Sunday, April 14, 2013

When Opportunity Knocks: Anatomy of a Viral Post, Part III

I know, I know. I promised the next installment of my story “tomorrow,” but as often happens, circumstances intervened.

So…where was I? Ah, yes, after Part I, and Part IILaurie finally agreed to be my agent. Oh, and Laurie read my last post and reminded me that due to a miscommunication, she was under the impression that I had already signed with an agent when I contacted her about the possibility of working with her after “Why Parents Need toLet Their Children Fail” went viral. So there’s another lesson: when approaching an agent – particularly the ethical ones – make sure they know you don’t already have an agent. Oops.

The evening after I signed with Laurie, I sat down with my laptop, a bunch of books about how to write a nonfiction book proposal (that I’d already read about fifty times), all the accumulated scraps of paper around my side of the bed bearing my late-night ideas, and the pages of notes I’d taken during my phone call with Laurie, and began to write the proposal for what would later be called The Gift of Failure. I had a blueprint for a nonfiction proposal from a friend who had successfully landed an agent based on her [compelling and amazing] proposal, so I worked from that example.

Four days later, I’d banged out a first draft of the proposal and sent it off to Laurie. My favorite concerns included a clever title and the overview, but Laurie kindly and oh-so-supportively pointed out that we had bigger fish to fry in the short term. Phooey. I really liked my very clever, yet altogether unclear titles.

Two or three days later, the proposal came back with edits. Lots of them. Lots and lots and lots of them. I am used to markup from editors, and have had the privilege to work with some really amazing, smart, and effective editors like K.J. Dell’Antonia, Robert Pondiscio, and Jennie Rothenberg Gritz, but Laurie was a whole different kind of editor. She was editing for content, of course, but she was also editing for style, and with a much larger vision in mind. She was editing for approaches and angles I had not even considered, and I had to admit that every single one of her suggestions improved my first draft by leaps and bounds. Some sections had so many changes and re-arrangements that Laurie even suggested I hide the tracked changes and read it fresh. That was a good tip.

Passes two and three went pretty quickly, and by the end of that week, we had a final draft and had scheduled a phone call to talk strategy. Laurie retreated to her war room over the weekend to plan which editors would receive our submission, and I waited for the master to reveal her master plan. On Monday, Laurie unveiled her list, and the proposal went out to a list of thirteen or fourteen editors.

Within a day of submission, we knew we were going to have an auction. An auction can happen when more than one editor is interested, and we had at least three or four interested in talking to me and, if all went well, bidding. Laurie had promised daily submission updates at around six every evening, but between the pre-empts (hold on, I will get there) and the large number of editors interested, she was often in contact three or four times a day. By the end of the week, Laurie was able to assess the field, and there were eleven or twelve publishers in the mix, and Laurie had begun the process of setting up phone calls with the editors.

Here’s where I finally came to understand how good Laurie is: she asked for my schedule, and I sent her my very complicated schedule that includes both my daily class schedule my myriad kid-related obligations. Laurie scheduled my calls with the editors between my classes and after school, and a couple of days before I was to speak with the editors, she sent me a dossier for each. She detailed that editor’s recent acquisitions, of course, but for many of the editors, I knew the details of their interests, education, children’s names, their spouses’ occupations, and any other tidbits that I might find helpful to my conversation. I had acquaintances in common with many of the editors, and it was incredibly reassuring to have more than enough information to feel comfortable during the phone call.

Editor phone calls are exhausting. They reminded me a lot of parent-teacher conferences, actually, because I had to be my very best, most impressive, charismatic and personable self for long stretches of time. Each phone call lasted roughly an hour, with about three or four minutes in between to stretch my legs and get a drink of water. Laurie wanted me to email her after each call, but the timing was often so tight thanks to my full-time teaching schedule that I had to dash off a quick one- or two-line email before the phone rang again.

My favorite part of this process was the accumulated list of phone numbers on my phone’s caller ID memory. I often use this feature of my home phone to call my friends and family because I’m frankly too lazy to commit these numbers to memory, and it’s easier to simply scroll through for the number I need. I think my phone holds around 20 numbers, and that’s usually enough to hold the numbers of the people who call me most often. That week, however, all the big names in the publishing industry were in there, punctuated by my parents’ home phone number and my friends’ cell phone numbers. I was a little trippy.

I did thirteen editor phone calls over five days. And here’s the thing – all of these women were amazing. Yes, they were all women, and despite the salesmanship being slung about, I could tell that given different circumstances, I could be friends with each and every one of them. There wasn’t one phone call that worried me. Sure, there were some I loved more than others – one phone call prompted me to email Laurie mid-call and admit to loving her so much I feared I might already be pregnant with her baby – but overall, these were smart and nice women. So good for you, publishing industry. You’ve got some cool women there.

So back to pre-empts. Pre-empts happen when a publisher wants to offer a number big enough that they might just be able to snag the book early and avoid an auction. Kind of like "Buy it Now" on Ebay. From what I have learned, however, auctions are good for authors and agents. If you’ve ever been to an estate auction, you’ve seen it. It gets competitive, and people get invested either due to an emotional attachment or pride, and all of that drives the price up. The first pre-empt came during a conversation with my mother-in-law about what to eat for dinner. Laurie presented it to me, as an agent must, and then EMPHATICALLY and with great forcefulness, encouraged me to turn it down. Which I did, with trembling fingers. The first pre-empt was almost three times what I had ever dared to hope for. Late at night, when my husband and I allowed ourselves to talk about possible advance amounts if I ever sold my book, we never even dared to go near this first pre-empt number. That number was just crazy talk. 

The second pre-empt came during a dinner out, again with my in-laws, who were visiting for a long weekend. I swallowed hard and followed Laurie’s advice, rejecting that offer as well.

More pre-empts came in, some as what Laurie termed “valentines,” or numbers that were perfectly lovely, but meant to show a good faith commitment to the purchase of my book more than anything else. 

Again, yow. What if interest soured? The auction would have no floor bid – or entry level number at which the auction had to begin – so what if the bidders came in super-low and the bidding never went as high as the pre-empt? What did I know? I’ve never been in this position before.

The auction was set for Wednesday, March 27. Initial bids were due in by 11 AM, and we had eleven editors committed to bid. The first bid came in at well below the pre-empt amounts and I was fairly sure I’d been an idiot. Coulda, woulda, shoulda. But Laurie anticipated my freakout. “First bid! (Just a reminder, opening bids are strategic, not necessarily indicative.)” Reassuring, but still…I was at school that day and did my best to stay calm and not freak out on the kids. Not a lot of grading got done that day. I was too afraid to subject my students' work to my fractured concentration and marginal hold on sanity. 

My auction was a round-robin style auction, in which everyone bids, and then the lowest bidder is informed of the highest bid, which they can either top or they can drop out of the auction. Each bid took at least an hour to come in, because Laurie would call the editor, they would say they had to think about it or talk to someone, and then they would call her back. Each interval between bids went on forever, and I put some serious wear and tear on my laptop mouse pad, what with all that refreshing of my email inbox.

I actually had lost track of which publisher was which editor, and what we talked about on the phone, so I had all of those lovely dossiers from Laurie printed out, with my notes scrawled all over them, and I had to keep referring back to them to figure out who was in and who was out. As editors dropped out, I filed the dossiers away. I also cleaned obsessively when I was at home. My house has never been cleaner. I cleaned inside drawers, closets, the rabbit hutch.

At the end of the first day, we were nowhere near done. The auction would go to Thursday, and as Friday was Good Friday, I was concerned that this thing could go in to the following week, and I’d be dead of nervous exhaustion by then. By the time Thursday was almost out, we still had six editors in the mix, so Laurie checked to make sure everyone was going to be available to bid on Friday, and we were good to go for a third day. We started Friday with five bidders, and as Crossroads Academy was not in session that day, I had all the freedom in the world to obsess about the auction and nothing else. I warned Laurie that I was running out of things to clean. I had even cleaned the dog's teeth and ears.

By afternoon on Friday, we were down to three editors, and it all came down to two in the waning moments before the close of day. In the end, the top three or four bidders were all editors I adored, and as I had final say on who I wanted to work with (I could even pick editors who had dropped out days before), I was able to relax a little.

In the end, I went with the editor that felt right for me. The difference between the top bidder and the three or four lower bidders was insignificant enough that I was free to review my notes, talk things out with Laurie, and go with my gut and heart rather than the highest bid.

I chose Gail Winston, of HarperCollins for her expertise, smarts, body of work, and our phone call. She had been at the top of my list from the very beginning, and my phone call with her only reinforced what I’d heard of her from other writers and agents.

So the ride begins. My manuscript delivery date is this fall, with publication slated for fall of 2014. My life has already changed in many ways, and I’m simply excited for the coming adventure. This week will be one of firsts – my first photo shoot, my first editor meeting, my first visit to a publisher, my first time purchasing more than one [discounted] item of clothing at a time (for the aforementioned photo shoot).

And I am grateful. Extremely grateful.


  1. Congratulations! Very exciting and inspiring. I'll reserve a place in line at University Books to get the first copy out of the box!

  2. Can't wait to read it Jess. Great story.

  3. What a fabulous story, Jess. I'm so very happy for you and I know your book will be a huge success. Here's to perseverance!

  4. What a wonderful and exciting journey. I am so happy for you. And to think after all of it, your house was clean too.

  5. Thank you so, so much for going into so much detail. As a newbie, I relished every onel. I hope to take a similar ride in the next months or years. Thanks again.

  6. Great story. I read it because my editor left Harper, my book was just assigned to Gail and googled her. You came up. :)

    I had heard great things about her, but this was reassuring. And in the process I heard your great story and learned about your book. Sounds great. I can't wait to see how it plays out. I guess you're in that (for me) terrifying stage now, between ARCs going out and gauging the response, waiting for the reviews. The early ones from PW and Kirkus could actually come next month. Exciting. I hope you're enjoying the ride.

    (I'm guessing you are, because your excitement sure came through in this post.)