So You Want to Write a Book

Wellesley alums in publishing are navigating a changing literary landscape—and making it work

An illustration shows a woman opening a window shaped like an open book.

When Jasmine Guillory ’97 decided to try her hand at writing, she approached it like a Wellesley student. “I had a little idea for a novel,” she says. “I jotted down an outline, because I was a history major. I started everything from a written outline.”

At the time, she was practicing law in California, her home state, after earning her J.D. at Stanford Law School and working in Washington, D.C., for a while. But something was missing.

“I was working at a job that I didn’t really love,” Guillory says. “I had been out of school for a while, and I didn’t feel like I was learning anything new. I didn’t really have any kind of creative outlet.”

That first romance book idea she outlined didn’t fly. “I got a lot of very encouraging rejections, which were lovely, but also were still rejections,” Guillory says. But she stuck to it, keeping a spreadsheet with her daily word count while completing The Wedding Date. Finally, she found an enthusiastic agent who sold it as part of a two-book deal to Penguin-Random House—and Guillory’s romance with publishing took off. When The Wedding Date was published in January 2018, it got glowing reviews, and The Proposal, published in October that same year, spent five weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. By 2019, Guillory was able to leave her law firm and write full-time.

Five years after publication of The Wedding Date—whose protagonists are a Black lawyer and a white doctor who meet in an elevator during a power outage—Guillory has eight books in print that together have sold in excess of a million copies. Her books celebrate the beauty, successes, and challenges of professional Black women like herself, and they have unabashedly happy endings. Yet despite her breakthrough success, Guillory told The Wellesley News in an interview, “the publishing industry has a lot of work to do in how they publish women of color and how they … give more book deals to women of color.”

Guillory attributes her books’ popularity to the fact that people love fun stories—and particularly loved them during the pandemic. (Sales of romance novels boomed in 2020.)

“Especially after college, you get this idea that you should only be reading important things, right? But after a while, you’re like, ‘Oh, reading can be fun,’” she says. “Yes, reading nonfiction and deep literary fiction is great. I read a lot of that, too. But sometimes you just want to relax into a story that makes you laugh and makes you have hope for the world. These past few years have been a time when people needed to hold onto love and community and friendship and fun.”

A new book is in the works, Guillory says, but it’s going a little more slowly. “Eight books came out in very short succession. In 2020 and 2021, I wrote three books basically back-to-back-to-back.”

Guillory advises aspiring writers to read, read, and then read some more. “I have been a huge reader my whole life,” she says. “I learned to read when I was 3 years old. My parents were both getting their graduate degrees when I was a kid, and so I was always in the library. I was always reading. That has been one of the constants throughout my life, and that was true at Wellesley, too.”

Inspired by Guillory’s story, Wellesley reached out to a range of alums in publishing for their thoughts about the industry today and advice for getting an idea out of the notebook and into the hands of readers. (We recognize that they are just a fraction of Wellesley’s vast number of literary alums—but we think this is a representative group.)

Creative connection

At Wellesley, it can be useful to read your classmates’ work. Someday, a connection made in the classroom just might change your life.

That’s what happened when literary agent Alicia Brooks ’94 reached out to writer Sofia Romero ’94 to find out what she had been working on.

“We knew each other from our first moments at Wellesley,” Romero recalls. “We were next-door neighbors in Freeman Hall.”

“I deeply admired Sofia from the get-go,” Brooks recalls. “We were in art history together, and we were both writing a paper on Frida Kahlo. And her writing was just on another level. It was so insightful and so evocative.”

As sophomores, the two enrolled in the same creative writing class. “A lot of the students were writing autobiographical short stories, but Sofia didn’t do that,” Brooks says. “Sofia was creating worlds. She had psychological depth in the stories. There was magic realism—all the elements that you see in her stories now. You could tell she had an incredible imagination and was cut out to be a real writer.”

After graduation, Brooks—who had always known she wanted to be in publishing—worked as an editor at Penguin, Doubleday, and Picador/St. Martin’s Press before switching to agenting in 2019. “The first person I thought of was Sofia,” she says. “Her writing had been in my mind all those years.”

In the meantime, Romero had been working and raising two children. She is director of marketing and communications at the Boston University Wheelock College of Education and Human Development. “I had been writing when I could fit it in,” she says. “For a long time, I was focused on parenting and working full-time. And it’s hard. But you do reach a point where you ask, what really is important? I was unpublished for many, many years, and always had this pep talk with myself about what keeps me going. And it was because I couldn’t not write.

To keep her hand in, she participated in the Kenyon Review Writers Workshop and took courses at Grub Street in Boston. She published short stories in small magazines such as Necessary Fiction, Blue Mountain Review, Rigorous, and Waterwheel Review. So, when Brooks called, Romero had material ready to show her.

Brooks works at the Jean V. Naggar Literary Agency in New York City. “I have 33 clients, but I have room to take on more, because not everyone is as active at the same time,” she says. “I’m especially interested in literary fiction, in fiction that plays with structure.” Romero’s short stories fit that bill.

“Publishing is about networking,” says Brooks. “It’s matchmaking, basically, and I had to find the right match for Sofia. She’s being published by Blackstone, where Dan Ehrenhaft is her editor. He loves magic realism. He loves the Latinx flavor of Sofia’s writing.”

Romero’s parents were both born and raised in Puerto Rico and moved to the Boston area as adults. She says, “The theme of living in between cultures is one that runs through the stories in my collection.”

We Have Always Been Who We Are was published in hardcover on Oct. 10. You could say it’s the result of a match made in class in Founders Hall.

Finding the magic

When Saba Sulaiman ’09, a literary agent at Talcott Notch Literary in Milford, Conn., gets a manuscript, “I’m looking for the magic,” she says. “I’m looking for a hunger to say something and say it beautifully.”

Shelly Anand ’08, author of the children’s books Laxmi’s Mooch and I Love My Body Because, has that magic. Anand is Sulaiman’s only Wellesley alum client “thus far,” she says. They met as first-years and used to watch the India-Pakistan cricket matches at Harvard together. (Sulaiman’s background is Pakistani; Anand’s is Indian.)

If you’re getting started, “try to understand what it is that you love,” Sulaiman says. “If you don’t know yet, that’s OK. You may not know today or tomorrow, next year, or even this decade. But you are in a process of figuring out what it is that will make writing feel like magic. Ask yourself, what is the book only you can write? Who will benefit from it? That’s what Shelly did with Mooch. And then get started.”

Aspiring authors from Wellesley should realize that “one of the most precious things they have, that no one else has, is the network—the Wellesley network of people who are in publishing,” Sulaiman says. “Try to reach out to them. Get informationals with them. Talk to them about their jobs. Talk to them about their struggles. Talk to them about yours.”

The Wellesley effect

One place to connect with other Wellesley writers is at book events. “I’ve done probably 100 book events or more since my first book came out,” Guillory says. Among those, there have probably been fewer than 10 without someone from the College in the audience. “Wellesley people show up for me all the time.”

There’s also a Wellesley connection for By the Book, Guillory’s reimagining of the Beauty and the Beast tale. The book is set in the world of publishing and is part of the “Meant to Be” series for young readers from Disney Hyperion, where Sylvie Frank ’09 is the editorial director.

Frank’s first job in publishing began five days after she left Wellesley. “I graduated on June 5, drove home to Pennsylvania, unpacked my dorm room, repacked, and moved to New York three days later,” she says. “I found an apartment on June 9 and went to my first day at Holiday House on June 11. It was bananas.”

As an editor, Frank looks for writers who are creating work that “acknowledges the world we live in today and its social complexity in ways that are so important for young readers.”

While at Holiday House, Frank acquired and edited Wellesley English professor Susan Lynn Meyer’s New Shoes. Meyer teaches a popular course on writing for children at the College, which Frank had taken.

New Shoes is an important book,” she says. “It’s so thoughtful and insightful, and so childlike. I love books that celebrate kid power, the ability for a child to identify a problem and make a change, make the world a little bit better.”

At Disney, Frank was charged with the task of rebuilding the company’s picture book list. “It’s been so, so fun to start this list from scratch and really think about what makes a Disney Hyperion picture book,” she says. “The Disney Difference, as we like to say, is the potential for a character to defy medium, that can be a book, and can be a ride, a TV show, a plush—all of those things. Of course, everyone wants the next Fancy Nancy, the next Eloise. I’m looking for a classic character in the making.”

Frank says she keeps a close eye on what Wellesley writers are producing. “There’s Andrea,” she says. (Andrea Chan Wang ’92 is the author of Watercress, a children’s book that received the Caldecott Medal, a Newbery Honor, the Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature, a New England Book Award, and a Boston Globe-Horn Book honor.) “I haven’t worked with Andrea, unfortunately, but I hold her up as such an incredible Wellesley success story. And Disney Hyperion is publishing Jasmine Guillory. She’s such a rock star.”

Finding a niche

Heyday Books acquisitions editor Marthine Satris ’04 is always looking for new voices. She urges aspiring writers to consider smaller, independent, and niche publishers as they seek homes for their work. “I think smaller houses take more risks, and that allows us to do really interesting things,” she says.

“I’ve only ever worked at independent publishers, only ever worked at San Francisco Bay Area publishers,” Satris says. “It really suits my interest in not just making something that will sell, but something that is meaningful to my community and my sense of place in this world. There’s been a real growth in independent publishing and small houses because they have a defined aesthetic that differentiates them from others.”

Working at a smaller publisher like Berkeley-based Heyday—a nonprofit that seeks to promote social justice, support California Indian cultural renewal, and explore the state’s history, culture, and nature—means Satris gets involved in most aspects of bringing a book to life. “A lot of people think editing is just having a relationship with a text,” she says. “But I have relationships with authors. One of the things I was critiqued for in my Ph.D. program was being too much of a cheerleader for the authors that I worked on. It turns out a really good place to do that is in publishing. I do outreach as well as just waiting for submissions.”

To find ideas and potential writers, Satris reads magazines large and small and national and local newspapers. “And I keep an eye on websites like The Rumpus,” she says. “I’m trying to develop new voices to make sure we are engaging with younger people, people from diverse backgrounds, to build a pipeline that’s more inclusive.”

We’re counting on [young writers] to change the world, right? We need their voices. We need strong, young voices, active thinkers and doers. It’s the only hope.”

Robin Straus ’72, literary agent

A long view

Literary agent Robin Straus ’72 was doing editorial work for Little, Brown in Boston even before she graduated from Wellesley, and she went on to manage subsidiary rights for Random House and Doubleday. She started as an agent at the Wallace & Sheil Agency before founding Robin Straus Agency, Inc., in 1983. “Part of the joy of being in this business for a long time is working with an author for a whole career, as opposed to one-offs,” she says. Her firm represents dozens of prominent authors, among them Joanne Greenberg, Marge Piercy, Don DeLillo, Catriona Ward, Antony Beevor, and Alexander McCall Smith.

Straus has observed many changes in her 50 years in the business. “The corporatization of publishers has changed things radically. There are fewer players,” she says. “There are tons of imprints [divisions within a publisher, such as Penguin Classics], but if you send something to a publisher at Penguin Random House, for example, they’re going to want to know who else in their overall corporation is viewing the manuscript or the proposal at the same time.” She also notes that editors spend less time actually editing than they once did. Another shift is the critical importance of social media in creating a market for a writer’s work. “That’s a sea change,” Straus says.

But the joy of discovering a writer remains the same—it’s right there on the page. “I have to be immediately drawn into the work. If it doesn’t really start moving until the 50th page, you’ve lost your opportunity,” Straus says. “No one has the time to read 50 pages and then get excited. We all have short attention spans these days.”

Straus says publishers today are on the lookout for diverse voices. “They’re making up for the fact that they didn’t do that very often in the past,” she says. “And it’s really important. The receptivity among publishers for voices that haven’t been heard from is so much greater than it used to be.”

They’re also seeking young writers, Straus says. “We’re counting on that generation to change the world, right? We need their voices. We need strong, young voices, active thinkers and doers. It’s the only hope.”

On the shelf

Jasmine Guillory hasn’t gotten used to seeing her titles on bookstore shelves. “It still blows my mind,” she says. “Every time.”

Booksellers like Sarah Rettger ’04 play a critical role in getting them there. Rettger recently transitioned from inventory manager/buyer to full-time buyer at Porter Square Books in Cambridge, Mass., where she has worked for almost 11 years. “I’m the one who’s actually buying the books that get on the shelves,” she says.

Successful bookselling is a combination of anticipating and meeting demand, Rettger says. “When I’m doing front-list buying, I’m looking between three and six months ahead and figuring, are we going to need 12 copies of this? Are we going to need one, because maybe somebody’s going to love this, and it will find its niche? Or is this going to be a bestseller for six months, and we’re just going to constantly restock it? Part of that is based on looking at the sales track of similar books or the authors’ past books, but a lot of it is just a guessing game.”

Does she keep space on the shelves for Wellesley writers?

“Absolutely,” Rettger says. “I often deal with authors who have worked with really small presses or are self-published. It’s great to see them come in and take a picture with their book on the shelf. And also more established authors like Katherine Hall Page.” (Page, class of ’69, published her 26th Faith Fairchild mystery, The Body in the Web, in May.)

“And Jasmine,” she says, “obviously.”

Catherine O’Neill Grace is senior associate editor of this magazine. She published a poetry book, The Daffodil Farmer, with a (very) small press as a graduate student and is currently working on a memoir about her childhood in India.

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