See You on the Bookshelf

2. The German Deal


Jack: Previously on See You on the Bookshelf, we talked to my agent Jessica Craig.

Jessica: I wanted to have much more of a direct connection to authors.
Jessica: I remember just reading it and realizing that, yeah, this is actually more of a kid’s book.

Jack: And we talked about submitting my novel to publishers.

Jessica: And scouts were really helpful in putting together a submission list.

Jack: This week, we start with one scout in particular, who played a big role in our first deal. In the German deal.

Kalah McCaffrey: My name is Kalah McCaffrey and I am the children’s and YA literary scout at Franklin & Siegal Associates.

Jack: Just in case you need a quick refresher on scouting–

Kalah: We are hired by international publishers, sort of as consultants to help advise them about which American books they might be interested in translating into their own languages.
So we’re reading the books two or three years, usually, before they’re published in the United States, and saying, we think this would be great for the German market, especially this one publisher because they have had success with similar titles. And so forth, like that.

Jack: You might recall from last week that my agent Jessica got her start in scouting. And it was at the same agency where Kalah is now.

Kalah: Jessica Craig used to work with my boss, Todd Siegal, and she knows what role scouts can play in helping get excitement for a book and making it a successful property locally and abroad. So she let us have a look at the manuscript, possibly even before she’d sent it on submission to US editors.
I was excited that Jessica and I could brainstorm together a little bit about which editors might be a good fit for it in New York. And it’s not common for a foreign scout to be involved in the process at that stage necessarily, so this was a really, really special instance for me.
Jack: How did you get into scouting?
Kalah: I got lucky. It was the first job I had after college. And it’s really my dream job, but I didn’t know it existed before I applied for the spot. And especially working with teen and children’s books–that is what makes it so special for me.
I would say that most people who are looking for a job in publishing are coming out of an English literary degree or something along those lines, and often the only position people have awareness of is editorial. And sometimes agenting. If they’ve taken the professional publishing courses, like what Columbia offers, they would have a lot more information.
I thought I wanted to be an editor because that’s all that I knew about publishing. And there’s a lot of different departments and areas that you can work in publishing that might speak to you even more than editorial would, like foreign rights. Whether you’re a scout or a selling foreign rights, or just working in that department in some capacity, the potential for travel and for foreign language engagements and learning about other cultures and … it’s a really rich world that I would encourage people to consider, rather than only looking at editorial positions.
Jack: Are there … What are some of the other manuscripts that you’ve scouted that come to mind?
Kalah: One that I had a lot of exciting participation in was The Fault in our Stars by John Green. He was a known entity before The Fault in Our Stars came out. I had actually never read him before, and it turned out that he only had two really serious committed international publishers in Germany and the Netherlands, but in the rest of the world he was up for grabs. And because the text was embargoed until publication, we didn’t have access to a manuscript. So the day it published, I went out to a bookstore, read it in one sitting, had to scan the pages in and send to my clients, and was able to work some of the back channels to make sure my French and my Finnish clients ended up his as publishers.
That was a lot of work and a lot of excitement when it became such a clear international success.

Jack: I remember Jessica telling me something about–I don’t know if it was you or someone else–about reading See You in Cosmos in one go at your desk. Was that–
Kalah: I think I probably started it at my desk. I don’t remember at this point if I finished it at my desk. But it’s always a bit of a gamble. I might start something and not know if I have time to finish it, or it may not resonate with me in the first ten pages, but See You in the Cosmos did so I know I plowed through it within 24 hours, if not within three hours.
I read it and fell in love with Alex immediately, and wanted to report to my clients right away. And it’s usually safer for the international publishers to come in and buy translation rights when they know who’s going to publish it in the United States. There’s some assurance that the Americans are behind it, so now the foreigners can get on board. And we didn’t have that information yet with See You in the Cosmos.

Jack: But that didn’t stop the Germans. And to give you a sense of how fast this happened: my agent Jessica sent out the manuscript to editors in the US–and actually in the UK as well–on a Thursday.

[ peppy music ]

Jessica Craig: It was simultaneous, really. I mean, that was my strategy–was to get it to the right houses at the same time.

Jack: And meanwhile, Kalah reads it, writes up her report, sends it to her international clients, and her German clients–they read it over the weekend.

Kalah: They were very fast and enthusiastic.
Jessica: The Germans were just like, bam!
Kalah: I was checking with Jessica Craig to find out what sort of money she might be looking for, checking back with my clients to find out where we can meet in the middle.

Jack: So Jessica and Kalah go back and forth, and by that following Monday, just four days later, we have an offer. And the offer that comes in from Germany is a preemptive offer.

Jessica: A preemptive offer is an offer that a publisher makes with the aim of taking the book off the table and closing a deal before any of their competitors, or any of the other publishers who are reading it, have a chance to offer as well.
Jack: Would you say it’s sort of like on eBay–like the “Buy it Now” option?
Jessica: Uh, I don’t really use eBay.
Jack: Okay.
[ laughter ]
Jessica: It’s a lot more nuanced maybe, then what you’re thinking. Because, I mean, usually it would be about the level of advance. And so a publisher knows that in order to convince the agent and author to pull the plug on the submission that’s already underway, that they should offer an advance that’s high enough to make it seem worthwhile.

Jack: The advance is an advance payment on future royalties. It’s sort of an upfront investment that a publisher makes in an author. Say you get an advance of $10,000 for your book, and you make a royalty of $1 for every book you sell. What happens then is the first 10,000 books you sell go toward paying back that original advance–that’s called earning out the advance. After you earn out your advance, then you start getting your royalty checks in the mail.

It’s different from a loan in that even if you don’t sell those initial 10,000 or however many books, you get to keep the advance. I mean, it’s usually better for everyone involved if you do earn out your advance, and then sell a ton more books on top of it.

Advances can range wildly depending on the book and the author. If you’re Barack Obama writing your post-presidential memoir, your advance is in the millions of dollars. But obviously very few of us are Barack Obama. So for many authors, it amounts to income to supplement another job like teaching. For others, it’s actually enough to let them write books full-time.

What the advanced buys is stability and certainty. It’s a known quantity that you can plan around; you don’t have to worry about selling enough books next month to keep the lights on.

Jessica: I mean, usually if the author and the agent accept a preemptive offer, it’s about a combination of the level of advance and the higher-than-usual terms in the offer. But it can be maybe more about feeling that this particular publisher, who is so enthusiastic and has read and gotten their team together so quickly, is also the best fit for the book and the author.

Jack: Another piece of it is that a preemptive offer sends a signal to publishers in other countries. It’s like, oh, here might be something worth paying attention to.

Jessica: And so yeah, I would say in the case of the German preempt for See in the Cosmos, it was a combination of all those factors.

Jack: So Jessica does some negotiating on the terms and we decide to take the preemptive offer. We’ve found our German publisher. It’s CBT Verlag, a part of Random House Germany.

Jessica announces the deal, and meanwhile, the submission is still out in the US and UK. And we do start getting a few more editors who hear about the German deal and ask to see the manuscript.

Jessica: What I remember most about it is that it was kind of taking almost nail-bitingly long to get the first offers in. Because there was a lot of, I don’t know–there had been some people away on holiday. It was over that time when there were–like, there were school holidays in February, I guess.

Jack: We were also hearing from editors saying that they needed time to get it read by other people in-house.

Jessica: So initially, I was sending it to editors who I knew were young adult, thinking that would kind of cover the full age range, from the age of Alex up to adult readers. And then I realized from the responses–because remember? There were some people who were saying, well, I love this story, but the character needs to be made older if it’s going to be a young adult novel. And then there were some editors who were saying, I love this story and the voice, but there are some things that Alex gets into that a 10-year-old or 11-year-old–that’s not really appropriate. So actually, to make the character younger.
I had also included in the submission just a few actual adult fiction editors, but that quickly confirmed to me that, from their reactions, that it was better to be focusing on the young adult–and then increasingly the middle grade editors for it. That even if it was going to be a crossover to adult readers, it would be driven by the publication as a young adult or middle grade novel.

Jack: We were in this limbo for a couple of weeks, and I was like, oh, is this going to be one of those books that just slips through the cracks between the categories between middle grade and young adult?

But then the offers started coming in, and unlike in Germany, we didn’t have any preemptive offers here. What we did have, though, was the case of multiple publishers who are all interested in the book. And when that happens, what the agent does is they declare an auction.

Now, when I hear auction, I’m imagining Jessica standing at the front of a room with a little gavel, but it doesn’t quite work like that. Everything usually just happens over email. But at the same time, it’s not without its own excitement.

I think we actually need a little auction music here.

[ quicker, upbeat music ]

Jessica: So the way it goes is, once one offer comes in, or when you sense that a publisher is putting an offer together, you would set a deadline for first offers and inform all the publishers considering the project of that deadline.
And then for the second round, you start by going to the one who’s in at the lowest, and telling them that they have to improve to stay in. And usually you would tell them the highest so that they know how much more they would have to improve by.
And so that goes on until you’re down to two or, I don’t know, maybe three publishers, or until you feel like everyone is kind of close to reaching their maximum. And then comes the best offer stage. Then you give whoever is still in there a chance to present their very best offer.

Jack: What Jessica is describing here is the full auction. Not every auction is like this. If you only have two publishers interested, it’s technically still an auction, but there’s not going to be as much back and forth.

Jessica: Every auction is a different experience, and you learn different things about the publishers involved, about yourself, about being an agent … every time. And so, yeah, there are these set rules, but things can play out in a different way all the time.

Jack: And the way this played out was we ended up with auctions happening simultaneously in the US and UK, involving a few publishers on each side.

Jessica: And I remember being really impressed by the kind of passion that was expressed at the best offer stage. Like when I sent you those letters from the editors that made the best offers. But I actually can’t remember whether we had multiple rounds to get to that point or not.

Jack: One thing I should clarify is that these publishers across the sea are all bidding for rights in their own territories. So the US publishers are bidding on US rights and the UK ones are bidding on UK rights.

Jessica: One thing that I was getting sort of worried about as things heated up is, like, what happens if we end up with the kind of lead choice on the UK side wanting to shift the book older, and the lead choice on the US side wanting to go younger? Like, how are we going to get editors to have a unified vision for a book that’s actually getting such a range of reactions?
But then when the offers came in, that was really exciting and gratifying. I mean, I don’t know if you remember those letters we had from several of them on each side that were just so wonderful to read. They had really fallen in love with Alex as a character, and the voice and vision of the book. It was definitely one of the highlights of my agenting career, because that’s what you sort of aim for as being the best possible scenario for an author–especially a new author–to actually be able to have a choice of really good publishing houses and visions for the book.
[ hopeful music ]
I mean auctions and preempts are the ideal–either scenario is what when you are starting off on a submission, you’re hoping will be the result. And you’re definitely trying in whatever way you can to stir up that level of excitement and attention.
But I also don’t think it’s essential for a book to sell that way for the book to then become a success. And so I don’t think authors should lose sight of that actually, and think that they absolutely have to have their books sold in an auction or preempt in order for it to become anything. Because I mean, ultimately the most important thing is that the book is matched with an editor who is a publishing house and in a position to make their passion amount to more people getting passionate about it. And that can happen even if they’re the only editor that makes the offer.

Jack: And sometimes it happens when you have two editors–one in the US, one in the UK–making an offer together. Next week, on See You on the Bookshelf. We meet those two editors.

Thanks to Kalah McCaffrey of Franklin and Siegal Associates, and to Jessica Craig. Music for this podcast is by Saint Benjamin (now known as Ben Johnson Music Factory).