Sunday, November 28, 2010

Butterflies and Book Deals

Seamus is on his way to being famous...(and also practicing his "I want to be alone" pose).

The title is a bit of a cheat. Twice, actually. I don't have a book deal yet--but as I mentioned I have "officially" signed with a super fantastic literary agent who will be representing my memoir and taking it out to publishers. And I promised details, which I will now share. (Programming note: if you are one of the blog readers who is a writer yourself, you are already familiar with this process and you may just want to skip down to the end...and then leave your comments telling me where I got it all wrong.) When I've told some of my family and friends my news I've been met with cheers and...confusion, especially when they ask when they can buy the book and I have to explain, well, uh, it will have to find a publisher first.  Understandable confusion since most non-writer folks don't really know about literary agents and just think "book deal."

Here's the deal--to get a book published with a publishing house of repute (whether little, medium or big), these days one must have a literary agent. You cannot simple call up Random House and tell them you've got the next bestseller--you're the next Jonathan Franzen Clancy Irving King Rowling.  Nor can you mail them your novel and then sit waiting for the money to pour in. (Please watch this funny clip and know it's all true). No, you need a literary agent. The literary agent can get to editors at the publishing houses and get them to consider buying your book. No agent, no book deal, pretty much. So it's a first--and major--step, after of course you've done the required writing work.

Literary agents get 100s (maybe more) of requests --known as "query letters"-- every month from aspiring authors pimping their writings. With a novel a writer must finish the book (or, um, in the case of my earlier novel, finish it repeatedly, and then again and then start again) before seeking a literary agent. With non-fiction, it's a slightly different route. With non-fiction the writer puts together a book proposal, which Chris has described as a "business plan for a book" and that's pretty accurate. A memoir is non-fiction so it falls in the latter category, except with some agents who still want a finished manuscript and a book proposal. I've been working on the actual memoir all year. I started working on the proposal in August (remember that North Carolina trip--yep, all book proposal) and finished it in mid-September, including sample chapters and an outline of the full memoir.

Then I spent several weeks researching agents. If you are ever in this position, let me highly recommend a site called This site not only let me research the agents and find out all sorts of valuable information (who represents what kind of books, what other authors an agent represents, how to contact them, how long they usually take to respond, if they respond...) but also let me track the status of the various queries. That might not sound all that complicated, but it is--considering that a writer doesn't get to just send 2 or 3 queries and wham! there's the agent begging for the book. It takes many, many queries. 100s sometimes (there are 1000s of agents--some better than others of course). Then, with my list of 250 possible agents selected and ranked on a scale of 1 to 10 (1 being a dream agent and 10 being a good agent that was a fit with this type of memoir), I turned to writing the query letter.

Again, harder than you think.  A query letter is one page that describes the book, sells it with a "hook," and also explains why you are the best if not the only person to write this particular book. Phew. This stuff is work, people.

Finally, on September 29th, I began the process of sending out the query letters (and sometimes the proposal itself, or sample pages, depending on each agent's preferences) to a select number of agents (not all 250--that would be crazy!!). I got a good response almost immediately! The "good response" was 11 agents asking to see the full proposal. Trust me, that's a good response. I sent the proposals as the requests came and then returned to writing the memoir (okay, well, first launched into a "what was I thinking? I can't do this! I can't write! panic which all writers are familiar with).

By November 16th (trust me, that's speedy!) I had offers of representation (yes, plural!!) and got to begin the happy task of "checking references"--which is a fancy way of saying I called and spoke with some of the authors represented by the agents who'd offered to represent me. As a lifelong reading geek, that was beyond thrilling. Then, last Wednesday I signed with a category 1 dream agent--Sarah Jane Freymann of the Sarah Jane Freymann Literary Agency. I'm thrilled. I've loved my conversations with her and her thoughts on shaping the memoir. This weekend I've written 11 new pages and am highly motivated to write more and more and more. (I'm sure this is a honeymoon stage; I'd like to enjoy it anyway.)

The plan at this point is that she will get back to me with her notes on the proposal and how to make it as marketable as possible. I'll spend December revising the proposal and after the first of the year she'll be taking it out to the editors looking for that magical book deal. Which means, there won't be news of a book deal until February or March--and that's if I'm really, really lucky (or really, really good ;-)  ).  In the meantime, I'm just going to bask in this little glow right now and keep my head down working on the  actual writing. Not a bad way to spend the holidays.

Seamus has of course demanded his own agent. He's not sure I'll fight for enough toast residuals in his contract so he'll need his own representation. We're in negotiations now.You can see the hardline position he's taken in the photo.

Oh, and the butterflies in the title? Well, I could cheat and tell you it was in reference to the butterflies in my stomach when the agents called, but I'm not really a butterfly kinda gal. No, it was a bald faced cheat--because the blog post with the most hits, consistently, in the history of the blog was the one titled Butterflies and Blogs, and, um...I wanted a lot of hits again as I brag about getting an agent. Believe me, when the book gets published the blog posts will all be "Butterflies, Unicorns and Free Sex."


  1. Teresa, I'm so excited for you!! Congratulations on finding an agent. I do know a bit about the process (and how hard it is) and have to get back to it early next year. I might need some advice! Good luck going forward. I love the picture of Seamus practicing his I want to be alone pose. I think he's got it down!

  2. Teresa, This is SUCH exciting news! And yes, super quick responses. You have to get on Oprah before she leaves!


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