The magic formula for selling a non-fiction book proposal might go something like this:
Talent+Timing+Idea+Voice+Competition+Agent’s Reputation+The Proposal Itself+Big Name Books Just Like It That Sold Like Mad, but Not Too Much Like It+Room Left In The Marketplace For A Book Like The Best-Sellers On A Similar Subject, But Different+Editors’ Balls+Sales Team’s Enthusiasm+Zeitgeist+Writer’s Credentials/Platform+Big Names Who Will Blurb It+Big Names Who Will Review It, Preferably Favorably+Prior Platform+ Future Appetite For Topic (by this writer in his/her voice)+Writer’s Prior Reputation+Writer’s Previous Book Sales+Writer’s Ability to Be Fabulous In Every Possible Medium for Publicity Purposes+Writer’s Pre-Existing Blog with Millions of Eager Readers+Writer’s Website Already Set Up And Paid For+Oprah Producer Ready to Take Your Call+Writer’s Ability and Willingness To Line Up Dozens of Interviews, Articles And Events to Make People Demand This Book+Writer’s Ability To Be Witty And Charming on Live Radio And/Or Television, Looking Lovely And Remembering You Must Never Swear+Mental, Physical and Emotional Stamina To Complete Book On Deadline+No Seriously Competing Books Showing Up In The Meantime+Author’s Grateful Ability To Live On Very Small Advance (30% upfront, 15% to agent, 15%, or more, to taxes.)
If there’s a more spine-testing endeavor than trying to sell a book proposal (maybe a play or a film or a work of art), I don’t even want to find out what it is. Having worked this summer with a veteran agent who is not, thank God, the sort of wide-eye naif telling me How Great I Am or How Big This Will Be, our 67 double-spaced pages are now on the desks of a bunch of editors. The trick is this. We have to really believe in its potential value, or why bother? But if we care too much — OK, if I care too much — the old ego can take one hell of a beating as it makes the rounds and, inevitably, takes a bunch of hard hits.
It’s amazing how much even a very short-yet-brutal rejection paragraph can send you back into your corner, reeling, looking for your cut-man (the poor agent, who has to get every one of their authors through this necessary process.) If you’ve ever seen the terrific film “Sideways”, and you’re a writer or would-be author, you’ll never forget the poorly masked desperation of Miles talking, from a California vineyard, to his New York agent, who is so callously, coolly, professionally nonchalant as she tells him he’s done, that his manuscript has not found favor. “They’ve passed on it,” she says. What a word. You pass potatoes. You pass gas. When someone “passes” on your book, it hurts, no matter how many decades you’ve been writing for a living.
While it requires a strong sense of self-confidence to even propose a book, find a good agent and get a proposal ready for what you both hope is a sale, you have to stuff your hopes deep into a box until it sells. If it doesn’t? You can’t just shrug it off as if you really didn’t care very much. If you care too much, wallowing starts to look like an option. It’s a no-win.
We’ve already gotten a few “no’s” and yesterday I cried uncle. “Do you want me to step sending them?” my agent asked, after forwarding me the latest rejection e-mail. Yes, I said. Hell, yes!
My first, and so far, only published book hit 19 rejections in the year 2000 when we first sent it out. My agent, then a hungry newcomer building his stable, took me to lunch at Balthazar, one of Manhattan’s loveliest restaurants, after deciding to rep the book within one day of reading my proposal. We ate Kumamoto oysters and he asked me about my ambitions. It was clear he was wooing me, an odd if pleasant feeling in a business where rejection is a given. He thought that book would sell fast, for lots of money. He named a number so enormous and fabulous it felt like ordering a unicorn. It didn’t sell at all, and I gave up. A year later I asked him to try again; six more editors said no, some of them in fairly nasty language. I was deeply grateful, then as now, he even knew more people to send it to, and was willing to keep trying. The very final editor, a young and ambitious woman at Pocket Books, said yes. Ka-ching. This time, the same executive I sat across the table from in early 2002, who even attended my book party, rejected this new proposal with one impersonal sentence. Ouch.
And so I try to stay calm and not hope too much (at all). I’ve been through six experienced and well-known agents over the past 15 years, and, through one of them sent out several different non-fiction proposals that didn’t sell. While some books, of course, sell very fast and for very large sums on money, many other books never will. It’s the cost of playing the game. And you can get burned; one agent flatly rejected one of the proposals, an idea that became a best-seller by a Big Name WSJ writer.
No one ever talks publicly about the ones that didn’t sell. It’s not the sort of thing you should admit to, failure. But failure to sell a book, or a proposal, is much more the statistical norm than the rare bazillion-dollar book deals that win public acclaim and make so many fellow writers, even multiply published authors themselves, not just the crazed wannabes, gnash their teeth and rend their garments in envy. The pilot light of hope rarely dies, selling magazines like Writer’s Digest and Poets & Writers, and forever fills writing conferences and night-school classrooms and workshops and graduate MFA programs with people hungry to see their name on the spine of a book. Which, if it happens, might make you want to produce another one, and another. I know, thanks to worldcat.org, that my first book now sits in 575 public libraries worldwide, the furthest away (so far) the Moreland City Library in Brisbane, Australia, although it’s also available in New Zealand and Hong Kong. A friend once sent me a photo from his cellphone of three copies of my book on a library shelf in Las Vegas. I felt like waving. I certainly felt happy.