Friday, May 15, 2009

30-Day Persistence Challenge: Persistence in book proposals, part 1

Four years.

That's how long it took to go from story idea to book sale for freelance writer Cheryl Alkon.
Cheryl is the author of the forthcoming Balancing Pregnancy with Pre-Existing Diabetes: Healthy Mom, Healthy Baby and the author of Managing the Sweetness Within, her blog on type 1 diabetes, pregnancy, and infertility. Other writing, research and editing work is online at

In those four years, she researched the market, starting blogging on the subject, and very slowly wrote the book proposal, all while trying to get pregnant and, later, giving birth to her son. She sent the proposal to about 40 agents, most of whom said the writing and idea--on pregnancy for women with diabetes--were great, but the market was too small.

But her persistence paid off: Ultimately, Cheryl had her pick of agents and two publishing houses were interested in publishing it. So how did she find the time and energy to keep pursuing it? She shares her story below. In a follow-up post, she'll explain how she kept at it despite agent rejections.

I have always wanted to write books. At 17, my last words to my first boyfriend--who had the nerve to break up with me--were simply, “Buy my books when you see them in the bookstore, and goodbye.”

But I had no idea that my first book concept would take three years of research and work--and considerable personal struggle--before I would even submit the idea to a publisher. Here's how it happened.

The Dawning of an Idea

I am a longtime type 1 diabetic, which means my pancreas has stopped producing insulin. Since childhood, I have taken insulin through daily injections, and currently wear an insulin pump, which I program to give myself the insulin I need each day. I also test my blood sugar levels multiple times a day, and carefully watch what I eat to ensure that my insulin doses match my food intake and keep my blood sugars within healthy ranges.

At 34 and recently married, I knew I couldn't ignore the potential realities of infertility. Also, pregnancy for women with type 1 diabetes isn't easy: Combine pregnancy planning with type 1 diabetes, throw in advanced maternal age, which begins at 35, and you have a recipe for a high-risk pregnancy. Because of these concerns, my husband and I had a preconception consult with an obstetrician who specialized in patients like me. He was blunt and clinical about what could go wrong.

Among other things, a diabetic pregnancy isn’t as simple as just going off birth control and going wild. With uncontrolled blood sugars, the chances of a woman having a baby with birth defects, or having a problem-filled pregnancy, increase significantly. But keeping blood sugars within a tight range, comparable to women without diabetes, requires extremevigilance and knowledge about all aspects of life with diabetes. It wouldn’t be easy, and the doctor made it sound like it was nearly impossible for anyone to ever have a healthy baby. And, oh yeah, I was “old,” and that came with its own set of genetic issues and possibilities.

I had a few diabetic friends my age who’d had healthy pregnancies and children, so I knew it was possible. But I wanted to know more about how people did it. I looked everywhere to find books about what it was like being pregnant with diabetes, and I was disappointed with what I found.

The few books devoted to the subject (as opposed to the paragraph or two about diabetes in mainstream pregnancy guides) were written by health care professionals. They often talked about gestational diabetes (which develops during pregnancy and is more common than preexisting diabetes in pregnancy) and were dry, simplistic, and straightforward. Later on, I found a book about parenting with diabetes, written by a fellow type 1 woman, which helped somewhat. But I wanted more details about getting and staying pregnant. Where was the insider’s guide to pregnancy with preexisting diabetes, particularly one written by a savvy longtime diabetic like me?

It didn’t exist. And that’s when I decided I’d have to write the book myself.

Crafting the Proposal

Writing nonfiction means you need a book proposal--essentially a
business plan for a book. It includes an introduction, a bio, an analysis of competing titles, a marketing/promotion plan, a table of contents, and a sample chapter. A few friends had already written books, and I reached out to them for advice. One sent me her book proposal, and I used it as a model for what my proposal should include.

Another told me to find out why my kind of book didn’t exist already. The answer soon became clear: The number of pregnant women with type 1 diabetes in America wasn't readily available. I called U.S. diabetes associations and got nowhere. I reached out to similar associations in English speaking countries like Canada, Australia, and the United Kingdom, and still found no solid numbers. I emailed researchers who did statistical studies about diabetic populations and consulting firms who marketed to diabetics, and got estimates on how many potential readers I might be able to sell a book to. The numbers were pretty low.

But I still pushed on.

Building My Platform

The next step, it seemed, was to create a platform--essentially anything to show you have an audience of willing book buyers. What I settled on was blogging, even though at the time--2005--blogging was a relatively new concept. When I first heard about it, I thought, “Why write for free?” It turned out to be the smartest way to find people interested in my niche topic of type 1 diabetes and pregnancy but it wasn't business savvy that got me blogging. It was envy.

I found an online community of bloggers with diabetes and one woman in particular who was blogging about being newly diagnosed with type 1 and newly pregnant. I panicked a little. “What if this woman ends up writing a fascinating blog and gets a book deal out of it?” I worried.

I set up
Managing the Sweetness Within the next day--a blog about living with type 1 diabetes, trying to have a baby and what it was like to do both of them right. It was all about navigating tight blood sugar control, and how to successfully gestate a healthy and happy baby.

I wrote under a pen name so I could be honest and not worry about hurt feelings when I bitched about friends who got pregnant effortlessly or who didn’t understand the intricacies I went through just to, say, eat an apple. I still had a staff job then, and, as another blogger told me, “It’s not like your boss needs to know about your vagina.”

I blogged about once a week, and occasionally more when something interesting happened. It was easy to blog about frustrations about high blood sugars and the wait to find out if I was pregnant.

A Bump in the Road

As months went on, it was clear that we’d need to talk to infertility doctors. As I learned more about what that entailed, I became a part of a whole new community of infertility bloggers, equally as active as the diabetic community, and the number of page views and people who subscribed to my blog grew, bolstering my platform.

When you need assistance to get pregnant, you end up waiting a lot. This gave me plenty of time to blog and work on the book proposal. However, progress was slow. I worried that I'd have a tougher time selling a book about diabetes and pregnancy if I didn't get pregnant myself. I'll admit it--I wasn’t driven to finish the proposal. Plus, I worried about doing all the work of a proposal, setting up and maintaining a blog--and what if the book idea didn’t go anywhere?

Finding Persistence Anyway

At one point, I just decided to push forward and see what happened. If the book didn’t sell, I’d at least developed a well-read blog, and I’d know how to write a book proposal for my next book idea.

There were many times, particularly in the beginning, when people told me again and again that the audience for this book would be too small to interest a publisher. But whenever I mentioned the idea on my blog, or found other online communities of people with diabetes who happened to discuss pregnancy, it was clear that a resource like this was needed and would be gratefully purchased. This is what kept me going as I wrote the proposal and blogged and tried my damnedest to get pregnant: If this book ever saw the light of day, it might not make millions, but it would serve an audience hungry for the information and willing to pay retail prices to get it.

Sweet Success

I finally got pregnant through IVF; our happy and healthy son arrived in April 2007. By this time, I’d written a sample chapter (about trying to conceive while maintaining tight blood sugar control) and had rounded out the marketing plan. The demands of caring for an infant eased up after about six months, and I promised myself I would finish up the book proposal by the end of 2007, which I did by completing the table of contents. Having lived through a pregnancy with diabetes was key in knowing exactly what to focus on in my table of contents and what details to keep and what to omit.

After I finished the proposal, I asked for feedback from three friends who had written books. They had simple tweaks, and I had the manuscript professionally copy edited. This was nearly three years after I first came up with the book idea. At this point, it was 45 pages long and I thought it was awesome—some of the best writing I’d ever done.

Would anyone else agree? It was time to send the thing out and see what happened.

Photo by mujitra (´・ω・)

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