This is the story of how Mark Summers and I – he’s Cap’n Slappy to my Ol’ Chumbucket – got our first agent and our first book deal. It is NOT supposed to go like this. It’s not supposed to be this easy.
And, I’m afraid, it’s not likely to work for anyone else.
Almost 18 years ago the Pirate Guys were unleashed on the world. We had created the ersatz holiday, International Talk Like a Pirate Day, and Nobel Prize winner Dave Barry wrote a column about us. Suddenly we were “a thing.” At first we thought, “Well, that’s cute, there’s our 15 minutes of fame.” But it turned out to have legs. Within weeks we’d been on NPR and radio stations around the world – literally – we’d been interviewed on air in Australia and Ireland.
“What do we do next?” we wondered.
At my wife Tori’s suggestion (and later our friend Gary, but Tori was definitely first) we registered a website, talklikeapirate.com, and started talking about what we’d do with it.
“We ought to write a book,” one or both of us simultaneously said. “‘How to Talk Like a Pirate.’ That’d be funny. Yeah, we ought to write a book.”
We talked about it for several weeks. It always seemed like a great idea, very funny. I think we fully intended to do it, but we never did any actual work towards writing or even deciding what might be in such a book. Just talking about it and laughing.
As you can imagine, Tori was getting a little impatient, waiting for the talking to end and the writing to begin. Finally, she decided it was time to take things into her own hands.
She stealthily, surreptitiously, did a little research – to that point none of us had a clue about how to write or sell a book. She learned about the role agents play, and the importance of a query letter. She wrote such a letter – “I’m John Baur, co-creator of International Talk Like a Pirate Day. We’ve had success way beyond what we expected and have written a humor books about pirates.” Note – she said we HAD written such a book. She pulled together a list of 25 agents and – literally in the dead of night – sent the letter off. And waited.
For 24 of the queries, that was as far as it went. A few wrote back saying our book “did not meet their current needs” (I have a theory about that I’ll discuss some other time) but most did not respond. You’ll find that’s the way it goes.
And then one, a guy named Peter Miller who owned the Peter Miller Literary Agency, wrote back and said, “I’m out of town for a couple of weeks, but when I get back that next Monday, I’d like to read it.”
Tori told me and Mark – “OK guys, you’ve got 10 days to write it.”
You don’t think that’ll light a fire under you? Most of the first draft of what became “Well Blow Me Down” came together in one long weekend involving a LOT of beer and pizza. At the end of the weekend I looked at the legal pad filled with scribbled idea and jokes, then started pulling them together. Another meeting and we actually were able to turn it into something worth showing people. It wasn’t as good as it became, but it worked. We were able to send off a reasonably funny proposal by the deadline.
It was at least good enough to get Miller to decide he wanted his agency to represent us. He assigned us to one of the agents in his office. That was Scott, who took us under his wing, got us to refine the manuscript, then did his best to sell it.
It didn’t sell after about six months of trying, so his next suggestion was, “Publish it yourself. If you can sell enough copies it’ll get the attention of publishing houses and they’ll be more willing to take a chance on you.”
This was just before the boom in print-on-demand publishing, literally right on the eve of that development. We had to get copies printed and shipped to us, then get out and sell them. We worked out how much money we could afford to lose if we didn’t sell any, and that’s how we ended up with 5,000 copies of “Well Blow Me Down” in the garage.
And it worked. We sold a lot of them, not all 5,000, but, if memory serves, more than 3,000. You’ve gotta hustle. That put Scott in a position where he was able to get us a deal with New American Library.
There’s a lot more to the story, but here we are pushing 900 words, and I have work to do so I’ll leave this here. The point is, we got our first agent in a very odd way and, I’m sorry to say, it probably won’t work for you. Although you’ll never know unless you try.
That’s our family motto: “You’ll never find out if you can fly if you don’t throw yourself off a cliff from time to time.” So knock on the door. If they don’t open it, kick it in.