How Did You Get Your First Book Deal?

I've been meaning to start answering questions from writers about books and book publishing since I launched this website a year ago.

Tonight on Twitter, some writers were asking me some very nuts-and-bolts questions about my career as a writer, so I thought this would be the perfect time to start answering writing-related questions in this blog. (Sometimes I make things too complicated for myself by trying to think about how I want to tackle something when often the best approach is to simply dive in. So here I go.)

How Did You Get Your First Book Deal?

I ended up with two book deals for totally unrelated projects almost simultaneously, after participating in the Professional Writers' Association of Canada's mentorship program for writers back in the mid-1990s. (I have since mentored writers through that program and now mentor writers privately as well.)

When I was being mentored, I focused on two areas: (1) learning to set priorities for myself in my writing career so that I would have time to pursue the projects I really wanted to do; (2) learning the mechanics of writing a book proposal and sending that proposal out into the world time and time again.

My first book proposal was for my children's book Baby Science. I sent the book proposal for that book out 17 times. It was rejected 15 times in a row. The 16th and 17th responses resulted in offers from book publishers. A fierce bidding war ensued! My advance was -- are you ready? -- a heart-stopping $250. But I was on top of the world.

My first book proposal was for my children's book Baby Science. I sent the book proposal for that book out 17 times. It was rejected 15 times in a row. The 16th and 17th responses resulted in offers from book publishers. A fierce bidding war ensued! My advance was -- are you ready? -- a heart-stopping $250. But I was on top of the world.

I put heart and soul into writing that book. And why not? I was able to combine my two passions: books and babies. I took my youngest baby (who was nine months old at the time) to the Canadian Booksellers' Association's annual conference and trade show (now defunct, alas) to launch my book in June of 1998. He threw up in the publisher's booth and I only had one baby wipe with me, but I managed to clean up both him and the booth. That continues, to this day, to be one of my proudest moments as an author.

The book went on to become a Children's Book of the Month Club selection and sold something like 32,000 copies. Not bad for a first book that started out with so many rejections.... 

Oh yes. I must tell you one more story about Baby Science's tortured path to publication. At one point, an agent (who will remain nameless) told me that I was unqualified to write a book about babies because I was a mother; that only a doctor could write such a book.

I didn't waste very much time listening to his advice. I was too busy selling and writing my book.

* * *

I've never been a patient person, so I decided to start developing and shopping around other book proposals while I was waiting for a publisher to make up his/her mind about Baby Science. I wanted to write a book about being a mom with a home-based business ("Parenting in the Home Office"). I never did find a home for this project, but this book proposal opened other kinds of doors for me. The publisher of Prentice-Hall Canada liked my writing style and asked me if I would be interested in taking on a different type of project instead. He had noted from my letter that I had a degree in history from the University of Toronto; and they were looking for someone to write a book called The Complete Idiot's Guide to Canadian History. This was in early June. The book was due in early August. I had a baby due in mid-September. Drunk on book euphoria (the only thing I could get drunk on at the time), I said yes.

I delivered the book on time. (The baby was 10 days late.) When I received my first carton of books -- the very first books ever with my name on them -- I took one copy out of the box and held it tenderly in my hands. I opened it and breathed in the intoxicating scent of its pages. (The only thing that smells better is a newborn baby's head.) Then I checked it over for typos. (I only found one and I'm relieved to say that, 14 years later, I can no longer remember what it was.)

My husband said, "Congratulations." He knew what this meant to me.

Ann Douglas is the author of 30 books, including, most recently, the second Canadian edition of The Mother of All Pregnancy Books (Wiley Canada, June 2011). She has also contributed to a number of anthologies. She is passionate about parenting, social justice, social media, and writing.

This is the first in an occasional series of questions answered by me about writing and the writing life. If you have a question you would like me to answer, you can either add your question to the comments section below or you can catch up with me on Twitter (where I am @anndouglas).

Next Up: How Did You Get an Agent?