Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Art of the Two-Book Deal

Authors these days are so savvy. Before I even submit a book on their behalf, they often ask me if I think it will be a two book deal.  Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way, unless you actually have a second book written and are clearly submitting two books--say a short story collection and a novel, or a series, or if it’s genre fiction.

That said, once in a while, there are exceptions, as in the case of Meg Mitchell Moore and  her two book deal with Reagan Arthur Books/Little Brown.

We sent Meg’s debut, The Arrivals out in early September of 2008 and a few days later, Reagan emailed to say that she really liked the book. I actually dug up her exact email because she quotes one of my favorite lines from the novel and I knew, she got the book.

“Hi there - I really like this!  That line about baby knuckles really got me. But the whole thing is great. I'm going to get reads.  My bberry cut off your letter - do you know what she wants to do next?  (Early to think along these lines, I realize, just curious.)”

So, while Reagan wasn’t offering a two-book deal, she was entertaining it.   And while Meg hadn’t specifically asked me about two-book deals before the process started, I had asked her what she was writing next, so I knew she had a book in the pipeline, if only in her head  I asked her to put it to paper and emailed it to Reagan the next day. A few days later we accepted a pre-emptive two book offer. 

EW: Meg, what was going through your mind when I mentioned that RAB was thinking about a two book deal?

MM: First, I was shocked. Then: excited. Next came relief, then (months later) terror. I understand how difficult it is to sell one book, so I was not expecting to sell two at once. That was the shock part. Next, it was very exciting to think that someone liked the first book enough to sign up to publish another one. The relief came in when I realized I could write this book (unlike the first) without having to worry about going through the submission process again, and that the publication of my second book is not tied to the sales of my first book. That allowed me to focus purely on the writing. The terror has been intermittent throughout. If I let myself think about the fact that I had sold the book on a single paragraph I could really feel myself starting to freak out. I tried not to think that way too much during the process. When those fears crept in I had you to talk me down. Thank you!  I remember when we first got the offer you said this offer was "a real vote of confidence from Reagan Arthur Books." That has stuck with me. 

EW: You've mentioned in the past that author friends of yours have balked at the idea. What is the reasoning?

 MM: Yes, I  have heard more than one author say, “I would never take a two-book deal!” This is sometimes followed by an admonition: “And you shouldn’t either.” The reasons behind these statements go something like this: What if you turn out a bad book because you’re writing it under pressure? Alternatively, what if your first book goes the way of The Help and you’ve already sold your second book for less than a gazillion dollars? And don’t you feel guilty about taking money for something you haven’t yet produced?

 EW From your lips to God’s ears, let The Arrivals be the next The Help!

MM: Ha. Yeah, me and every other debut author in the world. I certainly see the point of the statements above. But. Most first novels do not become The Help. My advance will be paid out over the course of the two books; I didn’t take money for work I didn’t produce. And the pressure? There were days when I felt it, I’ll be honest, but for the most part it I think that pressure made for a better book. I worked as a journalist for a long time. I don’t miss deadlines. If somebody asks me to write a 1,000 word magazine article by next Tuesday and I say yes, I’m gong to do it. If somebody asks me to write a 90,000 word novel by next January, and that person is going to sign my paycheck, I’m going to do that too, and I’m going to do it as well as I possibly can.

EW: Was writing a book that you were contracted to write hard to do?

MM:  At times it was tortuous. I don’t think it was harder because of the two-book deal, but because the plot is more complex and at times I felt like I’d gotten myself into a pickle. But knowing this book had a publication date and knowing that I had an agent and an editor who already had a stake in it made me work harder, ask for help when I needed it, keep my eye on the prize. Without the two-book deal, I think I would likely not have a second book completed just as my first is coming out. I can see how a debut novelist could become paralyzed by a first novel’s success or its failure and be unable to work on a new project for a while. I understand now that authors get stretched in many different directions as publication day nears. There are plenty of distractions. But I want The Arrivals to be a springboard to a career as a novelist, not the beginning and end of one, and I’m grateful to have a built-in second chance, whichever way things go.

Thanks, Meg!  The Arrivals pubs today! To read more about it and Meg, go to

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Meeting with Publishers

Often times (and mostly with a non-fiction) once I’ve submitted a proposal to publishers, if there’s interest, I bring the author around for meetings. It’s a great way for authors and publishers to get a sense of one another, especially if after said meetings, more than one house offers.  And if the author is particularly charming and “telegenic” it’s a chance to get the publicity folks more excited as well.

I really enjoy these meetings. So much of this job is spent communicating over the phone and via email, that it’s a nice change of pace to meet editor colleagues on their turf, as well as spend time with the crucial people in the business--the marketing and publicity folks.  That said, I am merely the middlewoman in these operations, there to pay for taxis, keep my author’s blood sugar and energy on target with a steady stream of coffee and chocolate. If there’s a lull in conversation or an important point isn’t made, I am there to interject, but for the most part, I am along for the ride. The author, on the other hand, has much more to contend with.

I asked Sarah Sentilles, a scholar of religion, an award-winning speaker and the author of three books:  Taught By American, A Church of Her Own and the upcoming Breaking Up With God to talk to me a bit about her experiences in these meetings.  In my opinion, she is the ideal author for these affairs. She is funny and whip smart.  And yet….it seems like our meetings always end up being a comedy of errors.

EW: What’s it like meeting with publishing houses?

SS: It’s nerve-wracking! To me, it feels like being on a date. A date on which you’re not sure exactly who likes whom, or who is trying to impress whom. I find it nearly impossible to figure out what editors are thinking about my book during these meetings.

EW: But presumably, your agent is there to guide you and debrief you afterwards, right?

SS: Eh, Right? Every time we’ve tried to guess post-meeting what an editor thinks about my book, we’ve have been wrong. The editors we’re convinced love my work usually pass, and the editors we’re convinced hate my book usually make the best offers. Remember when we thought we’d had a horrible meeting with an editor and we were tempted to call him to tell him not to waste our time again? Good thing we didn’t because he ended up making an amazing offer. Lesson learned. Be patient because you probably have no idea what you’re talking about.

EW: Right-o, That was pretty funny. We walked out of the meeting and were bitching to each other on the street that he could have just made all our lives easier and cancelled, and a few hours later, he called to tell me how much he enjoyed meeting you and was going to be putting together a formal offer.

 SS: I still remember the very first meeting I ever had with a publisher. I was wearing a suit, which in and of itself is painful to think about! The editor’s office was really warm, and I was starting to sweat, so I took off my suit jacket. I talked with the editor for a few minutes, and then I looked down and realized I was still wearing a suit jacket—but it was one that didn’t belong to me! I had met you at your office before we went to meet with publishers, and I’d hung my jacket on the hook on the back of your door. You must have had a jacket hanging there, too, and I somehow managed to put on my jacket and your jacket, which is how I ended up wearing not one but two suit jackets to my first meeting at a publishing house in New York City.

EW: You must have been really nervous, not to notice that you put on two jackets. Laughing out loud.

SS: When I’m nervous I have what I call “the inappropriate disease.” I find myself saying things that I know deep down I should not be saying, but I can’t help it. This often happens to me at airports. Once I was dropping my sister off at the airport, and I was waiting with her while she checked in. She had an enormous black bag, and the ticket agent asked her, “How much do you think that bag weighs?” And, without thinking, I said, “How much does a dead body weigh?” This was after 9/11. I’m lucky I’m not still in jail.

EW: Well, at least you didn’t say something inappropriate like that in one of those meetings….

SS: Yes, I did. Remember our meeting with one of the biggest publishing houses we met with? It was a huge meeting—the two of us and maybe a dozen people around a table—and they were asking me all kinds of questions I didn’t know how to answer. This was for A Church of Her Own, about women in the ministry, which at the time was titled Collared Women. I think because of the title, we started talking about clerical collars and why priests wear them. I am not a fan of clerical collars, and not just because they make dressing in a remotely fashionable way impossible. One of the editors at the meeting asked, “If you were ordained, would you wear a clerical collar?” And for some reason, I said. “No, because if I wore a clerical collar I would look like a porn star.” No one laughed except for me and you. They didn’t buy my book. But I knew then that I had the right agent.

EW: I am glad you thought I was the right agent. I felt like I hadn’t prepared you for all those people. One of the things I sometimes forget, especially with someone like you who is so quick and articulate, is that you get nervous too!

But, the silver lining (we always need a silver lining in this business) is that we knew we had to change the title.

SS: That was the first sign that maybe that book didn’t have the right title. The second sign was that whenever I sent anyone an email with “Collared Women” in the subject line the email ended up in the “trash” or “spam” folder because to the computer it looked like porn. That book and porn seemed to want to be together. After I told my yoga class I was writing a book about sexism, they referred to it as “my sex book.”

EW: But knowing you have to change a title and actually coming up with a new one are two very different beasts.

SS: I had trouble with that title the whole time I was writing the book. When the book was called Collared Women, my editor Andrea Schulz and I worked for months—well after the book was completed—to try to find a subtitle, with my husband Eric throwing in a few suggestions here and there to make me laugh when I started freaking out. He suggested subtitles like “An Oprah Book Club Selection,” and “Shake Your Money Maker,” and “And the Horse You Rode In On.” Eventually we realized that the word “women” in the title created a problem for the subtitle because we couldn't use “women” again—but we didn't know what other word to use. We thought maybe we needed a new title. And again Eric suggested some titles to make me laugh. My favorite was “Who Put the Semen in Seminary?”

Eventually Andrea ended up creating a whole new title—A Church of Her Own: What Happens When a Woman Takes the Pulpit. And that was that. It was hard to get used to a new title when the book had a different title throughout the entire writing process, but now I see why Andrea chose that title, and I think it is the right one.

EW: Your latest book, Breaking Up With God, as the title suggests, is your un-conversion memoir. The title is brilliant.  At what point in the writing process did you come to it?

SS: Breaking Up with God: A Love Story, had its title from the beginning, and it was almost like a revelation, like the title was wiser about what story the book was going to tell than I was. I think the book knew what it wanted to be before I did.

To read more about Sarah, go to: