So, I got a book deal.

You wait – no, you work like crazy – for years, occasionally losing hope that it will ever come to anything, and then all the sudden, someone else believes in your book enough to make it happen. I have a book deal. I signed a contract, with a proper publisher. That Book I Wrote is going to be on bookstore shelves, and on Amazon, and people I don’t know are actually going to read it.

I’m not exaggerating when I say I have waited most of my life for this.

I’ve signed with Unbound, an imprint in London that’s affiliated with Penguin Random House. Unbound launched in 2011 when three industry veterans wanted to create a platform for books that were worth reading, but were probably not going to get picked up by the major houses because they’re unlikely to sell in tremendous quantities. With the publishing industry in a tough spot that’s only going to get tougher, it makes perfect sense. This profile is a concise snapshot of how they work, with a few differences nowadays (I’m not pitching an idea, they accepted my completed manuscript). They’re the ideal imprint for someone like me, a total unknown with a literary fiction debut. In fact – and here’s something I thought I would never in a million years be saying – I turned down an offer of representation from a literary agent because Unbound was the better choice for me.

To understand why, it’s helpful to know a bit about what the publishing industry is like now, so read on. I also want to tell you a bit more about how Unbound works. In traditional publishing, an agent signs an author, then pitches the book to editors at publishing houses. If editors want to buy the books, they make offers or go to auction, the agent gets 15-20% of the amount, and the author gets an advance (a chunk of money up front). The amount of the advance is based roughly on how big of a seller the publisher expects it to be. The book then goes into production, pre-orders get taken, and typically a year or so later (give or take – it can be a lot faster with topical nonfiction), the book appears in stores and online. The author must earn back the amount of the advance before they start earning royalties, which is a small percentage of the price of each book.

Unbound does production and distribution like a traditional house, but the business at the beginning is slightly different. They do buy some works off literary agents, but other projects, like mine, are sent by authors directly. And instead of predicting the number of copies that will sell and giving an advance from the start, they require the author to crowd-fund a certain number of pre-orders of the book before they start production.

Wait, what do you mean, crowdfunding?

Well, it’s not crowdfunding in the strictly Kickstarter meaning of the word, in that you pledge some money for something that hasn’t been done yet and you run the risk of getting nothing in the end. My book is already written, and these pledges are like how you’d pre-order a book that had already been printed and was waiting in the warehouse for its release date. When I hit the target Unbound has set for these pre-orders, that triggers production, and from that point forward, this operates like traditional publishing: editing, design, printing, and distribution. If I hit my target, you are guaranteed a book in your hand or on your e-reader, and I am guaranteed a book in shops and on Amazon. If I don’t, you get a refund or credit you can spend on another Unbound author’s book (and there are a lot of interesting ones on offer).

Click here to pledge – and if you’re in the US, make sure to select the option that says “US shipping” in the title, as it will cost you less.

This is a new way of doing things, and because I’m a researcher by profession, I carefully looked for any red flags in this model or in the contract. Specifically, I can assure you that Unbound is not:

  • A vanity press. You know those publishers that will take anything, no matter how ineptly-written, and print off hard copies if you pay them enough. Unbound maintains its standards and only accepts certain projects through an application process – I made sure to rummage around and find people’s comments on social media about being rejected. Crucially, I’m not paying Unbound to print. The initial run is funded by pre-orders and this passes the smell test because when you’re a small press, you need proof that there’s a market out there for what you’re going to create. Otherwise, you’re left with a warehouse of unsellable copies. (This aspect of the publishing business is part of what makes it so hard for an unknown debut author to get a foot in the door. A traditional publishing house is taking a massive risk on untested, unproven you compared to their celebrity clients who are guaranteed to sell a million, so even if you write wonderfully, if they can’t be relatively certain you’ll shift loads of copies, you’re a bad business risk. Unbound has essentially outsourced that risk to me, freeing them up to focus on the meat of the book. More about this below.) Products from vanity presses never see the bookstore shelf. They don’t sell at all unless you push them on friends and family who are too polite to say no, because they have no distribution channels are their prices are usually ludicrous in order to recoup what the author paid to the publisher. Quite frankly, anybody in publishing (whether an agent, editor, or publisher) who tells you that you must pay them before they give you a contract is a scammer or a vanity press looking for a sucker, and you should run a mile. Then catch your breath and run another mile.
  • A self-publishing service. There are no gatekeepers in self-publishing, which is why, quite frankly, so much of what is self-published is awful. There are no editors unless you pay for them out of your own pocket. There are no decent covers unless you pay for a designer out of your own pocket. There is no publicity unless you do it yourself, or pay a publicist out of your own pocket. You get the picture. Again, you’re highly unlikely to see a self-published book in an actual bookstore. You can buy them on Amazon, but chances are you’re looking at an amateurish cover and reading text that definitely could have used some tightening up. Self-publishing can work well for genre fiction (e.g. romance, sci-fi) where it doesn’t really matter if the prose is top-notch. But I write literary fiction. Unbound had an author longlisted for the Booker Prize – you don’t get that with a self-published work, because the people who matter in the literary fiction world do not give self-published books the time of day. Is that unfair? Probably, because there are certainly decent works of self-published literary fiction out there. But it’s not worth readers’ time to separate the wheat from the chaff because the ratio is so grim. To be harsh but honest, most self-published works are self-published because they aren’t good enough to be taken on by anybody who publishes books for a living. Again, that might not matter to you if you’re looking for a light romance, but that’s not what I write.

Unbound’s print distribution is through a division of Penguin Random House. Their books are on the shelf in Waterstones (Americans, that’s like the Barnes & Noble of the UK) and independent bookshops alike. You can judge a publisher by their covers, and Unbound’s are excellent. The CVs of their staff are impressive. And most importantly, another author I greatly respect who is currently working with Unbound had nothing but wonderful things to say about their editorial process and his interactions with the team. This author previously had his debut published by a traditional house, and he thought the Unbound team cared more about the quality of writing rather than the marketing. That mattered a lot to me!

 

So, why are you going about it this way?

In a nutshell: Unbound’s mission is aligned with what I want, their team is experienced and proven, they have high standards and legitimate practices, and they more than pass all the smell tests.

It helps to take a look at the state of the publishing industry. Ever since I interned at one of the major New York houses as a student, I’ve been learning about it. In college I thought it was what I might do for a living, and even though I ended up not pursuing that path, as a writer I knew I would need to be as familiar as possible with the business side of things.

Like any other business, publishers are looking to make a profit. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that. But if you are hoping for quality over quantity, trying to get literary fiction published for an audience outside your immediate circle, the truth is that you’re facing an uphill battle.

Here’s what I am not:

  • A celebrity who can bring in tens of thousands of sales on name recognition alone, regardless of what’s written between the covers.
  • Someone who writes for a living (anyone from a serious journalist to a popular lifestyle blogger) and thus has a ready-made platform – again, something that can bring in thousands of sales on name and reputation.
  • Someone with an MFA, which, while certainly no guarantee of writing ability, at least gives some assurance that someone has the basics down, and which opens up doors through networking and name recognition. (I made the conscious choice to *not* get an MFA because, quite frankly, I didn’t want one. Writing was something I could practice and cultivate while pursuing my other interests as well, and without spending thousands more dollars and several more years in formal education for a degree that wouldn’t be a magic bullet anyway. The postgraduate qualifications I did get, in social policy, were things I absolutely needed to pursue my career. You don’t need an MFA to write, and it’s certainly no guarantee of publication. There’s also a debate about whether MFAs can lead to a kind of workshopped-to-death homogenous writing style, but that’s for another day.)
  • Someone who writes the kinds of books that sell like hotcakes to a very broad audience. Under this category you can file a lot of genre fiction (romance, sci-fi, fantasy, etc) and highly accessible commercial fiction. Again, there’s nothing wrong with that if that’s what you’re into. But I’m not into that, and I don’t write that. I like language for language’s sake. I like spending time deep in description, painting an atmosphere, wrestling inside my protagonist’s head. I write literary fiction.

All these things add up to make me a bad risk to the publishing industry: I’m a complete unknown writing in a genre that doesn’t necessarily have mass appeal.

But I’m a pretty good writer. I’ve got that going for myself on the other side of the balance.

What Unbound is doing through requiring crowdfunding of pre-orders is essentially outsourcing the risk to me. Doing so allows them to be able to take the risk of going with a writer like me in the first place, because they don’t have to worry that they’ll pay out thousands in an advance, spend even more on the production, and then potentially not come close to recouping that initial investment. You wouldn’t be in business very long if you kept doing that, no matter how skilled your authors – hence the Big Five’s focus on the celebrity clients and proven best-sellers over debut authors. I first prove that I can bring in an audience, and then they go ahead and invest their time and money in creating the physical book to be marketed and sold like any other. I don’t get an advance, but any books sold in shops or online after hitting the target net a very nice profit split.

Don’t get me wrong – you can get a traditional publishing deal for lit fic if you start in an agent’s slush pile. Many people do. But many, many more do not, despite boatloads of talent and perseverance. Your odds of doing it are extremely tiny, and even if you do get that deal, that brings me to my next point…

Traditional Publishing is Not (Necessarily) All It’s Cracked Up to Be

Even in the past decade, so much has changed, and absolutely nothing is certain, both for the houses and their clients.

You may sign with a literary agent, then part ways a year later when she hasn’t been able to sell your book to an editor at any publishing house. You may sign with a literary agent, then find out that she won’t even shop it around unless you make changes so massive that it’s no longer the book you wanted to write. You may get that book deal, but your advance is so tiny that when you calculate all the hours of work you put into the book, it works out to far below minimum wage. Then, because you are the unknown debut author and your publisher is busy promoting celebrity clients, you may never sell enough copies to earn out your advance, meaning you never see a penny of royalties. And those royalties could be as low as 8% on the net price (what your book is sold to the bookstore for, not the cover price). Or you may spend most of your advance on hiring your own publicist because, as previously mentioned, you are not a priority to your publisher – even though one reason you held out for a traditional deal is because you thought these houses would be publicity powerhouses. Or perhaps everything seems to go well, you sell that book, you get a lot of attention…but then, when it’s time for your next work, you’re tackling an unfashionable topic and suddenly the people who used to sing your praises don’t want to know anymore.

Sadly, these are not exaggerations. I’ve met authors, highly talented authors, who went through these things. And I’m hearing about more and more of them who get the deal and then have their enthusiasm shattered by reality. I don’t want to put myself through those emotional rollercoasters, becoming demoralized and seeing my work come to nothing, if there’s another legitimate option.

With very rare exceptions, the publishing business is not about finding and nurturing the most talented writers. If it was, Fifty Shades of Grey would have been laughed into oblivion a long time ago and that dreadful novel Morrissey wrote would have been subject to some very tough love. It’s a business like any other, and it’s stressed, and it’s about selling enough widgets to make a profit. Nothing more, nothing less. Both authors and readers must divest themselves of any illusion that there’s something special and noble about book publishing the way it has traditionally been done. At its core, it is no different than any other business, and writers should treat it that way.

I’m pretty sure that there is no industry other than publishing in which we hold onto our romantic dreams so tightly in the face of bitter reality, even though said reality is slapping us in the face and telling us to get a bloody grip. And I’m not immune to this, either. I dreamed of the big deal even though there was such a tiny chance of it happening.

But I’m also a highly practical person, and I’ve never been afraid to do my own thing. I’ve also seen talented people go their own way in indie music and film and produce extremely impressive work. Now I’m going to try to do the same thing, and I am confident I am working with a skilled team of people who actually care about the written word. I feel like I’m in control more than I would have been with a Big Five house, and for the first time, I feel like all the work I’ve put into this manuscript – years at this point – has been worth it. Writers shouldn’t be afraid to innovate. Of course, we should do our research and our due dilligence, because there are scammers born every minute, but when we find a quality thing out there that we believe in, and that the people involved clearly believe in, then I see no reason not to hop aboard. Full speed ahead. I’m so excited about this project and eager to help fuel innovation in the industry.

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Well hello

I haven’t blogged since moving back to New York, and this is a consequence of the strange type of inertia that takes over when everything is competing for your attention. I try to keep myself ridiculously busy to stay functional/calm/generally sane. Fortunately I’ve been productive when it comes to writing, as I’m part of a group called the Columbia Fiction Foundry where I get advice on how to mercilessly edit Novel #2. There’s a group of about a dozen of us who meet up monthly and mutually eviscerate in the best of ways and get people in the publishing industry to talk with us about what the hell is going on. And I need that.

Last night I did a reading as part of the Hearth Gods series in the East Village, and while I think my delivery could have been better, it reminded me just how much I love performing. And I want to do more of it. It’s the same rush I got onstage when I used to dance, only now I’m not hiding behind a massive costume, and if I mess it up, it’s all on me. It’s just me and my voice and pages and pages of large print. The way the paragraphs work on the page is so completely different from how they sound out loud, or in the internal-monologue voice of a silent reading to myself. It reminds me that above all else I must always keep writing. Even if a time traveler appeared right now in front of me and said, “Tough luck, Kite, I’ve seen the future and you never get that book deal,” I would still write, because I have to write. It’s. What. I. Do. And I can’t even remember an age when I wasn’t dreaming up stories. I can’t excise part of myself just because it hasn’t gotten me precisely where I hoped it would by this point in my life. The encouragement I’ve been getting from people who have been reading Novel #2 – and really, really liking it – keep me convinced it is worth sinking so much time and effort. I simply Have To. There’s no other explanation I can give, and no other explanation I should.

As for New York – I am still only just revisiting certain parts of the city for the first time since returning, and it’s a weird punch in the face through space and time whenever I find a reminder of my former life here. A street sign or a shop awning or a particular junction will catch me, and I’ll fall. With no bang and slight whimper I am back there, back then. I am 16, 18, 21. In my turquoise blazer and my turned-up jeans, a fake flower clamped at my skull and a chip on my shoulder and that swelling suspicion that there is a future that may indeed be very bright even if I have no idea what it will look like once the lights dim to a level my eyes can take. (After all, I have been short-sighted for as long as I can remember.) I always had a head full of fiction and fingers that went painfully, pathologically dead at the slightest brush of cold, and wouldn’t wake up until they were damn well ready to and there was nothing I could do about it, yet I was still always forgetting my gloves. Standing with a man I thought might love me or a boy I knew never would, but that was fine, because I was 16, 18, 21 years old, and those ages feel impossibly young – or, rather, what lies ahead of them seems so interminably long. Home is a place where you feel safe alone, and even happier alone, taking it for what it is and knowing it will do likewise for you. The open roof over your head when you walk down the street here may turn your lungs black from a lifetime of breathing it in, but I don’t want any other air. And good luck ever seeing the stars from down here where the lights are always blazing, but the hundreds of lit-up windows I can spot from looking out my own hold just as many worlds, and at least there’s a chance they are the kind I may someday get to explore.

I don’t want to ever live anywhere other than here or London ever again. I know this place, I trust this place, I feel like I own this place whenever I walk through Grand Central, and I certainly don’t feel as tiny and meaningless as so many people claim cities make you. And I’m becoming very interested in the aspects of it that have vanished or are in the process of doing so. I won’t romanticize the Bad Old Days of “Ford to City: Drop Dead” when riding the subway alone late at night as a small woman was a risk instead of the most commonplace action available, but history is there to be chronicled, and if I am a writer then I am a storyteller and there are rich seams to mine here. Above all, I think of my mother when she was my age – at 29, nearly 30, she was getting married and leaving this city for the first time.

ring

This is my mother’s ring from when she finished nursing school. It was one of the few sure shots you could take with your life when you came from where she did. She was 20 years old, and tiny: barely five feet tall and maybe 90 pounds soaking wet. Her Manhattan of the 1970s looked unrecognizable compared to what it is today: specifically, the East Village, Alphabet City, and the Lower East Side were drowning in drugs and violence, and she had to deal with every overdose, stabbing, and shooting that came through the emergency room doors. Nursing, too, looked a lot different in the 1970s: specifically, some idiot decided that wearing latex gloves got in the way of the nurturing role, so my mother spent most of her time with her hands soaked in stranger’s blood. And because she was so small and unintimidating in appearance, she got handed the toughest cases, the ones where patients were handcuffed to the beds with police at the doors. Every now and then she’d get followed home by somebody she’d been working on. Understandably, she quit after 10 years in order to have kids. She’d saved enough lives and wanted to make some for herself. I inherited her bony fingers and now I’m the only other person this ring fits. The metal’s not worth anything but it’s got a very satisfying weight to it. I walk the same New York streets she did, where now there’s absolutely nothing to fear, but I still like the feeling of curling up my fist with this big chunk of metal on my finger. She gave me my street smarts. I like to think that if she could be an angel of life in a place like hell, then I can take on just about anything here.

(She says don’t panic about the ebola case here. Trust her on that one.)

So, yes, I turn 30 next month. I was dreading it but then I figured I needed to do something special to acknowledge that the passing of time is not a detriment, not a failure, but just a part of who I am. The way I saw it, the best possible thing to do would be either go somewhere known and loved, or plop myself somewhere completely new and force myself to wander and figure it out. In the end I decided to do both. I’m jetting off to Copenhagen and then London. In the former, I have an old friend from the San Francisco days. In the latter, I have a trusted net of people and places. Plus, on a more practical level, I have a load of vacation time from work that I have to either use or lose by the end of the year, so why not…

I am always looking for a good story.

It Never Rains…

It’s official. I am moving back to New York City later this month. I will be starting work as a senior research executive in the health care division at Hall and Partners. I don’t think it’s really going to hit me until this weekend, when I go looking for an apartment, that this is actually happening – I’m going back to the private sector, I’m going back to New York City. This is a job where I can actually progress and I’m looking forward to it like you wouldn’t believe. I have enjoyed working at Harvard, but I think it’s time for me to cut ties with academia altogether. You can’t get anywhere in academia without a PhD, and we all know I’m not going back to that, so I really want to put my skills to use in private sector research again and make a career there. Not just a job, a career. I need a career now.

It’s a great feeling to be so motivated, to want to dive into things full-on. I’m going to be TurboKite. Powered by tea in the same Spurs 5 – Arsenal 1 mug that has followed me through every workplace since, well, the last time we beat Arsenal 5-1. Look it up. (Please don’t, it hurts. Hurts bad.)

And perhaps this finally marks the last summer in a long time when I’ll have to pack up everything and move. I have done that nearly every summer of the past decade, and it’s getting old. California was completely new to me, Boston was completely new to me – and every time you move someplace new, you’re at an automatic disadvantage when it comes to making a name for yourself. Again and again, having to introduce myself, give my life story, find new places to go and things to do and deal with so many unknown quantities…it just wears me out. I am 29. Enough. This nomadic jumping around, this repetitive uprooting…I am so tired of it. It’s also not the greatest for my personal life. I want roots to grow deep already. If I move again, it’ll only be back to London. Otherwise, I’m staying in New York and having an actual life in a familiar place where I can plan ahead in years instead of tentative months.

With the express aim of seizing as much of life as I can while I’m still young, I’m hoping to live in Manhattan. (You don’t have to tell me that it’s the most ridiculously expensive real estate in America, or that it might make more sense to live in the empty half of my family’s two-family house in south Brooklyn and save money. Now is not the time for sensibility.) Apparently there really are decent places on the Upper West Side in my price range. Not many, yeah, but still: THEY EXIST and somebody has to snag one and this weekend it might as well be me. I want to go for wanders again, the wanders I haven’t had since London because for years I haven’t lived places where it felt right. I want that kind of address again, I want to look at an envelope with my name on it and do that nod of recognition. You know, that one. I don’t need anything fancy. I need a securely-lockable door for when I’m between wanders. And a window for Oscar the parrot.

This feels like rejoining the land of the living. Oh lord, I’m going to cry right here. I should probably go to sleep.

…On the downside, not all is fine and dandy in the world of my writing, as the agent I mentioned working with in the last post doesn’t feel he can get behind my book. So, I’m back to square one there. Back on the unsolicited query letter treadmill. To say it’s gutting would be a massive understatement. All these years of trying, two novels completed and nothing signed, building up and then crashing down again…it would drive anybody bonkers. Then again, knowing that Simon and Schuster just gave a girl a six-figure deal for One Direction fan fiction (I AM NOT MAKING THIS UP) riddled with poor grammar and completely derivative of Fifty Shades of Grey, and somebody has already discovered plagiarism from the film “You’ve Got Mail” in it…well, you start to think it might be a badge of honor to not have a big publisher want your work.

Eh, no, who am I kidding, I still want that book deal. I want it bad.

Did a lot of editing over the past few weeks. Over 90,000 words now. And I have absolutely no idea what is going to become of it.

As naive as this may sound, I think by simply being back in New York, better things will happen. When your surroundings are exactly how you want them, you have the impetus to Get Things Done. When you live someplace that feels like an ally, then it feels like the world has got your back. I can only live.

88,931 and Done

Today I finished the largest writing project of my life when I sewed up the final hole in my second novel. The manuscript comes in at 88,931 words, which is roughly 300 pages of A4 double-spaced. Any way you slice it, it’s a serious chunk of writing, and it took me over a year to complete. Like most of my projects, finished and otherwise, it was in the piecemeal planning stages long before I sat down and began to commit everything into one document. Of course, it’s not really complete – it will undoubtedly be subject to untold hours of editing – but the biggest hurdle is behind me. Spellchecked (How does Microsoft Word not know tikka masala?), saved, and sent to the UK agent I’ve been casually working with for about a year and a half. Now comes the waiting. No first draft is ever anything remotely near publisher-ready, and I know the constructive criticism is coming. And I need it. But still – you invest so much time and effort into work that it’s never fun seeing all its flaws pointed out! 

Writing is both a comfort and a source of anxiety. No matter what life throws at me, no matter how disappointed I may be with certain circumstances, I know I have this dream and this hope. But at the same time, there’s always the nagging worry that nothing will ever come of it. After all, millions and millions of people want to be writers. I’m 29 years old now, and I laugh when I remember wanting to have a book published before age 20. A few years ago, when I polished my first novel manuscript, I wrote to probably 100 literary agents before one showed real interest – and this was with a pitch that won a competition at San Francisco’s annual literary festival, beating out dozens of others. Most of the agents never replied. Some gave outright form-letter or one-line rejections, which is totally reasonable when you consider they get hundreds of submissions a day, many from people who don’t follow their guidelines for formatting or who are utterly deluded about their ability. Four other agents asked for my full manuscript of my first novel, but never replied after that. It is frustrating (and skin-thickening) to the extreme. With the state of publishing being what it is, there’s a high likelihood of never getting a book deal even with an agent. But, eh, I definitely won’t get a book deal if I don’t start with the first step of getting the manuscript completed. And all you need is one bite. That’s it. You can get rejected a million times, but if you get one person to say yes, that’s all that matters.

(“Second novel, Kite? But you don’t have a first one published.” If that’s what you’re thinking, good point. With the state of publishing right now, if you’re a total unknown, you can be pitched to a publisher much easier if you have more than one possible book ready to go. That’s the agent’s plan, and I’m hoping that if this is good enough, the ball can start rolling. Publishing is a business, and doing business takes marketing skills. The idea of myself as a brand is foreign to me, but also kind of intriguing. Becoming a product and making yourself sell – that is the epitome of editing. Nobody cares about the little things. You find your tag line, your unique selling point, and you try to convince people within five seconds that you’re worth their time and money. It’s frightening and exciting and if I ever get that far I’ll be grateful.)

The book is a love letter to West London, with a protagonist consumed by fear of a mediocre and unremarkable existence as she tries to come to terms with her partner’s sudden disappearance. Certain scenes are based on real events, certain characters have shades of actual people, but it is truly a work of fiction. I love writing fiction for the power of creation – to form people I have never and will never know, but who can do just about anything so long as there’s a believable logic to it. All the what-ifs of real life, all the half-formed ideas and ambiguous situations, can play out fully just fine on paper.

I hope I can give you a follow-up to this. I hope this isn’t the end of the story, and that the work I’ve spent so much time on this past year doesn’t disappear into the ether. Here we go…

Working title is The Hope and Anchor.

By Julia Kite.