I invited the brilliant journalist, author and blogger Rachel Hills to share the first non-fiction first book journey on the site. She is currently touring around the US promoting her book, The Sex Myth. It’s the longest first book journey you’ll read on the site, but it’s guaranteed to shed light on the industry.
I started thinking about writing The Sex Myth in 2007. I’d been writing professionally for about two years at that point, and a couple of publishers had told me to get in touch if I ever had an idea for a book. I’d been flirting with a couple of ideas in my head, but when the idea of The Sex Myth came to me, I knew immediately on a gut instinctual level that this was IT.
I’d always loved reading feminist non-fiction – books like The Beauty Myth or The Whole Woman helped me to put my personal experiences into a broader social and political context – but I’d never come across a book that looked at SEX through that lens. Conversations I’d been having with friends and articles I’d worked on indicated that a lot of people felt alienated by the sexual ideals that were promoted in the media, and it seemed to me that this was an area in which I could make an original contribution.
I figured it would take me a year or two to put together, and I would be (as the script ran in my fantasies) the author of “the great feminist book of 2009” – a precocious young intellectual.
Needless to say, it did not unfold that way. In 2007, I’d also just been hired for the dream job I’d spent the last couple of years hustling for, so wanted to take a little time before I embarked on my next big project. I also knew that to write the book I wanted to write, I would need to understand my subject matter in a pretty deep way, so I got in touch with some of the academics I’d worked with in my undergrad, and asked them about doing an honours degree. They recommended I enroll in a Masters program instead, and so I did, starting my research in earnest in May 2008.
I spent the first year or so hanging out in the library, reading everything I could find about the sociology of sexuality, and gradually piecing together my own ideas and theories. I got ethics permission from the university to start interviewing in mid-2009, and did around 35 interviews before I left Australia to move to London in mid-2010.
I’d done a bunch of academic writing around the ideas in the book at that point, but it was only when I moved to London that I started writing the book in earnest. Partly, that was down to fear. I didn’t know what a good non-fiction book proposal looked like, and despite my contacts in media, I didn’t really know anyone who could show me how to write a good one. My mentors all advised me not to be too quick to sell, either, and stressed the importance of going out to publishers with something rock solid so that I could get the best deal possible. At the same time, as my ideas grew, I came more convinced I wanted to share them with an international audience as well as an Australian audience, which meant selling first to a US publisher – which I was even more clueless about.
By the end of 2010, I had a first draft of a proposal and a couple of sample chapters. It was time to call in reinforcements. I’d visited the US a couple of times over the previous few years, and had met a lot of feminist writers there, and in my conversations with them the name Brooke Warner had come up a few times. Brooke was an editor at Seal Press, a mid-size feminist publishing house, at the time, and I’d recently learned from my reading online that she also offered coaching. It seemed like a perfect fit. Who better to show me how to navigate the US publishing system than a woman who received enquiries regarding books like mine for a living?
I went into the coaching process hoping to hear something along the lines of, “Wow! This book is amazing! Let’s get you a six-figure book deal ASAP.” But Brooke’s first comments were more along the lines of, “I hope you’re willing to do some work on this.” It wasn’t that the book I was proposing was BAD: the book I’d laid out in that earliest proposal wasn’t all that different to the one you’ll find on the shelves today. It was that I wasn’t communicating it properly. The ideas were in my head, but they weren’t coming out clearly on the page.
Brooke and I worked together on the proposal for 4 or 5 months, Brooke making sure that the proposal answered every single question a publisher could have about buying work from an unknown Australian author who didn’t live in the country. The proposal we ended up with was at least 50 pages long (as opposed to my previous 15 or so), and included a list of every single article I had ever published, as well as a section called “Praise for Rachel Hills” – AKA, nice things Americans had said about me on the internet.
The book deal:
The next step was to find a literary agent. I logged on to Publishers Marketplace, and started researching agents who represented ideas-based nonfiction. Despite the fact that these were my favourite types of books to read, I quickly realised that they made up a minority of books published. My final longlist had 40-50 agents on it – keeping in mind that there are thousands of agents in the US – and I divided these into groups of 10, according to how good a fit they were for my book.
Brooke warned me that even with all the work we’d done, it still could be months before I found an agent to represent The Sex Myth. Fortunately, this was not the case.
One of the great things about selling a book in 2015, as opposed to 1995, is that so much of the process takes place via email. This means that instead of needing to read through 50+ pages of documents when considering whether to represent an author, your agent’s first contact with you is likely to come in the form of a 400-word or so pitch email. Ie, something they can read in less than a minute.
I sent my pitch to ten agents on a Thursday afternoon, and heard back from two who wanted to see the complete proposal before the day was out. One had been recommended to me by a woman I’d met a party a few months earlier, and the other represented a number of high profile feminist authors. On Friday, the first agent – Rebecca Friedman – emailed me again, saying she loved the proposal and could we speak on the phone on Monday.
When we spoke, her enthusiasm for the project was infectious – she totally “got” the book, and had big dreams for its potential, both commercially and intellectually. I signed on to be her client the next day. That night the second agent got back to me with a polite rejection; he thought the proposal was interesting, but it would be too hard to sell in the US market with my being Australian.
Part of an agent’s job is to talk regularly with editors, both to spruik their own projects, and to find out what kinds of books publishing houses are looking for. Rebecca said she knew a couple of editors who would be very interested in my book, but asked me to first make some minor changes to my proposal: to build out my chapter summaries from a paragraph or two each to a page each, and to write a third sample chapter. She also wanted to wait until the right moment to take the book to market.
In November 2011, Rebecca took the proposal to Karyn Marcus, an editor at Simon & Schuster, in a pre-empt – where a project is offered to a publisher exclusively for a brief period of time – and she made an offer to purchase world rights to The Sex Myth in less than a week. It all happened so quickly that for a week or so, I wasn’t even sure that I had a book deal. It seemed like there should be more obstacles involved. Like they might want to speak with me on the phone first, to make sure I wasn’t a crazy person, or something.
A few months later, Simon & Schuster sold Australian/New Zealand rights to Penguin, and much much later, the British rights to the book to Simon & Schuster’s UK offices.
After the signing:
Where fiction is generally sold after the book has been completed, nonfiction is sold on the basis of a proposal, which means that the bulk of the writing work happens after you’ve signed the deal.
I was given a little over a year to submit the first draft of the book, and my first step after signing was to bulk up my American and British interviews. I started posting callouts for interviewees to my blog and other online venues, and in the space of three months conducted another 180+ interviews. Fortunately, there was no shortage of people who wanted to speak to me – when one popular website posted a link to my callout, I received more than 600 emails in 48 hours.
I also spent a portion of my advance travelling through the United States meeting a lot of my American interviewees in person. I travelled through 20 cities and towns in a little over a month, sometimes interviewing as many as four people in a day. It was exhausting, but it was a great way to really get a feel for the sheer size of America, and I loved meeting the people I interviewed. I also did a lot of face-to-face and phone interviews in the UK.
After the interviews, it probably took me about 8 months to write the first full draft of the book. I tried to get through a chapter every two weeks, but realistically it was more like a chapter every month. I spent a lot of time reading over transcripts to pull out the best quotes and stories, weaving these together with the research I’d done at university, and a whole suite of new journal articles I was reading to get me head around the intricacies of all the different topics I cover in the book.
Two months or so after I submitted my first draft, Karyn got back to me with her first round of edits. My edits weren’t really split into “structural edits” and “line edits” – each round of edits I went through were a mix of both, with my editor(s – I also worked with Simon & Schuster’s Sydney Tanigawa) marking up the manuscript with suggested changes, and also providing general feedback: on arguments that weren’t clear, or tics in my writing I wouldn’t otherwise be aware of. The advice my editors gave me also informed the changes I made on my own accord. A request to spend more time describing the people had interviewed, to give more of a sense of them as a complete people, for example, also resulted in me looking at my arguments more carefully, and trying to spend more time and detail parsing them out.
I went through four rounds of edits in total, over a period of eighteen months. As a freelance writer, an “edit” usually just means an editor cutting a sentence here or there, or telling you to tighten up a paragraph. But editing The Sex Myth meant rewriting the book each time I produced a new draft. This wasn’t something my editors requested of me, it was just the only way I knew of to tackle the task of kneading such a complex combination of stories and ideas together. The sentences and paragraphs couldn’t be addressed in isolation; I needed to remake the whole.
In academia, they say that writing a PhD is “an iterative process” – that through reprocessing the same ideas over and over again, you come closer to the truth each time. The Sex Myth isn’t an academic book, but for me the process was the same. I had to go over my ideas again and again in order to get them right, and whether they were “right” or not was something only I knew.
For me, the hardest part of the process was probably the first round of edits. I sunk into a depression for a couple of months, lying on my couch and home and playing games on my mobile phone. I think I was only then fully coming to terms with how prolonged and detailed this process would be, and how much longer it would take me to get to my final result. It was depressing to be doing so much work and to have so little to show for it, and I felt pretty worthless in terms of my professional life.
The second round of edits was pretty stressful too. I remember bawling in bed the night before they were due, upset that the book still didn’t read as I wanted it too, that the ideas still didn’t reflect what my brain knew instinctively but was yet to find the words for. But by the time I finished my fourth round of edits, I was so glad I’d taken the time to process the ideas (or most of them, anyway – there are still a couple of parts of the book I’m not 100% happy with!) properly.
I rewrote the key argument chapter of the book – the one that had sold it to publishers in the first place – in that final round of edits, and I’m so glad that I did. Because finally it said what I needed it to, instead of skirting around the issue.
Aesthetics & essentials:
I received my first designs for the cover in late 2013. They were all attractive and eye-catching, but the more I thought about them, the more I felt they didn’t capture the spirit of “my book.” So I sent the publisher a selection of covers I liked from similar books, as well as information on what I wanted the cover to convey (“intellectual gravitas, while also maintaining an approachability for younger readers”) and how I wanted it to appeal to.
The next round of designs were much stronger – smart and witty, with the feel of the classic books that inspired The Sex Myth. The final designs you can see on the Australian and US/UK books today are both variations on those designs.
At this time, manuscript was also sent to an external copyeditor, who pointed out yet more unnoticed writing tics and any inconsistencies in the text, and then went through two rounds of proofreading. I also produced a set of “questions for readers” to help people think more deeply about the issues in the book after they’ve read it.
Seeking blurbs was quite stressful. Basically, you have to get in touch with a bunch of people you know or admire and ask them to endorse your book. Some say yes, many more say no (especially if you’ve never met them before, no matter how nice your letter is), and even many of those who initially say yes won’t end up getting back to you, leaving you paranoid that everyone hates you and your work. I ended up getting some fantastic blurbs in the end, though, so all is well that ends well.
Marketing & publicity:
I am currently working with five publicists across three continents at the moment (crazy, I know) – chiefly Amanda Lang at Simon & Schuster, and Rhian Davies at Penguin Australia, both of whom have been fantastic. I’m also working with a marketing expert at Simon & Schuster, Ebony LaDelle, who advises on social media, design, and other promotional efforts.
In my experience, publishers actually do pay a lot of attention to authors on this stuff, so my advice is to get as involved in your marketing and publicity plans as possible. If you don’t know who you want to read the book, or how you want your publisher to talk about it (to bookstores, to the press, or even in the copy on the back of the book) you can’t expect them to know either.
Most people at publishing houses are very busy and working across multiple projects. And while they’re the experts on books, YOU are the expert on YOUR book, and often on the intricacies of your own sub-genre – especially if you’re working with big publishing houses, who work on such a broad range of titles.
In addition to print, radio and TV press, there are a load of marketing and publicity efforts we’re doing that wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t made them happen: among them, the Ambassadors Project with some of my blog followers, the bookstore and college tour I’m arranging around the US and Canada, merchandise like badges and stickers, and a lot of our outreach to “influencers” and bloggers. I’m also doing a lot of work looking at how we can turn the ideas in the book into broader cultural change.
My favourite thing about the publicity process so far has been all the switched-on journalists and bloggers I’ve had the good fortune of being interviewed by. It’s great to speak with people who really “get” the book, and it’s something I’m trying to replicate in my book tour – instead of readings, all my bookstore events will be “in conversation” events, talking about the book with local writers I admire, followed by an audience Q&A.
I’ve also been really moved by the press support I’ve received in Australia. People are really getting behind the book, and it’s making me feel very loved.
ALL ABOUT RACHEL’S FIRST BOOK, THE SEX MYTH:
From a bold new feminist voice, a book that will change the way you think about your sex life.
Fifty years after the sexual revolution, we are told that we live in a time of unprecedented sexual freedom; that, if anything, we are too free now. But beneath the veneer of glossy hedonism, millennial journalist Rachel Hills argues that we are controlled by a new brand of sexual convention: one which influences all of us – woman or man, straight or gay, liberal or conservative. At the root of this silent code lies the Sex Myth – the defining significance we invest in sexuality that once meant we were dirty if we did have sex, and now means we are defective if we don’t do it enough.
Equal parts social commentary, pop culture, and powerful personal stories from people across the English-speaking world, The Sex Myth exposes the invisible norms and unspoken assumptions that shape the way we think about sex today.
The Sex Myth is published in Australia by Penguin and overseas by Simon & Schuster.