Precious Cargo

Refreshingly Bitter And Twisted Observations On Life's Passing Parade.

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Location: Valley Village, California, United States

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

So, What Do Agents And Editors Want?

Having written three book proposals that I thought were based on good ideas, and having belly flopped all three times (except for the computer book proposal that succeeded because it originated with an editor at Digital Press-but I’ll save that story for another day), I’ve become nearly obsessed with the subject of the psychology of decision making. What do people want, especially in the context of the entertainment business, and why do they want it?

I confess to an inner tension on what conclusions I’ve reached. If it weren’t for the fact that I have had some of my writing professionally published, sold one book proposal, and have had quite a few requests for proposals based on my queries, I might have been left with the last resort of the loser: to blame my failure on the fickleness of the market. But, because I’ve had a few successes, I tend to believe that the general proposition found in myriad books for writers sometimes proves true. A marketable idea, invitingly expressed and submitted with the correct protocol will find a buyer.
It sometimes proves true. Except when it doesn’t. And then I’m thrown into self-doubt and self-recrimination. I’ve been given reasons why my unsuccessful proposals didn’t sell. I can understand those reasons, but then I find books published that have exactly the same weaknesses. Why, I agonize, did they sell and mine didn’t? This is an imponderable issue that continues to plague me each time my thoughts turn to starting another proposal. I examine the subject, start imagining what flaws agents or editors will see in it, see only the weaknesses, internalize their imagined rejections and then talk myself out of trying. And then later I’ll see a book on the very same subject published and start mentally whipping myself for not pursuing it.

This all came to mind recently because I discovered that a book about the making of the film Rebel Without a Cause has just been published by Touchstone (a division of Simon&Schuster). Last year, while using Amazon to check the list of competitive books for a tweak of my James Dean Confidential proposal, I came across a book about the making of Rebel, saw that the publisher was McFarland, and heaved a sigh of relief. My sister had suggested a book about the film several years ago and I gave it some thought. But after writing a proposal for a book about Dean that was already being rejected, having been told there were too many other books about Dean in print, I was gun shy about even thinking about it.

Why did one book about the making of Rebel get published by S&S and another by McFarland, a publisher who pays no advances, buys all rights, and seems to make its sales only to libraries? I’m sure the author of the latter book wonders the same thing.

Agent Kate recently posted a list on her blog, A New List of Things I Don't Want to Read Books About

"1. Hurricane Katrina. Sorry Folks. Not Yet. The only good 9/11 books didn't come out until this year. Give it time."

Read the rest of the list. How many books have been published or will be published that fit Kate’s list? Plenty, I’ll wager.

To adapt the punch line from Herman Mankiewicz’s famous story about Harry Cohn, “Imagine the whole world wired to Agent Kate’s taste.”

Then there’s this story from Publishers Weekly:

Katrina Books Begin

by Steven Zeitchik and Bob Summer, PW Daily -- 9/13/2005

“Douglas Brinkley, who last made news in early 2004 with his account of John Kerry in Vietnam, is doing a new book for Morrow about the hurricane and subsequent tragedy.

Meanwhile, scuttlebutt mills have another prominent New Orleanian doing research on the disaster for a possible book: Michael Lewis, who had a smash with 2003's Moneyball and was born in the city, is said to be down there conducting reporting.

Finally, LSU Press is doing a new print run of An Unnatural Metropolis by LSU geography professor Craig Colten, about the 200-year environmental history of New Orleans. The house is also preparing a paperback for next year with a new section by the author.

The book received little notice when it was first brought out, but since the disaster Colten has appeared everywhere from NPR to Fox News.”

I happen to agree with Kate about Katrina. I’ve already had my fill of the TV coverage. I have no interest in reading a book about it. I juxtaposed her list with the PW story to illustrate the arbitrariness of the publishing process.

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