The Slush Pile Is Gone: What Ambitious Writers Must Do

Simon & Schuster logo, circa 1961
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Great piece in today’s Wall Street Journal on the death of the “slush pile”, where would-be writers once awaited rescue from their hard-working anonymity:

Getting plucked from the slush pile was always a long shot—in large part, editors and Hollywood development executives say, because most unsolicited material has gone unsolicited for good reason. But it did happen for some: Philip Roth, Anne Frank, Judith Guest. And so to legions of would-be novelists, journalists and screenwriters—not to mention “D-girls” and “manuscripts girls” from Hollywood to New York who held the hope that finding a gem might catapult them from entry level to expense account—the slush pile represented The Dream.

Now, slush is dead, or close to extinction. Film and television producers won’t read anything not certified by an agent because producers are afraid of being accused of stealing ideas and material. Most book publishers have stopped accepting book proposals that are not submitted by agents. Magazines say they can scarcely afford the manpower to cull through the piles looking for the Next Big Thing.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. The Web was supposed to be a great democratizer of media. Anyone with a Flip and Final Cut Pro could be a filmmaker; anyone with a blog a memoirist. But rather than empowering unknown artists, the Web is often considered by talent-seeking executives to be an unnavigable morass.

It used to be that you could bang out a screenplay on your typewriter, then mail it in to a studio with a self-addressed stamped envelope and a prayer. Studios already were reluctant to read because of plagiarism concerns, but they became even more skittish in 1990 when humorist Art Buchwald sued Paramount, alleging that the studio stole an idea from him and turned it into the Eddie Murphy vehicle, “Coming to America.” (Mr. Buchwald received an undisclosed settlement from Paramount.)

The irony, she writes, is that the Web was supposed to make it easier. Not so. You must have an agent.

Her piece also offers a terrific sidebar on how to sell your material, but I saw some things she left out.

I’m now writing my second non-fiction book for Portfolio, an imprint of Penguin; my first, “Blown Away: American Women and Guns”, was published in 2004 by Pocket Books, the paperback side of Simon & Schuster. In both instances, I easily found an agent eager to sell my work. How?

Be excellent. If that sounds elitist, too bad. The Web, and technology, has given millions of amateur writers the technical tools to produce a lot of material. It has also fostered the seductive illusion that, by banging out a lot of it — whatever it is — you”re now highly experienced as a writer and therefore must be really good and it’s your right to get published right away. Wrong.

Writers whom agents eagerly court are writers with a track record of excellence. We have, most typically, been writing for years, not weeks. We have been published by some of the toughest, most jaded and demanding of editors for outlets like The New York Times or The Atlantic or have passed through the gates of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. We’ve been vetted.

Hone your skills. Every day. This is not a joke. The most skilled and ambitious professionals I know are deeply committed to their craft. We read, study, watch and listen to work we think inspiring and intelligent. We read/watch/listen to  — and analyze — everything vaguely similar to what we hope to achieve,  fully aware of how much competition is out there and how carefully they are sharpening their swords.

At every level of the game, even with decades of terrific experience and credentials, we take classes and workshops, some even pursuing MFAs or other advanced degrees. We apply for, and sometimes win, grants and fellowships to help us work on material that is perhaps less immediately commercial but helps us grow as artists and creators.  We spend time, money and attention on our skills and our craft.

Get to know other excellent writers. Other terrific writers have already been published and found an agent. If they decide you, too, are ready for prime time, they might share that contact data with you. They also may not. It’s an awkward moment when someone, as they always do, asks for the name of your agent. It’s like asking for your partner’s phone number. That writer may not be a good fit for your agent, in terms of their talent, material or personality.

You best get to know other skilled writers by joining an industry association or group and, best of all, giving of your time and energy so others have a chance to get to know and possibly like you. I sit on the board of the 1,415-member American Society of Journalists and Authors; a fellow board member had a Times‘ best-seller.

Be generous. No one likes a grabby user, and the writing world is filled with them. Just because you reallyreallyreally want to become rich and famous thanks to your astonishing talents doesn’t mean anyone else will rush to get you there — nor should you ever expect this. When you, too, can share a contact or some advice, and you feel comfortable doing so, do it. I don’t help everyone who asks, but I have surprised a few people by doing so. If you are a much younger/less experienced writer asking for help, think through what you can offer in return — maybe a mass tweet or access to your Facebook contacts, all 567,890 of them, when your mentor’s latest production comes out. 

Be strategic. Before you try to find an agent, think through carefully what it is you offer and why that agent, in particular, might be a good fit for you. Ask around. (See suggestion No. 1)

Be patient. Such an unfashionable idea! I wrote at least four unsold book proposals before I sold my first book, then wrote a few more before  I sold my second. It may be hard to fathom, but not everything you write is worth an agent or editor’s or producer’s extremely limited time and attention. If you find an agent, trust their thinking. If you don’t, find another. The world is filled with agents, many of whom may be a very poor fit for you and your work.

Timing is everything. Both of my books wouldn’t have been of as much interest to an agent or publisher even six months before they sold; the mood of the marketplace and the zeitgeist were, at that particular point, especially receptive.  No one wanted my  book about guns or self-protection pre -9/11, but it sold shortly thereafter, when Americans suddenly felt scared in a whole new way. My current book is about working a low-wage, low-status job, something millions are now doing in this recession.

The agent is not your Mom/lover/BFF. They are a skilled professional whose credentials and other clients and projects you will check out thoroughly. Won’t you? You wouldn’t just hand over the keys to your home or vehicle to anyone unfamiliar — but that’s what you’re doing with your hard-earned career when you commit to an agent. Check them out and, if you decide to work with them, and vice versa, respect their time. Don’t burn them out or freak them out by calling and emailing all the time for their reassurance or guidance. That’s what your therapist or writing group is for.

Writing A Book: Part One — Bring Sherpas!

This is an open suitcase
Time to unpack...Image by emmamccleary via Flickr

As we were leaving a friend’s home after Thanksgiving lunch, a fellow guest turned to me. Like almost everyone I meet socially, she had sighed wistfully hearing I’d written one book and was now writing another. “Oh, I’d love to write a book. I’ve got such stories,” they tell me. Only a few seem to get that it’s not quite as simple as pounding away at a keyboard for a few months.

“How do you write a book?,” she asked. “Do you have an outline? Do you just start writing?”

Writing a book is to daily blogs or daily/weekly/freelance reporting as a Tibetan trek is to a leisurely stroll through your local park. Bring Sherpas!

The former demands a sort of extremely solitary discipline, your writing life — minus competitors, colleagues, editors. You now have only one deadline, and it’s soooooo far away (mine is September 2010) it feels a little unreal, a shimmering oasis on the other side. Of course, you can write a lot faster and turn it in early, which also gets to you the Holy Grail of your next payment; they may eke it out in four bundles over two years. But it also has to be really really really good. No pressure!

I’d lined up my five first readers as soon as it sold; these are five friends and colleagues whom I trust to read carefully and thoughtfully and offer me helpful feedback. They’re essential, in my view. By time you’ve finished a 75,000 or 90,000 or 130,000 word manuscript, you’re often sick to death of it and it’s become far too familiar for you to capture its flaws and omissions.

To sell a non-fiction book most of us sell a proposal, call it a very, very detailed outline, with one or more sample chapters allowing acquiring editors to decide if they like your tone, voice and story. You tightly compress every scrap of your best stuff into this vehicle, find a great agent, send it out, and pray. After it sells, like some circus clown whose little cardboard suitcase carries far more than it looks, it’s time to beautifully re-expand those initial ideas into a book, something you hope like hell will have lasting value to others.

I love writing. So that bit doesn’t scare me. I just have to go do a lot of it now.

As I move through this process, I’ll offer occasional updates.

From Journo to Author: Best-Seller Ulrich Boser and Kelsey Timmerman

Cover of "The Gardner Heist: The True Sto...
Cover via Amazon

In this final installment of J-Day focused on bookwriting, here’s a Q and A with two recent non-fiction authors.

Ulrich Boser is a good friend of mine in D.C. His book, published in early 2009, went into its fourth printing within weeks, an account of the largest art theft in history and one that remains unsolved. (I was one of his “first readers”, so got to see the manuscript before his editor did. I couldn’t put it down.) Kelsey took the brave, bold and unusual step of taking out a second mortgage to travel the world reporting his book “Where Am I Wearing? A Global Tour to the Countries, Factories, and People That Make Our Clothes.

Tell us a little bit about yourself and your writing background

UB: I’ve worked as a writer, reporter, and researcher for the past ten years. I’ve been lucky, and my work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, U.S. News & World Report, Slate, and Smithsonian, among others. In general, I cover social policy topics. I’m particularly interested in education and criminal justice issues.

KT: I’m a new dad, a recovering SCUBA instructor, and a traveler-turned-writer. At first I traveled for traveling’s sake — to experience the freedom of the open road and all that jazz. I was a bum. It was pure. It was beautiful. And then, the writing bug bit me and now travel plays second fiddle to writing. I can no longer bum. If I’m not working on a story, or what could become a story, I’ve got to move on to one or I’ll go nuts. My writing career started in Key West, which seems kind of romantic, but it really wasn’t.  I wrote a column about my travels for the local weekly paper.  I got paid $0 per column and lived in an attic accessed by a fold-down ladder.  I tried to place the column in other newspapers with a little success.  Let me define little — I contacted every newspaper in the country with a circulation greater than 15,000 and got in to about three.

Eventually I started to place some freelance pieces with some decent-sized papers including the Christian Science Monitor, which was my first weighty clip.  On the strength of those clips, I got more and started to record essays for the World Vision Report which airs on NPR. “Where Am I Wearing? A Global Tour to the Countries, Factories, and People That Make Our Clothes“, my first book, was published last year.  The book dropped about the same time as my first child.  For those authors who say releasing a book to the world is like having a child…uh, no.  My book has never projectile pooped all over me. It’s been a crazy year.

Where did you get the idea for this book?

UB: In late 2004, I wrote a story for U.S. News & World Report about a man called Harold Smith. He was one of the world’s most successful art detectives. He had recovered lost Renoirs; he had exposed forged Da Vincis. And Smith had worked the Gardner case for years. But within weeks of our meeting, Smith died of skin cancer, and after his death, I wanted to pick up where he left off on the case and tell his story of working the case. I landed a book contract from the Smithsonian Books imprint of HarperCollins, and the resulting book, The Gardner Heist, was released earlier this year. The book did much better than I ever expected. It got fantastic reviews and became a national bestseller. I felt very fortunate.

KT: Herve Villechaize, or more specifically Herve Villechaize’s face, gave me the idea.His devilish mug, which he lent to the character Tattoo on the 70s hit Fantasy Island, was emblazoned on my favorite T-shirt.  “COME WITH ME TO MY,” hung over his head and “TROPICAL PARADISE,” sat just beneath his dimpled chin. I was curious where Tattoo’s tropical paradise was. I looked at the tag; it read Made in Honduras. What if I went to the countries where my clothes were made and met the people who made them? Where was I wearing? As someone who has never needed much of an excuse to travel anywhere, this sounded like fun. Off I went.

When did you really think it might become a book — how did you develop it?

UB: I’m not sure that I can recall when exactly that I knew that it might become a book. But I always knew it was a good story, one that seemed worthy of a book-length treatment. There were great characters like Smith. There were incredible stories. And there was a serious social problem that I thought needed to be highlighted. According to experts, the stolen art trade is one of the world’s largest black markets, a $4 to $6 billion illegal business, and it’s increasingly being used to fund other illegal activities like drug running and terrorism. Plus, the paintings lost from the Gardner museum are true masterpiece — they need to be returned. There was also an excellent film made about Smith and his effort to return the art that served as an inspiration of sorts. It was called Stolen and was made by Rebecca Dreyfus.

KT: Since my initial inspiration courtesy of Tattoo, I thought it would make a great book. I did a little research and headed to Honduras. In Honduras, I did a lot of things that had nothing to do with my Tattoo T-shirt. I explored the jungle on the Mosquito Coast with my brother, who later contracted malaria (he’s okay). For a very brief moment I shared a dugout canoe with a deadly fer-de-lance. (The snake stayed in the canoe; I jumped into the river.)  On my very last day in Honduras I tracked down the factory that made my shirt and came face-to-face with a worker named Amilcar. I had been telling myself that this was the reason I was in Honduras, but once I had the opportunity to ask Amilcar about his life, I couldn’t do it. Part of me wanted to know what his life was like, but the other part was quite content not knowing, maybe even a little scared about what I would learn.

I left Honduras knowing very little about my Tattoo T-shirt or the workers who made it, and abandoned the idea of meeting the people who made the rest of my clothes. When I got home I was haunted by the fact that I wasn’t able to ask Amilcar the questions I wanted to.  I became totally obsessed with where my clothes came from, pulled out my favorite items, and booked a ticket to Bangladesh where my Jingle These Christmas boxers were made.

How and where did you find your agent?

UB: My agent is Gillian Mackenzie. I connected with her through a mutual friend Josh Landis. He and I had known each other through a journalism fellowship program, and he put me in touch with Gillian, who has been simply fantastic, an agent without peer.

KT: I met my agent, Caren Johnson, at a writers’ conference in my hometown, Muncie, Indiana.  Yep, it’s not exactly the hotbed of the literary world, but it worked out. Caren was hosting a table at which agent-hungry authors could pick her brain for 15 minutes.  I bellied up to the table and, when I was able to, worked in my question: “I have another agent interested in my book.  How does that process work? What questions should I ask?” I wasn’t lying.  I really did have another agent interested.  Before I left for my three-month tour to Bangladesh, Cambodia, and China, an agent contacted me after stumbling on my blog.  This was amazing because I had a about three people that followed the blog, and I’m pretty sure two of them were my mom. Anyhow, Caren never did answer my questions.  Instead she asked me what my book was about.  Then I had two agents interested!  A few weeks later I signed with Caren because she had the most enthusiasm for the project.

Tell us about writing and refining, then selling the proposal

UB: In general, I found the experience of writing a book to be far more work than I expected. And that began with the book proposal. I worked on it for weeks. I went through dozens of different drafts and approaches. Gillian was key — she kept pushing me to make the proposal more narrative, more focused on story and character, and that really helped. In the end, the proposal was some 70 or so pages and that included an outline of the book as well as two sample chapters.

KT: I read enough of the How-To Write a Book Proposal books to be utterly confused.  Eventually I chucked them and just did it. Caren helped a ton, especially with the market mumbo-jumbo.  She also made suggestions on my sample chapter and gave me what I believe to be the best bit of advice I’ve received about a proposal: there’s a difference between writing a proposal and writing a book.I took all of my best parts and jammed them into the sample chapter.  When I eventually wrote the book, those bits were divied up throughout the book. After a few rounds of suggestions from Caren and edits from my high school English teacher, the submission process began. Two months later I had a contract with John Wiley & Sons.

What was the most challenging aspect of researching and writing your book?

UB: The research of the Gardner case. No question. The advance gave me an opportunity to really dive into the caper, and I ran down countless leads, I spoke to countless people. I hired private investigators to help me shadow suspects. I visited maximum-security prisons to talk with jailed mobsters. This is an unsolved case, and you can blame the missing art, you can blame the $5 million reward, but this case has a deep and seductive power. You hear about the heist and the paintings and then, suddenly, without any warning, you’re trying to crack the museum riddle. One source called the Gardner case, “the crack cocaine of theft.”

KT: Living it. The narrative was what I did, where I went, whom I met, and what I saw.  When life is supposed to be a narrative thread, there is a lot of pressure to make it interesting.  But you can’t really force such things. You just hope that each day’s activities produced scrawled notes that can be made sense of and fit together with the rest of your notes at a later date. When you’re living a narrative thread, it’s really tough to see it.  It took a lot of long hours in my office digging through my notes and trimming away all of the less significant threads.   There were a few false starts, here and there, but overall the writing process went great, which was a good thing because my editor needed my completed manuscript in four months from the time I signed.

How did you support yourself financially during the process? What other work did you do to bring in income — was it tough to juggle it all?

UB: I’m a freelance writer and editor, and while I worked on the book, I continued to write stories for other magazines and newspapers. I wrote a piece about man-made diamonds for Smithsonian magazine, for instance. I also wrote articles for think tanks and served as the research director for an education policy project that graded the states on their systems of education. While it was difficult sometimes to juggle all the various projects, I enjoy having a diverse portfolio of work. It’s also important to me that I’m working on something that’s going to make a real difference, whether it’s investigating wrong-doing or putting a human face on a social problem. Having a diverse portfolio allows me to do that.

KT: There’s a fine line between “published author” and “crazy.” My wife and I got engaged in November of 2007, bought a house in March of 2008, and in April I went to Bangladesh because that’s where my underwear were made.  Yikes! That sounds really irresponsible.  It would’ve been less so if I had a book deal and half an advance to cover expenses, but I didn’t. However, I did have a cool little thing called a second mortgage.  Basically, you buy a home and the bank gives you money!  What’s not to love about that? I don’t think they exist anymore. I had a little money saved up and a few assignments from the World Vision Report. Our second mortgage was supposed to be a cushion, but then our home’s AC/furnace went belly up. Second mortgage to the rescue!

What’s the best advice you would offer to a would-be non-fiction author?

UB: Two thoughts. In terms of writing, I’ve also always thought that this Ernest Hemingway quote was painfully true: “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” And in terms of the book process, the sooner that you learn that you are on your own, the better. I love my editor. I love my agent. They were both perfectly wonderful — they were always there for me when I needed help or advice. And I often needed it. But the process of writing a book is much different than writing a magazine article or working with a team to produce special report. It’s a very different experience. You’re far more responsible. You’re on your own much more.

KT: Go to writing conferences. Yes, they can be painful. If I have to sit through one more session on how to write a query letter, I’ll spend the workshop writing query letters to hitmen to off me so I won’t have to suffer any longer. But, if you’re like I was, and have zero connections in publishing and don’t even know anyone who has written a book, writing conferences are huge. I met an editor of the Christian Science Monitor at a conference in Dayton, Ohio. I just ‘happened’ to share an elevator with her, and I just ‘happened’ to sit beside her at lunch. She remembered a piece I had pitched her a few months back, (Remember I queried every newspaper in the nation with a circulation over 15,000). After the conference I sent her a new piece and she published it. That publication led to radio essays, which led to more opportunities, and eventually a book. And, of course, I met my agent at a conference. I wouldn’t have a book today or much of a writing income at all if it weren’t for attending writing conferences.

Anything else you’d like to add?

KT: Never stop wanting it. Some have told me that I’m fortunate to have had a book published before I turned 30. I appreciate the comment, but deep down when I hear this I’m thinking about the hundreds of thousands of words I’ve written and the hundreds of rejections and no-responses I’ve received in the eight years I’ve been writing. There was some luck involved, but there was way more hard work. I’m sure some become authors in less than eight years, some in more. Regardless, there is one thing that every author (who hasn’t been kidnapped, landed a plane on a river in a major American city, or cut off a limb with a pocketknife) shares…

They didn’t sit around hoping to be published. They wanted it, so they went out and got it.

UB: Thanks for the opportunity!

I hope this series has been fun and helpful. Please email any ideas or suggestions for future J-Days!

Selling Your Book, From Fantasy (An Auction! Best-Seller! Oprah!) to Reality

Books in the :en:Douglasville, Georgia Borders...
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J-Day returns! This time, a three-part series on how — if you’re not Malcolm Gladwell — to sell and write a non-fiction book.

Next Thursday, two veteran New York City agents, Kathleen Anderson and Joe Spieler, with NYT best-selling clients, share their stories. On October 22, Kelsey Timmerman and Ulrich Boser, non-fiction authors, talk about what it took them to develop, sell and write their books.

For many ambitious writers, seeing your book on a store or library shelf is a powerful and compelling dream. A number of True/Slant contributors have written books, (Ali Eteraz’ memoir comes out this month. Congrats!), so they’ve also felt the joy and terror of achieving it. But, for most of us, selling and writing a book offers a sobering education, as so many cherished fantasies of Becoming An Author — Your life will change! You’ll be rich! You’ll be famous! They’ll make big fat piles of your book on those tables at the front of the bookstore! — quickly evaporate under the glare of commercial reality.

Do not quit your day job. Your advance, for example. Wow — $50,000! (Or whatever.) You don’t get it all at once. I’ve never heard of anyone who does. Non-writers assume you’re setting up your laptop on some Bora Bora beach for the duration, as you simply now have so much dough, you’re all set. Hah! These days, you’ll be fortunate to get your advance in four instalments over as long as two years, each of them whacked by your agent’s 15% off the top and, oh yeah, taxes. Do the math, and keep on producing non-book income.

I finally sold my first book in 2002, and that was after a number of false starts — involving a lot of hard work each time writing a 30-50 page book proposal, finding an agent to read and rep it and send it out. Not to mention nursing the wounds of rejection. I did that for at least two or three totally different ideas, (I forget how many, it was painful!), one of which was soundly rejected and went on to climb the best-seller list when, virtually identical in focus and tone, it was produced by a Big Name Writer. Ouch.

I just sold my second book a few weeks ago. Like my last book, this one went out in proposal form to 25 major New York publishers and one bought it. That means 24 others “passed”, either dropping out of the race or writing some pretty stinging emails rejecting it. Trying to sell your book, or book proposal, is not a competition to enter lightly. Unless you are already a Really Big Star, wrap your soul and your ego in Teflon!

Here are some of the elements that combined (as they must), like tumblers in a lock, to open the door to my new book. Keep them in mind when trying to sell yours: Continue reading “Selling Your Book, From Fantasy (An Auction! Best-Seller! Oprah!) to Reality”

Kaboom! Pow! Crunch! (aka Trying To Sell Your Book)

Books behind the bed
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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. Continue reading “Kaboom! Pow! Crunch! (aka Trying To Sell Your Book)”