“Welcome to Book Publishing 101,” said Mackenzie Brady Watson, greeting the KSJ fellows for their Oct. 19 seminar.
As an agent with the Stuart Krichevsky Literary Agency in New York City, Watson has been through the entire publishing process dozens of times – from proposal to writing to release to marketing. She walked the fellows through an abridged version.
The first step is making the connection between author and agent. “I look at submissions or reach out to people that I’m interested in,” said Watson. “Often, they come to me via a referral, or a query letter, then sometimes I’m reading material out on the web. I spend a lot of time on Twitter just kind of trolling around.”
Before entering the literary world, Watson was a microbiology researcher, so proposals for nonfiction science books tend to catch her eye, especially if they are historically driven. When she feels excited about ideas, and feels the same excitement from authors, she will offer to represent them.
Together, she and the author will develop a full proposal to pitch to publishing houses. Finding the right publisher is a big decision, and there are a number of factors to consider:
“Do I think the publishing house is good at publishing that kind of book? … Do they have the biggest heavy hitters in that genre? It may not have as much room for you, or if you’re going to be the star, they may not have as much expertise. … Does this feel like the right home?”
Once the author has settled on a publisher, Watson negotiates the contract language and handles the business paperwork, so the author can focus on writing the book.
“After there is a final manuscript, when all edits are done,” Watson said, “that’s when the publication machine really kicks in.” From there “it’s usually about a year” (sometimes longer, sometimes shorter) to publication.
Before the book hits store shelves, Watson said, she is “thinking of publicity and marketing ideas, talking to the author about potential essays and op-eds,” to make sure the release makes the biggest splash possible in what has become a very crowded pool.
“There are so many books in the last year that just lost out on so much media because the media cycle right now is absolutely insane,” said Watson. “So if there are ways to tie your book into the news, even if your book is on a subject adjacent to something that’s going on in the news, or if there’s some sort of parallel that you can draw, that’s really important.”
Watson was Margot Lee Shetterly’s literary agent for “Hidden Figures,” about the African-American women who served as mathematicians for NASA during the space race. It became a best seller and a hit movie.
“‘Hidden Figures’ came out in a particularly wonderful moment,” Watson said, “because you had so many groups that were geared toward getting women and people of color in STEM fields that held up this book and were like, ‘This is the best thing.’”
Once the book is out and publicity is winding down, Watson comes back to the author to think about the future. “What could we do better, what could the publisher do better?”
“Do we want to stay with this publisher, do we want to try to find a different place? What did they do well, what might you like differently?”
Then comes the next book, if all goes well, and the process starts all over again.
KSJ Fellow Teresa Carr asked Watson what she looks for in a book proposal. Watson replied that every proposal begins with an overview of the project (“What is this book about? Why should you be writing it?”), then a sample chapter, followed by an outline of the book’s overall structure.
After those sections, said Watson, “you want to include a few things that are more personal, what you like, where you grew up, if you have a dog … little things to remind the editor that you’re human. I also really like to include pictures, because again, you’re seeing this person’s face. You’re remembering that they are a person behind these pages.”
It’s also important to draw comparisons between the book you are proposing and other recent successful titles. “You want to look at books that were well reviewed, award winners or best sellers, ones that you saw on a lot of ‘best of year’ lists,” Watson said, adding, “You’d never want to use a book that sold 10 copies and be like, ‘Mine’s like this one.’”
Another fellow, Jane Qiu, asked Watson if certain agencies and agents focus on particular kinds of books, and how authors can figure out the best place to pitch their book.
“The way you can figure that out is actually by reverse engineering,” said Watson. “If there is a book that you really admire … look at the acknowledgements section at the back of the book, because they almost always thank their agent.”
Some editors who are “really, really hungry” for certain topics will look for them with a Twitter hashtag, like #MSWL, for Manuscript Wish List. “Editors and agents will use that,” Watson said, “to be like, ‘I really want a history of architecture, I really want a science book about clownfish.’”