Saturday, May 16, 2009

30-Day Persistence Challenge: Persistence in book proposals, part 2

Today, part two of Cheryl Alkon's persistence profile on how her dogged persistence eventually yielded a book contract. Yesterday, Cheryl shared how she continued to pursue her book idea and pregnancy despite lots of road blocks. Today, she'll share how she kept sending her book proposal out despite rejections. 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

I’d heard two opinions about what to do with my book proposal now that it was complete:

* Send it directly to potential publishers, or
* Send it to literary agents who would consider taking it on and would send it to publishers on my behalf.

Since the book was such a niche topic, the idea of sending it directly to a publisher who focused on diabetes made some sense. Typically, publishers don’t even bother to consider manuscripts that aren't attached to an agent, but since this would be a small project with a small advance, it was worth a try. Through Publisher’s Marketplace, a subscription newsletter that tracked book deals and industry news, I found an email address for someone at a house that published diabetes titles sold as patient guides through mainstream bookstores and sent a query to the editorial director.

He wrote back right away, telling me he might be interested in my project, but that he suspected the audience might be too small for his company to take it on. In February 2008, I emailed him the proposal, and included the numbers I had for the book's potential readership.

An assistant wrote to say it could take up to two months to hear back. After two months and four days, I followed up, politely, and was told to keep waiting.

When I mentioned this to a friend who’s written several nonfiction books, she told me it was time to start finding an agent. “You’ve given this guy a two-month exclusive, and that’s plenty of time. Move on.”

A fellow blogger was writing her own book about infertility and generously emailed me the list of potential agents she’d compiled: Sixty of them, all interested in women’s health. It was invaluable. Since the list was more than a year old, I began to confirm, person by person, which agents handled women’s health books like mine. I found AgentQuery and AbsoluteWrite to be particularly helpful in learning:
  • What agents are looking for;
  • Their track records;
  • If they were open to new clients;
  • Specifics, like whether they preferred emailed or snail mailed queries first; or
  • Whether they wanted to see the entire book proposal first.
I also contacted agents who represented or knew people I knew.

In April, I began to send out the proposal. I kept a detailed spreadsheet of exactly when, to whom, and why I sent the proposal and how each responded. Some replies were instant—most said my proposal was well written, and had passion, but the market was just too small. Or else the topic just didn’t appeal.

I’d sent out more than 20 queries or proposals to different agents when one responded—11 hours later. She loved my query and wanted to see the full proposal. Agent A was the head of a boutique firm who had worked in publishing for years and seemed cool. A few days later, she called me and told me how excited she was about the project.

“So you’re interested in representing me?”

She was. I was thrilled. However, I’d also been waiting to hear back from a bunch of other agents, including one, Agent B, who had specifically requested my proposal and wanted me to let her know if I got another offer first.

I told agent A I had to follow up with Agent B and could I have a day or two to see what happened. She said fine.

Contacting Agent B, along with any agent I hadn’t heard from yet, was one of the highlights of the whole experience. I emailed about 10 others and explained I’d gotten an offer, but wanted to hear back if they were also interested.

Immediately, I heard back from most agents, several of whom asked for extra time to look at the proposal again, or else declined but congratulated me.

I emailed more questions to Agent A, asking specifically about a fiction project I wanted to pursue after the pregnancy book. She wrote back quickly, assuring me she had handled clients with both fiction and non-fiction projects, though she was clear that not every non fiction writer found success as a fiction writer.

However, the next day, Agent A emailed with disappointing news: She thought with my “diverse writing aspirations… you would probably do better with a ‘newer’ agent, one with the space in his or her list and time to explore the author-in-full you wish to become. I’m not in the habit of offering and then withdrawing the offer of representation, but I really feel that in this instance, it’s better to get that ‘right relationship’ from the start than be uncomfortable or disappointed soon thereafter.”

Without a solid offer from anyone else yet, I wondered if I’d been too pushy to ask about other book ideas I’d had. But since all the advice I’d heard about selecting an agent said to let an agent know that you have ideas about future projects, I didn’t think I’d done anything wrong. Agent A signed off saying that “I think you are a terrific writer and I am sure the perfect agent awaits” and wished me the best of luck.


I held out hope for the rest of the agents, and in time, five others were interested in representing the project. This was exciting, but after talking to all, I knew I wanted someone who wanted to keep the voice as is. One agent told me the writing needed work—a minority opinion among the rest of the agents I’d heard from. Others wanted me to redo the entire proposal and include large new sections for type 2 and gestational women, which didn’t appeal to me at all. I also talked to an editor friend of a friend who had worked with all these agents and gave me her opinions on each.

After much consideration, I signed with my agent in July. She recognized the book for what it was: A niche topic, written in a distinctive, insider, non-medical voice, with lots of quotes from other women. She was also young, hungry, and eager to work with me throughout my career on both nonfiction and fiction work. I took the rest of the summer and a month or so to polish a few parts of the proposal, to build a website for my writing, and to give my blog a facelift.

And then the economy collapsed.

Publishing houses were dropping staff, the stock market was plummeting, and people were scared. Ironically, I was raring to go. I’d spent so much time working on this project, landed an agent, and I couldn’t believe that the damn economy was holding me back. My agent told me she wanted to hold off sending the proposal until things calmed down in the new year.

Once again, as I did while I tried to get pregnant, I found myself waiting for things to happen.

December passed into January. In early February, my agent told me she was ready to send out the proposal to a list of 19 publishers. I’d heard of most of them, but at this point, I felt like all I could do was sit back and let my agent do her job and wait to see how things shook out.

Of the 19 publishers, most said no. One was interested, but thought the voice was too casual. Others liked it only if I’d rewrite it to include type 2s and gestationals. One publishing house made an offer by email only only to never respond to my agent’s phone calls. And one, Demos Health, a division of Demos Medical Publishing, was very excited about both the voice and scope and thought the title would be a good fit with their existing list. On my editor’s request, I agreed to include some type 2 women, but the original outline remains mostly the same.

I signed the contract in March. I’m now in the midst of writing Balancing Pregnancy with Pre-Existing Diabetes: Healthy Mom, Healthy Baby and the manuscript is due in August. Demos will publish the book in January 2010.

It took me two years to have a healthy pregnancy with diabetes and a healthy baby, another year to finish the proposal, and another year to land an agent and sell the project. All told, it will be nearly five years from concept to publication. Persistence has kept this project moving forward and thus far, it has paid off.

1 comment:

Irene said...

interesting post~