Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The Proposal Driven Life

I wasted what probably amounted to a decade or more of my writing life on the futile efforts involved in creating book proposals. An agent I knew, a kind and intelligent man, was a particular advocate of writing elaborate proposals, which he gently insisted be written to his own formula, derived from his experience, and detailed in a couple of books he'd written. In an earlier era when I in fact got a book commissioned, proposals were a necessary but somehow pro forma part of the process. But things had changed. Publishers were more tense, bureaucratic (especially as subsidiaries of larger corporations), and I was out of the old loop--if such still existed--of periodical editors in touch with book editors and agents. It was me confronted with the Borg. So I was persuaded that these detailed proposals were necessary.

But I had a lot of problems with them. First, they weren't proposals. They were supposed to be detailed descriptions of a book--the one you hadn't yet researched or written. Such proposals worked if you had the funding to do research--travel, interviews, etc.--paid for by a newspaper or foundation or the university where you teach. I had none of those sources of support, nor any other sources.

After struggling with proposals for the kind of book I had published (The Malling of America) which required travel and interviews so I could write about what and who I discovered, I learned how to fashion book ideas more dependent on the kind of research I could do more cheaply--library and media research, personal experience, etc. It took awhile but I reoriented myself and got excited about a number of ideas. But I was still left with the need to do a great deal of the work just to do the proposal that I would normally do for the book itself. It was solely my investment and my risk. Perhaps that's as it should be, but clearly I was at a disadvantage, compared to well-funded journalists and academics (not to mention celebrities, of course.)

But these proposals, I was told, required even more. They required that I tell the publisher who would buy this book and why. Backed up by statistics, comparisons to other books, etc. A marketing study of sorts. In fact, this was much more important than the content or the idea. As an author who spoke about my book all over North America, and who got letters about it, I knew that my "market" was entirely self-selected, and my readers had little predictable in common. But such realities didn't matter.

I struggled with these requirements, did the best I could without becoming a total hypocrite. And I failed. Over and over. I not only couldn't please editors, I barely ever got to them. Agents were usually the impenetrable barrier. And then I woke up, and realized that I had hundreds of pages of book proposals, and no books.

I also realized that I had no real evidence that books were actually commissioned on the basis of such proposals. I began to doubt that they were. It seemed more likely that editors selected projects the same ways they always had--because the author was a friend, a friend of a friend, or famous, or hot, or someone told them the author was about to become hot, or as the spur of the moment result of any number of whims. I can't even tell you how much evidence I'd gathered that the whole business was built on gossip and whim.

So I stopped writing proposals. I ended my proposal-driven life. But then very recently I fell off the wagon. I noticed a book series from a good publisher that seemed perfect for several subjects I had already been writing about. I found one of the editors by email, and he invited me to submit a proposal. So once again I thought carefully for weeks about how to frame the two topics I had in mind, and spent weeks crafting brief summaries, this time with the benefit of adding Internet links to my writings on these subjects. I stressed in both emails that I was gauging their interest in these topics, and would create more detailed proposals if they were interested. I was hoping for a dialogue--at least that much, if only in recognition of what I'd already invested in the effort.

I emailed these summaries and got an email back in less than 12 hours saying they'd been considered and rejected. The only reason given was that the series is primarily historical, and my approach didn't seem historical. The reason is specious. I not only referred to the history, but I linked to the substantial history I'd already written.

I don't know the real reasons for the rejection, if indeed there were any other than whim. I do suspect that the topics were of interest but I wasn't, for some reason. So if you happen to see a new book on Star Trek or shopping malls in the American Icons series published by Yale University Press, you will know that these ideas were stolen from me.

In any case, I won't get fooled again. As deluded and self-destructive as devoting so much of my time to the proposal-driven life has been, the way agents and editors operate is probably also self-destructive and deluded, or at least obsolete. Book publishing is changing fast and those folks are getting left behind. I'm not sure the changes are any better for me than the old system, but I've learned again the truth of what one of my old writing teachers said in a throwaway line to a relatively inattentive group of high-test competitors in a small college writing workshop. "Great writers all had one thing in common," William Eastlake said softly. "They all wrote their books."

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