A Dream Come True: How I Became an Author
Here's the story of how I landed my first publishing deal to write UnClobber
(At the end of this article is a section about things such as Author Royalties and Advances and Book Sales. If that stuff interests you, scroll down and check it out!)
Have you ever dreamt of doing something in life…
something really big and audacious and maybe-I-shouldn’t-say-this-out-loud-because-it-probably-won’t-actually-happen…
and then suddenly you look down and…
there’s your dream just resting in the palm of your hand?!
Yeah, me neither.
Until January 25th, 2015.
Allow me to explain.
THE ADVENT OF A DREAM
In the fall of 2014 I registered for conference in Phoenix called “Christianity 21,” a gathering of progressively-bent Christian pastors, authors, and activists.
During the registration process I noticed a section where attendees could submit a proposal to give a 7-21 talk during the conference (the premise of a 7-21 talk is that you select 21 images that auto-advance every 20 seconds, totaling precisely seven minutes).
On a whim I filled out the form proposing to give a talk about how I’d been fired in 2011 when my church discovered my theology on sexuality shifted, and how that turn-of-events eventually led to starting Sojourn Grace here in San Diego.
Lo’ and behold they liked my proposal and gave me a spot to share! It was a ton of fun and quite the challenge to craft a talk that landed exactly at seven minutes, all timed to slideshow.
Anyway, here’s the video of the talk if you’re interested. (Sorry about the sound, it was just filmed by my buddy on his phone.)
(Fun fact: the loud “woo!” at the end, at the 7:16 mark, was from my friend Glennon Doyle who happened to be in the audience that day. Then, later that evening, I ran in to Glennon in the lobby of the hotel room and we got to talking and I shared with her the story of how our church had recently done a spiritual practice of writing out things they wanted to let go of, and how I’d brought all their prayers on small strips of paper with me to the conference and I was on my way to build a fire in the parking lot that very night to burn the papers as a prayer for our people. She asked if she could join me and help, and, well…
So fun! You can read the full account of that story here on my old blog. And then go read Glennon’s write up of the story as well… actually, wait, never mind, looks like Glennon’s old blog and posts are no longer online. Oh well. Take my word for it: what she wrote about that night was really cool, too!)
Whew. Okay, back to the story at hand.
Where was I?
Oh, right. The lifelong dream that fell in my lap. Er, hands.
So I give the aforementioned 7-21 talk, the session ends, and as conference goers mill about this woman makes a beeline for me.
“I really enjoyed your presentation,” she said as she held out her business card. “My name is Jessica. If you’d ever like to turn that story in to a book, let’s talk.”
I looked down. Clear as day, right next to her name, sat the logo for Westminster John Knox Press.
I immediately recognized it from my days in Academia.
Then I noticed under her name it said, “Acquisitions Editor.”
Holy crap. An editor from a real life, respectable publishing house had just put her card in my hands and said, “Let’s talk.” 😱🤯🤩
Guess my choice to wear the purple argyle sweater that day paid off.
(Well, either that, or it was my sharing honestly about my experience of becoming an open and affirming Christian, losing my job as a result, and ending up in San Diego starting a progressive Christian church with my wife. But let’s not rule out the sweater entirely.)
Later that evening I ended up at a dinner with Jessica and we got to talking about what a future book could look like. About how it could be a little bit memoir-y in terms of telling the story of my termination, but also how I really wanted to address the ways in which the church has historically misused the Bible to justify their discrimination of anyone who’s sexual orientation is not-straight.
A couple months after the conference ended Jessica sent me an email reiterating her desire to work with me, even attaching a template for a formal book proposal so that I could start putting something official together.
I pinched myself. Still not believing what was happening.
As I look back at our email exchanges it would appear that I didn’t respond to her initial email for three weeks. What the?! 🤦🏻♂️Was I trying to play it cool? I don’t remember. But when I finally did get around to replying, I told her how excited I was and that I would get a proposal back to her ASAP.
Which took me another month, evidently.
(I think when dreams start actually happening it can sometimes throw you off a bit. At least, I know it did for me.)
Not only that, but when I did finally send it to her I also had the gall to be like, “Oh, and let me know if you’re not interested, so that I can shop this around to others.”
To “others,” Colby?
What “others,” exactly? What was your plan if Westminster passed? To whom—and how—were you going to do this shopping? 😜
I do not remember why I said that or what my plan (if any) was. I think I was just trying to convey how much I really wanted to write the book.
Irrational confidence at its finest.
LANDING THE DEAL
A week later she emailed to say that her colleagues really liked the proposal and, oh yeah, “can you write us a sample chapter before our next meeting in two weeks?”
“Of course,” I said. “I write chapters before breakfast.”
(I did not actually say that. 🤣 Although be honest, part of you was like, “Hmm, yeah, I could see Colby responding like that.” 😬)
I didn’t write it before breakfast, but I did somehow manage to write my first ever chapter for an actual/potential book in only twelve days. After which Jessica said, “We got a great response at our meeting! We want to move this project forward to the next and final decision in three weeks. Can you write us another sample chapter?”
Another chapter? Again? With still but a few weeks?
At this point I wondered if maybe the publishing industry is a scam? Maybe publishers just keep asking authors for “sample chapters,” then they take those chapters and make books out of them all by themselves. 🤷🏻♂️
Also—this made me laugh, while re-reading emails to write this article— Jessica asked for clarity on one part of my proposal (which, mind you, I sent her at the end of April, 20150). She asked, “You say that you can finish the manuscript by October 1st. Is that true? Or did I misread that…”
In other words, “Dear Newb, we know this is your first time so don’t take it personal, but ain’t no way you’re gonna write your first ever entire manuscript in less than four months. 😅”
She politely suggested that I change the deadline to January 1st instead—assuming the proposal got accepted.
Good call. Thanks, Jess. 😬
THE BEST EMAIL EVER
Finally, just three days after sending my second sample chapter, on June 11th 2015 I opened one of the best emails I’ve ever received in my life.
I am pleased to let you know that our team has approved your proposal for UnClobber, and we are putting it on our Fall 2016 list! We think your story and style will really resonate with people, and hope your platform will continue to grow.
It actually, truly, finally happened.
My dream of becoming a published author was coming true.
As it turned out, I absolutely needed the January 1st deadline to finish the manuscript (maybe I’ll write another article about that process, of the actual writing of the book).
After a few back and forths with Jessica (who was my awesome editor), the manuscript goes to a copy editor (who ensures all typos are fixed, punctuations are correct, and grammar is good). Once that’s all hammered out it gets type-set (fonts; headers; layout; etc), the cover is designed; and the title and sub-title finalized (props to WJK for the sub-title! My original idea was not great… UnClobber: My Journey to Align my Head and my Heart on Homosexuality and the Bible… or some verbose nonsense like that). Finally, they send you an ARC (Advanced Reader Copy, essentially a quick-print draft version of the book) to ensure that everything looks and feels good before being sent to the printers.
And then, wonder of wonders, my very first book came in to the world on… well, the actual release date of UnClobber isn’t entirely clear. 🤣 I think it was originally scheduled to be released on Sept 28 but there was a problem with the Amazon order (as shown on this sad post from that day back in 2016). Nowadays the Amazon page says it was published on Oct 3, 2016.
I guess that’s fine.
Whatever. The point is, UnClobber is pretty much FIVE YEARS OLD!
And I’m freaking humbled beyond belief.
What a journey.
As I said in this IG post from Tuesday, a huge shoutout and thanks to Jessica Miller Kelley from WJK for taking a shot on me and my story.
And a massive wave of gratitude for my incredible wife, Kate, for believing in me and supporting me the whoooooole way.
What a dream, what a dream, what a dream.
Thanks for joining me in the journey, y’all.
Feels to me like we’re just getting started…
REGARDING CONTRACTS, ROYALTIES, ADVANCES, AND HOW AUTHORS DON’T MAKE MUCH MONEY
I thought I might also include a bit of interesting (to me, anyway) information about the book publishing world. Specifically about advances and royalty percentages and book sales.
For me, as a first time author with almost zero platform to speak of, the terms of my deal with WJK (a small publishing house) were modest. First, they offered a $2000 advance—which they said was high for them for first time authors (I countered with $4000, and we settled on $2500). Second, they offered me a royalties rate of 15%.
Here’s what all that means (none of which I understood beforehand).
Westminster was essentially paying me $2500 to write UnClobber (you usually get half your advance when you turn in your manuscript, and the other half once all the edits are finalized and approved). Then, each time it sells, I earn 15% of the net profit.
The way that works is as follows: Say you buy the book directly from the publisher for full list price ($16). In that case, I’d make 15% (or, $2.40). However, most people buy off Amazon or Barnes & Noble, and places like that buy books from the publisher in bulk and get a massive discount (such as 50% off for Amazon!). That means, each time someone buys UnClobber from Amazon, only $8 of those dollars make it back to WJK as profit. And that’s the profit that I earn 15% of.
In other words, I make on average a whopping $1.20 on every copy sold. 😂
Then, regarding the “advance,” the reason it’s called that is because it is an advanced payment on your royalty earnings. Which means the first $2500 I make from book sales goes back to the publisher (or rather, they just keep it) to repay the advance.
Then, if/when the advance gets paid back in full, the author can begin to earn royalties thereafter. This process is called “earning out” (meaning, you’ve sold enough books to pay back your advance). Authors who get large advances from The Big Five (think: high five figure, or even six figure advances) rarely earn out. But when you get a wee little advance like I did, you’ve got a shot!
(I’m told “earning out” doesn’t happen all that often, but it’s a good thing if it does, as it helps to demonstrate to future publishers that you’re a good bet.)
All things considered (such as: small publisher, me and my wee platform size, niche audience market, etc) UnClobber has sold really well these past five years.
If you’re curious, here are the rough sales figures:
Year One: 5062 copies sold
Year Two: 2818 copies sold
Year Three: 3911 copies sold
Year Four: 3601 copies sold
Year Five: 6227 copies sold (rough estimate, as I haven’t seen the total figures yet)
Of note: Paperback outsells e-book by a ratio of about 4:1
Also, I have no idea how many audio books have been sold. That’s handled separately.
As you can see, I managed to earn out within the first year, which is pretty rad.
That means I’ve also been getting a royalty check every year for about $3-$4k (if you assume I make just over a dollar per sale). Which has been great, for sure. But also, I hope this helps show just how much “being an author” doesn’t really amount to a livable wage. To be sure, some authors (the very top of the best sellers) certainly make good money. But the rest of us—probably like 97% of published authors—don’t make enough money writing and selling books to live off of.
UnClobber, comparatively speaking, has sold really well. And I make on average about $300/month from it.
If you didn’t know, then now you know: Ain’t no one in my field getting rich from this hustle.
Unless you’ve made the NYT Bestseller List (which means you sold around 20,000 copies in one week), then you’re probably not making much money at all selling books… let alone making a living off it.
Here’s a few more tidbits to that effect:
According to this article from Publisher’s Weekly, the average book sells about 250 copies a year. (That’s taking in to account aaaaalllll the books. From the millions of copies sold best sellers, to your aunt’s self-published book of poems about knitting).
The agent in this article broke down a number of their own client’s lifetime sales per book and estimates that the average book (from one of the major, Big Five publishers) sells about 10,000 copies in its lifetime.
And, if you’re curious, this article (which is only about fiction books) points out just how little money authors make these days. The majority of us cannot actually make a living being an author. Most make less than $1000 year from their writing. Most self-published? Less than $500.
As for me, I still can hardly believe that I’ve been able to publish two books now (my second book, The Shift, suffered from launching right at the beginning of the pandemic. Needless to say, its sales are no where near that of UnClobber. Oh well).
And I can hardly believe that in five years UnClobber has now sold over 20,000 copies.
Based on what I can tell, that’s pretty remarkable.
I’m very, very grateful.
But here’s the thing: none of that really mattered much to me. Getting to write UnClobber was not (and is still not) about making money.
It is about amplifying the message that LGBTQ people are loved by God just as they are.
It’s about undoing the harm caused when people (mis)use the Bible to justify their discrimination.
It’s about showing what it can look like when we align our hearts with our heads, and when we start living on the outside what we believe on the inside.
The advance money was nice (we finally got a new bed and mattress!), and the ongoing royalty checks are great (they usually fund Christmas🎅🏼) but that simply isn’t the best part of all this.
The best part is that I got to fulfill a dream and write a book that a real live publisher published.
What a gift.