As someone who writes apocalyptic fiction, it comes quite naturally for me to announce that tomorrow should never happen. Tomorrow is an impossibility. And yet somehow, I’m going to wake up tomorrow morning and find that a story I wrote while working as a bookseller—a story that blossomed into a novel one serialized piece at a time—is now being released into bookstores far and wide.
How this came about has been a story unto itself. The deal I signed with Simon & Schuster is quite unusual and made some noise when it was announced, but even stranger are the events behind the deal. I thought it might be entertaining to describe that series of events. If nothing else, it might give readers an appreciation for what takes place behind the scenes. And the coincidence at the heart of it all is truly stranger than fiction.
When Kristin Nelson first contacted me about representing WOOL, I warned her that I didn’t think I’d ever sell the rights to a publisher. My series of stories were doing well enough for me to quit my day job, and I didn’t think it would be advantageous to alter course. Other agents had been in touch already, and I’d passed up their offerings of representation by explaining that a deal was unlikely, but Kristin got my attention by saying, “I’m not sure you should sell the rights.” She went on to explain that it might not be in my best interest to change what I was doing, but wouldn’t it be fun to feel publishers out? To see what they were willing to do?
So began our journey together. In all the ways Kristin warned, it was unfruitful. The first round of submissions included bizarre plans to change the title of a work that had already established itself as a brand and the plan to take the book down from Amazon and wait another six months or so to put it up for sale again. Granted, it is a silly title for a book. I will give them that. But we declined six-figure advances that I would have leapt at just a few months prior.
In the meantime, Kristin delivered on other promises. She had told me that we could tap into markets I would have a difficult time penetrating on my own, and again she proved prescient. With the help of Jenny Meyer, Kristin’s fantastic co-agent, we began signing what would eventually amount to twenty-four foreign publishing deals. The film rights were shopped around and went to Ridley Scott and Steve Zaillian due to an ambitious push from Kassie Evashevski, our film co-agent. Everything, in fact, went as well as Kristin had hoped. Except for one thing: WOOL kept selling long after it should’ve eased up. It kept selling long enough for a second round of offers to crop up.
Your time is worth more than mine
The second round began with an offer from a publishing CEO who wanted to fly to Boone, North Carolina and meet with me in person. I was always taken aback by these offers during the film negotiations. While running the Hollywood gauntlet, several producers offered to fly out and sit down with me. It was both generous and outlandish. Boone, in the remote mountains of North Carolina, isn’t an easy (read: affordable) place to reach by air. So when this offer came up from a publisher—from someone I dearly wanted to sit down with—I offered instead to fly up to New York. His time was worth way more than my own, I argued.
It worked out well that Kristin, who is based in Denver, was already in New York on business. With this meeting set, she immediately went to publishers that had shown interest a few months prior to see if they wanted to meet with me. WOOL had recently popped up on the NYT list and was selling better than ever. Three other major publishers were keen. And so while I arranged my second New York meet-up with readers, my schedule was rapidly filling up. I felt like a debutant who had come of age in a land where marriages were arranged and dowries were paid with livestock (sheep, in this case).
Kristin, acting the role of proud parent and matchmaker, informed me that we now had four major publishers to meet with. I won’t name any except to say that Simon & Schuster wasn’t among them. I point this out because we did end up meeting with Simon & Schuster, but only through a strange confluence of events and coincidences, events that would lead us directly to Jon Karp’s office, the head of Simon & Schuster, where we would discuss a book he’d only sampled that morning. Joining this discussion by speakerphone would be an editor, Marysue, who had discovered WOOL quite on her own.
This strange and impromptu meeting with Jon Karp got its start the night before at the reader meet-up. It involved Dave Cullen, the author of Columbine. Now, I’d been eager for the better part of a year to meet Dave in person. Columbine is one of those books you read and you want to tell people about. I reviewed the book for CrimeCritics.com and pasted the same review on Amazon. There, it soon became a lightning rod for controversy. It rose up to become the lead review on a book with quite a few of them. I reached out to Dave and interviewed him for CrimeCritics, and we exchanged a few emails. Later, he Skyped in with my wife and her colleagues at ASU’s psychological counseling center. It was almost like having a celebrity friend (one who doesn’t know you consider him a friend)!
Knowing that Dave had recently settled in NYC (stalker much?), I invited him to the reader meet-up. Intrigued, he and two dozen or so complete strangers joined me in a noisy bar where we talked books, films, TV, work, and whatever came up. One couple arrived straight from the airport with their luggage in tow! It was an awesome evening, and Dave was amazed at this collection of readers and the passion they displayed for WOOL. While I pressed him on what he was writing next, he just wanted to know how all of this had happened from a short story self-published on Amazon. I admitted that I had no clue.
“Are you seeing Simon & Schuster?” he asked, as I described the meetings we’d had earlier that day and on the docket for tomorrow.
“I don’t think so,” I told him. Honestly, I had no idea who all we were seeing. I just knew to show up at a certain address at a certain time. Life was a bit crazy, and Kristin was keeping the details straight.
“Jon Karp should hear what’s going on with you,” Dave said. Now, Jon Karp is one of publishing’s wunderkinds. He ran the flagship imprint at Random House and went on to run Twelve, the publisher who put out Cullen’s Columbine and other great works (the name comes from the fact that they only published one book a month, focusing on quality over quantity. You could almost guarantee that you wanted to read whatever they released). After Twelve, he was tapped to run Simon & Schuster. He was still in his 40s.
I was incredibly flattered that Dave would reach out to Jon, but I didn’t expect anything to come of it. We had four other meetings to concentrate on. Publishers were pitching serious proposals, and it wasn’t like anyone at Simon & Schuster would have the time to give WOOL a read, right? They had already passed during the first round of offers months prior. But I emailed Kristin late that night anyway to let her know how well the meet-up had gone, and I mentioned that Dave was putting in a word for us.
Little did I know, someone at Simon & Schuster was reading WOOL—they were reading it at that very moment. One of S&S’s chief editors was just finishing the work that night, in fact. She was reading it for pleasure and thinking it would be worth acquiring. And so began a confusing string of emails that would take quite a bit of sorting out the following day and change my publishing future forever.
The monoliths of publishing—and turning my back on women in lingerie.
The next morning, a bit groggy from being up so late the night before, I made my way uptown from Union Square to get ready for our first meeting of the day. I believe we had two publishers to see. We had already met with two the day before, and I was already getting used to the towering buildings that swallowed us inside expansive lobbies with science fiction-esque security gates and visitor passes. Arriving early for the first meeting, I grabbed a bagel and a decaf and checked my email in a coffee shop around the corner from one of the largest publishers in the world. The first email I opened was from someone asking me if I had representation.
Now, I’d received a dozen or so of these emails over the past few months. They came from agents who had heard about WOOL and were checking to see if I had an agent. If not, would I like one? This turned out not to be one of those emails, however. It was an editor from Simon & Schuster wanting to know if I had an agent she might be able to contact. She was interested in WOOL. Whom did she need to speak to?
My first thought was that Dave Cullen was a magician. I had just bid him farewell at a subway stop in Union Square not ten hours ago. This editor claimed to have just read WOOL. She would love to talk to me or my agent about making it a Simon & Schuster book.
So confusing—as incredible coincidences often are. What I didn’t know at the time was that Jon Karp was being bombarded with emails he must’ve figured had to do with knitting. Or something about sheep. Why in the world was one of his lead editors and his favorite authors both clogging his inbox about the same damn book on the same damn morning? Jon Karp, you see, is a very busy man. Surely someone else could handle a fabric arts book. Or a knitting mystery cozy.
I responded to this editor and let her know that I did indeed have an agent, and that she and I were currently in New York to discuss proposals from a handful of major publishers. It was a fun email to send: “Why, yes, I would love to hear from Simon & Schuster. In fact, I’m right down the street from your offices. My agent is in town, and we are being feted by the rest of the big 6. Care to join in?”
I paraphrase, of course. I wasn’t half as cool as that. The email probably had a “SQUEEEE!!!” or two in there. Literally.
I sent this email and fired off two others. One was to Kristin to let her know of the amazing and confusing coincidence underway, and one went to Dave to find out what kind of magic this crazy sorcerer-man had conjured up. And then I went to a publishing pitch in a massive boardroom that looked across the street at the Victoria’s Secret offices. I sat with my back to the window so as not to be distracted by passing ladies in lingerie while I listened to a powerful publishing team tell me all about their amazing vision for WOOL.
A ride to the airport
Every minute of those two days were packed with meetings. I had just enough time to get out of the last one, get back to the apartment, collect my things, and be at the airport for my flight home. But now, a last-minute meeting with Simon & Schuster was materializing. Kristin and I had no hope that this would lead to anything, but it was coming from Jon Karp, and we had agreed from the beginning to hear out everyone and expect nothing. We could meet, she told Jon, if they didn’t mind me showing up with luggage and whisking me to the airport straight from their offices. That was fine. And so the next thing I know, I’m shaking Jon Karp’s hand and lounging on a sofa in his office. (But not really lounging. It just makes me sound a lot less nervous than I really was).
This was a much different sort of meeting. For the past two days, I’d been in offices and boardrooms full of people telling me how much they loved WOOL. They had cover art mockups, marketing plans, my name in lights, all that jazz. WOOL was the best thing they’d ever read (They have to say this. They say it to everyone. I imagine they must grow weary of saying this to authors). WOOL, they went on in these meetings, was going to be a smash hit for their publishing company (Again: mandatory). Now here I was, after meetings of this variety, sitting on Jon Karp’s sofa while he peered at me, a bit perplexed, and asked: “What in the world is going on?”
As I had suspected, Jon’s inbox had become tangled with wooly goodness. We talked about Dave Cullen’s high esteem for me (and how much I loved Columbine. Seriously. Everyone needs to read that book). Jon said he’d gotten an email that morning from one of his chief editors as well, and she was smitten. She was on maternity leave at the time and would be phoning in. That left Jon sitting on his desk, having only read the first few dozen pages of the work, listening to Kristin and I discuss WOOL with his editor over speakerphone.
They asked us what we were looking for in a publishing partner. This was new. This wasn’t someone showing us how they would take WOOL and turn it into such-and-such. They were fascinated by the success it had already enjoyed, the fact that we had turned down offers a few months prior, and that we were in NY for a second round. What were we hoping to get out of this?
We told them. I explained, just as I had to four other publishers that week, that it wasn’t about the money for me. I was making more than I needed to live on already. What I was looking for was something fair in other ways. I wanted a contract that saw this union as a business partnership rather than an acquisition. I was excited about the prospect of getting physical books into bookstores, but I didn’t relish the idea of selling my soul to achieve that. I was always thinking about how this would affect readers. The idea that my ebook prices would shoot up, possibly double, didn’t sit well with me. And would I be limited in what I wrote and how often I published? I had a lot of worries that dollar signs couldn’t salve.
Jon listened. The editor on the phone was lovely. After the meeting—the last in a long line of them—Kristin gave me a hug on the sidewalk. A sleek black car was waiting to drive me to the airport.
An offer I can refuse
Nothing came from any of the talks. Very nearly, but not quite. There were some interesting plans floated once it became apparent that a large advance wasn’t what I was after. We had one deal that was so amazing and enticing that we agreed—only to find out that it violated corporate policy. It was too good a deal, it seemed. And so it was retracted from on high.
The problem was that publishers were willing to pay a lot of money to take all of my rights forever, but nobody wanted to do a print-only deal. Even major publishers (especially major publishers) could see in their balance sheets where the industry was heading. But there will always be a place for bookstores and great print editions, and I wanted to form that partnership without giving up a known living wage for an unknown jackpot. I just don’t have that ability to gamble (I never have).
It made it easy to say no, even though it was life-altering amounts of money being offered. The stability of a monthly income was more important, as was knowing that I would be miserable to sign my life away like that. I floated one final option, which gained zero traction. This was the idea of licensing the rights to the book for a finite period of time. This is how my foreign deals are structured. It seemed to me that this would eventually be the future of US publishing. But it wasn’t to be. A second round of interesting talks came and went.
For the second time, Kristin and I resigned ourselves to not making a deal. Which was fine by us, frankly. I was doing okay, and Kristin was piling up an incredible series of foreign deals on top of the film deal. We had said from the beginning that these conversations needed to take place for the industry to change, not because we expected anything for ourselves.
When I first Skyped with Kristin and agreed to partner up with her, we discussed the infinitesimal chances that I would ever go with a major publisher. We both understood from the beginning that it would likely be against my best interests to take the sort of deal that would be offered, but we also dreamed of a future where publishers and authors had a different sort of relationship. We discussed the fact that it would take quite a few of these conversations with various agents and prospective clients before boilerplate contracts began to bend or crack. Kristin was just as eager as I was to have these conversations, as fruitless as we imagined they would be.
And so we pursued an impossible dream hoping that the strangeness of our demands might pave the way for future demands from other authors. Kristin and I constantly rallied ourselves by saying that this was important, what we were doing. It wouldn’t happen for WOOL, but it would get everyone involved used to the fact that large advances couldn’t wash away sour terms now that self-published authors could pay the bills on their own. Yes, it was hopelessly naive and ambitious, but we both believed it. We continue to believe it. And then the third round began.
Now, I’ve been told that these things rarely go two rounds. Publishers make a pitch one time; you refuse it; they move on to the next project. Personally, I wondered if this wasn’t the case simply because pitches are rarely refused. Secretly, I wanted to see what would happen if a book that continued to do well was denied entry into the traditional machine.
And WOOL continued to do well. We had an upcoming launch with Random House UK that showed a lot of early promise. Physical copies of WOOL were beginning to appear in bookstores due to reader demand. WOOL spent two more weeks on the NYT list and went to #1 on Amazon after a Kindle Daily Deal was augmented by a flurry of social media mentions. Things kept going up and up. Most people in my situation (rightly, perhaps) had stepped off this ride long before this point. E.L. James did the correct thing by taking the millions and then making tens or hundreds of more millions on top of this. I wasn’t after the millions, though. I wanted a contract that, when read, made me feel like a human being.
In round three, this romantic sentiment of mine would be tested to its fullest.
It started with a publisher that I had grown fond of. I love the people there. I wanted this partnership to work. When they came at us with a 7-figure offer five months after their last major offer, I had to really think about it. We went back with our same demands of no non-compete clauses, no digital rights, terms of license, all the impossible deal breakers that we dreamt about and didn’t expect to ever get.
This time, there was progress on some of these fronts. I was nearly swayed. And then a second 7-figure offer came in. These were both from publishers we’d met with half a year ago. I liked both publishers a lot. I loved the people there and still do. I honestly cared about these folks and had contact with them on a private as well as a professional level. On top of the generous advances, both were making serious concessions that seemed unthinkable just a month prior.
In the end, we turned down both offers. A million bucks on the table—on two different tables—and we walked away. Maybe it was crazy of us, but we’d come this far. And then an offer came in from a most unexpected source. Simon & Schuster, whom we very nearly didn’t meet with in New York. Simon & Schuster, who heard from Dave Cullen the same day an acquiring editor reached out to see if I had an agent. Simon & Schuster, whom we squeezed in at the end of a blistering tour of other major houses, who had asked me from the very beginning what it was that I was looking for in a publishing partner.
It was about the partnership. It was about fair contracts for these unusual times in which we now find ourselves. It isn’t always a manuscript that an author brings to the table. More and more often, it can be a bestseller, an established brand, a gaggle of rabid fans, a proven readership, and a mature author platform.
I should stress here that there are no bad guys in this story, no antagonists, no ill will. Turning down those offers was difficult not because of the money but because of the people who had worked so hard to put together innovative deals in their own rights, people I had come to know and respect, and now I had to refuse their offers. You can’t appreciate how painful this was for me. I reached out to these people personally several times during this process to express my appreciation for how they were going to bat for me. I reached out again to let them know that it wasn’t easy not going with them. I never took satisfaction in rejecting an offer. Not once. It was always with sadness that we couldn’t make things work, that we weren’t going to get a chance to partner together.
In the end, it was Simon & Schuster who crafted a deal specifically to my needs, a deal for the print rights that would augment the success I was having on my own by doing what they do best: bringing out a book and getting it in the hands of booksellers. On March 12th, paperback and hardback editions of WOOL will become available to a wider audience. Soon, an entirely new readership will have an opportunity to sink into the world of the silo. They will get a chance to feel Holston’s grief, follow Jahns’s journey, and meet Juliette for the very first time. I couldn’t be happier about this deal. I am very appreciative of the opportunity I’m being given, appreciative of the readers who kept WOOL going long enough for a deal like this to come to fruition, and appreciative of an agent who was willing to say “No” with me even when it was against her best interests, all because she believed in seeing the same publishing future that I believe in.
Thanks so much to all of you. This has been a lesson to me on the importance of sticking to what you believe in. Whether or not a deal had ever come to pass, what my wife has complimented me on is that my goals never wavered. And neither did I. When presented with a life-changing amount of money, I said “No.” Accepting those offers would’ve required being someone I wasn’t. And in the end, it turned out that it was easier for the publishing industry to change just a little bit, just a smidgeon, in order to accept me just the way I am.