Business & Real Estate

Writing what she knows: LA resident secures major deal for debut novel


Photo Courtesy of Kathy Wang
Those who know Kathy Wang only through a glossy photo on a book jacket won’t glimpse baby Vivienne and toddler Daniel, who co-sponsored her novel through naps and, in the case of the baby, not arriving too early as Wang wrote and queried agents at high speed.

Here’s a love story to the harried naptimes and uncertain bedtimes of early parenthood: Los Altos resident Kathy Wang managed to use those moments over the past year to write a novel, pick up an agent and snag a significant deal with William Morrow/HarperCollins Publishers.

Anyone who remembers the chaos of early parenthood could be forgiven some gently envious chagrin at Wang’s story of determination and a son who’s an amazing napper. But the business behind her success is almost as interesting – she learned the publishers’ market using skills built as a Harvard MBA and product manager.

Wang’s novel, “Family Trust,” is slated for release in October. Her publisher’s marketing frames it as a “smart and perceptive family drama” following members of a Chinese-American family in Silicon Valley as they grapple with the dying patriarch’s final bequest.

Career pause as opportunity

Wang got her authorial start as a student at Montclaire Elementary School, where a teacher’s encouragement led to her first published story. But between then and last year, the writer in her slept and Wang studied business, working at Intel Corp. before becoming a product manager at Seagate Technology.

She returned to Los Altos in recent years, settling near Loyola Corners with her family. She put her career as a product manager on hold shortly after having her son. But like many new mothers who don’t have an office to which they commute, Wang kept working. Her version of that continuing life of the mind: a January 2017 resolution to write every day, and finish a novel before the birth of her second child, a daughter born six months later in July.

Wang has thought about the “lean back” experiences that many local parents confront when something has to give in a two-earner household where work means frequent travel and inflexible schedules. She loves her work in the product world – it felt like “the job for me,” she said. That calling waits for now, a decision laced with some regret even as she finds big business in writing from home.

She laughingly said that acquiring the help of a part-time nanny whipped her onward – “If there’s anything that can propel you to work, it’s justifying a nanny.” But the idea for a novel arose before the added help, when she’d shoehorn her daily 1,000-world goal into son Daniel’s afternoon naptimes, when many of us hope only to nap ourselves, or empty the dishwasher.

“It’s very business school – you have a goal per day, you’re not answering your muse,” she said of the structured process, which helped conquer performance anxiety or uncertainty with daily routine.

Wang began with the premise of writing what you know, following an Asian-American family, partly set in Los Altos. Multiple points of view follow different family members. The first character she began to write, a frustrated Harvard MBA, isn’t autobiographical – he’s a man, for one thing – but his sense of chagrined, early midlife deflation may be familiar to many local careerists.

Finding an agent

Wang didn’t diagram a plot or outline, but she did look to books she admired to study how authors make action emerge effortlessly from the characters and worlds they create. She read up on what defines an appropriate novel length and, hearing that 110,000 words is too much, cropped herself to 109,000 in the submission draft. She researched the market and knew if she wanted to query agents, she should hit a mid-June deadline before offices slowed down over the July 4 holiday.

Online sites such as AgentQuery and QueryTracker and profiles on Publishers Marketplace oriented Wang to the matchmaking process of finding potential agents with interests compatible to her work.

“That was the first of many humbling steps,” she said. “What agent will accept me?”

Wang made a spreadsheet of agents who’d handled books she liked, gleaned from acknowledgments pages and online analysis of what agents revealed of their preferences. She studied the art of the query letter, a cold intro that has to be written like a job applicant’s cover letter.

While a great letter doesn’t necessarily correlate with a great manuscript, the methodical research that goes into writing an informed, well-targeted query can pay off.

“One agent told me she’s been getting a bunch of great queries from lawyers and business school graduates,” Wang noted.

“Being polite and conscientious goes a long way,” she added, noting that if an agent likes your letter, he or she might want to see a few pages, a partial cut of a manuscript or even the full document. “Every agent is a person, they have personal taste, and they like to know that you researched.”

If an agent asks to call you, you have a decent chance of getting offered representation, or at least a request for you to revise and resubmit. An agent typically takes 15 percent of an author’s revenue, and in exchange navigates an author through the book deal and publishing process.

Wang heard back from an interested agent – Michelle Brower of Aevitas Creative Management – the day after she gave birth, fittingly terrible timing to receive great news.

“I came home from the hospital, my toddler was upset, I was breastfeeding while trying to respond – it was wonderful and nightmarish,” Wang recalled.

Matching with an editor

“Once you get an agent, you’re so happy – you think your troubles are over – but it is still very possible no one will want your book,” Wang explained of the multilayered publishing process.

Agents wine and dine publishers, building relationships with editors and learning to whom to shop a particular manuscript. For editors at the big five English-language publishing houses (HarperCollins, Hachette, Macmillan, Penguin Random House and Simon & Schuster), agents serve as a first line of vetting who can vouch for the manuscripts they bring to the table. If multiple editors express interest in a book, as they did for Wang’s first novel, it goes to an auction administered by the agent.

After making a verbal agreement with an editor – Kate Nintzel of William Morrow –the real revision process began last autumn.

“It can take months to sign the contract,” Wang said. “The agent will negotiate aspects like how many payments the advance is split into, and at what major checkpoints,” such as manuscript delivery and publication date.

Nearly three-quarters of books don’t ultimately earn more than an author’s initial advance, but those that do earn royalties on subsequent profit. Although publishers don’t typically reveal the dollar figures of their deals, the industry has adopted a language of euphemism to categorize authors. A “major deal” indicates an advance over $500,000, a “very nice deal” a more humble $50,000-$100,000. Wang netted a “major deal,” according to a public announcement in Publishers Marketplace last fall, for a deal combining her first novel and a second, to-be-written, book.

Her novel’s title evolved from “Man of Means” to “People of Means” to “Family Trust,” and that final pick might stick, as advance reader copies of the text are being readied for print even as rounds of revision continue. The advance copies go to potential reviewers and trade publications, as well as authors who might be induced to write a blurb teasing the story on its book jacket.

Working on her second novel now, Wang said she finds that the frustrations of daily writing have returned as strong as ever – “You forget immediately how hard it was to write the first” – and this time the work is mixed with a parade of revisions for the first book.

For more information on Wang’s debut novel, visit bykathywang.com.

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