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.
And 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!