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I Landed 4 Book Deals in 1 Year With No Agent: Here’s How I Did It

Guest columnist Susan Cushman shares her story of landing four book deals with four different publishers in one year, with tips for how you too, can juggle multiple projects at once.

The year 2016 was a banner year for me: I got four book deals with four different publishers! Three of those books were published in 2017, with the fourth scheduled for a spring 2018 release. It’s been an exciting ride, but also a complicated one: juggling several projects in various stages of production over the past year. There were many times when I had to clear my head to be sure I was responding to the right editor about the right project and keeping up with overlapping deadlines. Here’s how it all unfolded, and how I stayed sane throughout it all:

This guest post is by Susan Cushman. Cushman was co-director of the 2010 and 2013 Creative Nonfiction Conferences in Oxford, Mississippi, and director of the 2011 Memphis Creative Nonfiction Workshop. In addition to having over a dozen essays published in various anthologies, journals, and magazines, Cushman has authored two books and edited two, including Tangles and Plaques: A Mother and Daughter Face Alzheimer’s (eLectio Publishing, February 2017), A Second Blooming: Becoming the Women We Are Meant to Be (Mercer University Press, March 2017), author, Cherry Bomb, a novel (Dogwood Press, July 2017), Southern Writers on Writing (University Press of Mississippi, 2018). A native of Jackson, Mississippi, Cushman has lived in Memphis, Tenn. since 1988.

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Book Deal 1: Cherry Bomb, my novel, was conceived about seven years ago. I had written my first novel a couple of years earlier, but it ended up on a shelf in my closet. One of the characters in that novel wouldn’t keep quiet, and she reappeared as Mare, the graffiti artist protagonist in Cherry Bomb. Once I completed the manuscript, I hired a freelance editor and also got feedback from several published authors who graciously served as early readers. Finally I was ready to find a literary agent to represent me and get me a book deal with one of the Big Five houses.

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That’s when it all went a little sideways.

I spent six months querying roughly 75 literary agents. I did my homework—finding agents who represented books with similar themes as mine, or whose readers might also like my book. About 25 of them asked to see the full manuscript and complimented my writing style, which was encouraging. Then the rejections came. Most said things like “I can’t figure out to market this book,” or “I can’t find a niche for this.” Finally, an agent said she loved the book and wanted to work with me. She had represented a famous author whose book was full of art and religious overtones, like Cherry Bomb, so I thought it was a match made in heaven—until she started sending it to different editors (and charging me about $750 each time) who not only disagreed with each other, but who were trying to move the book in directions I didn’t want it to go. The agent was pushing me strongly toward the commercial fiction genre, while I was trying to hold onto what I hoped would be literary fiction. When she asked to send it to a third editor for another revision, I parted ways with her. It wasn’t an easy decision, as I felt I was leaving behind my dreams for a big book deal.

I only spent a few weeks querying agents again—maybe about 25 this time—before making the decision to look for an independent press that didn’t require agent representation. Researching my options online and through social media contacts, I eventually connected with Joe Lee of Dogwood Press, who had served on a panel at a writing conference I helped direct a few years ago. We signed a contract to publish my novel in July 2016.

During this lengthy process of birthing a novel, there were periods of relative inactivity that drove me crazy. Hence, I always had several varied projects in the back of my mind at the same time. I’m sure a single publisher would never have contracted me for such a wide-ranging mix of overlapping books, and I also tried not to talk too much about each deal with the other publishers. But having multiple projects in the hopper at once help eased my anxiety in the waiting periods.

Book Deal 2: Tangles and Plaques: A Mother and Daughter Face Alzheimer’s (eLectio Publishing, February 2017) had a completely different type of genesis. From 2008­–2016, I wrote 60 posts on my blog, Pen and Palette, about caregiving for my mother, who died from Alzheimer’s last May. A few months before her death, while I was still trying to find a publishing home for Cherry Bomb, I got the idea to collect those posts into a memoir/essay collection. I again did some online research into small presses. I got a quick response from eLectio Publishing in Little Elm, Texas, and the process was smooth and fast. They allowed me to include lots of photographs and, as with Dogwood Press, I was able to suggest artwork for the cover. They don’t have a publicity director, but marketing is something I actually enjoy, so I was off and running with more than a dozen events from March–May.

Book Deal 3: A Second Blooming: Becoming the Women We Are Meant to Be (Mercer University Press, March 2017) “bloomed” in the midst of my work on the first two projects. Three of my essays had been published in anthologies between 2012 and 2015, and I love the genre. So I decided to try my hand at putting together a collection. I invited twenty women to contribute (and they all said yes!) their stories of “second bloomings” after loss, illness, divorce, or in second careers, second marriages, or second “lives.” All of the contributors were published authors, including a few well-known ones, so this time I decided to query academic presses. In addition to Mercer University Press’ stellar reputation, I think it was their director Marc Jolley’s words that won me over: “If you don’t let us publish this, I’m still going to buy it for my wife!”

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A Second Blooming is now in its third printing, and I had a ball visiting the hometowns (and states) of many of its authors for readings and signings with them at their local booksellers. At one point, one publisher expressed concern that marketing these books so close together was going to be a problem—that I would use up my reader base and wear out my welcome at bookstores. I’ve been amazed at how many bookstores have welcomed me back multiple times, and how many readers have come out for more than one of my events. (There was only one situation that I wish I could go back and change: One of the premiere bookstores welcomed me for two events, but not for a third in the same year. The third book was my novel—the project I cared the most about—so I was disappointed at not being able to have a reading at this particular store for the novel. I should have discussed all three books with the store manager at the beginning of the year, and I would have probably been given the choice of which two I could have readings for.)

Book Deal 4: Southern Writers on Writing, my fourth book deal of 2016, was another product of those “slow weeks” between deadlines with the other three presses. (Yes, even with three books in the works you’ll still have slow weeks!) Having had so much fun and success with A Second Blooming, I wanted to create another anthology. This time I invited 26 southern authors (13 men and 13 women) to contribute to a book by southern writers about writing. Since I’m from Jackson, Mississippi, and went to school at the University of Mississippi, I decided to query the University Press of Mississippi. Fortunately they were interested right away, so I didn’t have to spend time looking for a publisher.

Working on two anthologies was a bit tricky, in that I would sometimes forget which contributors went with which book. I even sent an email to the wrong publisher once, with concerns about reprint rights for a previously published piece that we were including. Fortunately, she just laughed it off.

I keep hard copies of everything in file folders right next to my desk. When I’m finished working with some aspect of one project, I put that file folder away and get out another one to work on. It’s a form of physical compartmentalizing, and it helps keep me organized. I also keep a physical calendar on my desk (I don’t use an electronic one) and clearly mark each day’s deadlines, reminders, and appointments. This is crucial with so many marketing events overlapping with deadlines for editing, follow-up emails and calls to media folks and booksellers. These are my best multitasking tips:

  1. Keep hard copies of all paperwork for each project in separate file folders on or near your desk. Put each one away when working with the contents of another one.
  2. Be diligent with your calendar, whether you use electronic or handwritten format. Clearly mark all deadlines (I use lots of red ink and stars and yellow highlights) for each project.
  3. Treat each project with respect—don’t hurry through what you might consider less pleasant tasks on one book to get to something that’s more fun on another project. This is tempting—I, for one, much prefer marketing and final editing to first drafts and heavy revisions—but you must stay disciplined.
  4. Consider spacing the projects out a bit more than I’ve done. Two weeks apart for the release of my first two books was a bit tight. In retrospect, three to six months between projects might have been better. On the other hand, you don’t want to lose momentum when you’re excited about your work!

And yes—I’m already working on a fifth book. My first instinct was to write another novel, and I still may do that at some point, but for now I’m putting together another essay collection. This time the essays are all mine, and they reflect most of the important areas of my life: art, spirituality, mental health, family/adoption, and sexual abuse. When I started gathering all my essays—previously published and not-yet-published—I discovered I have over 55,000 words ready to be organized into a book. My publishing plan might surprise you, given the story you’ve just read: I plan to query literary agents for this one.

(To follow my journey, subscribe to my blog to find out what happens, friend me on Facebook, or follow me on Twitter. I’d love to e-meet you!)


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