Discover more from The Bird's Eye
When a Book Goes to Auction: Editorial Meetings
Summing up 15 years of work seems harder than writing the book.
Somewhere in the asscrack of 2020, I was riding the bike trainer in my garage, attending a GrubStreet class (camera off, obvs). In it, Steve Almond discussed the pros and cons of different publishing avenues. Self-publication? Small press? Big Five? He’d done it all, and he recommended all of them—each situation had been a good fit for his goals at the time. The goals varied: money, literary peers’ regard, prizes, the fierce loyalty of an indie publisher, total artistic control, etc.
It got me thinking about what really mattered to me. I’d written since college with only a smattering of wins. I’d just finished writing The Skin and Its Girl and was hearing almost nothing from agents, despite stubborn hopes. Sweating, head down, I asked myself, “If I could choose only one single good thing that could come from publishing this novel, what is it, right now?” Months before, in the tipsy thrill of creation, it was so easy to say, All of it sounds good, why not? But anyone who’s ever sent their pages up to the New York aerie will confirm, silence produces a kind of clarity.
I want people to care that this story exists. The thought turned over in my head. But what people? Peers who knew about fiction, sure, but that was any professional’s wish to be valued at work—and writers at work care mostly about their own work. What people, really? I write for the people who don’t fit in. People whose ears can hear that almost-silent tick of an asterisk in any conversation, knowing it’s about you or folks you love. A novel for those readers. And I also wanted folks who aren’t those readers to love this story too, because otherwise, when else do they listen to what we have to say—about Palestine, about queerness, about bullying and exclusion, about anything? Storytelling is—has always been—the human species’ gentlest mode of asking for someone’s ear.
“If I could choose only one single good thing that could come from publishing this novel, what is it, right now?”
I want a big audience.
No, just the chance of one, I amended, scared of untempered wishes.
It meant trying to get an agent again and hoping for a deal with a big publisher. This was like saying I wanted to win the lottery, but frankly, odds are better with New York publishers than with the convenience-store scratchers. So I revised the manuscript again and kept sending it out.
So, here’s what happened after signing with an agent and preparing the novel for acquiring editors: More than one publisher liked my novel, and there was going to be an auction. What happens after that? It was all new to me, so in case you find yourself in the same situation, maybe this will help.
Getting Called into the Room
My agent and I checked in with each other every two weeks. When he did have good news, it was initially something like, So-and-so at XYZ Press said she’s reading and liking it and has shared it around. She asked to be kept updated on any other interest. In other words, when an editor is excited about a manuscript, they’ll make sure the agent knows they are thinking of making an offer. In the meantime, they’ll share it with others at the publishing house and start putting a case together for their boss(es)—a business proposal, basically, asking for a budget of X dollars to create a product that might be profitable. This will become the offer, and the process of putting it together takes at least a few weeks.
On my side of the process, “being on submission” was a muted time, as if I were waiting in a hallway while people discussed my novel’s fate behind closed doors. Then, the door opened a crack. Within the space of a few days, three editors contacted my agent and requested a Zoom meeting.
And now that there was serious interest in the novel, Adam then contacted everyone who still had the manuscript and set a firm date for offers. Almost a year had passed since that bike-trainer resolution to play the lottery, and it looked like the numbers were actually lining up. I also did some math. How much money would I need to replace—after the 15 percent agency commission and taxes—if I cut my freelance editing work back by half, and devoted that newly free time to promoting a novel and writing the next one for two years? Uncomfortable as it was, given how fraught the culture makes it for women to talk bluntly about money, I emailed Adam the number and said it was my ideal minimum, meanwhile crossing my fingers that I hadn’t made some crass faux pas. It wasn’t a huge number—a generous but realistic one for literary fiction. Here’s the general breakdown from Publishers Marketplace, if it’s of interest:
Nice deal = $1 to $49,000
Very nice deal = $50,000 to $99,000
Good deal = $100,000 to $250,000
Significant deal = $251,000 to $499,000
Major deal = $500,000+
Adam thanked me and said almost no one gets as specific with deal hopes. So maybe it was a crass faux pas? But generally we both like transparency, I like being able to pay my bills and not aggravate my chronic burnout, and Adam is the most diplomatic human I’ve ever met. So in any case, we entered the bidding process with clear air.
Meet the Editors
From what I gather as a newbie, these meetings are…variable. In one case, a New York–based writer who went on to get a major deal attended her meetings in person with her agent, in a conference room full of publishing staff (this was in the mid-2010s). Another writer who ended up in a seven-way auction during the pandemic did all his meetings on Zoom with his agent. Besides Ballantine, I met with two other publishers, which I’ll just refer to here as the Edgy Imprint and the Intriguing Indie. Adam and I agreed that I’d attend these meetings alone, so that I could make the most direct connection, and I’d email him a meeting summary after.
It was time for a distracting dose of imposter syndrome. In the days leading up to the first meeting, I worried about them with my workshop group, my wife, my friends. “I feel like I’m auditioning,” I said. And they reminded me that this was indeed an audition—but for my benefit. The editors wanted to tell me what was great about their publishing house, how they’d position the book, what revisions they wanted to see, and what they loved about my writing. I love the people in my life, and I know they were basically right; and it was a mutual audition. An editor friend of mine had the most accurate prediction of anyone: “They’ll probably want to know what drew you to this story.”
Why did that seem so hard to answer? Obsession, both with the complexity of its history and the technical challenge. Self-searching, as a way of reckoning with my own sexuality and how I came out in a homophobic culture. Humility, knowing all the talented people in my Arab American family who never had a chance to pursue the arts professionally, and what I owed to them in getting the novel right. Sometime in 2008, when he thought I was out of earshot, my jiddo had asked my grandmother from his wheelchair, Why doesn’t she just write it and they’ll publish it? It was after I’d said I was starting the novel from scratch for the third time.
Anyway, this all gets easier to say in retrospect, but before those meetings, the question felt as unanswerable as, “Why are you alive?” The notes I took are still in my computer, and they’ve been helpful in preparing for podcast interviews and such—so, one of my earliest lessons in the process is that everything is reusable.
My meetings with Ballantine and the Edgy Imprint were both one-to-one calls with the acquiring editor (i.e., the person who will serve as a book’s team captain). The Intriguing Imprint editor also brought a junior editor. And indeed, the meetings went as planned. They each lasted about 45 minutes. In the moment, they all seemed remarkably similar and to have gone equally well—but after the adrenaline wore off and I began working on my reports for Adam, some important differences emerged.
Last Step: Analyzing the Meeting
I summarized the meetings in a similar format:
Editorial work: What did the editor like? What might need to change? How much feedback will I get, and on what schedule?
Book in world: Which authors has this editor worked with? How will the novel be positioned in relation to others? Do I like the publisher’s other cover designs? How big will the publishing team be, and what kind of efforts do they make?
Questions for me: “What drew you to this story?” It was a chance to talk about my family’s background, the Kanaan soap factory in Nablus, my research and travel in Palestine, my writing background, and what kind of success I most wanted this novel to have. (See how the same answers to early questions continue to be useful?)
I asked: What drew the editor to my novel? What challenges do they see? It was also a chance to follow up on the editorial vision and drill for details.
Overall feeling: Having picked apart the conversation while it was still fresh, are my instincts talking to me? Any niggling worries?
When the interviews were side-by-side, I was able to articulate any persistent questions—e.g., anything from lack of specificity in editorial comments, to the editor’s experience, to the stability of the publishing house itself. I filed these away just in case all the offers somehow were identical and I needed to choose using other criteria.
I also asked around among publishing and writer contacts for any background information on the teams, industry rumors, experiences with these editors, etc. It was an interesting foray that lined up with my gut instincts, and also yielded some glowing feedback about Ballantine Books. After a really warm meeting with Chelcee Johns, who’d been clear and consistent in her feedback since the beginning, I secretly hoped that Ballantine was The Skin and Its Girl’s new home.
A Deal: The End of the Beginning
For two reasons, I’ll never forget the call from my agent on the day offers were due. I’d gone for a run along the river to look for ospreys and stay out of my head, and I’d just showered and was putting on socks when my mobile rang. It was on the bed, so I answered it and hit speaker. The first reason I’ll always remember this moment is that Adam started the call with, “Congratulations! You’re going to be a published author!”
The second reason is that my cat then stepped on the phone and hung up on him.
But, The Skin and Its Girl found a home with Ballantine—the deal was everything I’d hoped for and more, and it was such good news I’d need literally another eight months for it to finally sink in.
This seems like a hopeful place to end this Substack post, along with a wish for a happy 2023 full of all you’d ever hoped for and more. In a few weeks, I’ll focus the next publication-journey-related post on something everybody loves—cover art!
The year is starting off right for The Skin and Its Girl with appearances on two exciting reading lists: Electric Literature’s “Most Anticipated LGBTQ+ Books of Spring 2023” and Goodreads’s “Buzziest Debut Novels.” If you like lists, I put together over 35 recent and forthcoming books I’m looking forward reading this year over on Bookshop.