Thursday, August 05, 2010

My Book-Writing Timeline, Part 1: From Getting the Idea to Landing an Agent

I've been promising to share more about my book-writing experience, and now that I have one precious week off from juggling pre-publication deadlines, I thought I'd start fulfilling that promise by laying out everything that happened between the day I first came up with the idea for my book (some might call this moment "inception," ahem) and the day I signed with a literary agent.

Before I get into the details, please note that my book is nonfiction. Those who write fiction follow a drastically different process where they usually write the entire book first before trying to find an agent or publisher.

But that's not the case for nonfiction. So, here's what happened:

July 2006: I interviewed at the Chicago Board of Trade. At this point, the idea for a book was already percolating in my head, as it's always been my intention to write about every place I've ever worked.

September 1, 2006: I began my tenure at the Chicago Board of Trade.

October 6, 2006: I knew I was going to write a book about my experience at the Chicago Board of Trade.

In the coming weeks, I'm going to talk A LOT more about what exactly my book, Zero-Sum Game, entails, and then you'll understand what went down on October 6 to make me so sure that I was going to embark upon this endeavor. But for the purposes of this post, all that's important is that I remember the exact moment when I knew I was going to attempt to put things down on paper. October 6, 2006, was when the clock began ticking -- the true Start Date of this project.

August 17, 2007: My last day at the Chicago Board of Trade after its merger with the Chicago Mercantile Exchange to form CME Group.

September, October and the first half of November 2007: I wrote the proposal for my book. For nonfiction, you don't write the entire book first. You write a proposal first. Think of a proposal as a sales pitch, or a business case, for a book idea. It includes sections like "Comparative Titles" and "Target Audiences" and "Marketing" and whatnot. It also includes a detailed outline of every chapter, as well as a sample chapter. I had written three sample chapters just to have something on hand in case an agent ended up being interested but wanted to get a better idea of my style. I wrote Chapters 1, 5 and 12 because I felt I kind of had to have the first chapter... and then 5 and 12 were various high points of "action," in my mind.

To learn how to write a proposal in the first place, I bought a few highly recommended "How to Write a Nonfiction Proposal" books and also took a class on this same topic from, which I found very helpful. (The class was like $50, lasted a few hours, and was taught by a literary agent in Chicago, but I signed up for it through

Last half of November - early December 2007: While my husband and I were sailing the high seas to Antarctica, I had a group of people (maybe 12 or so) review my proposal. Because of the nature of my book -- as in, it's a true story involving real people -- my proposal-critiquers were those I knew I could trust to keep things under wraps. Some of them were in the target demographic for the book, some were totally outside the target demographic (on purpose, because I wanted to make sure I was explaining certain concepts clearly), and some were chosen because they are total grammar nerds.

During my two-week vacation, while friends and family members were reading my proposal, I went through books dedicated to helping writers find literary agents (Guide to Literary Agents was one of them -- it's freakin' HUGE) and negotiate book contracts. By this point I had also signed up for a paid service ($20/month) from Publishers Marketplace. Through this service, I get an emailed list of all book deals closed every single day (nearly four years later, I'm still a customer). This, combined with the guide books, helped me figure out what agents represented projects like mine.

By the time I got back from my trip, I had A LOT of feedback to review. If I were to do it all over again, I would not have given my proposal out to quite so many people. This isn't because I didn't appreciate their feedback... it's because it was just really overwhelming to go through 12 sets of edits. Especially when I started realizing that there were two distinct camps emerging: those who liked the personal nature of my story, and those who thought I needed to drastically reposition things and rethink what I was trying to achieve with the book. (Spoiler alert: the latter group won out.)

Late December 2007 - early January 2008: I tweaked the proposal according to the feedback I agreed with from my friends. I also compiled a short list of agents I was going to contact based on extensive, extensive research. I looked at literary agencies' web sites, read gossip about agents on message boards, etc., etc. I wanted someone who not only had experience repping business books, but who also was around my age and could deal with email. Yep, peeps, you read that right. There are still a ton of literary agents who want everything mailed to them the old-fashioned way. And, well, they don't call me "e" for nuthin' -- paper-based communication is just not how I roll.

Mid-January 2008: I constructed personalized "query letters" for a small number of agents -- I think less than ten. Like I said, I'd done my research on everyone, and I wanted to show that I had valid reasons for reaching out to each of them. Apparently a lot of wannabe authors just mass-email agents... like in the same message. ?!?! People are on crack. ANYWHO... back to the query letter (or, in my case, "query email"). Its purpose is to tease the agent enough to get him or her to ask you for your full proposal. You're supposed to start off with an enticing hook, tell a little bit about the book and yourself, and -- ideally -- why you're contacting him or her in particular.

My funny story is that the agent I ended up with was NOT who I originally sent my query email to at his agency. This is because I am a rule-follower (well, most of the time) and on the agency's web site -- at that point in time -- The Guy Who Eventually Became My Agent indicated that he was not accepting any new clients. I was disappointed, because he had repped a business book and a few other books that weren't in my genre but that I liked and were bestsellers, he had an MBA like I do (a VERY rare background when you're talking about literary agents), and from his profile I could tell we had a few other things in common. I'd read nothing but good things about both him and the agency, AND he accepted email. But just not new clients. D'oh!

So... since I still felt the agency overall was a good fit, I sent my query email to another agent there. And wouldn't you know it, he wrote back within a day and said, "I think this is actually a better fit for The Guy Who Will Eventually Become Your Agent." Now I had the inside track, and within three days, my Target Agent asked me to send him my proposal. Score!

I won't bore you with details about the other agents who responded, since this post is already really long. And I'm not including the name of my agent because I don't want him to get bombarded by randoms who Googled something like "How to write a book" and came across my post. There are a lot of crazies out there, folks!

Anyway, five days after receiving my proposal, Target Agent wrote back and asked if I would be open to revising it. I was very open to revising it, and it just so happened that I was going to be in New York (where he was) in mid-March, so I asked if perhaps we could meet in person at that point so we could discuss his ideas. So that's what happened.

Mid-March 2008: I was in NYC staying with my Big Apple-based friend Miss M after she was nice enough to let me tag along on a trip to St. Martin/Maarten courtesy of her ten bazillion Westin points. On a semi-related side note, it was during this trip that redbox first contacted me to see if I'd be interested in doing a trial run for the movie blog they were thinking of launching. In retrospect, mid-March '08 was one for the record books! But anyway, once Miss M and I returned from the island (not THAT island), I met with Target Agent as planned, and he dropped the bomb that I was kind of expecting: I needed to drastically reposition my book. The whole proposal needed to be rewritten in a new light, and I needed to revise my sample chapters... and ideally write a few more, to boot.

What Target Agent said was not too different from what my husband and some of my friends (those in the target demographic for the book) had tried to tell me months earlier. My book was reading too much like a memoir. I had to take myself out of the action as much as possible, because I was getting in the way of an absolutely incredible story about companies that affect people's lives on a daily basis. I'm no diva (when it comes to my writing) -- I can definitely take criticism well. Blogging about Lost since 2004 gave me a much thicker skin than I had before, that's for damn sure. So I vowed to redo everything and get back to Target Agent with updated documents within a month.

Mid-April 2008: I sent Target Agent my revised proposal and a new chapter (Chapter 2).

Mid-May 2008: Target Agent had been traveling and was otherwise swamped, so a month after I sent the new proposal, he let me know that it still needed significant work. D'oh! But he gave me very, very specific guidance on what he was looking for, which helped immensely. He went through my chapters with Track Changes on in Word and wrote notes about what he thought should be changed... and more importantly, why. I went back to the drawing board.

End of June 2008: I sent him Take Three of my proposal.

July 1, 2008: He asked if I would like to become his client. Yahoo!

And so, my dear friends, you can see that I spent the better part of a full year getting my proposal just right and finding an agent. If you're asking why I didn't send my proposal straight to publishers, you missed a huge point of this post. I would've been rejected immediately, as almost everyone is who makes such a silly move. First off, agents know what publishers are looking for. My agent was right in that my book would NOT have been picked up had I not gone through all of those revisions. Further, agents get hundreds of queries a day... and publishers get even more. So publishers use -- nay, need -- agents to act as a filter and only bring forth the most promising projects. I don't care what kind of book you're trying to write: unless you are already extremely famous or your name is something like Stephen King or Nora Roberts or Tom Clancy, you need an agent.

OK, that's enough for now... because we still have two more years to cover!

More soon,
- e


Dreyesbo said...

Wow, I had no idea you were working with this book for so long!

Anyways, the post was a very interesting read. Can't wait to read the other parts.

Cheers e! :)

Kelly, UK said...

Thanks e, that was really interesting.

LilyLa06 said...

Always love reading your thoughts - this was a great post. I am not interested in writing a book but it's good info nonetheless and great reading :)
Keep up the good work and I love the shout-out to the "ISLAND"!
Can't wait to read more about your experience and to read the book.

Denise Schimmoeller (college roomie) said...

Awesome - can't wait for Part II (and to read the entire book, of course)! Congratulations!

Jen said...

very interesting E!

Scoutpost said...

Wow! I'm exhausted for you after reading that! But I really enjoyed reading the process you've gone through. Can't wait to hear the rest of the story. You're a very talented writer e- can't wait to see your book!

Emily said...

Very interesting, e! As both a writer and a fan of yours, I can't wait to hear more about your process. And I especially can't wait to read the book when it is published!

I hope everything else is going well for you. I remember our emails a few years back when we talked about issues of being a freelance writer as it relates to family life.

Take Care and good luck!



Wanders said...

At last, the inside scoop!

Anonymous said...

Cool post! Glad you took the "non-memoir" route for the book because I am sure the story is going to be fascinating. However I would like to hear your personal stories too...