This is a regular column that runs in the Arts section of The New York Times. As author of two works of nationally reported non-fiction — the second of which was nominated for the prestigious Hillman Award and published in China — I thought I’d do this here as well.
When did you first get the idea to write this book?
I worked at a trade publication in New York City as an editor and was friendly with a colleague there. One evening, having dinner at her apartment — where she had a doorman and a very large dog — I asked her (?!) if she owned a gun. She did, a handgun. I was a bit stunned and wrote an essay about this for The Globe and Mail, my former newspaper in Canada. I went on to attend a three day shooting class and wrote about that for the Wall Street Journal. After writing a much longer feature on it, I realized there had not been a book written about American women and gun use, whether they enjoyed it or feared it used against them or their loved ones. It was clear there was a lot of great material to be gathered and many stories to be told. For Blown Away, I spoke to 104 men, women and teens from 29 states. Here’s a link to the book.
For Malled, I was urged from the very start to write about it, but couldn’t see any narrative arc or story line to the menial job of folding, hanging and selling clothing for The North Face. But I worked part-time, at $11/ hour, for 2.5 years — much longer than the average retail sales associate, so I watched the economy plunge into recession (2007 to 2009) from a specific and unusual place. The book is also a story of how the retail industry works, from the inside, so it’s both a memoir and a business book. I was urged to produce the book after a column I wrote in The New York Times prompted a flood of appreciative comments and emails. Here’s a link to the book.
What’s the most surprising thing you learned while writing it?
For Blown Away, the regional differences in how Americans view gun use and gun ownership is huge. People really don’t understand it and underestimate its political strength. It isn’t just the NRA’s powerful influence and deep pockets, but also strong cultural and historical attachment to gun use and gun ownership that’s deeply embedded, for millions of people, in the very idea of what it means to be American. But because those in your local area are likely to share your views on gun use — whether pro or con — you usually end up with confirmation bias, unable to envision or understand this.
For Malled, It was really depressing to hear the words “disposable” used over and over again to describe the hard-working, poorly-paid staff that stand for eight hours in all retail stores. The highly paid executives at corporate headquarters of every major retailer spend millions of dollars buying specialized software — designed to reduce the costs of labor. It was so demoralizing to do a job to the best of our ability and realize that no one (in corporate) cared or would ever compensate us accordingly. My “raise” in 2.5 years? Thirty cents an hour.
In what way is the book you wrote different from the book you set out to write?
They’re both what I wanted them to be — a firsthand and intimate examination of two of the United States’ most intractable political issues: gun ownership and low-wage labor.
Who is a creative person (not a writer) who has influenced you and your work?
My parents and late stepmother. My father is a former documentary film-maker and my mother a journalist and my stepmother wrote television series. All worked freelance in challenging and competitive creative industries. I learned early that your own great ideas, presented and sold well, can earn you a living. That was pretty revolutionary, and certainly inspired my own work as a writer.
Persuade someone to read “Blown Away” or “Malled” in 50 words or less.
Blown Away is the only book of its kind, a nuanced, balanced deep dive into how guns affect women in the United States, whether they use one for sport, work or self-defense, or have been traumatized by the use of one against them or a loved one.
Malled is similarly unique, offering a firsthand examination of low-wage labor in the U.S., and explains in detail what it is like to work for paltry wages in a large and crucial industry and in an economy based on consumer spending.
You want(ed): a job, a friendship, a sweetie, a fellowship, a grant, a book or film or music deal.
When you or your idea face (repeated) rejection, it can feel annihilating.
I grew up in a family of freelance creatives, who wrote television shows and directed films and series and wrote and shot magazine articles. I saw, firsthand, what it’s like — emotionally, intellectually and financially — to put in a lot of hard work and hope only to discover that your ideas won’t receive funding.
Rejection is a powerful sorting process, quickly winnowing out those who really want it — and may still not get it! — from those who don’t. Maybe they’re ambivalent or don’t work hard or missed the deadline, again.
When you “fail”, (which to me is only temporary; if chronic, that’s not good), what’s your back-up plan?
Aircraft manufacturers plan for failure, creating planes that can still fly and land safely if an engine malfunctions.
Football coaches have a playbook, and everyone, everyone, needs a Plan B, C and D.
If we’re not thinking ahead to the next step, and the one after that, defeat can feel permanent.
I spent the past six weeks working on a book proposal.
Thanks to referrals from generous colleagues, I found top New York agents who replied to my email within hours. I worked with one for several weeks, but we quickly saw — to our mutual regret — this wasn’t a project he felt invested in, and I did. With the best humor and grace we could each muster, we parted ways.
The next agent replied to my email within half an hour — with tart, tough analysis of my idea’s weaknesses (yes, plural) and the intense competition it would face.
To say that — in British terms — these two men were chalk and cheese, is an understatement. Whew. One was lovely, kind and gentle and encouraging, even if I could tell this wasn’t probably going to work out.
The second was brash, abrasive and cutting.
But neither was a fit.
So, for now, I’m putting that goal on hold; both taught me about the current marketplace (useful) and, essentially, reminded me of the kind of person I want to do business with.
None of this, sorry to say, is unusual within the cruelly competitive world of journalism and publishing.
Pretty much every creative field I know — art, music, dance, design, film, theater — is equally filled with smart, talented, well-trained, determined thousands who want the same things we do: money, attention, a job, a gig, a contract.
In my decades in this business, I’ve been rejected so much it just feels normal — I tried for eight years before I was hired as a reporter at the Globe & Mail, Canada’s best newspaper.
I tried multiple times, never successfully, for the Alicia Patterson fellowship, (one of 14 finalists among 387 applicants that year.) The latest winners of the McGraw Prize, awarded to seasoned business writers — all three of them — beat out the 77 others who sent in their ideas.
Both of my previous books were rejected 25 times before finding a major publisher.
Whether we welcome it or not, rejection offers us information we have to process.
Simply stamping your foot, shouting”It’s not fair!” or pouting in a corner won’t get it done:
What did you fail to include?
What skills do you need to strengthen?
Could you have prepared more thoroughly?
Would additional training or education help you succeed?
Is your network powerful enough to guide, mentor and promote you?
I would never dissuade anyone from following their dreams.
I would strongly suggest having a thick, strong coat of armor — for your bank balance and ego — if you do.
Ever stand in a bookstore, see thousands of books and think — how the hell did these even get here?
If you work in journalism, publishing or academia, writing and publishing a book is a big deal, a standard milestone of success and achievement that you’re expected to reach as many of your peers will, and sometimes sooner, and more successfully.
When it comes to trade non-fiction — i.e. books written for a general audience, not academic — the trajectory is fairly consistent.
You, the writer, come up with an idea.
— Maybe it’s a historical figure who intrigues you enough to want to write a biography.
— Maybe there’s a trend in current culture you want to explore and have a specific and interesting viewpoint on.
— Maybe you have exclusive access to a compelling story no one else can tell.
— Maybe you’ve been working the beat and have so deeply understood a special subject that you’ve got amazing sources willing to tell you things they won’t tell anyone else and you can tell it best.
You need to know what else is out there, the comparables, what’s been published, by whom, in what voice, by which publisher(s) and, key, how well those competitors sold.
You need to think your idea through carefully, maybe check it with a few smart friends to hear their thoughts on it.
You must have a clear and consistent track record of writing well for demanding editors and audiences, especially if this is your first book. EVERYONE wants to “write a book” but not everyone (yet) has the skills and stamina to actually do it successfully.
You need to find an agent, without which you will have a difficult-to-impossible time trying to get a major publisher to read and consider it. You essentially ride in on their established coat-tails and reputation, since they are there to know the marketplace and who would potentially be most interested in your project and why.
You need to win their representation. If you’ve previously published and have a good and established reputation as a writer, you’ll probably know many other published writers, several of whom might be willing to introduce you to their agent(s.) Then you hope to find one who feels like a good match. That’s a delicate mix of personality, skills, experience, vision for your project, etc. (The agent I’m working with, who was recommended to me by a writer I know, told me he got [wait for it] 10,000 unsolicited submissions in 2017. He took one.)
You need to have an established “platform”, ideally a combination of expertise and track record writing on your subject and in that genre, and an audience hungry to pay money to read more of your work. That’s your blog, Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn following.
You need to put out a fair bit of unpaid labor to create a complete book proposal, with marketing plan, your bio, your idea, table of contents and chapters outlined.
You need to decide what the minimum advance is you can afford to work with — if it’s $30,000 paid out quarterly, for example, how will you make up the additional income you need for living costs, let alone paying for travel and research help, if needed? Can you get a grant or fellowship to offset costs?
You need to hope…because there’s no guarantee anyone will buy the idea.
If they do (yayyyyyy!) you’ll sign a very lengthy contract, agree on the date to submit your manuscript and get ready to rumble.
They’ll also have done a P & L (profit and loss statement), which makes immediately clear(er) that acquiring and publishing a book is very much a business deal, not the imagined, unsullied realms of Art.
Along the way, your title may change, you’ll see a few possible ideas for its cover, (which you won’t have the power to change, only consult on), and work closely with your editor, making whatever changes s/he requires. Your manuscripts will be copy-edited and possibly checked by the publisher’s lawyers to make sure you and they can’t be sued successfully.
If it all goes well, within 18 to 24 months at the earliest, your book will be available to readers and you’ll sit there, gnawing your fingernails, waiting to see if they, and critics, like it.
His play — written in 1777 — is still being performed…He, of course, died in poverty.
For many people, “being a writer” is one of their cherished dreams.
Some do it, through a blog, a self-published book, journalism, a commercially published book, of fiction, poetry or non-fiction.
Some write for digital outlets, at payments of $50, $100, $200.
Some write for major magazines with payments of $8-12,000 or more per story.
There’s a continuum from blog to commercially agented/published book.
There’s a continuum from a 700-word personal essay to 5,000-word reported story.
There’s a continuum from your first paid-for piece of writing, and your last.
Having written for a living since college — more than 30 years — here are some truths about this business, some less palatable than others:
It takes talent
Yes, it does.
Simply stringing together 1,000 or 10,000 words on….whatever amuses you…then trying to find someone who wants it and give you money for it doesn’t guarantee anyone else will find them compelling.
Just because you feel an urgent need to share a story doesn’t mean it’s de facto riveting.
It takes training
You don’t have to spend a fortune to attend journalism school or obtain an MFA, although many people make that choice. By doing so, they put their work in front of others’ eyes, and learn to take (or ignore or filter) feedback and criticism.
They learn structure and form and voice and genre and narrative. They learn how to create characters.
They learn a crucial element of being a writer — your work is going to elicit reactions, and not always the ones you want or expect.
The world is full of on-line writing classes and your city or town likely has some as well. If you’re truly serious about your craft, invest some time and money in learning and perfecting it. Attend writing conferences and talk to other writers.
It takes practice
I see many younger writers desperate for instant fame and fortune.
They watch women and men their age, or younger, nabbing big book deals, television series and lucrative movie deals with the naive assumption they too, can have this — and quickly.
We all crave success and admiration.
It might take longer than you prefer. In the meantime, you’re getting better.
It takes social skills aka charm
Maybe some people can bully or bulldoze their way to publishing success.
Charm is an under-rated skill.
Talk to the person in line for coffee at the conference.
Talk to the person who’s friendly to you at an event. You never know who they know.
Be someone people genuinely like, respect and want to help — not Mr./Ms. Needy and Demanding.
It takes skills
If you are fortunate enough to get a story assignment, or a book contract, you’ll need to actually know how to produce the commercial product they are expecting from you.
You are not An Artist here.
You’re a tailor being paid to make a suit to a specific size and shape.
You’re a stylist asked for a bob — who doesn’t dye your client’s hair purple because it just feels like a better choice for you somehow.
We’re hired help.
Stories get “killed” all the time because the end product is weak and boring, and years of work on a book manuscript can be dismissed by your editor as “unpublishable.” It happens.
Being able to sell a sexy version of your idea is only the start.
For a major magazine or newspaper story and certainly for a non-fiction book, you’ll need to find sources, interview them intelligently, research the larger context of your story, write, revise, write and revise.
You need to create a narrative structure and characters we care about.
If all this feels terrifying or insurmountable, work on your skills.
I also coach writers and offer individual webinars; details here.
This gripping memoir by a Canadian writer is one of my recent favorites…
It takes studying the greats
“You can’t write without reading.”
If you’re not devouring a steady diet of excellent work in your genre — and hopefully outside of it as well — you’re toast.
Read tons of terrific writing to try to discern why it works so well.
It probably means finding at least one (probably several) sources of reliable, steady, non-writing income, no matter the source
It doesn’t matter what the work is.
T.S. Eliot worked in a bank.
Poet William Carlos Williams was a doctor.
J.K Rowling survived on public assistance when she needed to.
If you’re hungry and cold and can’t get a decent night’s sleep and terrified of a medical emergency, get a job and build up your savings so that writing isn’t such a high-wire act.
Forcing writing to be your end-all and be-all, both emotionally and financially, can kill you.
It takes patience
No one writes a perfect first draft.
It means being edited
If you freak out at the thought of someone questioning your: diction, structure, tone, opening, middle, closing, length of sentences and paragraphs…let alone the factual veracity of your journalism, go away now.
Just don’t even bother.
Work that appears unedited (yes, here, too!) is rarely as good as that which has faced others’ tough, incisive questions.
A writer needs an editor, often many. Find several you like, trust and respect, and be ready to learn from their demands.
A smart editor is the valuable — essential — intellectual equivalent of a demanding personal trainer.
How badly do you want to improve?
It means being read
That means your mother, sister, ex(es), a lot of strangers.
You can’t predict or control what others will think or say of your most private and intimate thoughts — after you’ve retailed them publicly.
A thick skin is key.
It means being — publicly –critiqued
Few reviews have been as nasty as this one, which recently ran in The New York Times Book Review, and which prompted much social media discussion among fellow writers about its meanspiritedness:
Now, I write empty, high-minded claptrap all the time. I also delete 90 percent of what I write. About an hour ago, for instance, I cut the entire 215-word opening sequence of this review. A boss of mine once said, of an article I had drafted over several months, that I had done a terrific job of catching myself up to a conversation the world had been having without me. Now I had to delete it, and start over from where I’d ended — from where the world didn’t yet know what it thought. Tillman’s meditations on the Big Questions often read like those of someone trying to catch up to the world’s knowledge while selling that world her notes for $26.
The critic, a well-established man, shreds the first-time author, a young woman.
(Several other reviews were much kinder.)
It means being able to tolerate rejection without panic or despair
Rejection to a writer is like blood to a surgeon — a messy and inevitable part of every working day.
It means being lucky — or not
This is a field — like many in the creative world (fashion, music, fine art) — where the goodies are rarely distributed “fairly”, equitably or when we most crave or need them.
It might be getting a full ride for an MFA or J-school or an awesome advance you can actually live on for a year or more without doing anything else.
Maybe they won the prestigious award or fellowship you’ve tried for multiple times.
It might be winning a stellar review or getting your work optioned for a film or television pilot; (my book Malled was optioned by CBS television, and earned me an additional $5,000 as a result — taken out of my advance.) It was also published in China, and that paltry sum also went toward paying down my advance.
(See a pattern here?)
It might well be, (try Googling the ancestors of some Big Name Writers) they’re sitting on a boatload of inherited or family money — like one New York writer whose family name graces a Manhattan concert hall.
Maybe they married a high net worth partner or husband, allowing them to do nothing but focus on work-for-pleasure.
The fact is, this is often — and long has been — a deeply unfair business.
Allowing yourself to marinate in a stew of envy and insecurity won’t improve your writing one bit.
It sounds so cool and sexy and 21st century, doesn’t it?
Those of us who have only published the old-fashioned way — you know, with an agent and a publisher who designs, edits and distributes physical books to bookstores — often now feel like fogies riding around in horse-drawn carriages.
Last fall a new online publication called The Global Mail asked me to write about the Keystone XL pipeline, which may carry oil to the United States from the tar sands of Canada. The Global Mail promoted itself as a purveyor of independent long-form journalism, lavishly funded by a philanthropic entrepreneur in Australia. I was offered an initial fee of $15,000, plus $5,000 for expenses, to write at whatever length I felt the subject merited.
At the time I was researching a traditional print book, my seventh. But it was getting harder for me to feel optimistic about dead-tree publishing. Here was a chance to plant my flag in the online future and reach a younger and digitally savvy audience. The Global Mail would also be bankrolling the sort of long investigative journey I’d often taken as a reporter, before budgets and print space shrank.
The ending proved inglorious indeed, as both digital publishers crumpled beneath him like a shot horse. Ooops!
If Tony Horowitz — a writer whose best-sellers I’ve admired and envied — can’t make it work…
Writers have little wish to be the canary in the digital coal mine, so his is a cautionary tale indeed.
I attended a conference in December 2013 at the Columbia School of Journalism, a place that once launched many august careers, a building with a huge statue of Pulitzer staring down at us all.
The conference was ostensibly to discuss the future of “digital longform”, and 300 people — a mix of seasoned professionals, industry newcomers and J-students — showed up. We spent a day listening to old-school journalists with full-time staff salaries preen and digital publishers with expensive shoes and ponytails preen.
But no one dared ask the question we all wanted to hear the answer to: “What do you pay your writers?”
Because those of us who had already had a few conversations with digital publishers knew the answer.
The problem is basic: digital pay rates are, with a few rare exceptions, appallingly low, while the cost of living is rising daily. Even back in the 1980s, I was offered more money than today’s digital titans for my magazine work — and a week’s groceries didn’t cost $150.
There’s also a basic problem of speed/quality/price. Pick two!
When digital publishers pay so little, writers have to work much faster to earn a decent living. Cutting corners creates crap, but no one can lavish hours and hours on deep reporting and sourcing, no matter what lofty ambitions these digital folks cherish.
I occasionally write for Quartz, the digital arm of The Atlantic. I like my editor, but the maximum pay for a 1,000-word reported story is $500, the same pay rate as another site I’ve written for. Each story requires 3 to 4 original interviews, writing and possible revisions — while a print piece of the same length for a major publisher pays $1,000 to $2,000.
When I contacted an editor at yet another website, and was offered $300 for a reported story, I balked; and was told: “Some sites don’t even pay.”
That’s a compelling argument?
So I spend most of my time, still, seeking and pitching my story ideas to editors of print publications. Some you’ve never heard of and they don’t sound at all cool.
But their higher rates pay my bills. They’re not going away. They (usually) honor their contracts.
If I write any more books, which I hope to, I’ll also head back to that fusty 18th-century model.
The goal in blogging/business/inspiring non-fiction is to share a truth, or at least
a truth as the writer sees it. To not just share it, but to spread it and to cause change to happen. You can do that in at least three ways: with research (your own or reporting on others), by building and describing conceptual structures, or with stories that resonate…
A more heavily-researched approach to writing [is] exhausting, but the work is its own reward…
The biggest takeaway for anyone seeking to write is this: don’t go looking for the way other authors do their work. You won’t find many who are consistent enough to copy, and there are enough variations in approach that it’s obvious that it’s not like hitting home runs or swinging a golf club. There isn’t a standard approach, there’s only what works for you (and what doesn’t).
I read Godin’s blog every day. His advice here is spot-on.
“Malled: My Unintentional Career in Journalism” was just published in China, which is pretty cool, and a first for me. Now I’m seeking someone to read it and compare it to my original to see if they censored my section about appalling labor conditions in Shenzhen, China where they make parts for Apple and others at Foxconn.
After two books published by major commercial houses, I’ve lost my innocence about how bare-knuckled a business publishing is, that’s for sure. I have no illusions — which many yet-to-be-published writers naively and deeply cherish — like the publisher will: 1) be my new BFF; 2) that they will pick up the costs of designing and maintaining my website; 3) send me on a book tour.
The only way I got my own book from China was having it sent by a photographer there my husband knows, who did us a personal favor and Fed-Exed two copies; my publisher still hasn’t sent me any.
But I still really love the process of writing books, if not the selling of books. Trying to tell any truly complex story in an article is like trying to shoe-horn an elephant into a matchbox — articles are too short, too shallow and pay poorly.
You can’t dive deeply or widely enough, even in a 5,000-word+ story, (which very few people assign now).
You need to write a book.
This week I finally sent in the proposal for my third non-fiction book to my agent. I’m nervous as hell. I hope she likes it. I hope she doesn’t require more work on it as I’ve already spent about a year creating it (in addition to all my other paid work.); it’s about 10,000 words.
The real challenge will be finding a publisher to pay me enough to actually make writing it worth my time financially. Let’s say — hah! — I got a $100,000 advance, a sum extremely difficult to attain.
If I did, and if we could negotiate it into three payments, (also difficult now) — on signing the contract, on my delivery of the manuscript and publication — I’d get about $28,000 to start out with, (after the agent’s 15 percent cut, always taken off the top.)
From that, I also have to fund all travel costs and research; (I’ve already started looking for researchers.)
Many non-fiction writers have full-time jobs and/or teach as well. Few writers can actually support themselves, and their families, only by writing books.
My second book, “Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail”, a business memoir to be published in April 2011 by Portfolio/Penguin, is now in production. The assembly line is moving toward publication.
There are few pleasures more satisfying than selling your proposal and writing a book, and few moments as exciting as holding the first fresh copy of your book in your hands. Selling a book catapults the first-time author into a world filled with surprises, some lovely, some less so.
The things I’ve learned along the way! Here, for those who hope to publish with a commercial publisher, are a few of them.
Yes, there are always exceptions to all of these, but much of this is fairly standard for a new and/or mid-list author:
Your advance will be much lower than you hope and takes forever to arrive
I did make more for my second book than for my first, but not nearly as much as we’d hoped. C’est la vie. Book advances, (from which your agent cuts his or her 15% share first), are now typically paid out in three or four installments. It can be six to 12 months, or more, between those payments. How will you meet all your regular expenses plus the research or travel costs of your book? I spent $5,000 for my first book traveling to report firsthand from Texas, Ohio, New Orleans and Massachusetts. For the second, I needed to pay two researchers to help me gather data and sources more quickly.
You have zero control over the pricing or discounting of your own book
As Pocket (the paperback arm of Simon & Schuster) has done with my first book, published in paperback at reasonable and democratic $13.00 in 2004, they might almost double the price of your book — with no additional income accruing to you.
Life crises can destroy your carefully planned writing, research, travel or revision schedule (and budget)
One friend is on deadline for her book but her husband is terminally ill and her book requires travel. While I was in Dayton, Ohio in August 2002 researching my first book, my mother was diagnosed with a huge (removable) brain tumor. I had to get from Dayton to Vancouver, Canada as fast as possible, alone. This year, with a book deadline of September 1, 2010, I lost four months to a (resolvable) medical emergency seeing five specialists, oral steroids, months of physical therapy, even having to use a cane or crutches for months. Good thing I was able to do other work on the book (reading, interviews) and get back to writing it when my head was clearer.
Plan for chaos.
You’ll pay to create and maintain your book website
Not your publisher. The second your book is sold, register its title as a domain name.
You’ll pay for your book tour
You’ll pay for your book trailer
You’ll pay for your video press kit
See the pattern? Start saving up a wad o’ cash now to promote the thing or it will disappear fast.
You’ll create most of your events and signings
Actually, I find this part a lot of fun as the book is now good to go and everyone’s excited about it. I’ve already reached out to universities, business schools, companies, stores and others across the country to help me set up signings, talks and events.
If you’d like help with this book tour — April through June or July 2011, I’d love to hear from you! Please email me.
Your publisher will forget to send galleys to key players
Galleys or ARCs (advance reader copies) create buzz for your book months before publication once they’re in the hands of people who will talk it up to their audiences. Make a huge press list of everyone you think might review or discuss your book. But stay on top of it as some publicists zone out and don’t follow through.
They’ll pulp your book and won’t tell you
It’s basic courtesy to offer authors the chance to buy back any unsold copies of their book before destroying them. I didn’t get that chance. Keep an eye on your copies.
They’ll make it POD and not tell you
That’s “print on demand” which means no one can find my first book in any bookstore. Amazon, yes.
Your editor may quit mid-stream
Or get sick or be fired. It happens. We all dread it.
So might their replacement, and theirs
Your book then becomes an orphan. It’s happened to some of the best-selling books out there and it’s rough. You need your editor to care a lot about your book and be its in-house advocate.
Editors are really busy
When you get an offer, ask how many books the publisher puts out each month and how many will come out the same day, week or month as yours. How many other books is s/he working on? Does s/he prefer to contacted via email or phone? How often is too often?
Agents are really busy
After your book is sold, you and your agent usually won’t have a lot to talk about until it’s accepted. That’s cool. They’re busy making money. Don’t ask them to hold your hand.
In-house publicists are really busy
As much as you crave their undivided attention, it’s unlikely they can give nearly as much of their time or energy as you’d like. Find out what they can do and then start working around it using your own time and resources.
Book doctors are expensive but possibly necessary
Your agent can’t work on it and your editor may not be giving you all the tools you need to whip your book into publishable shape. A book doctor can cost $5,000, but it might be an investment you need to make.
You have six weeks, max. to make your mark before books are returned to the store
Bookstores don’t buy your books in the standard way we buy something, i.e. you own it now. They buy them with a return policy and one they quickly use if the merch isn’t moving.
Having your book on bookstores’ coveted front tables is totally beyond your control
I’m always so jealous of authors whose books get laid out in those thick piles on bookstore tables, the ones people look through. Those books get there through the use of “co-op” funds. You can ask if this is a realistic use of their funds for your book, but don’t expect it.
Your student/intern/researcher or nemesis from grad school will publish before you (and get much better reviews)
Oh, yeah. Maybe even a front-page New York Times Book Review rave. Ouch!
It’s every writer’s dream, to have your book — let alone your debut effort — hit the The New York Times‘ best-seller list within weeks of publication after garnering rapturous reviews. Rebecca Skloot’s is already at number six.
Skloot’s gifts as a writer and student of science weren’t apparent early on. During a recent visit to New York from Tennessee, where she teaches writing at the University of Memphis, Skloot says: “I was a troublemaker. The first time I got suspended I was in second grade.” She failed her first year of high school because “I just didn’t show up. It was a boredom thing.”
An experimental school finally provided the freedom and challenge Skloot needed, and in only one year, she completed all four years of high school.
Six years later, at Colorado State University, Skloot still “had no interest in writing whatsoever. I was going to be a veterinarian.” But thanks to an academic quirk at Colorado State, she was able to take a writing class to escape the foreign language requirement. “I completely fell in love with it. So I just started taking writing classes every semester.”
A thorny and provocative book about cancer, racism, scientific ethics and crippling poverty, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” also floods over you like a narrative dam break, as if someone had managed to distill and purify the more addictive qualities of “Erin Brockovich,” “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” and “The Andromeda Strain.” More than 10 years in the making, it feels like the book Ms. Skloot was born to write. It signals the arrival of a raw but quite real talent.
The woman who provides this book its title, Henrietta Lacks, was a poor and largely illiterate Virginia tobacco farmer, the great-great-granddaughter of slaves. Born in 1920, she died from an aggressive cervical cancer at 31, leaving behind five children. No obituaries of Mrs. Lacks appeared in newspapers. She was buried in an unmarked grave.
To scientists, however, Henrietta Lacks almost immediately became known simply as HeLa (pronounced hee-lah), from the first two letters of her first and last names. Cells from Mrs. Lacks’s cancerous cervix, taken without her knowledge, were the first to grow in culture, becoming “immortal” and changing the face of modern medicine. There are, Ms. Skloot writes, “trillions more of her cells growing in laboratories now than there ever were in her body.” Laid end to end, the world’s HeLa cells would today wrap around the earth three times.
I don’t know Rebecca personally, but we both belong to the American Society of Journalists and Authors, a 1,400-member international group of ambitious and talented professionals. Our online ASJA private bulletin boards, where members trade tips, advice and contacts, have been lit up with excitement at her achievement.
She spoke to me today from Athens, Ohio, during her 53-city national tour.
She started planning her mega-tour in October, thanks to help from her father, writer Floyd Skloot. “He’s the logistics guy.” She’s traveling all across the U.S., lecturing to scientists, researchers, students and community groups, on college campuses, in bookstores, wherever she finds an enthusiastic audience. Her tour expenses have been cobbled together from speaking fees — sometimes from as many as four separate college departments like journalism, medicine and English chipping in together to get her onto a campus.
Her tour began January 29 and ends June 1, leaving behind at home in Memphis, where she teaches writing, her two beloved dogs, Chance and Rhoda, and her boyfriend of six years, a fellow writer (of fiction), actor and director. Luckily for both, his work is similar enough he’s thrilled for her, but different enough he can celebrate without the envy that often poisons partnered writers when one’s career suddenly or finally rockets.
At every stop, Skloot is now happily inundated with additional media requests, in addition to speaking almost every day to yet another group of strangers.
A longtime writer on animals and science, she admits she’s become a traveling science evangelist, a phrase she greets with a friendly but honest laugh.
“In all my talks, I talk about how important it it to just talk about science, to understand it. So many people I’ve met along the way have been afraid to even ask questions of their doctors, about their treatment, about what it means. To even read and sign a consent form. There really was a huge communications breakdown between the scientific community and the African-American community and that has had a huge effect on some people.”
Some members of the African-American community in Baltimore, near Johns Hopkins where the HeLa cells were gathered and used, have long been hostile and suspicious of its scientists, Skloot said. “Some people think if you are out at night anywhere near the campus, they’ll grab you and use you. You may go in and never come out.” At one local Baltimore event, a lone African American man came up to Skloot after her speech to tell her he’d tried to get others to attend with him, but they had refused to enter the premises. “There’s a long history there of distrust,” she said.
Selling the idea for the book wasn’t easy, Skloot said. “When I described it, people would roll their eyes and say ‘That sounds like the most boring book in the world!’ It also took her 18 months of slow, gentle persuasion to get the Lacks family to talk to her and to trust her — yet one more educated white stranger likely to profit from their tale — with their story.
On this long tour, she’s not just reading, lecturing or answering questions — but stepping into crowded rooms filled with strangers, many of them brimming with complex emotion. She often encounters their rage — not at her, but at what happened to the Lacks, and how the medical establishment has behaved in this matter. By showing up in person to talk about it, by taking the time and care to tell the Lacks story, Skloot ends up facing, and managing, tremendous emotion in the room when she addresses African Americans.
They are angry the story took so long to emerge. They are angry that it happened at all.
“There’s a lot of yelling, a lot of anger, about this. How it could happen. That it took so long for the story to come out. Someone always asks me ‘So, how are you different from the rest of them?'” (She has set up a foundation to donate a portion of her book sales to the Lacks family.) While they are glad she has told the tale, and appreciate how well she has done so, this is not , in this overwhelming respect, a typical author tour.
“It’s incredibly exhausting,” she admits. She re-charges with friends, home-cooked meals, visits from her boyfriend, sitting in a kitchen with someone she’s known for years, not just another dozen eager audiences.
The book took ten years, went through three publishers and four editors. Skloot demanded five rewrites of herself.”I write really long, then I cut and cut and cut and cut and cut. Some of it was the challenge of the clarity of the science. I didn’t want to overwhelm people.” To stay on track, (like many writers), she chose a number of “first readers” — people whose opinions and expertise she needed for feedback on the manuscript. These included editors and writers, a group of scientists and readers with high school educations, people “a little freaked out by science. I wanted the book to be broadly accessible and completely accurate.” That meant making it smart enough to engage academics and scientists while readable and engaging enough to pull in the rest of us.
Did she never want to just give up?
“I’m incredibly hard-headed,” she laughs. “I was a very difficult kid, as my parents can tell you. Once I set my mind to something, I do it. I never thought it wasn’t going to work, even when I was having huge fights with one of my editors about it. I just thought — can you get it front of people? I knew the public would respond very positively once I got it there.”
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 TheNew 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!
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!