Big bang huge news today from the offices of Jen A. Miller: I have sold my running memoir, Running: A Love Story, to Seal Press. It’ll be published in early 2016. From the announcement in Publisher’s Marketplace: “Philadelphia Inquirer columnist and frequent NYT and Runner’s World contributor Jen A. Miller’s RUNNING: A Love Story, a candid memoir from a runner in the middle-of-the-pack, examining the cathartic and meditative nature of distance running and how it catalyzed her personal transformation.”
This has been a year and a half in the making. For you writers out there, I’m going to parse out what happened. I first wrote a sanitized version of this post, then went back and put in all the messy parts. For a while there, this book project was an absolute disaster, and I need to tell that story too.
This is a stack of every draft that went into making this book happen (with dog for scale). It’s a saga.
The First Book
In May of 2013, Big Name Publisher contacted me about writing a book for her. She had read one of my running articles in the New York Times, and thought that I’d be the perfect person to write a book that was her idea. I signed on with an agent who I had met earlier in my career (my Jersey Shore books were unagented), and went to work writing a proposal to flush out Big Name Publisher’s idea.
There are a lot of different parts of a book proposal, including why I’m the person to write it (this is often called a writer’s platform – for me, it’s that I write about running a lot), similar book titles that have sold well, an outline of the book and then two sample chapters. These chapters required heavy lifting, including doing interviews with people who gave me their time even though the book wasn’t a guarantee. I dropped a lot of freelance work to get the proposal done.
After turning the proposal into my former agent, who then turned it over to Big Name Publisher, Big Name Publisher said that now that she’d seen the outline, she’d like to see me write two different sample chapters.
I threw my notebook across the room. I would never have tolerated that in my freelance work. But my former agent told me this was all normal in book publishing, so I soldiered on. I wanted to write that book, even if it wasn’t my idea. I had turned down the third edition of my Jersey Shore book a year before because I wanted to stretch myself as a writer, and do the kind of book that had been presented to me.
Of course I pushed freelancing aside, because that’s what you do when the gift of a book deal from a major publisher drops into your lap. You lean off your carousel horse and reach for the brass ring.
Except the brass ring never appeared, and I fell. Hard. Despite being courted, despite being asked to write not one but two sets of sample chapters, Big Name Publisher passed. Her idea wasn’t perfect enough. She pat me on the head with platitudes that I was still a great writer. Do you happen to have another idea you want to pitch me?
A Period of Anger and Sorrow
Blind rage doesn’t even begin to describe my anger. Lying in the bottom of the tub and sobbing until the water turned cold is more like it. My former agent didn’t help either. In a tone that suggested puppies and unicorns and rainbow glitter farts, she said that I shouldn’t be angry because this had been a great learning experience! Then she promptly quit being an agent to become a stay at home mom. My proposal, one that had cost me about $15,000 worth of work to finish, was dead.
So I wrote this. I vented to other writers and friends. They kept telling me I could try again – that certainly another agent and another publisher would be interested in this idea, or at least in me as a writer. I didn’t believe them. How could that possibly be true? I had tried to be something more than my abilities, and I had failed, miserably. I told myself I was just not meant to write the big book. I moped and pouted, I ran and raged. I thought about taking up that year-old offer to write another Jersey Shore book, even though that publisher offered me less money and a worse contract than they had for my previous books for them. I kept throwing things across my office, and then lying on the floor staring at the ceiling fan listening to sad Guster songs on repeat. I had a breakdown at the All Seasons Diner in Monmouth at breakfast with a group of writing friends because I never felt worse as a writer, ever.
Then I bought Theo Pauline Nestor’s Writing is My Drink. I had attended one of her writing retreats, and thought maybe I should just focus on essays again. I asked a friend who had gone to the retreat with me if she’d like to swap essays every other week: we’d each write something, send our essays to each other, and then come back with feedback.
I wrote about a lot of different topics, then started to work around a common theme: that of what running meant to me, and then how I felt when I started running, and the circumstances that lead to me running my first distance race, my first half marathon, my first marathon. In January, I booked myself into an ocean-facing room at Congress Hall in Cape May, locked myself inside, ordered a lot of room service, and just wrote.
That writing became the bones for what I could see as a running memoir. It was a sloppy mess, but something emerged. I didn’t know what I was going to do with it, but it felt good to shake off what had happened, and remind myself that I knew on some level what I was doing. If no book ever came, I told myself that I could sell some of that work as essays and at least get a small return on my time investment.
Starting Over Again
I planned to spend the next nine months writing that memoir – taking the junk I wrote in a first draft, and polishing it and giving it a narrative that I could then take to agents. I knew memoir was hard. I had tried to sell one when I was fresh out of graduate school, and was told over and over again that if you’re not a celebrity, the writing had to be amazing for one to sell, or that I had to have a really strong platform in the field. I knew I had a running platform, so I gave myself a deadline of September to have something ready to send out to agents.
In April, I attended the American Society of Journalists and Authors conference in New York City. One feature of the conference is that you can meet with editors and agents and pitch your ideas. I usually met with editors, but this time, I decided to meet with agents, and had meetings with 12 of them. I brought a two-page synopsis of the memoir and my platform, figuring that I’d see who was interested in it now, and then send them the full manuscript in September. Just in case, I had two chapters and a short proposal ready to go.
I was floored by the response. Nine agents asked to see the short proposal. From those, three offered to represent me, despite the manuscript not being written.
This time, I didn’t just go with a gut feeling. For each agent, I asked for their backlist of sold books. I sent them each a long questionnaire, including questions about where they saw their careers going since I wanted to sign with someone who could be a business partner for years, if not decades. I also asked them if they would approach Big Name Publisher with the new book proposal. Then I interviewed three of their clients each. One question I asked all of them was how their agent responded when things went wrong.
That lead me to chose Mackenzie Brady, who you can read about here. She answered every question well, her clients loved her, and she was even at the Broad Street Run this year, which I ran right before I made my choice. I liked her vision for the book, and what she thought she could do with it. She listened to my tale of woe with Big Name Publisher and said she’d send it to her anyway if I was okay with it, which was the right answer.
Given my platform, she didn’t think I’d need the whole thing written to sell it, and she planned to send it around in September. But that summer, after she sent out a few feelers and had some interest, I again locked myself into a hotel room (this time Revel in Atlantic City, RIP), and polished the proposal and the two first chapters.
Off it went.
Every time she heard back from someone, Mackenzie sent me the feedback as to why they wanted to explore the book further, or why they rejected the book. This was incredibly helpful. It gave me a window into the process and kept me in the loop. It also helped me figure out how I may need to tweak the proposal in the future. I had calls with three editors (including Big Name Publisher, which was extremely awkward). All eventually passed, some for weird reasons, which was frustrating, but Mackenzie kept me on an even keel.
We talked about maybe changing the concept of the book slightly, but I was honest with Mackenzie that I believed in what I had pitched her, and that was the book I really wanted to write. She supported me 100%. I asked Kate Epstein to take a look because I wanted a third opinion, then spent a month to write the third chapter of the book, which is about the events that lead to me training for my first 10-mile race (it’s about what happened immediately before this essay starts). With a new chapter in hand, the book went out again. After I ran the New York City Marathon, Mackenzie and I met to talk about the race and catch up about and how things were going (and to buy me a hot chocolate!), and her feelings on what would happen next.
We got two offers.
I met the folks at Seal Press early in my writing career. They’re part of Perseus, and I had worked with their PR team closely when I reviewed and wrote about books. I liked them. I’d see them whenever I went to Book Expo America, and they handled pitching books to journalists well (which is a weakness at many houses). You can see their books here. I thought Running: A Love Story would fit well there. When I had briefly considered pitching the book without an agent, Seal was on my short list because I liked their people, and the kinds of books they did. They seemed to really hug their authors whereas I felt some other houses just considered an author another person on a list, and threw them support every once and a while. I had done all of the publicity for my Jersey Shore books myself, and did not want to go through that again, especially for a book like this.
Stephanie Knapp, the editor who bought my book, wrote a really long email about why she wanted it. Mackenzie walked me through the letter, and talked to me about what she knew about Seal and the second suitor, and why she felt that Seal was a better option. Still, we explored both deals, and I let Mackenzie do her magic.
Right before Thanksgiving, I had the offer I wanted. The details were finalized yesterday, and the book deal was announced today. I’ll have a call with Stephanie next week, then a meeting in January.
Running: A Love Story
I’m a mix of emotions right now, mostly of relief and terror. I’m relieved that the book finally sold – the kind of book I have always wanted to write - and terrified that I now have to go out and do it. I’ve been writing essays since I started freelancing, but a memoir is different. This is going to be a very different experience than my Jersey Shore books, too. I plan to book myself again into Congress Hall and maybe a hotel in St. Pete Beach after I run a race in Tampa, and then to work on the book on nights and weekends (I hope to freelance at about the same level as I have been while working on this project). Part of me still can’t believe it.
I have never felt worse professionally than when Big Name Publisher passed on the first book. I’m still in disbelief that this second gamble paid off. But I’m so so glad it did.
P.S. I’m a terrible headline writer. Sometimes I put “create title here” in some of my stories (with editors who like me only). However, I came up with this book title. I’m stunned that it’s still there and – hopefully – will be on the book when it’s published.