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  • Ken Ilgunas

To get a book deal (Part 2 of 2)

[This is Part-two of a two-part series. For Part-one, click here.] A tough decision (August 2011)

The agent had asked me if any other agents had read my proposal.

Ahhahahah! I loved that question. I read it over and over again, smiling and laughing to myself. This email was written by someone who WANTS ME. This was the first time in a long time when someone in a position of power recognized that the book had potential.

Was I surprised? Of course. But just a little. Deep down, I knew the book was good. Well, maybe it wasn’t good quite yet, but I knew that it would be good.

But to answer her question, yes, another agency did have the proposal in their hands.

My friend JanaLee hooked me up with a small, two-person, mom and pop agency. (Let’s call them mom and pop.) While mom and pop had represented a few impressive clients—a Nobel Prize winner for instance—they were a small website-less, two-person agency. When I talked to them on the phone, they were laid back and casual. Picking up a new writer to them seemed as ordinary as picking up the morning paper. But now that I had options, I didn’t want to be “picked up.”

I wanted to be seduced.

The seductive agency (let’s call them Agency A) was passionate, sending me emails and setting up multiple phone conferences. (This is the agency that sent me a couple emails including the “Does any other agent have this” line.) And while they called themselves “small,” they had a host of clients, several of whom won awards and were New York Times Bestsellers.

One of the co-owners of Agency A insinuated that my book could be “big.” He threw around writers names like mega-bestseller Tim Ferriss, hinting that my book could achieve similar success. He was a bit pushy, though, telling me that I was merely “molting” as a writer, and that I needed to rewrite the book with a completely different structure. He wanted it to be a “how-to,” with tables and charts and such. I didn’t know anything about writing a “how-to,” and while I had nothing against how-to’s, I just didn’t think that was my style.

They were passionate. They were big. And they were promising big things if I did it their way…

Mom and pop, on the other hand, didn’t seem to care how I wrote it. Plus, they offered free book editing, which is a service basically unheard of among literary agencies. Plus, they were just really nice; I knew that they weren’t the type who’d let me agonize over an unanswered email for months on end.

With much reluctance, hesitation, and second-guessing, I turned down Agency A.

I wanted to write the book my way. I went with mom and pop.

Proposal submission (November 2011)

After I selected an agency, I edited the manuscript and revised the proposal. I fixed up the sample chapter, created a “comparable books” section, described my core audience, and touched up my overview. The document, now, was well over 100 pages. I thought it was looking pretty good.

We had to wait till November to submit it because there are only a few times over the course of a year when a publishing company is able to approve new projects.

Once we put some last touches on the proposal, my agent submitted it to editors at 17 big-time publishing companies, the names of which most any casual reader would be able to recognize.

How was I feeling when my agent submitted the proposals? I was excited. Optimistic, even. We couldn’t have picked a better time. Because of the ongoing Occupy Wall Street demonstrations, student debt was suddenly at the forefront of the national consciousness. My book dealt with a lot of issues facing the indebted demographic. And while there were books about debt—I couldn’t find one narrative about someone actually getting out of debt. It was timely. It was relevant. It was inspirational! Millions will want to read it!

But I’d been rejected from school and internships and girls enough to know not to go my hopes up. After all, there was the possibility of getting rejected across the board. I didn’t have a backup plan, so if the book was rejected, I figured I’d just call it quits and buy a ticket to Europe or Asia or South America or some continent I’d never visited.

First responses

The following responses came from editors at various publishing companies. I’m keeping their names and the company’s names anonymous out of courtesy:

1) Although this story does sound interesting I’m afraid the amount of publicity he did after the Salon article scares me off. I think it would be a real impediment to getting (repeat) publicity for the book. Of course, this is just one editor’s opinion; maybe another will be less skittish and more bullish about this.

Okay, I thought, no biggie. She didn’t say anything about the writing being crappy or anything. In fact, she said it was “interesting.” She just figured there was a publicity technicality.

2) Interesting story, but as luck would have it, I just passed on a student debt book the other day. Our sense is that these kinds of books are difficult to sell because there’s so much advice on reducing student debt on the internet for free. And even though Ken has a decidedly different slant on this, I just have a sense it would be difficult to get out big numbers.

Okay, no big deal. He thought it was interesting, too. 0 for 2, but not a bad 0 for 2.

3) Ken is a delightful writer, and an inspiration to anybody who has ever despaired at their own personal student debt, but I’m afraid this project isn’t quite right for us. This is more of a personal memoir than it is an examination of the debt crisis, and I don’t think we’d be well-positioned to publish this effectively. Thanks very much for the chance to read!

“Delightful writer.” Now that’s what I’m talking about. It seemed like he liked the idea, but his company didn’t appear to be into memoirs. I shouldn’t take this one personally.

4) He has a terrific voice indeed and is quite a lively writer. I enjoyed these pages very much and it couldn’t have a more timely resonance. I regret, however, that I just couldn’t see a way for us to break this out at a larger level. Thank you again for thinking of me; I know you’ll find a great home for this.

“Terrific voice?” “Delightful writer?” What’s the problem, here??

5) Ken Ilgunas is a very winning guy and has a story that certainly tracks the political/economic moment. However, I didn’t find the writing terribly strong.

Oh, Jesus, this is going to be painful.

6) It rests somewhere between a full bodied memoir and a truly practical guide for students and graduates, not quite either one. I liked Ken on the page, but I found him a little too earnest and lacking in fresh insight at book length.

Earnest? I’m not sure I’d say I’m earnest, but what’s wrong with being earnest? Must all writers be sarcastic and cool and hip and ironic?

7) I wish the writing were stronger—it’s perfectly fine, but because the premise is so quirky, I think the writing might need to be a notch more distinctive. (I did stop reading it somewhere along the way, feeling I got the gist….) Let me take another look and consult with my colleague, who was interested in the subject from a generational perspective. I’m glad you checked in, since I read it right after you sent it and am now a bit foggy about it.

Oh god, not another “strong writing” comment.

8) Unfortunately we don’t think it’s quite right for us, in part because the writing isn’t as strong as I would have liked it to be, but also because as all of the younger readers commented to me, they’ve got much more debt than the range that he’s writing about and his solutions wouldn’t really come close to helping them to pay it off. So they felt his story was largely irrelevant for them. I’ve got to listen to that, as they’re right in the core potential readership.

Conference Call

And suddenly, I became numb. As the rejections continued to trebuchet into my inbox, I’d become a diligent mason, erecting mile-high stone walls around my brittle, defenseless psyche.

This was it. This was my writing “career.” I’d been writing on a semi-professional basis since 2004. In eight years, I’d gotten paid something like $2,000 for all my work. How much longer am I going to write for pocket change? It’s not like I had another book idea in the back of my mind. If I can’t sell a book about student debt when EVERYONE is in debt, then what can I sell? If I can’t sell a story about a dude secretly living in his goddamned van, then, well, I simply don’t have what it takes.

Frankly I thought I was sitting on a pot of gold when everyone else just thought I was taking a dump. What must I do to show these New York City-ites that this was going to be a good book?

I was numb. I could neither feel gloom nor hope—just a steady nothing mixed in with a dash of dread. So when one publishing company showed interest, my reaction could best be described as “meh.”

My agents and I had a conference call with that company’s editor. He seemed really enthusiastic. He said he once built a canoe. He said he had wondered why we all go into debt. He got it. Finally, someone fucking got it! But I was still so numb and detached—I would not let my hopes get up again.

Amid the rejections, there were a couple more publishing companies that showed interest. Okay, I might have a chance, I thought.

After the proposal had been in publishers’ hands for a few weeks, my agent told all others who hadn’t responded that they had to make their decision soon. He set a specific day.

Game day (December 2011)

I think we are most content in our working lives when we play a useful role, especially when this role is in accord with our passions, and when it provides us with an arena where we can exercise our unique abilities. We feel best about our work when we do something that other people cannot.

Maybe I was merely “molting,” but I wanted writing to be my role. I was happy writing for myself or for a small (but wonderful) blog audience, but when I’d write for a larger audience, I’d often fall into a “writing nirvana.” I’d forget about everything else. Me and this Microsoft Word document would become one. I’d be so wholeheartedly engaged in the project that I wouldn’t want to check my email or eat or go to bathroom. I just wanted to write; and knowing that these words might make someone laugh or think made the work feel meaningful.

The happiest year of my life was probably when I was the “arts editor” for my undergraduate school’s newspaper, The Spectrum. I loved writing columns, dreaming up stories for the staff to write, thinking about the layout… It printed three days a week. And at night, before a workday, I couldn’t wait for the morning to come. I’d never felt that way before and I don’t think I’ve ever felt that way since. That’s how much I loved that newspaper and my job. Since then, I’ve known that writing was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I wanted to feel that same sense of anticipation for the morning every night.

So on the day that I was to find out if I got a book deal, I was numb, but I wasn’t so numb that I’d forgotten what was at stake. I just felt powerless. I’d done all that I could do. My fate was in someone else’s hands.

The phone call

My phone rang.

“Hello Ken,” said my literary agent.

“Hi P—-.”

“Well, I have news.”


[There were several companies who were interested in bidding, but I must refrain from divulging specific information.]

“[Unnamed publishing company] has made a bid. What do you think of $-0,000?”

While 15 percent of it would go to the agents, I knew my impoverished days were over for a long time.

While I’d like to say I accepted the news nonchalantly—like a good gentlemen—my response was far from classy.

“ARE YOU SHITTIN’ ME??!! Oh my god. Holy fuck. Holy fuck!”

Some moments went by.

“Are you serious?” I asked.

“Yes,” my agent said, laughing. “They want to publish your book. Would you like to accept?”

“Ha. Yes, of course.”


Within a couple days, I had flown to NYC for the afternoon to have a lunch with my agents and my new editor. The following weekend, to celebrate, my pals and I got drunk in my friend Quaz’s basement playing beer pong and flip cup.

I needed to recommence editing, so I moved back down to Acorn Abbey in Stokes County, North Carolina, where I’ve gone over the book 3-4 more times. The van is still here. I had the oil changed and it runs as well as ever.

Currently, the book has 22 chapters and 90,000 words. I’ll be sending it to my editor soon and it should be “done done” within the next few months. It will be available in hardcover and ebook next year, ideally in January of 2013.

I cannot name the publisher quite yet since the contract has yet to be signed, but I’m excited to work with them. It’s a big-name, and one y’all will be able to recognize. I’ll announce it as soon as I can.

While I’ve been avoiding full-time jobs these past many years, I’ve done so with the hope of setting myself up with a job I really cared about—a job where I’d be happy to work 12 hour days. And now that I have that, I don’t know if I’ve ever been happier than I have been these past two months Every night, I look forward to the morning.

But with the pleasures of having a book deal come the stirrings of anxiety—a good anxiety—but one that will grow and grow and grow as I begin to worry more and more: What if people don’t like it?

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