The Best Books on Writing and Publishing, Part 2

(Part 1 of this series is here.)

I’ve dabbled with the idea of crossing over into trade publishing once the Jackson biography is completed. A number of historians whom I admire have done this, but like with the publishing process itself, I was a bit naive about what is involved in making the jump.

If you are curious like I was, Thinking Like Your Editor (W.W. Norton, 2002), co-written by Susan Rabiner and Alfred Fortunato, is a book you need to pick up. It isn’t specifically written for historians looking to transition from a university press to a publishing house focused on trade books, but it focuses on serious nonfiction.

Wife-and-husband team Rabiner and Fortunato speak with the authority born of experience. Rabiner was a senior editor at several New York publishers, as well as editorial director at Basic Books, while Fortunato was a freelance editor and writer. The two co-founded the Susan Rabiner Literary Agency, giving them experience from the other side of the publishing process.

Thinking Like Your Editor is divided into four sections. The introduction argues that writers need to understand who their audience is. The advice that shifting perspective in order to broaden the audience appeal is the most important takeaway from this chapter, I think. For example, a book about a the legalities of prosecuting corporate criminals likely won’t appeal to many readers outside of law offices, but a character-driven story about an important lawsuit that weakened Big Tobacco would have more potential. I also found her discussion of the benefits and drawbacks of computerized inventory programs on book sales.

Part 1, which I found the most helpful, deals with all of the elements of the submission package: proposal, table of contents, writing sample, and supporting materials. Chapter 2 focuses on the proposal, which needs to address topic, argument, author qualifications, timeliness of topic, and audience. I was surprised to learn that non-academic publishers prefer a lengthy, narrative-driven proposal; my own with LSU Press were roughly five single-spaced pages. Chapter 3 covers the table of contents, writing sample, and supporting materials. The table of contents should serve as an annotated outline of the book. For a narrative-driven book, the authors argue that the writing sample needs to be eye-catching, preferably focusing on a representative moment in the individual’s life, group’s existence, etc. Supporting materials, such as a c.v., should focus on your qualifications as an author. Chapter 4 explains why most authors looking to land a contract with a trade house need an agent. It outlines how to select an agent, what an agent does, and what financial commitments one can expect in an author-agent agreement. The best advice in this chapter is to rely on reputable agents who have placed book in your discipline and to go with a publisher “that has a solid reputation doing your kind of book” (135).

Part 2, which addresses the writing process, is solid in its discussion, particularly with regard to argument and narrative tension. Rabiner and Fortunato argue, as I’m fond of telling my students, that evidence needs to lead argument, not vice-versa. I also like the emphasis on “the mind story,” which is telling a story not as a recitation of facts but as a “narrative thread . . . spun out of thematic tensions” (191, 189). That is a struggle for me, as it probably is for any biographer, so I appreciated the advice. Chapter 7 offers pragmatic guidance on avoiding writing problems from the beginning to the end of the book.

Part 3 explains the nuts-and-bolts of the publication process. Germano’s book is comprehensive in addressing these aspects, so it was a refresher for me. Finally, a sample proposal and chapter are included in the appendix; they just happen to be for the Pulitzer Prize-winning book by Debby Applegate, The Most Famous Man in America: The Biography of Henry Ward Beecher (Doubleday, 2006). Not too shabby.

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