Category Archives: nonfiction

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Scholars going trade

I’ve been running between conferences—there have been three this month (I’m still not sure how I managed to schedule that) and remiss in posting.   I have, however, been talking myself hoarse, so I thought I might repurpose some of the material I’ve been presenting–in my newly gravelly voice–here on the blog.

Last week I had the good fortune to head down to Emory University, where the campus was in full and spectacular bloom, and I had the opportunity to meet with faculty in various stages of the book-writing process.  Some were at work on scholarly  monographs aimed primarily at an audience of their peers–the tenure book, the promotion book, etc–but others were at a point in their careers with the ability, freedom or inclination to reach out to a broader audience of smart but non-expert readers.  And that’s where I came in–explaining the role of a literary agent, discussing the market, and dispensing some advice for scholars interested in writing for a general or “trade” readership.

I used the elements of a  nonfiction proposal as the scaffold for my talk. I feel like the proposal is a good lens for understanding what publishers are looking for, and as difficult as good proposals are to write (weird hybrids that they are: part argument for the book, part blueprint, part marketing document), each discrete piece has a purpose.   The presentation, given in conjunction with Eric Schwartz, Editorial Director  of Columbia University Press, is reported on in detail here, but I’ll mention a few points that crop up again and again, and not just with clients with many initials behind their names.

First, lead with the story.  Too often I find that authors cannot resist the opportunity to analyze their own project—to immediately let me in on the tropes they’re subverting or the universal themes they’re tackling to explain: What.The.Book.Means.  To which I say: not so fast.  Before we get to the broad brush and the big ideas,  I want to be rooted in the particulars of the tale—true or fictional–the writer is telling. Tell me the story, and start, if you can, with the exciting bits.   Also, that story must be written in lively, lucid prose, scrubbed of the passive voice, double-scrubbed for jargon (including but not limited to: “trope,”  “problematic” used as a noun, “legitimate” as a verb, etc). I let writers know that it’s really okay to use the first person, to deploy some levity in their discussion, and above all, to establish a voice that is uniquely, unapologetically their own.  I’m a firm believer that scholarly integrity and readability are not mutually exclusive.

I love working with academics, experts, scholars—it’s thrilling to be exposed to first-class thinkers, big ideas, and dizzying levels of expertise.  It can take folks a bit of practice to shrug off the conventions of their discipline, but if they can figure out how to deploy their theory lightly and channel deep reservoirs of knowledge into fluid, clear writing, then more often than not, they’ve  got the makings of an extraordinary  book.

 

Who is your reader?

One of the critical questions I ask my clients to address in their proposals is who their reader is.  They not only need to define them demographically, but also statistically.  This is to show the editor considering the material that the author understands their audience and is aiming his or her book directly at them.

For example, last week I received a cookbook proposal on a very strong idea.  The problem with this was that though the idea was unique, the author had completely neglected who the reader should be and in so doing, the contents of the proposed book didn’t work at all.  Back to the drawing board.

In another instance, I spoke with a client at the very beginning of her proposal writing and addressed how important it would be to the eventual sale of her book that the potential reader be very clearly defined.

Both of the above have to do with non-fiction.  When you are writing fiction, you also need to keep your reader in mind.  Decide where he or she would look for your book in the bookstore and if at all possible, try not to mix in elements from other genres to such a degree that you cross categories (you might turn off a whole group of potential fans).

So often, I find that the author overlooks this, but I cannot stress how important this question is to answer—it not only helps the editor considering the material but, in the case of nonfiction, it also helps the writer as they proceed with putting together their manuscript.

Whether you are writing non-fiction or fiction, being totally clear about who your audience is is vitally important.

I would love to hear your thoughts on this issue.

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The book proposal

I know, I know, I have blogged before about doing a book proposal and how important it is.  But, it seems from what I am seeing recently that I am not getting through.

In the last couple of months, I find that clients are really rushing to get their proposals ready.  In doing so, they are making mistakes – both large and small – and ultimately prolonging the process of creating this very important document.

Book proposals really are the backbone of the non-fiction publishing process.  They identify an idea, discuss who the reader will be for that idea, both demographically and statistically, and discuss other titles which would be comparable, in terms of audience, to the one the author is proposing.

Proposals provide a structure for the book and demonstrate (with a sample chapter) the author’s writing ability.

Finally, with a bio and links of supporting material, the proposal highlights the author’s credentials and platform.

I tell my clients that doing the proposal is probably more difficult than writing the actual book but that once they have a proposal that a publisher wants to buy, they will have the blueprint for their book.

I also tell them “better late than lousy” and I mean that because a poorly constructed and written proposal will not sell in this challenging market.

So, take your time in creating your book proposal.  Think it through carefully and consider every element.  Taking the necessary time to do this right is important and will ultimately pay off.

I would love to hear your thoughts on this subject.  Let me know what you think.

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Why it’s sometimes best to work with a collaborator

People often ask me why the need for a collaborator and my answer is very simple—to make the work they are creating better and more saleable. (Here, by the way, I am mainly talking about non-fiction.)

Collaborators—especially those with experience—help the author, especially at the proposal stage, focus their idea and on exactly how they want to organize the message they want their book to deliver.

Collaborators can also bring out aspects of the book that the author hadn’t even considered including.

Collaborators, because they are paid a flat fee or have a percentage of the project, are dedicated to the work of producing both a proposal and a manuscript in an efficient and timely manner.  This is often something the author (especially first time authors) working alone is unable to do.

Finally, the author, if he or she wants to and is interested in writing subsequent books, can learn a great deal from the collaboration and then go on to write their own books down the line.

I would love to know your thoughts on the benefits of using a collaborator, so bring them on.

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Death and Hamsters

Although Atul Gawande’s BEING MORTAL is my assigned DGLM office book-club book, I don’t think I can last until our next meeting without singing its praises in some public forum.

When I began in publishing, there was a certain truism that books on death don’t sell. When I was an editor, I looked at worthy proposals that were, according to conventional wisdom and my ed-board, simply too hard. Certainly there had been exceptions—books by Elizabeth Kubler Ross, Jessica Mitford, Sherwin Nuland—but they just proved the rule. For the most part, the book industry reflected our entirely human propensity to avoid thinking about our own inevitable ends.

That Gawande’s BEING MORTAL—a work of such signal intelligence, readability and compassion–has sold so extravagantly, hitting #1 on the NYT bestseller list, is a sign that perhaps we’ve turned a corner. When my fellow DGLM-er Eric found out that I was reading BEING MORTAL, he told me it should be required reading for everyone. And he’s right. Funny, too, because all sorts of books are billed as universally relevant. But Being Mortal really, truly is.

In addition to weeping on commuter trains over my recreational reads (belated apologies to the dismayed lady sitting beside me), I also represent authors whose works engage mortality. Medical Humanities historian Brandy Schillace’s book, Death’s Summer Coat: What Death and Dying Can Teach us About Life and Living, which was reviewed today in the New Yorker.Com, is a wide-ranging and fascinating look across cultural approaches to death, while forensic pathologist Judy Melinek, co-author of the memoir Working Stiff, chronicled her work as a speaker for the dead. Another client, archaeologist Nicholas Reeves is at work on an excavation that aims to find a particularly ancient and famous corpse, Nefertiti (the ancient Egyptian approach to death, or the royal one, anyway, being that you can take it with you.) And I’m reading a proposal from author and neurosurgeon Richard Rapport on How We Don’t Die.

In any event, none of this has yet helped me with the particular challenges of explaining the certainty of death to my children. My younger son recently requested a pet hamster, one who (in contrast to his cousin’s late and much-mourned Hamchop) would not die. When I patiently explained that all living things die eventually, even people, he looked at me for a beat and retorted, “Yes, Mom. I know. All except my hamster.”

Books I wish I’d sold

New Year equals New Books. I generally start the new year feeling a bit overwhelmed at all there is to catch up on, but also excited and motivated with renewed enthusiasm for fresh starts and what’s to come. So many books, so little time to sell them all.

In addition to bestseller lists and book reviews, I like to read Publisher’s Marketplace and look over the recent deals. I am often amazed at how good so many of the books sound, so instead of making a general “wish list” of what kinds of books I’d like to see in my in-box, I thought it might be more useful to see a few examples of books that were recently published or recently sold that resonated with me for one reason or another.

This book that was written by a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist explores the story of a set of adopted identical twins (anything having to do with identical twins as the parent of a set is of interest to me), one of whom transitions their gender identity. It sounds fascinating and wonderfully researched and written over the course of four years, and it looks into a very important subject that is still underexplored.

Becoming Nicole by Amy Ellis Nutt

Media personality and leading voice in brain health Max Lugavere’s COGNITION NUTRITION, a roadmap to optimal brain health and performance using what the latest science has discovered about food and diet recently sold and taps into two areas of interest – science and the brain. It’s an area that’s well covered (including my own upcoming title THE DISTRACTED MIND by neuroscientist Adam Gazzaley and psychologist Larry Rosen), but a new angle is always of interest.

Author of The ADHD EXPLOSION and THE TRIPLE BIND, Professor of Psychology at UC Berkeley Stephen Hinshaw’s STIGMA: A Father and Son’s Journey Through the Mark of Mental Illness, which explores the burden of living in a family “loaded” with mental illness, with all the potential for insight and creativity as well as despair and isolation that entails, and in which he reveals his father’s (the distinguished philosopher Virgil Hinshaw, Jr.) and his own lifelong struggles with mental illness, the associated shame and stigma, and his evolving understanding of the social and public health dilemmas involved in the exploding mental illness crisis in America today. I’ve also had a strong interest in mental health issues and have books on my list which include PERFECT CHAOS, by Linea and Cinda Johnson, a powerful story about a daughter and her mom dealing with the daughter’s bipolar breakdown.

Finally, I’m having a love affair with children’s books at the moment. Both books I’m selling and books I’m reading with my girls. Sibling writing duo Heidi Lang and Kati Bartkowski’s debut LAILU LOGANBERRY’S MYSTIC COOKING, following the youngest master chef in 300 years in her efforts to open a restaurant where anyone, not only the wealthy, can feast on her fantastic cuisine including everything from kraken calamari to dragon steak; all the while she must help her absentee mentor pay back a vicious loan shark and avoid the notorious Elven mafia before the escalating conflict costs her the restaurant and possibly her life. Sounds unique and mixes my love of food and kids!

I could go on and on, but I’m hoping this gives you an idea of my interests and hoping I’ll see some project submissions from you in the near future. Feel free to reference this post if you contact me so I know you’ve been reading our blog!

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Between the World and Me

As most of you know, the 2015 National Book Awards winners were announced this week. I did a quick skim of the list and was incredibly pleased to find that Ta-Nehisi Coates had won the non-fiction category. I had read his book in short bursts on the subway to and from work—a small volume, but one that I could only read in small doses. Reading his work, I was reminded of a class I had taken my senior year in college, titled “Black Apocalyptic Fiction.” We had discussed a question similar to what Coates asks in Between the World and Me: “What is it like to inhabit a black body and find a way to live within it?” My final paper for that class focused on art and scholarship and how so much art and literature was focused on eventually creating a kind of scholarship that people used to dehumanize African American bodies.

So I was particularly interested when I noticed Coates’s answer to the question that the NBA posed to each finalist and winner: “In the process of writing your book, what did you discover, what, if anything, surprised you?”

Coates answered, “I discovered how hard it was to make the abstract into the something visceral. My goal was to take numbers and stats and make people feel them with actual stories. It was to take scholarship and make it literature.” (emphasis mine)

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I have immense hope—despite everything—that scholarship will continue to emerge through literature created by people of color and that a new art will emerge as a reclamation of the body and self.

Watch Ta-Nehisi Coates’s acceptance speech:

What did you think of this year’s winners? What do you think about the future of diverse authors?

The long and winding path to great writing advice

I think Forbes.com is a wonderful resource for so many things. A couple of years ago I discovered my remarkable client, Amy Morin, who’d written an article called 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do that went viral after it was picked up by Forbes.com. It went on to become one of their most viewed articles in history and I later sold the book version of the piece which has done very well.

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Through that connection, I also met another client. A dynamic author and career success coach named Kathy Caprino who followed her passion to find a career she loves and helps others to do the same. She is also a contributor for Forbes.com and writes about women, work, female empowerment and all of those great topics we love.

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When I spoke with Kathy recently about her column, I mentioned yet another client, a very talented and prolific author named Cecilia Galante whose first adult novel, THE INVISIBLES, had just been released. I knew from speaking with Cecilia and hosting a book club at my house with her where she inspired everyone in the room that she would be someone who might be of interest to Kathy and her column so I introduced the two of them and this compelling interview on Forbes.com is the result.

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There is a lot to digest here, and much of it is advice we’ve heard before because it works. But Cecilia has such a way with words that it feels fresh and important. Some of it I’ve even talked about here on the DGLM blog before. But not quite in this way: “I’d tell other writers that if they want to write, they need to sit in the damn chair every day and write.” Same goes for the realities of making a living as a writer: “Betting on a lucrative career as an author is like waiting for lightening to strike.”

What’s your favorite bit of advice from Cecilia? Anything else to add to her pearls of wisdom? She’s definitely doing something right because while the lightning bolt might not have hit just yet, she’s under contract for another adult novel and two more middle grades!

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To fiction or nonfiction, that is the question

I’m a big fan of Sloane Crosley. Her first collection of essays, I WAS TOLD THERE’D BE CAKE, offered a voice of a younger generation that was so distinct it set the stage for another collection of essays and now, a debut novel called THE CLASP. Good writing is good writing regardless of the category but it’s interesting to me to see authors who can go back and forth between fiction and nonfiction. There are many talented writers who try their hand at both successfully. Think Ann Patchett or Joan Didion; even J.K. Rowling had her Harvard graduation speech published in book form.

I have authors on my own list who have tried their hand at both. From my experience, they are usually better at one or the other and once they have some success with finding a publisher they stick with that. One of my most prolific fiction authors doesn’t seem interested in nonfiction, despite a few prods from me. And another who has only done nonfiction so far has teased me by talking about doing a novel at some point. I love the idea of this creative exploration.

I found this piece on Crosley’s publisher’s website interesting for aspiring or established writers because it goes into the psychological mindset of switching from one category to the other, or in her case the idea that many writers move seamlessly from fiction to nonfiction but it’s a different beast when it goes the other way. While the feelings Crosley has experienced crossing over are hers, I suspect there are some common threads that other writers would agree with. She feels fiction is a lot harder, she says that “publishing nonfiction feels like reading poetry on stage and publishing fiction feels like doing it naked while playing the piano.” I look forward to reading the novel and seeing how it compares to her nonfiction.

What do you think? Fiction or nonfiction or both? I say if you have the talent, spread it around!

The Clasp

Children’s Nonfiction

One of the more interesting and unexpected developments in the children’s book industry over the past year or two has been the rise of nonfiction. Publishers Weekly recently ran an article that surveys the landscape, and how publishers are having success with the kind of MG and YA nonfiction that, until recently, was thought to be going the way of the dodo. Who would have foreseen that in 2015, guidebooks for a video game would be bestsellers?

(Then again, if anyone can explain the appeal of Minecraft in the first place, please do!)

But while video game tie-ins are all well and good, obviously those are licensed products, and for the average children’s book writer, writing for a licensor is a hard gig to land. So how can writers take advantage of this NF “moment” and capitalize on the momentum?

Well, from my seat at the agent’s desk, books like BOMB and RAD AMERICAN WOMEN are the way to go–titles that can fit with Core Curriculum standards while having the kind of adult-market trade appeal that will catch parents’ eyes in the bookstore. Biographies are also attractive, particularly those of living figures (for instance, Hillary Clinton) recently deceased figures (Steve Jobs) or historical figures that are back in the zeitgeist (Alexander Hamilton). And if you’re a published adult writer whose book can be reworked for MG or YA, that’s a great way to further your reach, too.

I’ll also add that on the picture book end, nonfiction is in demand as well. Of course, the topics naturally skew younger than MG or YA–lots of animal stories and bios that can sidestep most controversy. Multicultural topics are also a plus at this level, as they can often be paired with the kind of highly imaginative artwork that editors love.

And here’s another plus on children’s NF–submission guidelines tend to be somewhat squishy. So while picture books submissions do require full text, often you can write longer than the 500-1,000 word limits that frustrate a lot of PB writers. And for MG and YA, my experience is that most editors will review a proposal in lieu of a full manuscript, and a fairly brief proposal at that.

So, for any children’s book writer who’s contemplating NF, this is the time to do it–and when you’ve got your MS or proposal together, send it to me!