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  • Writer's pictureAl Hess

Lucky Fruits (and How I Got A Book Deal)

Updated: Jul 21, 2022

When you live in a patchwork van with another person, there isn’t a lot of room for homey touches. Valentine loves his magazines; he probably saw a glossy spread of fancy faux fruit in one of them and decided that was exactly what the van needed. His own collection is decidedly un-fancy—sunbleached cheap plastic that’s melting into the dashboard—but it became an iconic image of WORLD RUNNING DOWN. Osric fusses with a cluster of rubbery grapes as he talks about the differences between androids and A.I. Stewards in Salt Lake City. Bananas and oranges go flying off the dash as Valentine mashes the accelerator to the floor to evade enemies.

The faux fruit became an icon for me too. While I was querying, I came upon a set of miniature Knott’s Berry Farms marzipan fruits in an antique shop. I decided the collection was going to be my lucky charm. I’m not a superstitious person, but it was something I could look at on my desk and make me think, “This isn’t over ‘til it’s over.”

But “over” never came. In May 2021 I signed with agent Ren Balcombe. You can read about my querying journey and how I got my agent here. We went out on sub in late July. Adult SFF doesn’t have a vast list of houses and imprints to choose from. We sent WORLD RUNNING DOWN out to thirteen publishers in the US and UK. There wasn’t much to do after that but wait and keep writing the next thing.

I handed Ren another book, a small town alien invasion novel with a pie-loving autistic and non-binary protagonist. Then I threw myself into working on my next WIP about traumatized and slightly morbid queer artists dealing with a “haunted” art studio. This book is a bit of a mindfuck (think Donnie Darko), and it will be a while before I get it just right.

Four month went by, and I got my first rejection. This was one of the larger UK publishers on my sub list, and the feedback was, “I have no idea what to do with this story.” Which is fair. WORLD RUNNING DOWN is very trans and the setting is very American. Either or both of those things could have contributed to the publishing team not knowing how to market it. And above all else, you want a publisher that knows what to do with your book.

Not long after, Ren said one of the editors on our list was requesting a synopsis and author bio for me, which could mean the book was going to acquisitions. When I got confirmation in early December that it was indeed headed that way, it was both exciting and nerve-wracking.

Just because an editor loved my book, that didn’t mean their whole team would be on board. This was completely out of my hands and nothing I could do—aside from giving my lucky faux fruit a dusting—would sway the outcome.

But in late December, right before the publishing world was closing up for the holidays, I got an offer. Gemma Creffield at Angry Robot loved my characters and felt that my messages of hope and finding yourself were universally relatable.

Angry Robot is an imprint of PenguinRandomHouse and produces fantastic SFF books, a handful of which I already had on my bookshelf. After the call with Gemma, I asked Ren what our timeline looked like for giving the rest of the outstanding publishers a chance to respond before I made a decision. They informed me that all of them already had—all passes. I’m grateful Ren did not tell me this before my offer call.

I could hardly be disappointed by getting a single offer, especially since Ren said they’d hoped I’d be picked up by a mid-sized press instead of a huge one where it was very likely I could be pushed around, get lost, or have my book not given the proper attention it deserved.

I accepted Gemma’s offer and celebrated with whiskey and my book’s playlist cranked up. The idea that this book of my heart that I was afraid to write, let alone query, was going to grace bookstore shelves was completely surreal. I'd wanted this book to be trad published so that the readers who needed its hope and message the most would be able to find it. And it was actually happening.

Fast-forward five agonizing months of me posting vague publishing emoji tweets (you know the ones: 👀👀👀) and retweeting the hell out of all my new publisher siblings book posts without being able to say that I too was one of them.

In May, I was finally able to sign my contract, and Angry Robot released their announcement.

Going from self-publishing to trad has been rough simply because I’m not used to having other people’s fingers in my book production process. It’s not a criticism, simply a very foreign experience. Following a publisher’s timeline, not my own; having other people tweak my blurb and tagline and shout about me on social media; good god there’s a typo in my Publisher’s Marketplace Deal Report (it’s since been corrected!)

The control freak in me is overjoyed about one thing, though: I was asked to paint my own book cover. This is not something that authors are often asked to do! I nearly said no because the idea was so intimidating. What if I couldn’t pull it off? But my new Robot Overlords clearly loved my artwork, had faith in me, and how could I turn down the chance to not only have my book in bookstores but my own art on the cover? More about that in a future post.

What’s next? I’ll have a structural edit letter for WORLD RUNNING DOWN here soon. Guest posts on websites and podcast appearances. Choosing a narrator for the audiobook. Requesting blurbs from authors who are way cooler than me. A cover reveal. ARCs.

None of it has properly sunk in. One day I’ll be standing in a Barnes and Noble, staring at my book with a dumbfounded look on my face.

I hope it does well. If I can be selfish, I hope people eat it up and scream at me on Twitter about how they ugly cried over the heartbreaking scenes. I hope it becomes a source of comfort to trans folks. I want them to open the book and have it say to them, “I see you.” I want readers to laugh at Valentine’s ridiculous curse words, swoon over Osric, and wish that they too could attend a pirate potluck.

And I want it to be the first trad book of many. Even though I have a lot of self-published books in my backlist, this still feels like only the start of my journey. There’s no telling exactly where it leads, but I’m pretty sure there’s still some luck left in my collection of marzipan fruits.


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