. But there must be a market for it, so maybe some editors buy crap because they know that crap sells.) Frankly, it's hard to imagine, given the diligence of this process, that anyone gets published at all! I mean, what are the chances that everyone at a given imprint is going to love your book? Slim, right? Right.

How TDLF got four offers is beyond me. Truly. I mean, I love, love, love my book, but really, I feel very fortunate. One offer is a blessing. Anything beyond that - which means that your agent gets to conduct an auction - is a miracle. I'm not even kidding. Up there with the parting of the red seas.

I didn't write all of this to intimidate you guys or daunt you! Only to inform. It can be done. Just walk into Barnes and Noble if you don't believe me: all of those authors went through similar processes (though, I'm sure, there's some variance from house to house and book to book, etc...I'm not claiming that what I wrote here is set in stone, just a general idea), and hey, they came out on the other side. You can too.

Did I scare you off? Or was this educational? It's good for me to know for future posts!

8 comments:

Sara Hantz said...

Great post, defintiely educational.

My sale was different in that I did two sets of revisions for the publisher I signed with before it even got to acquisitions. They made the book so much better. And after the first set another publisher took a second read.

Allison, to have four offers.... WOW, I'm in awe!!

larramie said...

Educational! Please keep your posts this way, Allison. Not telling the "facts of publishing life" isn't going to help anyone.

BTW, 9 1/2 months to TDLF; I TRULY can't wait!!!

MTV said...

What I'm most struck by is how much interest your novel created right off the bat. That's really impressive.

As I've said before, both on your blog and in email, the premise of your book is great in my opinion. All I can say is when you hit the sweet spot - you may not know it - but everyone around you knows it. So, four offers given the process, sounds like a miracle - I'll even buy that. On the other hand like that editor who shall remain nameless told me - originality does sell. This is why I am excited about your book. I truly want to know how your young central character sees life after a life-threatening illness. A story like that can have so much to offer people. And, that's where it's at for me. To write stories that educate and motivate and let people see life differently for themselves after they've read it. How great is that?

As far as I'm concerned, your straight-up no holds barred way of conveying your knowledge of the publishing industry is priceless.

Thanks - Allison!

Tricia said...

AWS, even today, I still get goose bumps hearing how it all came down back in January.

And I was stuck on a plane that day for two and a half hours dying to find out what had happened . . . and sure enough everything happened while I was in-flight. I was so jumpy. (Disclaimer: Our online writing group got to follow the journey very closely back with Allison! It was like it was our experience too!)

Allison, I love that you make the process sound realistic and doable.

I find that I write in seclusion most days and then talk myself into thinking publishing what I write is way out of reach. Thanks for the great reminder.

kathie said...

God, Allison, I can't keep up with your awesome posts...when the kids are in preschool this fall, hopefully I can really put your words to work in my writing. Every post is jam packed with useful info...sorry to simply reiterate how great your blog is--my mind is still on vacation.

Anonymous said...

Fantastic post! My agent is currently shopping my ms and it's incredibly helpful to know these details about the acquisition process.

Allison Winn Scotch said...

I'm glad I could be of help! Trust me, I had no idea about ANY of this before I went through the process either. Somehow, it helps to know, doesn't it?

Sara-It's excellent that you got such detailed feedback. For my first book - the one that didn't sell - we got a bunch of requests for rewrites, but no real details on what they wanted, so it was just too hard. I'm glad it worked out for you!

Anon-good luck!!!

Jen H said...

Allison -

You know that you are my hero. Just wanted to formally post as much on your blog. You are so helpful and inspirational to so many writers. Honestly, you deserve the great success that I know your first book will bring to you. Surely, Karma is your friend!

- Jen