Case study of an Australian nonfiction book deal


Below I’m cross-posting I Got A Book Deal, my client Brooke Hemphill’s account of how she came to land a deal with Melbourne-based Affirm Press, which will be publishing her book in late 2014. As her agent I will annotate Brooke’s post (the indented text) with some of my own observations (flush left).

I Got A Book Deal
This week something pretty crazy happened. I got a book deal.

I’ve been working on a manuscript for a year or more and despite people telling me I should do something with it, I did nothing. Partly it was because I was afraid and also, I wasn’t entirely sure what I had written was any good. But I got my arse into gear and bashed out a little more than 10,000 words, put together a chapter breakdown and a synopsis.

If you’re someone who is already published as a journalist or if you’re a commentator/subject expert of some kind, it can sometimes be sufficient to approach an agent with a nonfiction book proposal consisting of a chapter outline and project summary. If you can come up with 40-50 pages about your proposed topic without too much trouble, you might just have an outline for a potential book. (This approach does not work for fiction.)

But then what was I supposed to do? I contacted a published author who had been on my case to write the book for a while and asked him how to proceed. He had the great idea that I should write a feature  for Encore, the magazine I edit, about people in the media, marketing and entertainment industries who write books. And so I did. I Googled literary agents and found the website of Virginia Lloyd. Another agent had recently started to follow me on Twitter. I reached out to them and I spoke to three different authors about their experiences writing. You can read the feature here.

I’ve got to hand it to Brooke — in terms of approaches to finding a literary agent, this one was innovative and fail-safe. Even if she hadn’t particularly liked me or the other agent she interviewed, she would have a story for her magazine. Of course at the time I had no idea that she was ‘interviewing’ me for the potential role of Brooke’s future agent. I didn’t know she was writing a manuscript.

It was a sobering chat. I was told there wasn’t much money to be made in books and that the only reason you write them is to further your career or because you have something you desperately have to write about. While I wasn’t totally deterred, I sat on my work for a little while longer.

Perhaps the above paragraph is overly harsh, but first books often receive relatively low advances. The mainstream media report only the exceptions to this rule (The Rosie Project and Burial Rites are two recent fiction examples), which distorts the expectations of many aspiring authors.

A week before I was to jet off for a holiday in New York, I emailed Virginia to say I’d love to meet her while I was in the big apple where she is based. I also asked if she’d be willing to read my manuscript. She said yes but explained she was off to Melbourne and Sydney for a few days to meet with publishers and therefore might not get to it right away. A few days later, she sent me an email asking me to call her. Virginia had read my work and mentioned the book during her meetings with publishers and several were interested to see it. I was shocked and excited.

I should say at this point that I’m not always so quick off the mark. In this case, however, the timing of Brooke’s approach coincided with meetings I’d scheduled in Melbourne and Sydney with several decision-makers in the publishing industry. On reading Brooke’s partial manuscript I saw immediately the commercial potential in her subject (revealed below) and her credibility in publishers’ eyes (journalist = should be able to deliver manuscript to deadline), which made it easy for me to bring her up in casual conversations about current client projects. I was thrilled with the level of publisher interest and communicated that to Brooke straight away so we could set about developing the first 50 pages of manuscript and submitting a polished chapter outline.

We met up in New York and after a couple of glasses of wine, Virginia pulled out my pages and we went over her notes. What I had written of the book needed another draft and her notes were invaluable. I got stuck into making changes while staying in Venice Beach in California and had the second draft back to Virginia when I got home from my trip.

This was about the quickest turnaround of revised pages I’ve had by any author client. When Brooke and I met in New York, we talked about her overall goal in writing the manuscript, as well as drilling down into the detail of chapters, paragraphs and sentences. Fortunately author and agent were in broad agreement about the sort of revision needed. The knowledge of existing publisher interest was a strong tail wind for both of us.

Once the partial manuscript and complete chapter outline were ready, I composed my pitch on Brooke’s behalf and sent it to the shortlist of publishers who had asked to see it a month earlier.

This week, the offers came in. There were a couple of offers and we chose the one that felt like the best fit. I’m going to meet with the publishers next week in Melbourne. I’ll let you know more about that soon.

So what is the book? The working title is Lesbian For a Year and, as the title suggests, it charts my year with the ladies.

As the working title suggests, this is a very brave book for Brooke to write, even though her spirited and humorous tone on the page will make it very appealing to potential readers. I have some things to say about publisher responses to this book, which I will leave for a future post. In the meantime, I am delighted to have achieved a deal for my client with an enthusiastic publisher whose marketing and publicity plans for the book make me confident that  Lesbian For a Year has as good a chance as possible at being heard above the white noise of our 21st century lives.

 

 

This Post Has 6 Comments

  1. It is a pleasure to work with you, Virginia. And so interesting to read your thoughts about my thoughts. I can’t thank you enough for the opportunity to do this. I guess the lesson for budding writers is get off your butt and do something about it because it may well come together for you. You won’t know unless you try.

    1. Shucks, Brooke! It’s enormously satisfying to help midwife a book into the world. Looking forward to your posts about your journey from partial to complete manuscript to printed book. Talk soon — Virginia

  2. I love the way author and agent intersect in this post. Congrats to both of you! Based on reading how you’ve worked together so far, I’m sure good things will happen when the book is published.

    1. Lovely to ‘see’ you here, Shirley! Thanks for your feedback and good wishes. Hope to bump into you again online soon. –Virginia

  3. Hi Virginia,

    As you’re based in New York, I have a question. When you take on Australian authors, how does meeting up with them work? In this article the author was able to visit you in New York. Would you expect the same of all authors you take on?

    Susannah

    1. Hi Susannah,
      Thanks for this question, which I suppose other writers who are researching agents must also wonder about. I often first meet my clients online through interaction on Twitter or via a blog comment (!). If I’m interested in learning more about the writer and his or her project, a telephone call is typically the next step in the communication chain. I am in Australia at least once but typically twice per year, which isn’t often enough for my liking but gives me enough time to meet clients face to face where possible — and to have meetings with publishers. It is these latter meetings that are most valuable for my clients, because I glean insights into the market and into changing trends and tastes that influence their decisions about which manuscripts to acquire. It is common for Australian writers to be represented by an agent based in a different state from the one they live in; many Australian writers have agents based in London or New York whom they have never clapped eyes on.
      What I think your question asks at a deeper level is what kind of relationship do you as a writer want with your agent? If you want regular face to face contact, you will need to find an agent close to home. It’s a hugely important, and very personal, question that will differ for each writer. So these are smart questions to be thinking about. Good luck with your search! — Virginia

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