Publishing Quest, Pt 3: The Game of Book Deals
Friday, August 31st, 5.19 PM. I was watching television and drinking tea on the couch when a Facebook message pinged on my phone from Naomi, my literary agent: Hello! I messaged you on Twitter. It’s fairly urgent and good news. Can I please Skype call you?
If hearts could do back-flips, mine might have qualified for the Olympic gymnastics at that point. They couldn’t possibly be calling about The Book Eaters. It was far too soon—wasn’t it?
In another Publishing Quest blog post, written almost exactly 2 years ago, I detailed with probably too much honesty what my path towards getting representation looked like: 180 agent rejections, a failed first manuscript, and then a whirlwind signing for my second manuscript (I went from query to offer in under 2 weeks.)
Depression, young children, and a bewildering new autism diagnosis–for both me and my son–filled in a lot of life’s corners and spare moments.
Signing with an agent for book 2 was therefore a high point. I was properly excited, because I though that This Was It; we were going out ‘on submission’ to publishers.
Book, check. Agent, check. Being read by publishers, AWESOME. Next came the book deal! Right?
Months dragged on. I had quick requests based on its concept, only to be followed by diffident rejections trickling in some weeks or months down the line. Presumably for my disappointing execution of said promising concept. In hindsight, book 2 needs some serious structural work.
One publisher actually enjoyed it, but had already committed to producing another dreamworld novel that year, and so passed. Another was interested and apparently went to acquisitions, but eventually ghosted me. (Ghosting is quite a kick to your self esteem, if you were wondering.)
After that, we were out of publishers to try, and out of steam. The book just wasn’t going to sell. Annoyingly, my novel didn’t even have the good grace to die quickly; I had to watch it sink with painful slowness over 18 months.
The somewhat demoralising reality is that my experience was completely normal. Many authors do not sign on their first book, or sell on their first book. At the time, being bang on trend wasn’t much consolation.
(For a general overview about coming off submission, check out Publishing Quest, pt 2: The Dragon of Rejection.)
This is why you don’t hear much about submission processes from agented authors. Because in addition to submission being secretive due to contract issues, there’s also a dearth of good news in a lot of cases. Almost all books get some rejections, even those that go to auction. Those that don’t go to auction, get even more rejections. And it’s bad form to plaster social media with your oublisher rejections, unless you really feel like generating some negative hype for your novel.
Fun times, eh? Welcome to Submission Hell, a special circle of damnation reserved only for writers with the hubris to seek publication. It’ll make you miss the Querying Trenches, folks!
Anyways. While Book 2 was tripping over every hurdle in the race, I began the task of drafting book 3, aka PAPERFLESH (now retitled to The Book Eaters.)
Someone said on Twitter once that you cannot write a vampire novel which has any originality anymore. Vampires are all done, wrapped up, anything that has to be said about them has been done and dusted and thoroughly said to death. Let them lie for thirty years before the rehash, at least.
I remember thinking what absolute rubbish that was. Of course vampires could be original. Anything can be, with a little bit of lateral thinking, honestly. But I was seeing, at the time, a lot of posts like that: how tropes were wrung to the point of exhaustion.
Must admit, I do like a good challenge. Everytime I saw someone say on social media that vampires couldn’t or shouldn’t be done anymore, it made me—yes, me, who hadn’t read Dracula, let alone Twlight or any other vampire lit aside from Ann Rice’s Interview—REALLY want to give a go.
I had an idea for what I thought was a short story but the more notes I put down, the more I realised a whole novel was lurking behind the concepts, and that I could get a lot of mileage out of the basic idea.
I believe we like vampires because they are inherently creatures of conflict: inhuman people who yearn to pass as humans, and eternal outsiders who must do unethical things to survive. Their choice is between morality and death and that appealed to me, too. And once you have conflict, you’re halfway to having a story idea.
At some point, I paired that must-do-evil-things-to-survive conflict with a mother-son duo idea, cannibalised from a short story I’d written a few years ago, and Paperflesh began to take shape from there.
Somewhere along the way, my jokey “Look-mom-I-can-write-vampires” story became a book about motherhood, intergenerational abuse, human trafficking, the hideous cost of unconditional love, and how a desperate desire for redemption leads into revenge and obsession.
I’m okay with all of those developments 🙂 Book turned out all reet in the end.
Sometimes when you are writing, a chapter or a scene pours out. It feels right and natural and your’e swept away by the drafting of it. For some folks, entire books are produced in that sort of ecstatic haze. Other chapters or scenes are a slog, with each word feeling like you’re pulling teeth and trying to run through prehistoric tar pits.
Every chapter and scene of TBE (The Book Eaters) was in… the latter category.
There was no aspect of this novel that didn’t feel like a gruelling grind. I found it hard to have faith in the book I was writing, knowing that my first two books had not got me publication, and that my judgement on what was commercially viable wasn’t necessarily in line with what editors felt was commercially viable.
There was also the small matter of my disastrous personal life, and eventual marital separation. I guess, on reflection, those circumstances weren’t super conducive to writing. Stress is a hell of a creativity dampner.
In short, between my lacklustre enthusiasm for writing yet another book that I was pretty sure wouldn’t get picked up (again), the disintegration of my 15 year relationship, and the ongoing aftermath of my adult autism diagnosis, this manuscript took forever. I wasn’t even writing short stories; TBE seemed to eat what little cognitive processing power I could drum up.
And yet, somehow, the words got done. The page count ticked up even if it was disgustingly slow, and the revisions manifested even if I found every aspect of them to be miserable. I finally, FINALLY finished TBE in early July 2020 with a sense of anticlimatic apprehension. The book was finished, but unlike previous novels I’d had barely any feedback on it, and I wasn’t feeling my chances.
Some context: at the time I finished TBE, I hadn’t written or sold a short story in over a year, and I hadn’t shown my agent any full-length fiction in 2 years. Didn’t help that the last novel I’d written had died pitiably on submission and the novel before that hadn’t even got me representation.
If they didn’t like this book, I’d be back in the querying trenches, trying to shop around for different rep, a fate I’d seen happen to many writer friends in recent months.
Finally, I was in the process of moving out of the house that my ex-husband still owns. Over the past year, my marriage had died, but it took many long and painful months before I could actually leave–simply because I couldn’t get a new place. Landlords didn’t want to rent to an autistic single mom with two special needs kids, no references, and no job.
Luckily, a friend who owned a spare house agreed to let it out and go easy on the rent while I found my feet. The house was semi derelict after years of no tenants, but after a month of cleaning and repairs, it was useable. I moved in and started the process of trying to rebuild.
Getting a job during lockdown was going to be difficult. I was 8 years out of proper work, with an invisible disability that made a lot of employment inaccessible or difficult. Covid had closed retraining/volunteer centres.
It was in the midst of these circumstances that I wrote THE END on my TBE manuscript and tentatively reached out to my literary agent after a long silence at my end, send the story across for their consideration.
Six weeks passed. My agent has a lot of active clients, and was busy closing lots of deals. I was on their reading list, but so were 9 other manuscripts, plus the hundreds of queries and requests they have to sift through, plus contract negotiations, and… we all have to take our turn, basically.
I didn’t mind, to clarify! I’m more explaining this for the benefit of those who aren’t familiar with what it’s like to work with an agent: as with everything in publishing, you sometimes just have to wait politely.
Waiting was completely fine by me. After 2 years of slogging through TBE, I was SO relieved to not look at it again for awhile. I spent the intervening time redecorating the house, dipping my toes in dating for the first time (this bit was fun and had a happy ending, if you were wondering!) while trying to sort my future.
In short, I didn’t really have mental space to think about my novel, so I put it out of mind.
But six weeks down the line, Naomi sent an email on the 23rd of July to say they were really enjoying TBE, and felt very excited at the prospect of pitching. Reading through their comments, I was floored and cautiously hopeful. They’d been excited by the last book too, but this felt different. For one thing, there weren’t six weeks of mountainous revisions this time around. In fact, if I could get the edits done over the weekend, they’d pitch the novel on the following Monday.
Again, another shock. Anyone who knows publishing will also know that August is usually dead month. I was expecting us to go on submission in September, not the literal week before everyone in the industry is supposed to be off on holiday/vacation.
“Covid has changed everything,” they said, when I raised the question. “This is a good time to go on submission—editors are still reading due to lock down, and still acquiring. But response times for offers have been much slower for adult fantasy, as meetings have to happen by Zoom, and we are seeing smaller advances, or advances broken up into more bits.”
A mixed bag. I was glad to “get going” on submission, but apprehensive that Covid meant I was probably in for a long wait, and a much smaller advance (if any) by the end.
Still, I could live with that. I duly completed my edits while Naomi worked on a submission strategy and soft-pitched aggressively on Twitter. Monday morning, July 27th, we subbed the manuscript out. And I sat back to wait. If I were really lucky, we might start to hear back in a month, probably with rejections. The rejections usually come in first.
Submission Hell, amiright.
Friday, July 31st, 5.19 PM. I was watching television and drinking tea. A Facebook message pinged up on my phone from Naomi: Hello! I messaged you on Twitter. It’s fairly urgent and good news. Can I please Skype call you?
I didn’t understand how anything could have happened. It’d been five days, only five days. How could there be news? They’d mentioned some interest from a couple presses earlier in the week, but most editors are keen to read pitches, so I hadn’t thought much of it.
Still, if your agent wants to have an urgent phone call, you have a phone call! I sat in my kitchen and rang them on Skype.
“The editor at Tor read your manuscript in one night,” they said. “She wants to offer a three-book deal. “
And then they named a six figure amount for all three books that sucked the ground from under my feet, because it was honestly the last thing I expected to hear.
There was a caveat: if we wanted this book deal, we’d have to close negotiations and decide by the end of that day, meaning no other publishers would have a shot at bidding or offering. This kind of buy out—where a publishers tries to pay a premium to make sure you don’t go elsewhere—is called a pre-empt. We were being pre-empted.
“How are you feeling?” they added, after explaining the above, and, “I told you it would sell!”
I was speechless. Grateful, but speechless.
After so many years, something was finally going right.
I won’t delve into the in-and-outs of the negotiations, or why we chose to negotiate the pre empt rather than pursuing an auction. It’s complicated, private, and not relevant. (That said, if you’re an author on sub who is going through similar, you can PM me to chat about this privately.)
The salient point: we went with Tor for American rights, after some further haggling on all sides, and closed a deal by the end of the working day.
I was still in shock, absolutely buzzing and unable to sleep for most of the night. The prosecco I’d bought to celebrate going on sub now had a new, renewed purpose: to celebrate getting a sale.
As I write now, a few months down line, the auction for British rights have wrapped up with Harper Voyager (who are lovely and kind, for the record!) (By the time you, Dear Reader, are slogging through this blog post, this is all old news and my first round of edits will have been completed with Tor.)
Where we go from here, how the book will fare on release, what the future looks like, I couldn’t say beyond that. Best not to look too far ahead, perhaps.
But as in a previous Publishing Quest post: There are never guarantees in this industry. The only thing you can be sure of is what you’ve already done.