Agent, Publisher, Memoir — One Woman’s Search for a Book Deal.
My memoir, UN/MASKED, Memoirs of a Guerrilla Girl On Tour was published on November 1, 2016. Here’s how I did it.
1) I found an agent. My dream was to be published by one of the big 5 — Penguin/Random, Hachette, Harper Collins, Simon and Schuster or Macmillan. I took out a subscription to “Publishers Marketplace” (about $25 per month) and searched for agents who recently sold a memoir similar to mine. I made a spread sheet and wrote a kick ass query letter. I looked up every agent on my list and made sure I knew what their submission requirements were. (Some agents were not taking queries so those I crossed out.) I also asked writer friends if they liked their agent and if they would recommend me to them. This lead to one pass. Lastly, I went to a few places where I paid a fee to pitch to an agent. I don’t recommend this last method — all of the agents I pitched to said they would like to see my book proposal but then never got back to me. Anyway, my hope was to find someone who really got my work and would get me a pub deal. I wanted to connect with my agent.
2) I queried 28 agents. About half asked for my book proposal and about half of those responded with a no. NOTE: My memoir is about my life as a feminist activist and how I survived domestic violence at the hands of a Hollywood movie star (before #MeToo). Of those 28 agents, 22 were women and 6 were men. I thought for sure I would land a woman agent. But the women who read my proposal all said they had a book just like mine on their list already (!) OR they didn’t know who would buy it.
3) What I now know is that all of the agents who responded with a, “yes, I’d love to read your book proposal,” put my submission into their slush pile. Yep, my manuscript was read and recommended by an savvy, energetic and brilliant intern (who I later thanked in my book). It is important to understand that you have to survive the slush pile so make sure when you submit your work, it is the very best that it can be.
4) I was surprised to find an offer of acceptance and a contract in my in-box one day. But I did not want to just sign a contract, like I said above, I wanted to connect with my agent so I set up a meeting (which is where I met the intern who plucked my work out of the slush pile.) I wanted to find out what the plan was for my book. It was a good meeting.
5) Now that I had an agent I had to sign a contract so I needed a lawyer. The Authors Guild provides a free consult on contracts to all members and membership is not that expensive (tell them I sent you.)
6) Some agents give creative advice, editing advice and notes on your manuscript. Some do not. Some just want to represent your one manuscript and others are looking for writers whose careers they can nurture. Think about what kind of agent you want. My agent was not the hands on creative type but that was fine by me. He thought he could sell my book and believed there was a market out there for it. With an agent behind me I felt I could get a better publishing deal.
7) Landing an agent took about 5 to 6 months for me. After I signed, my agent put me to the task of writing PR material for my book — book jacket info and a solid pitch to publishers. My agent then sent my book out to 13 editors at publishing houses. Sometimes an agent will share with you what publishers are saying about your book and sometimes this is not a good idea. I have no idea what feedback my agent was getting on my book because he never told me and I never asked. In the end, after about 3 months, he wrote to tell me that he had received 12 rejections and had to drop me as a client.
8) I decided to focus my attention on finding a small press to publish my book. But first, I wanted to go back and work on my book proposal and manuscript. I was accepted at a workshop on the west coast and sometime in-flight, as I was sipping my mini bottle of chardonnay, I received a text from my agent letting me know that the last publisher — #13 on his list — had made an offer to publish my book. I called my agent as soon as I landed in SF and he said the offer (with a strong “B” list publisher) was a small, 4 figure deal which he might be able to get me more money for. We talked it over. He explained I could say no to the deal and start all over again, sending out my book proposal to small presses (since it had been rejected by the big 5 I could not resubmit it there); OR I could take the deal and see my book in print in about a year. I took the deal.
9) Now I learned that when an agent submits to an editor and the editor wants the book, that editor has to now go to the publisher and convince them to put the book on their pub list. Sometimes editors cannot convince their bosses to publish a book. Publishers are interested in making money and often they don’t see the commercial potential in a memoir or other nonfiction book. So you are really lucky when 1) and editor wants to publish your book and 2) they convince the publishing house that they want it too.
10) My agent now started to work out the contract with the publisher. He got me more money and my theatrical rights back. A standard publishing contract asks for the rights to everything but you can keep some rights, like theatrical rights, to yourself. Hammering out the contract takes months. In the contract is a timeline to publication and when you owe your editor drafts, etc.
11) Once your pub contract is signed you will work on your book with your editor who you will love and hate at the same time. Your editor may be really hands on, giving you wonderful creative notes on every page OR they might just give you general, skimpier notes. Mine was the latter. I believe she was overworked and underpaid (surprise!) And she also sort of put my book on the back burner when she asked to push the publication date up and I said no, I needed more time to finish the book. The original pub date was October, she wanted September and when I said no she pushed it to November. This turned out to be very bad timing.
12) Finishing my book was very, very stressful. I had a heart attack right before my final draft was due (true, but I am just fine now). Because my book was about someone famous I had to get liability insurance in case he sued me (he didn’t). It was very important for me to name names in the book. The Authors Guild also hooked me up with a liability insurance company — I paid about 2 grand for a million dollars worth of coverage.
13) My pub date was November 1, 2016. For 8 days the US was on the brink of the beginning of the female narrative — the joyous time before we elected our first woman president. My one week book tour was full of fierce feminists buying copies of my book to mark the decade. My publisher had my book copy edited by three people (unusual). They also printed as many advance copies as I wanted to use for advance PR. Some publishers will only print a limited number like 30. The book looked really good — nice cover (which I had to fight over — they wanted to use a goofy photo of me and I preferred a more serious one — I won). They also put an effort into scanning photos for the inside of the book so they would look great. I love the way my book looks physically. Yet it is still only available in hardcover as the publisher has yet to put out a paperback version.
14) Because it was my first book I knew I only had one shot at getting good press so I decided to hire an indie publicist. I worked with Michelle Blankenship and while this was a big expense it was worth every penny. A lot of publishers do not spend a lot of money on marketing or PR. This is something you can ask about and put in your contract. Michelle got me everything she could including pre pub articles in feminist magazine, reviews, the Leonard Lopate show, the South Orange Book Festival, pod casts, and reviews in all the feminist magazines. She worked hard for me and I recommend her highly. Plus, she’s great fun to be around.
15) I also did a short, self produced book tour — it was very easy to set up. Book stores love having authors read if your book has something to do with their location or mission. Because most of my book takes place on the west coast I did a tour to LA and SF. I also hit feminist book stores like Bluestockings.
16) When my book was finally out there I realized that as an author I had to grow my readership one reader at a time. Even when only two people showed up for my reading (yes, it happened), I was happy because I had two more readers on my team. I learned to say yes to every book club, small meeting, and reading I was invited to. It is a long haul to develop readership. But you don’t forget those readers who write you after they have read your book. At least the ones who love it.
17) My advance continues to be deducted from my royalties so I have not made any other money on my book. I think most writers do not make anything on their books unless they sell a ton of them. Agents get 15%.
18) Reviews are important, but Amazon Reviews are vital. Regardless of what you think about Amazon it is the biggest search engine around. So I asked anyone who wrote to me about my book to please take a moment and post it on Amazon.
19) I submitted my book to book contests. It won the Devil’s Kitchen Literary Festival Best Nonfiction Prose in 2017. It was a great event — they flew me out to Illinois to give a reading and speak on a panel with the winners in fiction and poetry. I met new readers and lifelong colleagues. And I sold books. TIP: Make sure before every event you go to your publisher has sent books ahead.
20) Lastly, in retrospect I wish I had worked on my manuscript more before I started looking for an agent. My final manuscript was really nothing like what I submitted originally so perhaps if I had worked on it more I would have gotten a bigger pub deal. My biggest fear during this entire process was feeling that I needed just a few more weeks to keep rewriting. But I imagine no author really lets go of a book completely. We still want to make it perfect.
21) A word about “platform.” I had a smallish platform from being a Guerrilla Girl. I used it and continue to use it to promote my work. If social media is not your thing there is no reason to go out and try to make it your thing. The bottom line is that as an author you must have a basic website (donnakaz.com) AND an Amazon author page.
22) Lastly, hope and pray that a huge news event does not happen, like Trump being elected President, 8 days after your book comes out.