EDITOR’S NOTE: This is one of two posts featuring Kim Cross on the successful pitch-and-proposal process that led to her new book, ‘In Light of All Darkness.’ In a companion post, Cross annotates the proposal that landed the book contract.
By Carly SternA book project is no pursuit for impatient writers. Bringing a book from the page to stores requires a blend of timing, stamina and alchemy: a ripe idea, relevance in the zeitgeist, a confluence of favorable market conditions and editorial partners who have the determination — and means — to help sell it. Journalist Kim Cross waited nearly eight years for these factors to converge before “In Light of All Darkness” would live in the world.
Cross, who is based in Idaho, began nursing the idea of filling in reporting gaps of an infamous true crime case in 2015. She spent the next year or so tracking down archival material, interviewing subjects and mapping out the arc of a propulsive story about the kidnapping of Polly Klaas, a 12-year-old who lived in Petaluma, California, in 1993.
Cross initially pitched the book in 2015 — shortly after the publication of her first book, “What Stands in a Storm” — but didn’t land a deal. After a potential offer fell through, she shifted her attention to other projects. Then, in 2021, Cross found an editor and publisher who felt like a good fit and were committed to publishing the book “with muscle,” as she puts it.
Storyboard talked with Cross about what nonfiction writers need to know about the book publishing process, how a book proposal mirrors and diverges from a magazine pitch, and the roles that each editorial partner plays. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
I‘m super fascinated by the pitch process behind finding a publisher. Can you walk me through the big-picture, prerequisite steps that it takes to land a book deal?
With fiction, you write the book and then find an agent. That agent serves as your first editor and then shops the whole book. With nonfiction, that’s almost the sign of a nonprofessional. Generally speaking, you write a book proposal, which is a document that can range from 25 to maybe 75 pages. It’s like a business proposal where the outcome is not a business, but a book. Think of it like a big nut graph. There’s a whole section that explains ‘this is what the story is.’ Then, ‘This is what has been written on the topic, and this is how this book will be different.’ Another section:‘Here’s why I am the best writer to do this book.’ And finally: ‘Here’s the market — why it will sell — and how I plan to sell it.’
How did you approach doing that market research?
When I first pitched this book, the deal fell through because there weren’t multiple offers and the original publisher who made an offer got cold feet. The market was in a really different place — it was before the true crime explosion we’re seeing today. This was a story of a child kidnapping and murder, a story that doesn’t end well. The rejections I got at that time were, ‘Why would anyone read a book that ends badly and you already know it’s going to end?’ But with the advent of podcasts like “Serial,” Michelle MacNamara’s book, “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark,” and the related documentary and podcast, the true crime market changed. Suddenly, stories that were a little too sensitive or taboo became more acceptable. I looked at what books were out there and who was reading them, and I spoke to that.
I wanted to approach it as a meticulously reported narrative nonfiction story that happens to be about a true crime. As a journalist and historian, I wanted to write the book of record about a case that has been written about a lot with many inaccuracies, errors and gaps. I thought there was a place for this in the world of historians and investigators, for whom this story could continue to be an educational tool. I wasn’t thinking about it just being of interest to the people who listen to true crime podcasts, but also investigators, law enforcement officials and maybe even first responders.
I’m struck by how useful it is that people in the publishing industry told you what wasn’t working for them. What did those rejections from the first pitch tell you, and what information did you glean from them? As a plea to editors everywhere, why is it so important for writers to get feedback not just about why something works, but why it doesn’t?
The rejection letters that I get, and have gotten for three books now, have been some of the most useful criticism that I’ve gotten in my career. Instead of feeling hurt by it, I thought, ‘Oh, wow, they took the time to tell me exactly what wasn’t working. And that can actually help me make the book better when it does find a home.’
The rejection letters that I… have gotten for three books now have been some of the most useful constructive criticism that I’ve gotten in my career.
When I first pitched my earlier book, “What Stands in a Storm,” I hadn’t done what I call the ‘casting process’ to figure out who my central characters were. Everyone who rejected it said, ‘We love the writing and topic, but we don’t see a central cast of characters that the reader is going to invest in and care about.’ I knew the next time around, I would have that process done.
The rejections for the Polly Klaas book cited different reasons and were contradictory. Some thought it was too dramatic — better for TV or a movie — while others wanted more drama. I knew something was off here because they’re all saying no for different reasons. When I got the final rejection, I read it thinking, ‘I should feel really devastated that I’ve put all this work and all this time into this, and it’s not going anywhere.’ Instead, I had a really strong gut instinct that it simply was not the right time. You can’t force a story to be ready; the story will let you know when it’s ready. So I set it aside, worked on a couple of other books and came back to it. A friend later read the proposal and said, ‘I think you were ahead of the (true crime) market. I think the time is now.’
I think a lot about story form — how different components of a story can be told in a magazine treatment versus a news story versus a podcast or documentary — and how much story shape depends on the creator’s vision for it. How and when did you first know that the subject you had on your hands warranted a book? Which signals made that clear to you?
The investigation itself was so big and complex, it was way too much for a magazine piece. All of the long-form treatments about the Klaas case that I had seen, whether TV or print, basically told what happened in the beginning and then skipped to two months later. So much was going on inside the investigation in a way that was invisible to the public. I realized that a lot of things that happened in the middle spoke to those bigger, ‘so-what’ questions.
I love structure and obsess about it. But I decided the best structure for this was a pretty simple chronology, with a few deviations when things are happening simultaneously. I didn’t get fancy. I started with a timeline tracking exactly what happened minute by minute and color-coded it by point-of-view, which helped me determine which point-of-view each chapter would be written from.
What was the process like for finding an agent who was the right fit?
So much of it is networking and talking to several people. Ideally, you have a writer friend who can make a connection so you’re a known entity and not just a cold call or blind email that’s going into the pile. For my first agent, I was invited to speak at a literary conference; the hotel bar afterward was filled with writers from the conference. He was standing with some other agents and I’d seen him on a panel. I walked up and started talking. He listened to me talk for 45 minutes about a book idea about nuns. He didn’t look over my shoulder to see who else was coming in. He was very engaged. I just kind of had a sense, ‘you get me.’ Nuns ultimately were not the right topic for my first book, but we stayed in touch and he was my agent for “What Stands in a Storm.”
When it comes to the agent, publisher and editor, can you break down the division of labor and order of operations? Who does what?
Your agent is there to help you get the proposal in shape and make sure you have a focused idea that is a viable, sellable book option. They’re not going to let you write a proposal about something they think there’s no market for, has already been done or that they can’t sell. They serve as your first editor and help you get the proposal in tip-top shape. Along with the research, you figure out the title, subtitle and angle, as well as distill it into a one-breath pitch. If you can say what your book in one breath, then you have a focused idea. Your agent is a bit of a cheerleader, counselor and sounding board. They also read the fine print of contracts. Agents are there to help protect you and give you advice.
My publicist came in when the manuscript was in the final stages of editing. Later, you’ll hear from sales, marketing and publicity departments.
Why is finding the right match for each of those respective roles important?
Your editor is whoever decides to bid on your book. You have more control over who your agent is and you need good chemistry — someone who you instinctively trust, loves your work, knows how to leverage your strengths and sees what you’re worth.
A good time to reach out to an agency is when you have a proposal. If you don’t have a proposal, they don’t really have much to react to other than your portfolio. One tip for knowing who to reach out to is go to a physical bookstore and spend some time browsing the shelf where the book that you want to write would exist. Look at the other books on that shelf, open them up and look at the acknowledgments, because everyone always thanks their agent in the acknowledgments. You can see which agents cover these topics.
The financial returns of a book — whether it’s the advance after the proposal sells, or the sales of the actual book — come a long time down the road, many years after you’ve spent the time to do all that reporting. From a financial perspective, how do you manage making enough time to write the book while doing other work that pays the bills?
Cash flow is the freelancer’s nightmare. The majority of successful freelancers probably have a second gig that provides some income stability; it might not be as fun and sexy, but evens out the peaks and valleys. Books are my main source of income, supplemented by other freelance income and teaching. A lot of people teach, have a PR or marketing job or some other situation where that’s the primary income, and then they carve out time to write. I think that can be really successful because it’s pretty hard to write for more than a few hours a day, after which point your productivity goes down.
Can you walk us through the nuts and bolts of those numbers?
What people don’t realize is that a book advance is not paid out in advance. I’m going to be tacky and talk about money because I think it’s helpful for aspiring authors to know how the publishing business works. Let’s say you get a $100,000 book advance. Six figures! Sounds great, right? In reality, you get 25% of that upon signing your contract. Your agent takes the standard 15% cut, so deduct $3,750, and you have $21,250 in gross income.
Now set 30% of that number aside for quarterly estimated taxes. Now you have $14,875. But you need to stretch that out for 18 months, because your next quarter of the advance isn’t paid until the book is not only written, but edited, revised, and accepted by the publisher. So that’s $826.39 a month of net income. Which explains why you need a second job, a breadwinner spouse, or a steady amount of freelance work on top of the book.
The last portion of the advance comes well after your publication date when the paperback comes out.
I quit my job to write my first book because my husband had a great job. Then he lost it. In the 18 months of writing and editing “What Stands in a Storm,” I also wrote 50 other freelance stories and 7,000 words for a coffee table book about Christmas in the South.
What insights do you know now about the book selling or writing process that you didn’t know your first time around and have learned along the way?
If you can find stories that allow you to do research that eventually builds into your book, it subsidizes that research. But if you write anything in those paid stories that you want to use in the book, read your contracts to make sure that you retain the copyright. Second, take pictures and file them away. At some point, that can be valuable material for the book itself or social media promotion. And third, get ready for the fact that you are not done once you turn the book in. When it goes to press, you have to switch into marketing and promotion mode. This is very uncomfortable for the majority of writers because we want the writing to speak for itself. They don’t train you in J-school on how to read in front of a few hundred people or conduct an event that’s not just a book party. Those things have been really important.
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Carly Stern is a freelance reporter based in San Francisco who covers housing, disability policy, urban life and economic inequality.