Tips for Storytellers and Stand-ups Who Want to Sell a Book

For the last decade I have been a publishing drone by day (Editorial Assistant to start, then steps up the ladder over the years to my current job as a Managing Editor) and Stand-up Comedian and Storyteller by night (I can sleep when I’m dead!).  Two years ago, I added Author to my resume when my collection of humorous essays, The New Rules for Blondes: Highlights from a Fair-Haired Life, was published by It Books/HarperCollins.  After the release of my book, a lot of storytellers and stand-ups asked if they could take me out for drinks and ply me with free alcohol while asking me questions about how to get a book published.  In honor of the second anniversary of my book’s publication date (it’s not too late to buy a copy!), I’m sharing my knowledge, tips, tricks, and advice–and you don’t even have to buy me a drink!

Where Do You Begin?

There are two ways to sell a book: You can write the whole shebang and try to shop that around, or you can create a proposal that explains what your book will be (once you write it).  Both pathways will eventually require a proposal, so you’d be wise to start with that. A book proposal is usually 50-70 pages and it’s a comprehensive outline of your book and a road map for how the publisher can market your work.  It includes a lengthy bio about you, the writer, and why you are America’s most important, charming, and hilarious new voice. It should include many things: comparative analysis — short synopses of similar books in the marketplace, a few sample chapters of your book, an annotated Table of Contents where you summarize each chapter, a list of every way that you will whore out your book to myriad media contacts that you have met or had lunch near or crossed paths with (get shameless in this section, seriously).  Just Google “book proposal template” and you can see all of the exact sections of the proposal.

But That Sounds Like a Drag To Write—Any Other Tips?

Yes, writing a proposal isn’t the most enjoyable part of writing a book.  I cranked out three versions of my book proposal over the course of about a year before my agent and I felt that we had a polished enough proposal to send along to HarperCollins.  So let’s take a step back and let me implore you to…

Write What You Know and Love (and Possibly What You Can Bang out 65,000 Words About)

I got my book deal because I am obsessed with, repulsed by, and shamefully addicted to The Bachelor franchise and for many years I have been writing ridiculous, pop culture anecdote-filled recaps of the show on my blog.  I didn’t start writing those recaps to get a book deal — I started because I love sharing my thoughts on competitive dating with the reality TV viewing public.  To completely debase a legendary quotation and make it about my Bachelor recaps, this bird has got to sing because I have a song!  And that song is about how many Ashleys can coexist inside a mansion (no more than two at a time). What I’m saying is, write what you enjoy writing and that enthusiasm just might catch the eye of an agent or an editor who likes your voice and style and wants to talk to you. To that end, figure out your preferred writing style, voice, subject matter, and where your creative strengths lie.  Are you a storyteller and most of your stories have a recurring theme? Are you a stand-up comedian with a really interesting take on X topic and think that you have a hook for an essay collection? Is there a topic that’s currently hot in the zeitgeist that you have a unique angle on or experience with?  Those are all good places to start when dreaming up what your book might be.  (The topic that’s hot in the zeitgeist will be especially useful when trying to get press for your book because you can easily make it relevant to future news stories, though beware of making your book proposal too topical, as book publishing moves slowly and you want your book concept to be somewhat evergreen so that it can sell for years to come.)

Don’t Send Book Pitches to Editors or Publishers, Send Them to Agents

When I was a Children’s Editor (despite my title, I didn’t edit children, I edited their books) I’d often receive blind book pitches by writers from all over the country (though, for whatever reason, from Florida more than anywhere else).  Part of my job (in addition to Americanizing a killer book called No No No Little Turtles — a classic!) was to return those blind pitches to sender along with a friendly letter saying “no thanks” but I always wished I could also say, “don’t pitch an editor, pitch an agent!” I’m sure that someone in the comments will gleefully share the anecdote that JK Rowling used to send manuscripts to editors at publishing houses and SHE got a book deal, but you will be seen as a contender and taken more seriously if you have an agent representing you. Agents have relationships with editors and they know which editor at which imprint would be interested in your book. (NB: “Imprint” is publishing talk that means a publishing company within a bigger publishing house. An imprint will have a unique style or theme — within a huge publishing house there might be an imprint that specializes in romance novels and another imprint that publishes humor books, and another for young adult, and so on.) These days, editors generally don’t accept blind submissions but agents generally do — the industry is set up for writers to have an agent first and then find an editor.  Thinking that you can get a book deal by blindly sending your manuscript to publishing houses is like thinking that you can get cast on Saturday Night Live by blindingly sending a tape of your comedy to 30 Rockefeller Center.  That’s not how it works — there are gatekeepers and they have relationships with other gatekeepers. (Some of this stuff is a tough pill to swallow, but I’m trying to be completely honest with you, dear reader.)

But can’t I make up a name an act as my own agent? a smart aleck may be wondering. Sure, I suppose that you can, but again, you don’t have the relationships with editors so concocting a giant ruse in which you are your own agent won’t get you very far. What WILL get you pretty far is doing some research and it’s as easy as Googling a bunch of key term combinations. Most agencies have websites on which they clearly express if they are accepting manuscripts and exactly how they’d like those manuscripts delivered. Each agent within an agency will have his or her own section of the site where that agent will say exactly what type of work he or she will represent.  Also, do some research inside books that you like.  Do you read a lot of young adult zombie books and have a great idea for a YA zombie book? Look in the Acknowledgements page of that book that you love so much — I bet the agent is listed there. Then Google the name of that person and before you know it, you’re on the agency’s website learning exactly how they accept pitches.

But Also Don’t Worry Too Much About the Agent Dance

Don’t you hate it when someone gives you advice and then, in the same breath, completely contradicts herself?  I’m sorry!  Yes, getting an agent is important (especially an agent who understands your style and voice), but simply doing the work is more important. As I mentioned earlier, I implore you to simply write and perform what you enjoy creating and that enthusiasm just might catch the eye of an agent or an editor.

So You Got an Agent and Got a Book Deal—What Now?

Once your agent successfully sells your book to a publisher, you will be given around 8 months to crank out the full manuscript.  The final product depends on the type of manuscript and I’m most familiar with my book, which came in at about 65,000 words. I cranked out 65,000 words (in the form of a bunch of humorous essays about all things blonde) while working 40 hours a week and performing standup and storytelling most nights.  I’m not going to pull a Fit Mom and get righteous with you by asking “what’s your excuse?” while I pose in a sports bra (it’s been a long winter with not much gym time), but I will say this: You can do it. Yes, you, reading this essay — you can crank it out if you want to.  It’s just a matter of writing during every free moment of your life and setting boundaries.  Every weekend of those eight months that I was given, I isolated myself in my apartment and just cranked on my laptop. If I hit a wall, I’d go for a walk or a run and marinate on the essay that I was working on and then I’d go right back to my computer. I would jot down notes, ideas, and brainstorms during subway rides and during my regular job. Many times I would print out full deck (a full copy of the book) in process and take it to a bar to have some drinks while doing my own punch ups and reading it hard copy. I turned in my manuscript and then chilled for a few months. During that time my wonderful Editor read the whole thing and sent me back thoughts, edits, and notes. Then I did rewrites over the course of about 4-6 weeks and I threw out entire chapters and created new ones. My Editor and I had some back and forth as we got closer to finalizing the manuscript and then the brilliant legal team and copyeditor did their passes.  Soon I had galleys (also known as ARCs, Advanced Review Copies) and I sent out copies to famous friends and acquaintances and pleaded with them to please blurb my book (that is, write a blurb about how hilarious and important it is). Advanced copies were also sent to magazines and websites and anyone who might be interested in my book.

Why Would Anyone Be Interested In Your Book?

That’s a question for the ages! If there’s one thing I learned, it’s that the onus is on YOU and your publicist (either the one who is on staff at your publisher or one who you personally hire) to make your book accessible and important to the media. Don’t just send out a galley with a form cover letter — do the work for the person you are pitching so that his or her job is now done. Write a special cover letter about how X issue is relevant right now and you address said issue with eloquence and imagination on pages 134-141 of your upcoming book (even pull out that text so that the magazine editor doesn’t even need to flip through your book).  People love it when you make life easy for them, so take them by the hand and show them how they can use your book in their magazine or website.

Have a Big, Memorable Book Launch

Hosting a soiree to fete your book (and yourself) is a great way to get more press for your book, if for nothing else but the event listing in your local newspapers and magazines.  If you can swing it, offer open bar or free gifts or giveaways. A book launch party is like Field of Dreams: If you give it (away for free), they will come. Read an excerpt from the book, thank everyone who helped you, sign a bunch of copies of the book, play some music, and have fun!  Don’t forget to encourage everyone there to take photos and splash the event all over social media.  Oh, and maybe do a cute tie-in to the book in the form of a drink or snack or gift.  At my book launch, my mother went around handing out homemade blondies to everyone in attendance.

Take the Show on the Road

See if your publisher would be willing to send you to a few cities or events — Book Expo America or the American Librarian’s Association Conference or a few bookstores in your hometown.  One word of caution about bookstore events: It can be hard to get people out for those, I found. But perhaps my situation was unique in that I was trying to drum up excitement about a fun, summery essay collection while in my hometown of Boston mere days after the Boston Marathon bombing. There are many variables that you can’t control and if nothing else, perhaps you’ll get a good story out of a bad experience (in my case, being heckled by a drunk, homeless woman as I attempted to do a reading from my book in the Harvard Coop bookstore. Listen for that tale on a storytelling show soon.)

Expect The Unexpected, Roll with the Punches, Be Grateful

You’re going to put a lot of work into your book and there are no guarantees about how much press you will get, how many copies you will sell, or how much anyone will care about your baby. Be respectful and grateful to your agent and editor and cover designer and copyeditor and everyone involved — they’re all pulling together for YOUR book and it’s pretty magical. Trust that your editor knows the marketplace and has good advice for you. Be proud of what you have written, no matter the outcome.

It’s Just One More Notch On Your Proverbial Bedpost

The months leading up to my book release were terrifying to me. With each day, the big pub date got closer (4/23/13!) and I always felt like I wasn’t doing enough, wasn’t pushing enough, wasn’t connected enough with media contacts. Being pushy with strangers gives me agita and shameless self-promotion is anathema to me, but in those trying months I was given some calming advice by a fellow comedian/author in a comedy club green room.  He told me, “it won’t change your life, but it’s another thing that you have on your resume.”  And he was right.  Being a published author didn’t change my life, but it gave me something that I can sell after shows, it’s an opportunity that I am honored to have been given, and my book is a piece of work that I’m fiercely proud of.

Selena Coppock is a storyteller and stand-up comedian. Her debut book of essays, “The New Rules for Blondes,” is available now.

Above: Photo by Anya Garrett

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