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On Becoming an Author

On the eve of my book’s publication and introduction to the world, I thought I should write down my thoughts about the whole experience of becoming an author so I will remember them, and share them for others who seek to follow a similar path.

Like many, I romanticized the idea of becoming an author since a young age. The movies I watched made it seem like such a coveted role, a magical identity attained by some kind of special force. I imagined what it would feel like to hold a book of my own in my hands or to sit at a table at a book signing with the designation ‘author.’

Then in 1985, my mother embarked on the process of trying to get a publisher for her book. It was called By Invitation Only, and it was about Kansas City homes. In a niche market as an unknown writer, she was disregarded. I don’t recall much about her search for agents or publishers since I was only a tween at the time, but I know it ended with a decision by her and my dad to self-publish the book. In the 1980s, that meant finding a photographer, designer and printer on their own. I attended the photo shoots and recall my mom clicking away on her Apple //c computer working on the manuscript. I vividly remember the first time I saw her book – it was so beautiful – it was and is a great tribute to some of the most magnificent homes in the city where I grew up, and particularly in my neighborhood.

Twenty years later, after writing for a decade (plays, screenplays, papers, articles and blogs), I decided I was ready to write a book. That was 2004. I had been on the forefront of the digital media revolution in politics and had worked tirelessly on building Internet campaigns. I wanted to help other campaigners and candidates use what I had learned to win their races. I thought it could be a great book and e-book.

I became serious about learning all I could on how the process of writing nonfiction book proposals and finding agents worked. I put together my first proposal. I spent hours, days, weeks working on it. I had a great writing buddy. We’d get together at her house and slog away on our proposals, trying to find the right details, the proper angles to emphasize to gain interest from prospective agents. In 2006, I attended a MediaBistro workshop in San Francisco about writing a book proposal, taught by a book editor from Berkeley.

At some point, I figured I was ready enough to start pitching. My freelance career had largely come from word-of-mouth opportunities, so pitching was not my strong suit. I did make some connections with agents who took interest in my work and who knew I had the goods to make it happen, but the first idea was generally critiqued as not being for a large enough audience. (And you have to remember that in 2004, self-publishing was still relatively unusual.) So I went back to the drawing board.

I took another online course in writing a book proposal, taught by an agent in New York. Through that process, I decided to write about civic engagement online. That was an area I had done work on for a few years. I came out of it with the second version of my proposal. That was 2008. I became busy with other clients and projects, so I shelved the proposal and stared at it for a while. Then one day around 2010, I realized what I wanted to write about that topic had already been written by a few others. Or at least most of the things I had wanted to say had been said.

I felt frustrated and deflated. So I refocused my efforts on other projects for a while. Then at the beginning of 2011, my dad died very suddenly, and I was thrust into a world of grief. As a digital native, my idea of coping meant going online. I knew I needed to do that to inform others and to help make sense of what was happening inside of me as I felt crushed in a way I’d never felt crushed in my life. As I shared my experience online, I logged what I had done in order to help others who would have to go through what I had. And I blogged about the experience on my column at SFGate. That’s when I had my a-ha moment.

Suddenly people from all over wrote me email and sent me notes expressing gratitude for sharing my journey and for giving them useful information on how to deal with grieving online. That’s when it hit me – most people just want to know how to get through their day, and I could help them navigate the difficult regions of the digital world with a book that encompassed everything about life online, sharing lessons I’d learned since day one as a nine year-old through my professional life in tech and social media, along with tips for digital activism and taking advantage of e-government tools (that way I wouldn’t just be tossing out my original ideas). So I began writing a new proposal. It was for a book called Your Life Online.

The proposal was very close to how the book ended up. It was for a relatively short book – 250 pages – something you could read quickly and buy as a gift, that shared key concepts about digital life – your digital identity, navigating friendships in social media, finding love online and dealing with relationship challenges in the digital sphere, caring for your kids online and communicating with them, helping seniors get more comfortable online, managing your money and small businesses online, engaging in passions and hobbies through the Internet and mobile tech, building nurturing digital communities, making a difference online, leaving a legacy and confronting grief online, and finally, managing our time online, since that has become such a challenge for many people. A couple of chapters got moved around in the process of writing, but that’s what we ended up with for the outline.

Then I heard about the BlogHer Writers Conference. It took place in October of 2011. I knew I had to be there because people from the publishing industry would be there and I thought the majority of the audience for my book would likely be women. It was terrible timing. But I booked the trip to New York. I literally flew to New York, took a cab to the hotel, slept one night there, attended the conference, and flew home the next evening. It was a whirlwind, but it was worth it, because that’s where I met the person who would later become my agent. The conference was full of great tips on how to prepare proposals, find agents, and understand more about the publishing industry.

Later that day, we had a break-out session with agents and authors. I sat next to an agent and brought my laptop with my new draft proposal on it. She liked what I had and asked me to send it to her, so the following week, I did. Then we spent several months going back-and-forth about the book as I tweaked the proposal. I shopped it to a few other agents just to see what they’d say, but I was hoping that this agent would work out. She suggested I find a foreword writer, so I asked Elisa Camahort Page, co-founder of BlogHer, because Elisa had worked with me on various levels as a blogger and because the BlogHer community had taught me so much over the years. She said yes.

Eventually I decided I liked working with this agent – part of the back-and-forth process for both authors and agents is to see how you work together. So I followed up when I felt the proposal was close to being ready and asked if she wanted to take on the book. She said yes. It was one of the most exciting moments of my professional life. It was a brief moment, because something happened a few hours later – I can’t recall what it was… perhaps one of our cats was ill. We had a few senior cats at the time. In any case, I had to shift gears and get back to managing my chaotic daily life.

After negotiating the agent agreement with a lawyer recommended by my MediaBistro teacher, who was then working as editor at Seal Press and asked me to have the agent submit my manuscript to her when it was ready, I polished up the proposal and my agent began sending it out. That was early fall of 2012. A month or two later, we had two bids to review. I carefully considered both and in the end chose to go with Seal Press. The editor-instructor there who had asked for my proposal wanted to publish my book, and I felt comfortable working with her and thought it would be best to have my first book published by someone I trusted and admired as knowledgeable and experienced in the field. It didn’t hurt that the publisher was local, so I could meet with them in person if necessary.

We signed the contract at the very end of 2012, just in time to celebrate the new year. I was elated. But holidays being what they are, I had no time to really revel in the joy that I finally got a book deal. Then the writing began. I received a draft calendar for the process and we were looking at publishing the book for spring of 2014. I felt excited and fearful about meeting all of the deadlines. I hadn’t written anything really long-form since college, when I wrote plays and screenplays. That was a different time in my life entirely. I had written book chapters and long articles in recent years, and I had edited other peoples’ books, so I certainly knew how to get it done, but the timing factor with all of my other projects – personal and professional – and as a parent, juggling childcare responsibilities, was a challenge.

I tried writing in pockets of time I had between meetings and school pickups, but it wasn’t working. Finding big chunks of time seemed impossible. I work partly from home and partly from co-working spaces and coffee shops, and I purposely plan my week so I can pick my daughter up from school two days a week and stay involved in her life, making up for some of the work time late at night. But the book was different. The book demanded constant attention in long spurts. I was getting behind on my schedule and I needed a plan. So I scheduled a few weekend retreats. I went to a hotel nearby and locked myself in a room for 2-3 days straight, twice. That helped, but my wrists got trashed and my brain fried.

I started spending all of my extra time at coffee shops. I had to cancel meetings right and left. The book took precedence. In retrospect, one of the criticisms that other authors have of the traditional publishing industry is that publishers just expect authors to literally drop everything in order to make deadlines. I had a very collaborative relationship with my publisher, so I felt less of that pressure and obtuseness, but still, deadlines were deadlines, and as a new author, I didn’t always understand what each of them meant. I also was working hard to track all of my research and resources in order to put that in the book. That in itself was daunting. I signed on a research assistant to help.

Finally a couple of weeks before my manuscript was due, I realized there was no way to get a product with the level of quality that I wanted to the editor. I knew I could reach the word count, but I didn’t want to turn in garbage; I wanted to turn in a first draft worth reading. So I regrettably contacted the editor and asked for an extension – at the very least for the resources. She said sure. In fact, she said, they were feeling like spring was too soon for my book anyway, so they pushed it to fall and gave me several more weeks to complete the manuscript. That was good. Because as much as I had been crowd sourcing for ideas and data for the book and researching like crazy, I still didn’t have everything organized as well as I wanted.

So I went back to writing. Finally my due date came, and I had to get on a plane the next day to travel. I stayed up all night finishing writing. The book was 10,000 words longer than it needed to be, but I knew it was better to start with too much than too little. I worried that contractually it might be so long it could be rejected. But I’d rather chop some of the content out than not turn in content that included all of my thoughts on the subject. So I sent it in. I was exhausted. I tied a bow around the printout to show myself the final product, took a photo and posted it on Instagram. There was no time to celebrate. Again. I had an hour to sleep and then I got up and got on a plane.

Then the editing process began. Several months of developmental editing, copyediting, and proofreading. Months of reviewing ideas for cover art, images, infographics. Finally, we decided to scrap the images I had collected – cartoons and photographs from friends and colleagues. I thought they helped with the message, but when we looked at what we had with the black-and-white that would be required for printing, it just didn’t look polished enough, so we decided to go strictly with the infographics. We spent a really long time debating over subtitles for the book. “Your Life Online — How Social Media is Changing Your Daily Life”, “Your Life Online — How the Digital Mystique Affects Us All…” things like that. Then I realized I was onto something exciting in “The Digital Mystique.” I asked the publisher if they liked it better as a title. Edgier, more focused on the sociological implications of technology. They liked it a lot.

So we changed the title of the book and went back to the drawing board with subtitles and cover art. This was all happening as we finished the developmental edit. I decided to add more substance to the book at that point to cover a few deeper topics about gender in digital media, and why we engage in technology policy issues. It made me happy to be able to take some of the topics I’ve worked more deeply on over the years and put them into the book, showcasing their importance in the general view of digital life – it’s not just about your profile photo or what you share with your friends – it’s so much more.

Eventually the publisher came up with a subtitle that worked with how they wanted to market the book and explain it to consumers – “How the Culture of Connectivity Can Empower Your Life — Online and Off.” I liked that “Your Life Online” was still in it. Somehow we had come full circle with the content. While it made the title a bit more obscure, it had a slight reference to The Feminine Mystique, and there was still some meat in the subtitle about what the book would actually teach readers.

Finally, after I don’t know how many version of the book – probably at least ten – it went off to the printer. That was a scary moment for me. I felt like I was sending my child off to college. So I shifted gears again, to get organized for publication. Summer went by quickly – much more quickly than I expected. I was trying to catch up on my contact database and prepare media outreach when I got hit by a bout of pneumonia that took me out of commission for a month. Then we had two trips planned. We took those. I kept working on outreach when I could. As much as I did get a brief respite to spend with family, I had been living and breathing the book for so long, it was becoming a blur.

The day before I returned from our last family trip of the summer, I received email from the publicist at the publisher saying that I’d be receiving my first book copy in the mail. I was floored. I had no idea the review copies were ready. Suddenly, I’d get to see my book. We got home from the airport and there it was. I opened it up and a tear of joy came to my eye, but it was ten o’clock at night and we were all exhausted. My daughter grabbed the book from me and began looking at it. I started unpacking necessities and getting her ready for bed. It was two days before I actually opened the book again, and two weeks before I actually re-read any of it, because the next day I got another surprise.

The following morning, my husband received e-mail that his book order had shipped. Shipped! The book was out. I was so not prepared. Jet-lagged and bewildered, Amazon was already shipping my books. The two weeks after that were a whirlwind. Friends sharing photos of their books coming in the mail, telling me they were looking for it in bookstores, sharing about it on social media. And the official publication date hadn’t even come yet. Finally Aug. 26th, the official date came. We had planned to promote the book after Labor Day, starting Sept. 2nd. We decided to stick with that plan, even though we got sidetracked by early orders and pre-orders. But somehow the publication still didn’t seem real to me.

Finally, I had my real author moment: the box of author copies came in the mail. I was working from home by myself when the box arrived. I opened it up. There they were. My books. MY BOOKS! It still seemed surreal that I had written a book. Maybe something about the @sarahgranger on the cover as the author name assisted in that – it was like the digital me wrote a book. Did I write a book? The rind had my name separated out – Sarah Granger. So there it was.

I had been calling myself an author since I finished the first draft, but now I was a published author. What about that. And more than that – the books look beautiful. I’m really proud of what we created. And when I say we, I really mean it. This was a team effort from the beginning. I totally valued the process of working with an experienced agent, publisher, editors and designers, who did great work.

Now I have more work to do, sharing The Digital Mystique with the world. It’s easy to get lost in the weeds and immersed in the process as a writer, but now I’m bringing myself back to the content – why I wrote this book, what I want to teach people, and how the book can help them. It’s been an exciting journey and now the big day is here. I hope the book makes a difference in peoples’ lives and guides them to be more empowered online. I really do. It’s one thing to have a product to show for your efforts, but it’s quite another for it to have an impact. I hope you enjoy the book.

Comments

  1. So glad you wrote that down! I wish I had. Congratulations again, Sarah!

  2. Susan Scrupski says:

    Thanks so much for writing this Sarah. So helpful and inspirational for those of still in the slog. 🙂 Bookmarking now.