Today, we have a special guest post - a conversation between YA author Rebecca Barrow and her literary agent Jennifer Johnson-Blalock about what happens after you sign with an agent. (Hint: there's more work to be done - but it's pretty exciting!) Our crew can't wait to read Rebecca's debut YOU DON'T KNOW ME BUT I KNOW YOU next year!
Take it away, Rebecca and Jennifer...
There’s a lot of information out there about how to find an agent—to hear about how we forged our agent-client connection, check out our Query Series post on YA Highway. But getting an agent is just the beginning of the long road to publication.
We’re not quite there yet; Rebecca’s debut YA contemporary YOU DON’T KNOW ME BUT I KNOW YOU (HarperTeen) will be released in summer 2017. But, from both the agent’s and the author’s perspective, here’s our journey so far.
JENNIFER: Rebecca accepted my offer of representation (YAY!) in June 2015. Shortly thereafter (she was my first client, so I got this done very quickly), I sent her a three-page editorial letter with some big picture revision suggestions and a line edited manuscript.
REBECCA: I love revising, and I was excited to be on that next step of working on them with my agent instead of just on my own! Jennifer mostly gave me big-picture critique, and left me to interpret that as I saw fit (my favourite way to do it). I had to work on some small things, like setting and fleshing out some supporting characters, and then big things, like really diving into my MC’s decision process throughout the book.
JENNIFER: Rebecca sent the revised manuscript back to me about two months later, at the end of August. I think some writers panic about getting revisions done quickly; please believe me when I say agents are much more concerned with quality. Rebecca did an amazing job, but after reading, I felt like the pacing could be improved and asked her to go through one more time to focus on tightening up.
REBECCA: Needing to tighten up your book can be challenging—what am I going to take out? Where am I going to make changes? How do I do it all without affecting the plot? Once you get going, though, it can actually be very cathartic. I used this post from Rachelle Gardner as my starting point and as I got into it, I quickly found places where I could trim. (Tip: make a document to keep all of your cut scenes in. You never know when you might be able to repurpose them in another book, and you’ll love yourself for it.)
After that, it was onto finding a new title. I happen to be absolutely terrible at titling my books, and so after exhausting every cliché-ridden photography based title that wasn’t already a book, I turned to my writers’ group and one of them gave me something I liked.
JENNIFER: Rebecca was able to shorten and tighten the manuscript fairly quickly, and after much back and forth and a long call about the title, we settled on THE CIRCLE OF LEAST CONFUSION (Rebecca had queried it under THE QUIETEST KIND), and we were ready to send the manuscript to market.
JENNIFER: Fortuitously, I had plans to attend agent/editor speed networking about a week after we finished edits, so I decided to hold off on submitting until after the event. I wound up sending the book to 23 editors, including about a half dozen I connected with that night, using a pitch I’d crafted based on Rebecca’s query letter (good queries matter!).
REBECCA: So, submission, that mysterious thing! You can read so much about almost every stage of the publication process except for submission—because when it’s happening, you can’t talk about it at all. Everything I had heard about it made me expect…not the worst, but I definitely wasn’t thinking I’d sell right away. In fact, I set myself up for a long wait—maybe a year or more—and told myself that it was highly likely this book wouldn’t sell. (Realism or cynicism? You decide!) I got especially nervous once I saw the list of editors that my book was with—but I was also excited to be at this stage for the first time.
JENNIFER: We got a couple quick passes, which always happens. But just about a week later, Elizabeth Lynch from HarperTeen emailed to say she was “loving CIRCLE like crazy” and was getting second reads. She followed up on my birthday, November 9, to find out more information about Rebecca for the editorial meeting, and then, two days later, presented a two-book offer.
I’m not going to lie to you, readers—we were really lucky! It’s incredibly rare that an editor reads in a week and offers in less than a month. Rebecca’s book is wonderful, of course, but it was fortuitous that we found the perfect editor at the perfect time. Or if you prefer, in her offer, Elizabeth called it fate. :)
REBECCA: The process leading up to the actual offer was maybe the most stressful two weeks ever. Hearing that Elizabeth loved it? YAY! But there is much more to getting the offer than an editor loving your book. It has to get a yes from others within the publisher, and there are so many reasons a book might not get past the acquisitions stage (too similar to a title they already have, the trend is dying, they don’t know how to market it, on and on and on).
I tried to keep my expectations in check until Jennifer told me it was going to acquisitions, and then I couldn’t think about anything but that. When I got the “We got an offer!” email from Jennifer, I was at work and didn’t read it right away. I didn’t even know if it was the email or something else. It wasn’t until I was leaving work that I actually read it, and I stopped right where I was. Because we had an offer!!! I honestly almost fell down, and then I wished there was someone around to witness this moment, and then I got in my car and blasted Beyoncé at an obnoxious volume all the way home.
JENNIFER: I followed up with the editors who were still reading. We weren’t lucky enough to get another offer and have an auction; after a week, the remaining editors had passed. I negotiated with the offering editor to obtain the best possible offer before accepting. This was my first deal as an agent—SO exciting!
REBECCA: I really didn’t have to do anything for the next part—it was all up to Jennifer to deal with the remaining editors and any negotiations, so I got to just dance around in happiness for the next two weeks before we officially accepted the offer. And then, of course, the hardest part starts: keeping it a secret. You want to scream about it, but you can’t! (This is good practice for the rest of your career, I’m learning.)
JENNIFER: Contracts are where agents really get to shine! I’d confirmed a couple of key points with the editor before accepting the offer, and we have a strong boilerplate with HarperCollins, so the negotiation proceeded smoothly. I asked for some improvements, they granted a few but not others, I pushed back on one or two, we came to an agreement—that’s the 10,000 feet version of a negotiation!
It does take time—I got the initial draft in early December, about a month after the offer, and sent responses back right away, but because of the holidays, we didn’t settle on a final contract until mid-January. That’s still pretty fast, though; sometimes negotiations drag on past the point of delivery.
I always give clients an opportunity for comments or questions before finalizing the contract, and their responses vary widely, from “let’s go through this line-by-line” to “show me where to sign.” Rebecca fell into the latter camp, but honestly, if you trust your agent, I think either is fine—that’s why we’re here.
REBECCA: Again…I did nothing here. I mean, I read the contract over, of course, and didn’t see anything super alarming. But like Jennifer says, this is where having an agent really pays off! I trusted her, and once I’d read it, I was happy to sign. It’s kind of surreal, because you’re signing a contract for the publication of a book you wrote, but it’s done in about a minute. No angels singing, no choir appearing. So I took about a thousand pictures of it, obviously.
JENNIFER: This is the point where I stepped back, and the editor took the lead. I sat in on an initial call with both Elizabeth and Rebecca, and Rebecca had me read in a couple instances before she sent the manuscript back, but at this stage it’s more about the author and editor.
REBECCA: I think almost everybody’s initial reaction to that first edit letter is, “Well, if it’s so terrible, WHY did you buy it?!” and then some light weeping. But once I got past that stage, I was ready to work. Overall I did three rounds of edits with Elizabeth, two developmental and one line. In terms of time, I had just over a month for the first round, then about three weeks for round two, and one week for line edits.
Every editor is different in their style of working: Elizabeth was/is very open to discussion, but also let me figure things out on my own (like I said before, my favourite way to work). I like to take my edit letter and a notebook and start figuring things out. I broke it down into sections and wrote out possible solutions to the problems Elizabeth had pointed out, then got to work, and repeat. I really love revision because it’s where your story can completely change, over and over, in better and better ways—and there’s never any one right way to do it. It can definitely seem overwhelming to face the first edit letter, but once I got started and began seeing the changes making the story better, it got much easier.
There were some particular changes that I needed more help with, and that’s when Elizabeth and I talked it through. Like I said, she’s open to discussion, and just because your editor suggests something doesn’t mean you have to do it. You might have a different idea that will achieve the same result, or feel strongly about not changing something for a good reason. For me, the editing process was a collaborative effort, and when I pushed back Elizabeth was always receptive, and quick to give me feedback. I am so grateful that she’s my editor!
Line edits were quick—it was mostly word changes, restructuring sentences, and other small things. Copyedits were also very quick, and aside from a timeline issue that I had to spend an entire day figuring out (Tip: write with a calendar at hand and save yourself this huge headache!), they were pretty simple too. And fun! I loved getting my style sheet, and seeing what the editors had fact checked (yes, hair metal is definitely a musical genre). The worst part here was that I was (am) so burned out on reading the book. It gets hard to know what’s good and bad and what you just think is bad because you’ve read your book so many times by this point. But it also becomes more real now, because this is the last time you see it in a Word document—after this is first pass pages and it starting to look like a real book. (I am SO EXCITED for this part!)
Other than edits, we had to deal with the title again. Between the three of us, we came up with many different things, some vetoed because they were too close to popular books or because they just didn’t work. Eventually we had two options, and after I spent a couple of days saying them out loud, writing them down, and asking my friends to vote on them, we settled on YOU DON’T KNOW ME BUT I KNOW YOU. (Fact: it’s taken verbatim from a line somewhere in the book.)
JENNIFER: The editor sent us the cover image in July. We loved the concept but felt like it needed just a couple tweaks. I took the lead (agents are great for this kind of go-between) to ask for these adjustments. They were very open to our suggestions and sent a revised cover back in August, which we adored.
REBECCA: I think the cover is the most exciting and most nerve-wracking part. It’s out of your control! How much input authors get varies: I got to send a selection of inspiration pictures and some general thoughts on likes/dislikes. I didn’t see any mock-ups or potential designs; one day the cover just appeared in my inbox. And then it took me a little bit to work out how I felt about it! The Cover gets so hyped up, and then suddenly it was there, and the adrenaline of it, hoping I wasn’t about to hate it…it took a minute for me to calm down, realize that I didn’t hate it (yay!) and then realize that oh, actually, I really liked it! We asked for just a couple of changes and when I got it back I cried because now I loved it. (There is much crying in this process for me.) It’s beautiful and I can’t wait to share it with the world in just a couple of months!
Still to Come…
- Book Two: As we continue to work on the first book, Rebecca is also hard at work on her second. She’ll be delivering the first draft of that in January, and it’s set to come out in the fall of 2018.
- Endorsements: Soon we’ll be reaching out to published authors, hoping to get those shiny blurbs that can be so important to a debut’s success.
- ARCs: The fun part really starts when we have actual physical BOOKS, unfinalized though they still may be, to put in the hands of readers.
- Publication: PUB DAY, the best and most nervous making of all days, when your book is fully in the world, and you hope that people buy it and love it.
- Publicity: Coordination with the publicity department has already started as we talk about a cover reveal, and it will continue to ramp up as we approach publication.
- Sales: Sales records are important; they help determine whether or not a publisher wants to buy more books from you. Starting with preorders, sales numbers are analyzed—so if you love an author, preorder their book!
And then we’ll do (almost) all this again with the next work. There’s always more to accomplish with publishing; that’s why it’s so important to celebrate every milestone. We can’t wait for you to see what we’ve been working on as YOU DON’T KNOW ME BUT I KNOW YOU makes its way into the world.
Jennifer Johnson-Blalock joined Liza Dawson Associates as an associate agent in 2015, having previously interned at LDA in 2013 before working as an agent's assistant at Trident Media Group. Jennifer graduated with honors from The University of Texas at Austin with a B.A. in English and earned a J.D. from Harvard Law School. Before interning at LDA, she practiced entertainment law and taught high school English and debate. Follow her on Twitter @JJohnsonBlalock, and visit her website: www.jjohnsonblalock.com.
Rebecca Barrow writes stories about girls and all the wonders they can be. A lipstick obsessive with the ability to quote the entirety of Mean Girls, she lives in England, where it rains a considerable amount more than in the fictional worlds of her characters. She collects tattoos, cats, and more books than she could ever possibly read. You can find her on Twitter @RebeccaKBarrow and at http://www.rebecca-barrow.com/.