How I Got My Pub Deal
The news is out! THE PHOENIX KEEPER - my queer, cozy fantasy romance about an anxious zookeeper of magical creatures - is debuting in summer 2024!
Every path to publishing is different, every debut a nebulous culmination of skill and luck. My writing journey started slow, an exhausting crawl through rejections and scrapped stories to find my agent - then came alight like phoenix fire from ashes.
Read on for a tale of timing. Of persistence. Of finding the right advocate.
Of a book rejected by 67 agents.
That had its first offer two days into submission.
And multiple six-figure pre-empts within a week.
In my last blog, I shared the long road to How I Got My Agent (if you missed that one, read it here). THE PHOENIX KEEPER was the third book I queried. Six months, 67 rejections, and a single acceptance. I was about to shelve it when the agent offer came, had already finished drafting my next book and was deep in revisions, mentally transitioning toward my next querying venture.
Now, I had to go back and revise an old book for submission to editors.
Return to the Edit Field
A strong partner makes a world of difference. My new agent came at me with endless enthusiasm, with edits that captured the warm heart of the book while kindling it to even greater heights. I was thrilled to take this next step. I brought the edits to my critique partners, spent hours excitedly brainstorming how best to implement them.
But it’s hard, going back to a previous project. Old work can so swiftly feel stale, the pages lurking with walls of burnout.
I’ve spoken to countless authors crushed by that same weight: the fear that their work isn’t good enough. That they’ve wasted their time. To anyone reading this who’s fought those doubts, you aren’t alone. My book had earned an agent offer (and has now sold), but I still had to battle the constant misgivings that it was all a fluke, that this story would never amount to anything.
Harder still, I had other weights on my shoulders.
Real Life, It’s a Bitch
Sometimes, hard work pays off all at once. The week I signed my agent contract – a writerly dream – was the very same week I started my dream career: a tenure-track job teaching biology and environmental science at the largest community college in the state. After nine years of earning higher degrees, another four years of scraping through contract teaching gigs, I finally had job security doing what I loved at a place I loved to work.
But it was hard work. Out of the four year tenure review process, the first year is the hardest, the first semester consumed by not only prepping new class materials, but also assembling a massive teaching portfolio of example lectures, assignments, exams, handouts to be rigorously reviewed by my committee. I can’t accurately estimate the hours per week I was working, mostly because I can’t remember when I wasn’t working. Evenings, weekends all vanished beneath heaps of lecture slides to prepare, new labs to learn, assignments to grade and scan and organize into my portfolio.
I put writing completely on hold. I had to. Sometimes, we have to set those tough priorities, strike a balance between the stories in our hearts and the real lives woven around them.
For over a month, I lived and breathed teaching portfolio. I limped through the final week before my deadline. I submitted it then slept for most of a weekend, desperately worried I’d bitten off too much.
I had a week and a half until I’d promised book edits to my agent.
The Deadline Crunch
I could have asked for more time.
But it was November now. With holidays approaching, any delay would mean pushing sub to the next year. Part of getting a book deal is writing a good story. The other huge part is timing, luck, getting in front of the right person at the right moment. Legends and Lattes had just hit The New York Times best sellers list. Editors were hungry for more cozy fantasy. The time to pitch THE PHOENIX KEEPER was now.
So I organized my edits. I made my checklist. I pushed.
Good job, Sarah. Really hard-hitting edits on this list. (I promise, there were more important ones)
And I did it. I hit my stride and finished revisions ahead of schedule. And they were good revisions. THE PHOENIX KEEPER felt stronger than ever.
There was more to do than just edits, of course. It’s one thing to write a book – now, we had to sell it. Here’s where having that strong advocate comes in, an agent who’d been tirelessly hyping up the story to editors, building anticipation for it to hit their inboxes. And to capitalize on the whimsy of a magical zoo book? We drafted a teaser to send to editors the day before the real submission, a fun invitation to an event at our imaginary San Tamculo Zoo. I even drew a zoo logo to include with our “official” invite.
Update the synopsis. Polish the author bio. Finally, we had everything ready to go.
Phoenix Set Free
On Monday, November 21st, the teaser zoo invite went out.
The initial responses from editors were promising – everything from eager anticipation to silly roleplaying with our zoo setup. The next day, Tuesday, the real submission package went out.
And it felt sublime. Despite me being 100% tapped out, burnt out, ready to collapse into an overworked heap on the asphalt, it was surreal to have my book in editor inboxes. No matter where my submission journey went from here? I was proud to reach this milestone (and maybe just a little sappy about it).
Then, I settled in for the long freeze.
From all the authors I’ve spoken to, I knew being on sub was brutal, the waits lengthy and news sparse. My book was out of my hands now. I put it out of my mind as well, expecting a few months to pass before hoping for any news.
On Thursday, November 24th, Thanksgiving Day, I woke up to a message from my agent.
Odd. I called him up.
And he told me about the offer.
THE PHOENIX KEEPER had its first offer - two days into sub.
Seven Days of Dreams and Delirium
In retrospect, I didn’t scream nearly as much as I should have. I was in shock more than anything. My book had an offer? My book had an offer?
It wasn’t a knock-your-socks-off offer, my agent told me. I asked him what dollar amount he’d hoped to get. The cagey bastard deflected, refusing to give me a hypothetical number. There were still plenty of submissions out, plenty of time for counter offers.
But no matter what? We had at least one. I was going to be published.
How’s that for Thanksgiving Day news?
With the holiday, we wouldn’t hear back from any U.S. editors until next week. While my British agent huffed and grumbled about our American celebrations interfering with his deal making, I pranced off to enjoy some food, spent the weekend swing dancing at the San Diego jazz fest, returned absolutely rejuvenated and giddy for the week ahead.
On Monday, November 28, we had our first editor chat – first thing in the morning, in the narrow window before I had to run off to teach. Pinch me, I was still adjusting to my agent saying nice things about my book, now editors were telling me how much they loved it?
Maybe this book wasn’t doomed to failure, after all.
Then I was off to work. Mondays, I taught general biology lecture in the afternoon. I’d just wrapped up my lesson on biodiversity and conservation. As I packed up and ushered students out of the classroom, I checked my phone.
I had several messages.
“I’ll wait ten minutes.” Calls again three minutes later. Very chill.
“I feel strongly you call me.”
What an understatement, buddy.
I had twenty minutes before my next class started. I hurried to the biology lab room, apologized to my students as I asked them to wait in the hall while I made a call. While I unpacked my things and set up for class, I called my agent.
He informed me we had another offer.
A six figure offer.
A. Six. Figure. Offer.
For three books!
This time, I definitely couldn’t scream. My students would hear. I was in a professional space.
I screamed internally. My book had been on sub less than a week, and someone wanted to pay six figures for it!?
I don’t know how I managed to teach a three-hour lab after that. The whole time, I was buzzing. And friends? We only snowballed from there.
Tuesday morning started with another early agent call, rapid-fire lessons about English rights versus world rights, publishing house structures, editor backgrounds, all before I raced off to teach. We had more editor meetings to schedule, more responses still expected.
“I start winter break next week,” I told my agent, exhausted. “I’ll have more free time then.”
I remember his nervous little laugh on the phone. His quiet, “I think we’ll be done by then, Sarah.”
On Wednesday, we had another editor meeting. I taught from 8am to 6pm straight on Wednesdays. My only meeting availability was 6am.
Later that same day? Another call from my agent.
Another offer. This one, a pre-empt from Gollancz and Orbit. The most mind-bogglingly impressive offer yet.
I took the call outside my office building on campus, pacing up and down the sidewalk as students shuffled past, trying to wrap my head around it all.
“Remember when you asked what amount I was hoping for?” my agent said at last. “I can tell you now. Because we’ve just passed it.”
Out there on the sidewalk, warmed by the SoCal November sun and a cloudless sky overhead, I had a moment to think about the years I’d spent drafting, revising, shelving books. The years of querying. The years of doubt, and those dark moments of despair that it was all for nothing.
Then I smiled. Laughed.
This sounded like a good offer, I said.
The Final Day
Now, don't get me wrong, this was all good news. Excellent news. Mind-boggling news. Nothing to complain about.
But it was also exhausting.
My teaching schedule plus UK time zones meant more early morning meetings. On Thursday, December 1st, we had our first editor chat at 6am. A second at 8am. I spent the break in between cooking caramel sauce for our biology department meeting later that day.
Excitement kept me going. My first meeting with Bethan and Priyanka? A match made in heaven. Bethan and I discovered we’re sword buddies. I basked in the glory of stunning visions for THE PHOENIX KEEPER. I sprinted away from the meeting and straight out the door, into my car, had my agent on speakerphone to debrief as I drove to work.
After that, he promised to leave me alone for a bit.
He was a filthy liar.
I popped out of lecture at 11:10am. More messages awaited me. Another publishing house wanted to meet me - a big publishing house. A “holy shit BIG” publishing house. My agent asked if I could carve out some time in the next couple hours. I slumped back in my office chair and agreed.
Fifteen minutes later, we were on a video call.
Another excellent call. More excellent people I would have been honored to work with. I closed the chat and assumed the status of used putty in my chair.
I’d been in meetings since 6am. I would be on campus until at least 8pm that night for our department meeting (and holiday potluck, ergo the caramel sauce for my apple bundt cake, why did I make a cake?). I share an office with a more seasoned faculty member. I asked her recommendations for where to take a nap on campus, unsure how I’d continue functioning otherwise. She told me she usually just napped in her car.
I trudged out to the parking lot.
My agent called three more times while I tried to nap. We had one more big counter offer from our meeting that afternoon - another pre-empt, like Gollancz/Orbit, which meant money was on the table for a limited time. We had to decide by the next morning. The possibility of an auction loomed, but the offers we had in hand were so solid already. Too solid to pass up.
Every editor I spoke to was incredible. Every team, I’d be delighted to work with.
In the end, we found ourselves in an extremely fortunate position. We went with the editors who felt the absolute best fit.
I gave my tentative decision. I settled in for my nap.
Everyone at the department meeting loved my cake.
The next day, Friday, came the final call. The final decision. The victorious “fuck yes!” in unison from both sides of the pond.
The only strand left untied? My meeting for tenure review on December 5th.
I crushed it, of course.
I won’t claim for an instant that my experience was the norm. I won’t stand here as anything but fortunate, privileged, humbled that I found such swift success for my debut book, when so many talented and deserving authors are still struggling through the submission fields.
But I hope my story can offer some motivation.
That it’s ok if you fight with doubt. No one is any less of an author for facing burnout, for having to set aside your writing now and then when real life gets in the way.
No one is any less of a writer for facing rejection. Or for shelving a book. Or for not finding instant success at querying.
I shouldered my way through 67 rejections for THE PHOENIX KEEPER. Over a hundred more rejections on books before that. It truly did take just one yes, one enthusiastic advocate.
And hey. Maybe it’s an ok book after all?