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: http://www.harpercollins.com/books/Breaking-Up-With-God-Sarah-Sentilles/?isbn=9780061946868