I had the pleasure of attending the annual American Society of Journalists and Authors (ASJA) conference held in New York over the weekend. The conference, for writers at every level of their career, featured more than 70 sessions covering a variety of topics, such as how to score a big book deal, how to break into women’s magazines, how to beat blog burnout, and more. To view my previous recaps from the conference, see Breaking into Finance Markets, Writing for Women’s Magazines, Beating Blog Burnout, Writing White Papers and Building a Platform: How to Promote Your Blog and Yourself.]
Think you have a great idea for a book but don’t have the faintest idea on how to go about getting a book deal? In this session, an ASJA member and her agent talked about how they got a six-figure advance and offered tips on securing a book contract.
- Moderator Sherry Beck Paprocki is co-author of “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Branding Yourself” and 10 other books. Subjects of her biographies have included Oprah Winfrey, Katie Couric, Martha Stewart, Ellen DeGeneres, Bob Marley, Anita Roddick and more. Her credits include Preservation, Principal, Chicago Tribune, Cleveland Plain Dealer, Akron Beacon Journal, Columbus Monthly, Los Angeles Times Syndicate and others.
- Deborah Grosvenor has worked in book publishing for more than 25 years as an editor and agent. She has edited or represented several hundred nonfiction books. Her best-known acquisition also her first, “The Hunt for Red October.” Her clients include New York Times bestsellers an Pulitzer Prize winners, including Henry Allen, Tom Oliphant, Eleanor Clift, Mort Kondracke, Curtis Wilkie, Scott Wallace, Meg Noonan, Elizabeth Pryor and Stephen Coonts, among others.
- Meg Lukens Noonan spent several years on magazine editorial staffs and began freelancing full-time in 1987. Credits include Outside, The New York Times, National Geographic Adventure, Travel & Leisure, Esquire, Vogue, Men’s Journal, Islands and many others. She is the co-author of “Albatross: The True Story of a Woman’s Survival at Sea,” which was translated into more than a dozen languages and was the basis for the 1997 ABC-TV movie, “Two Came Back.” Her latest book, “The Coat Route: A Tale of Craft, Obsession, Luxury, and the World’s Most Expensive Coat,” has her traveling the globe to trace the making of a $50,000 overcoat.
Following are highlights of the discussion.
Grosvenor and Noonan first talked in September of 2009, when Noonan came up with the idea for “The Coat Route” after working on a magazine article on the world’s most expensive items. She had been approached by Grosvenor previously to collaborate on projects that never came to fruition, and knew that Grosvenor was someone she could approach with her idea.
The manuscript went through 4-5 major revisions, along with many minor edits along the way. The final draft was done in mid-June 2010, after a lot of back and forth. Noonan lives in New Hampshire and Grosvenor in Washington, D.C., so all communications were done via email and phone. They didn’t even meet for the first time until the day of the conference!
An auction for the book was supposed to be held at the end of June 2010, but an editor in London who liked the idea swooped in the night before the auction with a preemptive offer.
“It was beyond great,” said Noonan. “I was at the sneaker store with my kids [when I heard about the offer], and I told them they could get anything they wanted.”
The manuscript for “The Coat Route” is due December 2011, and Noonan is currently writing it while traveling the world. “I find I like to let things sit for a while,” said Noonan, who brings notes and tapes back from her travels, rather than writing on the plane.
"So many times we hear from agents what they need and what they want to go after, and hearing stories like this teaches us about patience," said Paprocki.
AN AGENT’S ADVICE
“Good ideas are hard to come by,” said Grosvenor. “If someone has a good idea, I’ll certainly take the time to pursue them.”
She offered the following tips for authors and would-be authors:
Be professional. Divorce your ego from the process as much as possible. Writers need to be able to take criticism for what it is, which is to help the writers do something better. “Keep your eye on the ball. We’re trying to make it the best – and most saleable – it can be.”
Learn about the book market to know whether your idea would work as a book, as opposed to a magazine article. “Sometimes reporters have a hard time thinking outside of articles. In the nonfiction world, that is always the challenge. I run into that a lot, where an idea is really more appropriate for a magazine article and can’t really be stretched into a book.”
Be creative and understand the narrative form. “The most common thing people don’t understand or see is the story arc. It can’t be a documentary; it is some form of journey. It’s getting people to see how to turn it into a story, not a reference book.”
Trust your agent. Be willing and able to take editorial direction, and be willing to do whatever work is necessary to make the proposal saleable. “The proposal is [the agent’s] marketing tool.”
AN AUTHOR’S ADVICE
Noonan shared these tips on working with an agent:
Trust your agent. Trust that he/she has an excellent grasp on what will and won’t work. “Right from the beginning, I always trusted Deborah to know what she was talking about.”
Be open to constructive criticism. “Once, Deborah suggested something that wasn’t really what I thought I wanted to do -- or could do ('I'm not smart enough,' etc.), but then she would talk me down from the ledge.”
Work hard to make revisions.
Be patient. The process can take years.
Be blindly optimistic. “The key is to find a subject you are so interested in that you would do it anyway. It’s an amazing experience to go that deep into something you find interesting.”
[To view my previous recaps from the conference, see Breaking into Finance Markets, Writing for Women’s Magazines, Beating Blog Burnout, Writing White Papers and Building a Platform: How to Promote Your Blog and Yourself.]