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.