To get a book deal (Part 1 of 2)
My cell phone rang.
It was late December 2011. I was in my old room in my parents’ home in Wheatfield, New York. I’d been waiting for this phone call for hours.
I’d been waiting for this phone call for two whole years.
I’d been waiting for this phone call for my whole adult life.
The phone call was from my literary agent.
Today was the day he’d receive “bids” from publishing companies that wanted to publish my book. It was uncertain if we’d get several bids or if we’d get any bids at all.
To get to this point, I’d quit my job as a ranger. I’d given up $30,000 in possible paychecks. I was nearly broke and I had no backup plans other than to skip country and roam the world as a wandering bum. I’d put all my eggs in this book deal basket.
“Hi Ken,” he said.
“Well, I have news.”
The Salon piece (December 2009)
The “journey to publish a book” began the day I sent an article about living in a van to an editor at Salon in December 2009. When the Salon editor read it, she immediately sent it to her agent (let’s call him Jerry), who was in the process of selling one of her books.
Like the editor, Jerry instantly recognized the potential in my article. Before my article was even published on the Salon website, I received an email for him, inquiring if I wanted to adapt the article into a book. He offered to represent me.
He wrote: “I do think a book elaborating your Thoreauvian themes would have broad appeal, to publishers and readers alike, and I would love to discuss the possibility of a book with you.”
At that point, I’d known for a long time that I wanted to be a writer. There was nothing complicated about it: I loved writing; I loved doing stuff worth writing about; and I got a kick out of sharing that stuff with other people.
Maybe I didn’t have the talent, but I knew I felt “a calling.” It was writing.
So when Jerry put the idea of a book into my head, I swooned. This was all so wildly surreal. While I’d wanted to write books, I didn’t think anything I’d done quite yet merited a book. This changed everything. Maybe I can write a book about living in a van?
In a matter of 24 hours, I’d went from being an no-name bum living in a parking lot at Duke, who had little professional writing experience, to a bum who could now boast of having a freakishly popular article, an agent, and the real possibility of a book deal.
It was one of the happiest moments of my life.
Creating a proposal (Summer 2010)
The first step in getting a book deal is creating a “book proposal,” which is a large 50-100 page document that contains everything from an overview of the book, a bio, a marketing plan, an annotated table of contents, to a sample chapter. The proposal, once completed, is sent out to various publishing companies. Oftentimes, there are no publishing companies that want to pick it up. This is usually when a book dies. Sometimes, though, one or several publishers will make a bid. This is when a book is born.
After my Salon piece, I spent the rest of the 2010 Spring Semester dreaming about my book. While I didn’t think I had enough material to do a whole 70,000-word book on living in a van (because living in a van is actually quite boring most of the time), I began to think about other possibilities, like if I included a series of flashbacks about my past, when I was paying off my debt in Alaska and other strange places. Maybe I’d have enough material that way?
As summer approached, I had a big decision to make: Do I go back to work in Alaska at my well-paying Park Service job—a job where I got to do cool things, protect wildland, and leave with a solid $15,000? Or do I put everything I have into this book thing?
Because Jerry made me feel pretty confident about getting a book deal, I thought it was worth the risk. I chose the book thing. I moved into David’s abbey in rural North Carolina where I began writing my proposal. I had it my mind that I’d have the proposal finished and a book deal in my hands by summer’s end.
A trip to NYC (August 2010)
As the summer months went by, I began to “see” the narrative arc of my book. I knew where I wanted it to start (the moment I had to begin paying off my student debt), but I wasn’t too sure about when I wanted the book to end. Arbitrarily, I decided to end it after my first semester in the van. It took a lot longer to plan a book out and write a proposal than I’d expected, but I knew it wasn’t a big deal if I didn’t get a book deal by summer’s end. I was still a graduate student at Duke, so my coursework was my #1 priority. I came to Duke to learn, not to earn.
Jerry and I were still emailing each other on a regular basis. While I didn’t think the proposal was done, I wanted to get his thoughts on what I had so far, so I sent the draft to him and—to make this whole book project feel “real”—I took a bus to NYC to meet him.
We met at a deli somewhere in Brooklyn. He was a dapper, 40-year-old man, dressed in a clean pair of slacks and a tight Oxford shirt. I was wearing my best summer wear: an old ratty Coldfoot tee and a decrepit pair of sneakers that should have been thrown out years before.
We talked about the proposal for a while over a plate of sweet potato fries. He said it was a good “first draft,” but I had to work on some things. I needed to develop my characters more. I needed to think more about my narrative arc. I needed to change the tone of the story.
I liked Jerry for his forthrightness. He seemed genuine and smart and well-experienced. A good guy to have in my corner.
I wasn’t exactly sure how he felt about the proposal by conversation’s end, so I asked, “What do you think my chances are?”
“Ken, I’m working with you because I know this will be a book.”
A weight was lifted off my shoulders; my whole body breathed a sigh of relief.
My Liberal Studies Final Project (Spring 2011)
I shelved the book for the 2010 Fall Semester so I could focus on tutoring and studying for my classes. At the end of that semester, I only had to fulfill one more obligation to get my degree: I needed to write my “final project.” I thought this was a grand opportunity to kill two birds with one stone: I could write my book and get my degree if I made my book the final project.
So I moved back into David’s for the semester, where I began writing a 70,000-word book. I still had the same narrative in mind that I’d outlined in the proposal, though I thought the book would work best if I got creative with the chronology, jumping back and forth in time.
It would be about two things: 1) The first was my two-and-a-half-year journey to get out debt. I’d take the reader to places like Coldfoot, on long hitchhikes, a voyage across Ontario, Mississippi, and back up to Alaska at the Gates of the Arctic National Park. It would be an adventure narrative, a travel memoir, always with the goal of getting out of debt in the background. 2) The second part would be my Duke vandwelling experiment, which would be an extension of my get-out-debt journey, but would be more reflective, more stationary, more Thoreauvian.
Jerry and I had stopped corresponding over email, but I figured that that was only because I was focused on school work. Still, though, I was a little concerned.
I emailed him if just to maintain relations and to tell him that the book was coming along.
“I’d love to see whatever you’ve got,” he responded. “The most important thing, of course, is that the proposal is really strong. Keep at it and thanks for the update. I’m here if you have any questions.”
After I thought I finished Chapter One (which I would end up editing and overhauling no less than 100 times), I sent Jerry an excited email, including the chapter.
The drought (March – June 2011)
After I send him that chapter, Jerry stopped responding to my emails. And my phone calls too. I didn’t know what to do. I inferred that Jerry wasn’t emailing me anymore because he didn’t think my writing was good enough.
Of course this was extremely upsetting. Not only was I losing confidence, but I was running out of money, too. Because I hadn’t worked the previous summer and because I wasn’t tutoring anymore and because of a few unexpected van repairs, all of a sudden I was down to $300.
I had some big decisions to make. Should I sell the van for money? Should I work with the Park Service this summer? I was also offered a job in Durham to work for a magazine that would pay in the high $30K’s. Should I take that?
I decided: no, I’m not going to take any of these jobs; I’m going to see this thing through; I’m going to pursue my dream. I have an agent and a good idea for a book, I justified. It was worth the risk. Plus, my writing professor and final project adviser—the wonderful Christina Askounis—told me she thought the book was good, and with enough revising, it might get published. With her and others’ encouragement, I decided that I’d keep working on the book after graduation.
But as my relationship with Jerry regressed, my confidence receded.
It had been two whole months since I sent my chapter to Jerry and I still hadn’t received a response.
Christina, though, told me not to worry too much. “Agents are notorious for taking longer than they say they will,” she said. “Try not to read too much into it.”
I was worried, though. If anyone could gauge whether or not I could get a book deal, it was a professional agent.
I sent another email to Jerry and left a message on his phone. I finally—finally!—got an email back from him saying he’d read it over the weekend.
And then another two weeks passed with no word from him. My professor reminded me that this was normal and that sometimes it takes agents literally months to get back to writers. But I couldn’t wait any longer. I had to figure my life out. I decided I’d send one last email. If he didn’t respond—fine—I’ll find a new agent.
Hey Jerry, With graduation over and having $800 to my name, I’m eager to get the proposal going. Have you had a chance to look it over? If you still would like to work together, please let me know. Hope you’re well, Ken
The agent search (July 2011)
“You have seemed a bit subdued the last few times I’ve seen you,” my professor wrote. “I suppose that’s to be expected as this part of your life comes to a close, but I couldn’t help wondering if there was something apart from all that weighing on you. Please know that you have a friend in me, and, if you need one, a confidante.”
I was feeling a bit worn down. The process wasn’t going the way I thought it would. I’d lost my agent, and with him, all my confidence. Plus, I didn’t think the book was any good at all. While it was good enough to pass as my final project, I knew it was still far from being a book that someone would buy on a bookshelf.
I was now in Coldfoot, Alaska; I was their “writer in residence.” Everyone was working around me and making money. The park rangers were being sent out on patrols and cashing huge paychecks. Soon, I’d begin guiding part-time, and later, dishwashing in Deadhorse, a sister camp to the north.
I had hoped to have a book deal last summer, yet I wasn’t any closer to having one now. I’m running out of money, I’m washing dishes, my life has no direction. I began to pursue a girl that summer, but this loss of confidence was beginning to leak into other parts of my life. I was losing a sense of self-worth; I felt insecure and weak.
I spent almost all of my non-working time revising the proposal. It was far easier to write the proposal now that I’d written my first draft of the book. I knew exactly who my audience was and what I was trying to accomplish. The tone of the book wasn’t serious and meditative as I once wanted it to be; rather, it was light and self-deprecating. It was kind of a Bill Bryson meets Liz Gilbert meets Jon Krakauer (except not nearly as good as any of the above).
I asked Christina—who’s a published author—for advice on finding a new agent. She sent some emails out to her writer friends, and sure enough, I soon had the email addresses of three “good” agents. Meanwhile, my friend JanaLee said she knew some agents, so she let them know about me.
On July 1, 2011, I sent my proposal to three agencies. The first two would never respond. Twelve days later, I received a frantic email from the third.
She said that my submission had been flagged from the “slush pile” and that it was one of the best proposals she’s read in a long time. She said she hopes that I’ll consider their agency and asked if I had submitted it to other agencies.
Just minutes later I got another frantic email from the owner of the agency. Her excitement and her sense of urgency were palpable. [This is Part 1 of a two-part series. For Part 2, click here.]