Crossing over, part I: What is my book about?

View of Quebec City across the St. Lawrence

View of Quebec City across the St. Lawrence

In a post last weekend, I revealed that my forthcoming book, The Many Captivities of Esther Wheelwright (Yale University Press, forthcoming 2016) would be published as a crossover academic-trade title.  Some of you expressed interest in how I got a contract like this, as many of the scholar-readers here are interested in writing beyond a traditional academic audience of other professors and their students.  So, I’ll tell you my story and do my best to draw a few lessons out of it.

(Over the last several years, I would tell junior scholars who asked about how I got my first book published to ask the same question of a lot of other people, because it seems like no two journeys to a publisher and to publication are the same.  Maybe this is a truth universally acknowledged?  Those of you with more experience, PLEASE weigh in with your ideas, advice, and experiences!)

When I first started thinking seriously about this book eight years ago, I thought I’d write a book aimed at students that included a number of primary sources like those Bedford Readers, many of which focus on a single biographical subject, and which are attractively packaged and priced for undergraduate classes.  I thought this would be a great service to professors who wanted to include more women’s history in their surveys and other undergraduate classes in early North American history.  I wrote a proposal for that book and was offered a contract for it.  But then I started doing the French Canadian research and discovered that there were very few primary documents at the Archives du Monastère des Ursulines de Québec that would be translatable or make sense to an Anglophone audience without writing a much longer back story, and therefore turning it into a very different kind of book.  (I never signed or returned that original contract.)

At the same time, a contact of mine in the  profession who only writes books for trade presses very generously shared the name and contact information of her agent with me, and encouraged me to get in touch with him.  So I sent him a sample chapter; he very kindly read it, said he’d be interested to see more, and gave me some tips for what to expand on and what to cut to make it more appealing to a wider audience of readers.

I was sitting on a terrific story, but clearly I needed to decide how I wanted to tell it.  On the one hand, I wanted to reach a wider audience of readers outside of academia if possible.  But as a feminist scholar who has been very public on this blog about her critiques and concerns about her field, I also believed that this project could and should make important arguments to other scholars and students about what early North American history could be and the different stories we could tell if we only went looking for them.  I was especially clear about the feminist intervention that I thought the book could make.

In the end, I decided that before I committed to a press, I needed to write the darn book.  Whereas it seems that most second-time-around authors write a book proposal and a draft chapter or two and then seek a contract, the thought of writing a book proposal when I didn’t really know what this book wanted to be seemed both overwhelming and counterproductive.  So, I wrote the book instead at the pace of about one chapter per year, in addition to writing conference papers, publishing at least one other academic essay or article per year, and showing up to my day job of teaching the curious masses.  I also wrote a lot of grant and fellowship proposals to support the writing of this book, all of which failed to win me anything until I won the Huntington Library fellowship for the 2014-15 academic year.

Although I hate to admit it, even those failed grant applications forced me each year to try to explain what my book is all about, which was probably a useful exercise in the long run.  (And yet, that’s no excuse for failing to reward my efforts!)  Because of the help of some very generous friends, the applications probably got better over time as I found the language I needed to explain my project in 1,500 words.  Persistence also probably helped as well:  like water on a stone, I wore at least one library down.

yesAnd in-between the rejections and fits of bitter, bitter recrimination, I pulled myself together.  I talked to a lot of people and heard about their experiences with different presses, particularly people publishing second or third books.  I shared portions of my work with various academic audiences, and wrote about the process of writing the book on this blog.  I worked with various writing groups with local colleagues here in Colorado.  I said “yes” to anyone who invited me to give a talk about this blog, or the book, or anything else at their universities.  I also said “yes” to every invitation to breakfast, lunch, or coffee I got from different editors–mostly university press editors, but also some commercial academic presses.  After a few years–OK, six years of this kind of networking and just working, I figured out what the book needed to be, and late last summer I was off to the Huntington to finish the last three chapters and write an introduction.

Last September, I presented a draft of the introduction to an audience of scholars at the Huntington, where it generated a great deal of enthusiasm and interest in my project.  I also showed them slides of various colonial garments and photos of historical dolls, which they seemed to appreciate.  I felt vindicated–at last!

Tomorrow in part II, I’ll let you know–as the old radio announcer Paul Harvey used to say–the rest of the story.  

20 thoughts on “Crossing over, part I: What is my book about?

  1. Publication stories do vary, so there will be different stories popping up here. Placing a book with a trade press is difficult, but publishing with an academic press is no less so. My first two books were with academic presses. Each time, after having gone through the exhaustive querying part (with a completed mss), I swore I’d never do it again. I don’t have a thick enough skin for all of the rejections that come before the final success. I didn’t graduate from a top Ph.D. granting institution and I teach at a branch campus of a midwestern state university–in other words, no big academic credentials. When an editor tells me that my subject isn’t likely to attract a reader’s interest or that its argument isn’t cutting-edge enough or that the approach is off-kilter or that the writing is flat, I’m actually speechless. I figure it’s futile to try and argue about those things. And it always took me a long time to move on from those rejections. Yet I still write.

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    • Rejection is hard! I write a little about that in my part II post for tomorrow.

      I completely get what you’re saying about academic & cultural capital–how much easier it would be to sell our books if we taught at a name-brand university? That’s not all, or even the most important thing, but the fact of the matter is that certain email addresses & affiliations get people interested in talking to you, and others don’t. This is where I think networking can help–say “YES” to all invitations you possibly can.

      And thanks for all of the RTs on Twitter!

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  2. I agree about networking, Without it, the second book would never have been published. Unfortunately, even saying yes to all invitations is getting harder and harder, unless they come with paid travel. Due to recent budget cuts, this is not the sort of thing my university will be supporting. I’ve had to rely more and more on the vast interweb to make connections. (Always happy to RT–these are important conversations.)

    BTW, I also found that having published one book did not make it any easier to publish the second. Anyone else encounter this? My first book had mostly favorable reviews, though it wasn’t widely reviewed.

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    • I found it easier to get attention & publish the second book than the first, but the first book wasn’t that difficult for me either. I always thought it should be easier to publish subsequent books once you’ve shown you can bring it in for a landing the first time. I’m sorry if it wasn’t like that for you, but now you’ve got THREE books, Theresa, so who can stop you now?

      And maybe I’m spoiled (a bit!) but most of my invites have come w/paid travel! It’s true I can’t do all of the academic conferences I get invited to do, in part b/c of travel $$$ issues, but also when your calendar is full of invited lectures and speaking engagements. . .

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      • So, a mercenary follow-up question on behalf of those not drowning in speaking invitations: how to gin them up, in order to make the connections it seems one needs? I feel fairly well connected in my field (lots of conferences, coffee conversations at the library, etc), and colleagues are reading and teaching my work. But no speaking engagements forthcoming, despite the occasional “Oh, we should get you to campus sometime soon.” Or is this beyond one’s own control?

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      • Ellie: to be honest, my blog has a lot to do with the speaking engagements I’ve had over the past 5 years or so. It puts my name in people’s minds in ways that my institutional affiliation & my scholarship do not (necessarily). But I would say that if people are saying things like “we should get you to campus,” you should follow that up with an email letting them know when you might be in their neighborhood for a conference, or what times of the year are generally good for you, etc. Suggest to them that you’d be delighted to sit in on a class or read dissertation proposals for their grad students in addition to talking about your work.

        IOW, If you indicate real interest in being a guest, that will incline people to be more specific hosts!

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  3. I am totally with you on having to write the book and see it before sending it to a press. I’ve never written in a predictable sequence, and the chapter order usually changes over time, so I would find sending a chapter out before I’d finished a pretty good draft scary. I might do this with my next book, but that’s because it’s actually a fairly well defined subject, more synthetic, and I see it clearly. (I knew I was ready to be done with this one when I started outlining the new one!)

    FWIW, I have not had any continuity in presses, because my books have been very different. So it’s not as if I have “an editor” who continues to work with me. I envy people who have that.

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  4. I love getting a window into different publishing experiences. Can you tell us a bit about the advice the agent gave you re: appealing to a broader audience? And maybe a bit on what agents can/can’t do in the academic realm?

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    • I just posted part II of the story, so there’s a little of this intel in there.

      The advice I got from this agent, as I recall now 7 years on, had to do with focusing more on some of the details of everyday life even more than I already was. So it wasn’t extensive advice, but advice about perspective and trying to anticipate the questions that a non-specialist audience might have.

      (I may do a part III post on the historical and literary models I found most useful for writing this book.)

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  5. Pingback: Crossing over, part II: Will I ever publish this book? | Historiann

  6. Congratulations on the contract! I’m really looking forward to the book. I’m also really interested to hear more about your thoughts on how to write for that academic/trade split – it’s the same niche that Charity & Sylvia falls into, and I’ve often wondered whether it represents the best of both worlds or the failure to fit comfortably into either. I know that for me, the two most important things I wanted from the trade side of the equation were 1) affordability and 2) trade reviews, so non-academics would hear about the book. What are you looking for from the trade designation?

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    • Thanks, Rachel–for me, it was really all about the money.

      HAhahaha. Not really. They money is nice, but I’m thinking along the same lines as you in terms of visibility and marketing. The advance is great & we’ll have a nice vacation with it and I’ll also buy some toys and research trips with it too, but it’s just as valuable for securing Yale’s commitment to advertising and promoting it. They need to make it all back!

      And the money is really, really nice. As they say: living well is the best revenge!

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      • Thanks, Theresa–although certainly not an overnight success, as I hope this series of posts has made clear!

        I hope that people with quirky ideas who get pushback from colleagues, agents, and editors will be inspired to stick to their guns. I said above that living well is the best revenge, but just publishing the book people said you were “daft” to write and crazy even to try is an excellent vindication as well.

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    • Rachel, your point about hitting the best of both worlds is what occupies my thoughts. I think my work has never been quite analytical enough to satisfy most academics. I’ve always been more interested in good stories that tap into people on the historical periphery. And not writing about Founding Fathers limits trade options, as Ann has pointed out. I am happy (and a bit apprehensive) that my 3rd book found a home with Oxford trade.

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  7. Pingback: On historians writing “popular” books: How I Did It. | Theresa Kaminski

  8. Pingback: Crossing over, part III: The uses and limits of literary models | Historiann

  9. Pingback: The Big Sleep | Historiann

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