Eden and I began working on Let’s Panic About Babies, oh, three years before we sold it. It took a while. This is why, if you ask us, say, how many months we worked on the book, we cry a bunch and then hold each other close until the bad memories pass. Here’s how it went. (Eden: According to Alice.)
Oh, look who it is! I should add that I’ve (graciously) invited Eden to contribute, seeing as how she wrote
most half of the book.
First, we pitched the idea of a fake pregnancy book to our (then) agent, who hated it. “No one wants to panic,” she told us. “But…but that’s the joke,” we whispered. She remained unmoved. We parted amicably and found a new agent, who was enthused at first but then sort of stopped calling us back. (Eden: If your agent doesn’t return your calls, it doesn’t mean you suck, it means you’re probably not a good fit for each other.) (Alice: Or that secretly you suck worse than you even could have imagined in your worst nightmares.) We found yet another agent. She loved the proposal and wanted to sell it. We figured we’d be published authors in a matter of months. Weeks, even! (Eden: We had blind confidence on our side!)
Our beloved agent sent the book proposal off to a bevy of editors, many of whom were enthusiastic. An auction was scheduled. We assumed we’d be able to pick and choose from a few offers. We might have engaged in some late-night discussions about how much money we would soon be rolling in, and whether or not we could both appear on “Late Night” or should it just be one of us?
The day of the scheduled auction was Henry’s first day at a new preschool, and Henry and I were on our way out the door when my phone rang. It was our agent, calling to tell me that every editor had backed out at the last minute. Every one of them.
Why? The editors who loved the content couldn’t get the business and marketing side on board. They just didn’t want to sell it. (Eden: They didn’t want to be responsible for all the early labors brought on by so much pregnant-lady laughter. They were protecting the children!) So that was that.
Burdened with the knowledge that my life was now over and I should probably lie down in a gutter and wait for death to overtake me, I accompanied Henry to school, where I helped him find his cubby and met the other parents and hoped no one noticed that I was seconds away from jamming a pair of safety scissors into my carotid. (Eden: I, too, was disappointed. We’d sunk a year and a half of work into the project at this point.)
For the months following that bit of news, Eden and I 1) consoled each other while eating many cookies, and then 2) tried to rework the idea into something similar that would sell. Our agent met with some of the editors who liked our proposal, and they had their own ideas for us. We tried their ideas. We tried to fit into some mold of what we thought they might want. We wanted to be loved! Also: published!
But these new ideas–they just didn’t take. We couldn’t get them to work the way our original idea did. (Eden: Their ideas were interesting, but like oversized shoes, they didn’t fit. We wanted to wear our own book-shoes, which fit us perfectly.) (Alice: Oh, Eden. You always say the right things.) We were so sure that “Let’s Panic” was right. But what could we do, when no one else agreed?
It took us a couple of years to let go of the idea of ever selling a book together. We wanted to write “Let’s Panic,” so we decided to put it online. Maybe it wouldn’t make any money, but at least it would get read. (Eden: We were now two and a half years in. We still believed in our idea, but it made sense to give some of it away for free to see if we’d get the response we hoped it would.)
Now, the original title of the book/site was “Let’s Panic About Pregnancy.” Our web designer immediately recommended we change the title to “Let’s Panic About Babies.” This had never occurred to us, which is a little embarrassing to think about, because duh. It made more sense, and it was also funnier. (Eden: I still like Pregnancy better. I am overly attached to alliteration.) (Alice: weirdo.) Our agent agreed, and Eden was shouted down. “Babies” it was!
The site went up, and most people thought it was as funny as we knew in our hearts people would think it was. It was extremely gratifying, and we figured it was reward enough for the work we’d put into it. (Eden: We got linked on Metafilter! People got the joke!)
Then, a few weeks later, we received an email from the publisher of Little, Brown and Company, saying he hoped there was a book proposal in the works. And then I died. And Eden had to revive me. (Eden: I am mystical.)
Shortly after that, our agent re-sent the proposal–pretty much the same exact proposal we had sent out years before. All of a sudden, everyone was on board: the editors and their marketing cohorts. We never did get the book-auction-frenzy we had dreamed of, but we did receive multiple offers–and hell, we got our book published, by a company that was as excited about it as we could have hoped.
Here’s the thing: I’m not convinced that the website sold the book. (Eden: Alice is wrong.) It helped that the publishing world had caught on to the idea that bloggers were capable of writing books, but I’m not sure if that’s why it sold. Eden disagrees (see above) but I truly think that the title shift to “Babies” lightened things up considerably. Pregnancy is fraught with very real reasons to panic. Babies are adorable and probably not out to kill us. It was just that shift in perception that might have tipped our book into acceptable territory. (Eden: Also, I think the positive e-mails and testimonials that we got on the Internet gave the publisher extra proof that the bookstores that carried Let’s Panic! would probably not be firebombed.)
There are a few lessons here. First of all, trust your instincts. If you think your work can sell and no one else does, keep at it. No one really knows anything, but only the smartest people are willing to admit that.
Second, show your writing to a wide range of people: you never know who’s going to have the suggestion that causes your work to click.
Third, and most important: the smallest changes can sometimes yield the biggest results. I’ve seen this again and again in my own work. One less sentence can liven up an overly wordy passage. One word change can sell a book. (Eden: It also didn’t hurt that our publisher said we’d submitted the funniest book proposal he’d ever read.) (Alice: Yes, yes, we’re very funny. Everyone knows that!) One too many adjectives can ruin a narrative. One obscenity can piss off your mom. (Eden: My mom hated obscenity, but now that she’s dead I can swear all day long if I want to. And sometimes I do!)
Oh, and: rejection is not the end of the story. Therefore, do not jam scissors into any one of your arteries, because you should really stick around and see how this all plays out. (Eden: Amen.)