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Recent first-time authors offer advice
Be passionate about your subject
If you really believe in your idea, it is easier to sustain your momentum. For years Aliza Marcus ’84 was a Reuters journalist intrigued with the Kurd separatist movement, the PKK. She wrote Blood and Belief: The PKK and the Kurdish Fight for Independence (New York University Press, 2007) not because she knew it would be published, but because she believed in it.
“It’s thankless work,” says Sam Fromartz ’80, author of Organic, Inc., Natural Foods and How They Grew (Harcourt, Inc., 2006), about the process of trying to find a publisher. “You’re not getting any feedback; you’re in a black hole; it’s easy to get lost and discouraged— to doubt your idea.” Enthusiasm helps.
Seek a cadre of writers who will read your work. “It can be helpful,” says Ben Nugent ’99, author of American Nerd: The Story of My People (Scribner, 2008), “to find a clique of writers you can show your stuff to.” Take a workshop—Tin House’s summer workshop is always held at Reed—join an M.F.A. program, or move to a town like Portland with a vibrant literary scene.
Craft your proposal carefully Len Brackett ’70 suggests that would-be authors have a clear concept, know the structure of their book, and know for whom they are writing. Brackett, who coauthored Building the Japanese House Today (Harry H. Abrams, 2005) with Peggy Landers Rao, knew that there were plenty of books showcasing Japanese architecture as a national treasure, but none with his angle—traditional Japanese building techniques for today’s American home builder. Their proposal emphasized the market of American builders and designers and they ultimately landed a book contract with Harry Abrams. “Working with Abrams was a joy,” says Brackett, “a dream publisher, one of the last very classy outfits around.”
Retirement from the practice of law has given me an opportunity to renew my interest in the history of photography and to confront a gnawing memory of my high school locker-mate leaving to go to “camp” because he was half Japanese and half Korean.
Gerald H. Robinson ’48, Elusive Truth: Four Photographers
Find a careful reader
Polish your proposal before submitting it to an agent or publisher, advises novelist Lena Phoenix ’90. “You really have only one shot to make a good impression. Reed writing skills notwithstanding, it’s a rare person who doesn’t benefit from editorial help.” Phoenix hired fellow Reedie author Debra Ginsberg ’85 to edit her manuscript after finding one of Ginsberg’s books in the Reed bookstore. Ginsberg’s comments greatly improved Phoenix’s final submission. Whether you pay someone or have a colleague or friend edit your work, an attentive reader will help you tighten your prose.
Study the industry
Pick up a current Writers Market (Writers Digest Books) to learn about the business side of writing. Thinking Like Your Editor (Norton, 2003) is useful for understanding what nonfiction publishers are looking for and how to get their attention. Phoenix recommends a blog called pubrants.blogspot.com that profiles the ins and outs of the industry and how to write a good fiction pitch. Read Publishers Weekly, the industry’s lead trade journal.
Know your audience
Look to your own reading and book-purchasing habits for ideas about publishers. Sarah Wadsworth ’86, who once worked on the editorial side of the publishing business before writing In the Company of Books: Literature and Its “Classes” in Nineteenth-Century America (University of Massachusetts Press, 2006), observes that she thought of herself as the ideal reader for the kind of book she was trying to publish. “I was already familiar with the publishing house that brought out my book. That publisher had been very good at connecting me with the kinds of books I wanted to read. I figured that they would do a good job of drawing my book to the attention of other like-minded readers. So far, it seems, they have.”
Author Marcus agrees. She recommends careful research to find presses that publish books similar to the one you have in mind. But don’t sell yourself short, she cautions. “My advice is to pick the best presses first and shop your book there. If that doesn’t work, move down the line.”
You may have better contacts than you realize. Author Jerry Kelley ’44 recommends trying to “network to find someone with connections, especially with an agent.” Fromartz did just that, finding his agent through a friend.
Writing is subjective. Getting rejected by 20 agents does not mean your work is without merit. Alan Mussell MAT ’68 knows all about perseverance. He began shopping his novel in 1995. Fifteen months later he realized he was getting nowhere, and dropped his project for the next seven years. In 2005, he looked into POD, worked closely with an editor at iUniverse, and published The Last Crusade (iUniverse, 2006) the following year. “It’s a difficult and often discouraging process,” he says, “but well worth the time and sweat to reach your goal.”
No matter how you get published, you’ll need to market yourself and your book. Set up a website, organize author appearances, call on local bookstores. Most authors don’t realize how much work it is to write a book, says Jenny Wapner ’99, an acquisitions editor at University of California Press. “And it doesn’t stop once you’ve written a draft, there’s still the editing, and finally—and importantly—helping to publicize the book.”
Take your time getting published
“All you should be worried about,” says Nugent “is writing a perfect, impeccably edited, original work of genius. That will take up a lot of your time and energy. But I think it’s the only way you’re ever going to write something that’s any good. And once you write something that’s actually good, people are going to knock your door down to rep you and publish you, because good writing is rare.”
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