Nura & Ayesha Get Published, or From ‘He’s just not that into you’ to ‘As good as it gets’ in under one minute

From ‘He’s just not that into you’ to ‘As good as it gets’ in under one minute

by Ayesha Mattu & Nura Maznavi

We came to the Book Doctors with our book on life support.

Three years earlier, we had an idea for a book: a collection of stories written by American Muslim women about love, dating and courtship. We scoured every book publishing website and blog we could find and worked diligently on our book proposal every weekend. Our efforts paid off – within just a year, we acquired an agent and started shopping our proposal to large publishers.

That’s when everything fell apart.

We received the same line from each publisher who rejected us: wonderful, novel and interesting idea…but we’re going to pass. It was like a break up scene from a bad romantic comedy on repeat – “it’s not you, you’re great.”  If our book was so great, why didn’t publishers want to be with it?

After six months of “we’re just not that into you” from publishers, our agent dumped us. Our enthusiasm was zapped. We both had family and work obligations that had overtaken our lives in the period our proposal was being shopped, and we no longer had the time, energy or direction to find a new agent and start the process all over again.

We did nothing but mope about our bad luck for a year. Whereas before we couldn’t stop talking about our book – stopping strangers in the coffee shops we worked out of to tell them all about it – we now grew irritated when family and friends asked us about our progress, telling them, “Why the hell do you keep asking us about the damn book? Back off already!”

And then we heard about Pitchapalooza.

Ayesha is a long time San Francisco Litquake volunteer and forwarded Nura news of Pitchapalooza’s first appearance at Litquake in September of 2010 with a note:

We’re going for this, it’s our last chance.

ps. You’re pitching.

pps. No pressure.

After reviewing our proposal, we decided to write our pitch from scratch. We knew we were pitching a book on two subjects that, individually, have been written about in tired and clichéd ways: love and Muslim women. How best to combine the two into a pitch that would be compelling and fresh? We decided to use an unexpected twist: humor.

On the night of Pitchapalooza, we were so excited and nervous that we showed up almost an hour early. Our names were the first ones dropped into the pitching hat. But as the night progressed and our names weren’t called, we grew anxious. The other pitches were a blur – after each one that resulted in thunderous applause from the audience and accolades from the judges we’d turn to each other and whisper, “Oh man, that one is totally going to win,” and “I’m so sad that our book will never be in print.”

And then, David announced that they had time for only two more pitches. We held our breath and then –  NURA MAZNAVI was called! Nura would be the second to last person pitching for the evening. She made her way down to the side of the stage to wait on deck for her turn. She didn’t realize she was holding her breath until Chris Cole (the fiction winner for the evening) leaned in to her and said, “You need to breathe.”

And then it was time. Nura had memorized the pitch but couldn’t remember a single line as she took her place behind the microphone and realized that the future of the book lay in the next minute. Clutching a wadded piece of paper she had brought with her just in case this happened, she began:

Muslim women – we just can’t seem to catch a break.

The audience erupted in laughter.

Emboldened by the audience’s reaction, she pushed on. And, amazingly, as she continued to pitch, the audience continued to laugh, clap, and then cheer. By the time David yelled, “TIME,” the crowd was going nuts!

The judges agreed with the audience, telling us that the book sounded fun, new and exciting. And then they clued us into why we maybe hadn’t been successful in shopping our proposal: “Large publishers can be cowards. Sometimes, if a book is about a subject that hasn’t been written about before, they are nervous about being the first ones to publish it.” They suggested that we do more research on marketing and on our target audience, and approach smaller and independent publishers who are less risk averse.

We had to sit through only one more pitch before the winners were announced. The fiction winner and the non-fiction winner – US!

Winning Pitchapalooza resuscitated our book, but listening to The Book Doctors as they advised us after the competition is what landed us a publisher.

We’d initially envisioned Love, InshAllah as a light and amusing look at the search for love—with a Muslim twist—to be placed on bookshelves somewhere in between Pride and Prejudice and Sex and the City.

But, we had edited our proposal – based on our former agent’s suggestions – into an academic work that was not at all funny or, frankly, that interesting. The book went from being placed squarely on a woman’s studies shelf to an amorphous space between religion and politics that no publisher wanted to touch.

The Book Doctors reviewed our proposal and gave us great advice, encouraging us to go back to our original hunch to go light. David wanted us to think big, think fun and carry that theme from the introduction right on through the marketing plan. Arielle’s insight helped us see that our book was the crest of a Muslim explosion – a literary one!

We retooled the proposal incorporating all their suggestions and within a month, The Book Doctors introduced us to Laura Mazer, Managing Editor at Soft Skull Press. The rest, as they say, is history. Laura loved the proposal and just six short months after winning Pitchapalooza we were offered a book deal! And in just two more weeks – on January 24 – our anthology Love, InshAllah: The Secret Love Lives of American Muslim Women will be on bookstore shelves everywhere!

Ayesha Mattu & Nura Maznavi are the co-editors of the groundbreaking anthology, Love, InshAllah: The Secret Love Lives of American Muslim Women” (Soft Skull Press, 1/24/12).

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