Jessamine Chan spent five years drafting her book. It was her first — a novel about a mother who loses custody of her toddler after one “very bad day” and then, in a surreal twist, is sent to an experimental “school for good mothers.”
Like most new authors hoping to break into the industry, Chan had much working against her.
The publishing world can be opaque and intimidating to outsiders. Although Chan had published a few short stories and had worked at Publishers Weekly, a trade magazine that gave her some insight into the process, she had few connections. And she had no platform: She was not a celebrity, had no personal brand and was not on social media. She lived a quiet life in Philadelphia with her husband and her child, whose birth made her recast the book — again.
And yet Chan’s “The School for Good Mothers” was published in January— and soared to the bestseller list, catapulting her to literary stardom. Last month, former President Barack Obama featured it on his summer reading list.
How does a debut novel go from a “very messy” draft on a writer’s desk to a published book, on display in bookstores around the country?
Here, we take you behind the scenes to see how a book is born — the winding path it takes, the many hands that touch it, the near misses and the lucky breaks that help determine its fate.
Finding an agent: “I just couldn’t look away.”
Finding a good agent is the first step on the road to publication. Often, it’s the hardest part of the journey.
The talent managers of the book world, literary agents help authors navigate the complexities of the publishing business. They broker book deals with publishing houses, negotiate the legalese of contracts, fight for authors’ best interests and help clients develop their long-term careers.
Many agents ask for a pitch letter, known in the industry as a query, plus a few sample pages to get a feel for the writer’s style. Most reputable agents receive hundreds, if not thousands, of unsolicited pitch letters a year — the part of their inbox known as the “slush pile.”
How to stand out? Appeal to an agent’s sensibilities, which are usually described on their website; on Publishers Marketplace, a platform for publishing professionals; or on social media, using the “manuscript wish list” hashtag #MSWL.
Following the advice of friends and the Poets & Writers directory, Chan researched which agents represented authors whose books shared elements of her own — novels of ideas that explored modern motherhood and the dystopian edge of the female experience.
A mutual acquaintance recommended Chan email Meredith Kaffel Simonoff, who represents Leni Zumas, author of “Red Clocks,” a speculative novel about a near-future in which abortion is illegal in the United States. Connecting with Kaffel Simonoff was a “pie in the sky” dream, Chan said, but she sent a query to her, along with 11 other agents.
Kaffel Simonoff replied immediately, requesting the full draft. Chan sent it and held her breath. (Several other agents also requested the manuscript; seven ultimately passed.)
Halfway through reading, Kaffel Simonoff wrote back: She was hooked.
“Jessamine had a razor-sharp sense of her own writerly intentionality and a fluency in her novel’s ‘aboutness’ from the start,” Kaffel Simonoff said. “She asked, ‘Is there one right way to mother?’ I just couldn’t look away from that clarity of vision.”
Many agents effectively serve as an author’s first editor. After Chan signed with Kaffel Simonoff in July 2019, the two began several rounds of revisions to further develop the speculative elements of the plot along with the characters’ emotional arcs.
By November 2019, Chan’s manuscript was ready to be shopped to publishers.
Finding a publisher: “It was going to be competitive.”
Well before a book is released, the manuscript meets its first, and toughest, audience: the acquiring editors at publishing houses.
The most discerning of readers, these editors are the ones who select the books that a publisher will invest in. For months, over lunch and in emails with editors, Kaffel Simonoff seeded her enthusiasm for “The School for Good Mothers” with this audience.
The day of the manuscript’s submission, Chan said, she was “operating almost entirely on adrenaline.” Her husband took her out for a huge lunch at their favorite Chinese restaurant, where she waited for updates. “I was bouncing off the walls,” she said.
The news was good. Editors wanted to talk to Chan. They were interested — enough for Kaffel Simonoff to organize an auction.
Some auctions are blind: Publishers are asked to submit their single highest bid without knowing what their competitors are offering. Others have multiple rounds in which publishers try to outbid one another, although there is a twist. The winner may not be the highest bidder but, rather, the one whose vision best matches the author’s.
“Your role as an acquiring editor is to work quickly,” said Dawn Davis, a former Simon & Schuster editor who ultimately won the auction. She first phoned Chan from the waiting room of her dog’s veterinarian. “I knew it was going to be competitive.”
Even as she was bidding on the manuscript, Davis had to pitch it internally. She had to persuade her boss — Simon & Schuster CEO Jonathan Karp — to release the money for Chan’s advance against royalties by the time her bid was due to Kaffel Simonoff, just one week after receiving the submission.
There were two other editors inside Simon & Schuster alone who wanted it, Davis said, not to mention others at publishing houses across town. She believed the book had the potential to “break through as both literary and accessible. Those books are few and far between, and you have to pay appropriately,” she said.
“There’s something you call a sleeper, where you can get it for a relatively small advance and it’s a breakaway hit,” Davis added. “This was not going to be a sleeper.”
Losing, and finding, an editor: “I’m in it to win it!”
From their very first phone call in November 2019, Chan knew that she and Davis were a match. Davis had a vision for the book, to make it “leaner and meaner,” and Chan was on board. In 2020, during the terrifying first months of the COVID-19 pandemic, they embarked on round after round of edits.
Everything seemed to be falling into place. “I loved that she saw the book as a novel of ideas,” Chan said, “and that it was speaking to urgent issues in our country.” The cherry on top: Grace Han, a freelance designer working with Simon & Schuster’s art director, Jackie Seow, zeroed in on the book’s elements of the unknown to produce what Chan called “the ominous pink cover of my dreams.”
Then, Chan said, Davis left Simon & Schuster to become the editor-in-chief of the magazine Bon Appétit.
After a book is edited, the acquiring editor becomes its cheerleader at the publishing house and beyond. As a result, losing that editor — the person who believed in the manuscript, who pushed for its purchase and who shared the author’s vision — can be a fatal blow to a book’s chances of success.
But Chan was fortunate. The project was reassigned to Marysue Rucci, a Simon & Schuster editor who had read the book alongside Davis and shared her passion for it. Rucci said she personally mailed galleys to independent booksellers and journalists with notes saying, “I think this will appeal to you.”
When BookExpo America, an annual trade show, went online for the second year in spring 2021, Rucci and Chan appeared on a virtual panel.
“Marysue had a wall of my galleys behind her,” Chan said. “She said, ‘I’m in it to win it!’”
Reaching the reader: Luck that can “change your life.”
Because there are hundreds of new books competing for readers in any given month, it can be hard for a title to break through the noise.
But celebrity book clubs still have the power to move books en masse. In 2021, 10 of the 15 debut novels on The New York Times’ bestseller list were book club selections by Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon, Jenna Bush Hager or “Good Morning America.”
Chan’s publicist, Anne Tate Pearce, had given the book to one of Bush Hager’s producers at the “Today” show in March 2021. Bush Hager devoured it on vacation.
“I was so engrossed in this world, which felt like nothing I’d ever read before,” Bush Hager said. “And as a mom, I could totally relate with many of the feelings.”
Chan was negotiating bedtime with her toddler one night in April when Kaffel Simonoff called to tell her that “The School for Good Mothers” would be Bush Hager’s January book club pick.
“I screamed,” Chan said. “And then I had to hang up — my daughter needed me — so I had to call Meredith hours later to ask if it actually happened.”
Chan’s book was already a LibraryReads and Indie Next selection — lists of upcoming books to watch chosen by librarians and by independent bookstore owners. With the “Today” show boost, the bestseller list suddenly seemed “within the realm of possibility,” Chan said. “A book club selection is something that can actually change your life as an author.”
Meanwhile, the team at Simon & Schuster was still waiting on the early reviews in trade publications: Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, Booklist and Library Journal. Getting top billing there — being “starred” — can affect reviews and coverage at glossy magazines and newspapers.
All four reviews came back starred.
Publication: “My book really does have so many moms.”
Almost seven years after Chan opened a blank Word document and started typing, “The School for Good Mothers” was published.
Holding your book for the first time is “kind of an indescribable feeling,” Chan said. “It’s both a physical culmination of a lifelong dream, but also just so exciting and wild and surreal.”
But it was January; the latest and most infectious version of the coronavirus to date was spreading, forcing some last-minute changes to plans to promote the book. Photo shoots moved from studios to snowy yards. Instead of traveling to New York City for her appearance on the “Today” show, Chan filmed the segment remotely. Her husband, a documentary filmmaker, rigged a lighting setup to tape it at home.
“When my daughter’s older,” she said, “I will show her the clip of the time that I beamed into live TV from our living room.”
Chan’s trip to promote her book was also derailed.
“As omicron surged, the events moved to Zoom or were postponed, one by one,” Chan said. “We were in pretty intense isolation.”
Still, TV commercials, print ads and influencer content placed by Simon & Schuster’s marketing department ran as scheduled, and the book made headlines when Jessica Chastain’s production company announced plans to adapt it.
Chan got on social media, where she engaged with readers and fellow authors who connected with the novel. On Twitter, she learned from an English professor at the College of William & Mary that her book inspired a course on “bad mothers in literature.”
The book’s timing dovetailed with reinvigorated conversations about women, pregnancy and motherhood as the Supreme Court weighed the constitutional right to abortion.
“Seeing my book included in a larger, very necessary conversation about women’s rights and women’s stories — both in the media and in conversations with readers — has been one of the most remarkable parts of this experience,” Chan said.
But long before her novel found its audience, it found its champions, the women who along with Chan would make it soar, she said. “My book really does have so many moms.”
She added: “I’d like people to know that it’s possible for a debut author in her 40s, a woman of color, a mom, who led a quiet life offline with no brand building whatsoever to have this experience.”