Friday, April 25, 2008

Inside Scoop: Gilbert King

A week ago I received this email:

I like your blog and have been reading it for some time. My name is Gilbert King and my book, The Execution of Willie Francis, has just been published by Basic Civitas Books. I thought you might be interested in how I got published, because it really started with my website, I built it, sent it to agents, got lots of interest and signed with one I really liked after just a few days. The site, I think, was also instrumental in my landing a book deal with Basic, too.

If you think you'd be interested, I could send you a copy of my book right away. It's getting some strong early reviews (Starred Reviews in Kirkus and Library Journal) but I'm trying to do some marketing of my own!

The guy had me at "I like your blog and have been reading it for some time," but being a suspicious person I clicked on the link to King's site for the book. WOW! The very model of the perfect book website. King's email pitch is perfect too, except he should've included the book's subtitle: Race, Murder, and the Search for Justice in the American South.

We set up a phone interview for Wednesday afternoon. That morning, what do I read on the NY Times opinion page but Cruel and Unusual History, with the pull quote, "The death penalty's barbaric past, ignored by the Supreme Court." Byline? None other than Gilbert King.

Naturally when we spoke later, the first thing I asked King was, "Are you famous now?" He laughed. "Not quite, but I got about 30 emails from strangers, who must've Googled me." And the Basic publicist had him lined up for some interviews, including Air America that evening. (I counseled him to stand up for radio and phone interviews, and sent him a link to Ten Essential Tips for Successful Interviews by AuthorBytes founder Steve Bennett. King wrote me after the Air America interview and said that standing really helped.) Soon he'll be doing bookstore signings in New York, Chicago, Washington, Atlanta, various spots around Louisiana, and Boston.

King had a long and unusual path to publication. I assumed he wrote THE EXECUTION OF WILLIE FRANCIS because he was a history scholar, or had come across the story in his travels. Nothing of the sort. After working as an assistant to the head of Macmillan Books in the early 1990s, King got out of publishing and became a photographer (see a slide show of his fashion work at He shot some books published by his friend Carlo De Vito, then the head of the Chamberlain Bros. imprint at Penguin, formerly publisher at Running Press. I'll let him tell the next part himself; I wish I could transcribe the gruff voice he put on for De Vito.

"One time Carlo hired me to do a golf book, and the writer quit in the middle of the project. He said, 'King you’ve gotta write this book.' I did and I enjoyed it, so I photographed and wrote some other books for him. Then he said, 'Go out and find a real book you can do. We’ve gotta find you a book deal, it’s the least I can do for you. "

"I couldn’t find anything. He said, 'Let’s look through this crime encyclopedia. You’ve always liked crime.' Then he found an entry on Willie Francis. 'King, you gotta do this: The man who died twice.'"

"I said I’d look into it, but it sounded like a gimmicky story. He said, 'You’re not looking into it hard enough; it’s a great-looking story.'" [Don't you wish you had a mentor/goad like De Vito? I want to meet this guy!]

"So I went down there to St. Martinville, Louisiana, and found the written confession of Willie Francis. Just eight words: 'It was a secret about me and him.' I came back to New York and said to Carlo, 'I think I can do it. You want me to write up a proposal?' He said, 'No, I’ll just give you a contract.'" [Don't you wish you had a publisher like De Vito?]

With no deadline (!!!) from De Vito, King worked on the book part-time for 18 months, between photography gigs. Then Penguin shut down Chamberlain Bros. , and in early 2005 King got the word that they were canceling all book contracts, including his. It was a setback, but he also saw it as an opportunity to sell his book to a higher-profile imprint. "I was determined, and just kept working."

You know how agents and everyone else (including yours truly) advise writers to finish their book first, then put up a website about it? Well, King did the website first, "which sort of inspired me to move forward." He told the friend who worked on it that he wanted it to look like an upcoming PBS special. It does.

One Sunday night, King sent a short email query with a link to his new site to about 20 agents. "By Monday noon, I had 12 responses to see the book and talk on the phone. By three days later, I think the rest of them had responded. The website was just so good."

Farley Chase at Waxman Literary Agency read the first couple of chapters and told King that he needed to have a proposal. "He was a little bit hesitant at first, which I liked. He said, 'Let’s get you involved with an editor, rather than hand in a complete book.' I thought that was a good idea. It gave me a chance to shape in my mind where the story was going." King signed with Chase, who "has a great narrative vision. He helped me for five or six months with rewrites on the proposal. That was invaluable."

King got a deal for THE EXECUTION OF WILLIE FRANCIS from Basic Civitas in the summer of 2006. "Basic was one of our dream submissions. It was really right up their alley." Other publishers were interested, he says, but often their response was, "Wow, that’s a great story, but I don’t know if it’s something we can sell. It looks too depressing. Is he innocent? Because if he’s innocent we can sell it." King says, "Our view is that it’s a really good story; it’s a lot more rich if it’s not told in black and white. I was confident that once the full breadth of the story was told, people wouldn’t care whether Willie Francis was guilty or innocent. "

As in the NYT opinion piece, King has been pushing the death penalty angle in order to have a news "hook." But now, "I’m trying to focus on readability, because reviews are saying this is a really good story." I've only read the first two chapters, but so far I'd agree. However, he's still brushing up on Supreme Court history so he can sound intelligent in interviews.

1 comment:

Writer Babs said...

That's pretty much the most amazing story (and website!) I have ever seen.