Crossing over, part II: Will I ever publish this book?

Do I feel lucky?

Do I feel lucky?

Howdy, friends!  Today’s post is part II about how I wrote and got a contract for the book I’ll publish next year, The Many Captivities of Esther Wheelwright (2016).  For part I of this series, “Crossing Over:  What is my book about?” click here.  When last I left you, I had just arrived at the Huntington and presented a draft of my introduction to a terrific seminar that meets there, Past Tense, which focuses on the craft of writing history and the choices historians make.  The people there seemed to like the intro and expressed enthusiasm for the project overall.

After the Past Tense seminar last autumn, I contacted the agent I had been in touch with more than six years earlier, and sent him the first four chapters and my introduction.  He replied with admirable alacrity–within a week, said that the four chapters were “very interesting” and “very impressive,” but he utterly disliked my introduction, which was not just an introduction to Esther Wheelwright, but also a short essay on the politics of early American historical biography and our preference as both writers and readers to read the same damn so-called “Founding Father” biographies over and over again.  (Longtime readers here will recognize this complaint!)

The agent informed me that my introduction was out-of-date and the feminist analysis was tedious and “hectoring,” and said that he wasn’t interested in representing me.  I talked to some of my friends about this, and they bolstered my sense that I should stick to my guns.  I didn’t write this book just to tell a fascinating story about a little girl and a woman (although I do that!)–I wrote it so that I could make a larger point about U.S. American history, and whose stories get told and whose stories get left out.

In the course of our correspondence, I told the agent that I had already been in touch with Yale and with another prestigious university press that also publishes crossover titles (through those breakfast and lunch invitations).  He said that in that case he wouldn’t have done me any good, because those were the editors he had thought of selling this book to anyway.  (In other words, he wasn’t going to take it to Knopf or Penguin even if he loved the intro.)  He encouraged me to go it alone, because “I’d just be taking money out of your pocket.”  All in all, I liked this guy–I’m sorry he didn’t like my “hectoring” feminism, but he was straight with me, and it’s business, right?  I know I’m not everyone’s cup of tea–people either really like me (the majority) or dislike me intensely (poor, deluded souls!)  The agent had given me a speedy evaluation and lots of free advice, so I have no complaints.

After this years-long adventure in trial-and-error, with an emphasis on the errors, I went with Yale for the same reasons I went with the University of Pennsylvania Press for my first book:  they publish really nice-looking books and the editor was enthusiastic about my vision for this project from the beginning.  It’s kind of interesting to learn that the advice I’d been giving junior scholars turned out to be pretty good:  trust your gut, and dance with the one that brung ya.  The tidy advance certainly didn’t hurt, and it was especially sweet knowing that I didn’t have to share it with an agent!  I didn’t ask about publishing it as a crossover title–that was something the editor proposed on his own because of my effort to write a book that told a story and made its arguments implicitly rather than explicitly.

So what can you learn from one person’s highly individual experience?  I dunno.  Here’s what I learned:

  1. Network, network, network.  The more different places you present your work, the more different meetings you go to, the more people you correspond with and help out, the more manuscripts you review for presses and journals, the more people you know through social media like Facebook, blogs, and Twitter–well, the better connected you are.  Be a productive part of your professional ecosystem, and that ecosystem will likely nurture and feed you as well.  I am entirely indebted to a friend who worked with my editor at Yale for her first book, and who passed my name along to him, which led to that breakfast invitation at the Organization of American Historians meeting last year.
  2. Write with the readers you want in mind.  If you want a general readership to find and appreciate your book, write it with them in mind.  (This was the subject of Liz Covart’s post from last week that got me rolling on this whole journey-to-publication saga.)  I thought a lot about my mother’s book club and what might interest them about Esther’s story, as they’ve read a number of historical novels as well as women’s memoirs, including the memoir of a nun who left her religious order in the 1960s.  I also thought about the kinds of questions that children might have about children in the past, as half the book focuses on Esther’s life up to age fifteen or so.  With that in mind, find your natural style and go with it.  Think about your speaking voice and how the book would sound if someone read it out loud–that trick surely helps me avoid overly-long sentences with tortured syntax, a fault I find in a great deal of academic writing.  I also learned a great deal about writing for a non-specialist audience while writing this blog–so finding a neutral space in which to  play helps too–journaling works for some people, but I liked figuring this out in public (with your help!  Believe me, my blog readers will be thanked in my acknowledgements.)
  3. Are you in my sights?

    Are you in my sights?

    Listen to critics, but stick to your guns.  When I tell non-historians what I’m writing about, most of them say, “that sounds really interesting.  I love historical fiction!”  They’re even more intrigued when I tell them I’m writing non-fiction.  I’ve known all along that I’ve got a story to tell that will interest readers beyond the academy.  I’ve also been the recipient of a lot of generous support and helpful criticism from my professional colleagues and students, some of which has helped me from making foolish errors (!) and all of which has really helped me write a better book.  But I’ve also had my critics.  I’ve been told that I’m “daft” for trying to write this book; and as I said above, I’ve been told that my feminist introduction is “hectoring.”  Some of these naysayers really knocked me off my game and I let them eat into my brain, which was stupid considering all the enthusiasm that the vast majority of others had shown.  If you know what’s important about the book you’re writing, listen to the critics who want to help you write the book you want to write, not the book they want you to write, or the book they wished they had written.  As for the naysayers:  everyone’s a critic, and unless you aspire to write the world’s blandest book, you’ll hear from at least a few.

So, that’s it.  I should probably sign off on posting for a few days and get back to my revisions, which are due in about six weeks if I want this book to appear in October 2016!  But I’ll surely be checking in through the day for comments on this post, yesterday’s post, and any other discussions happening on-blog, if anyone wants to pick up the other end of this rope.

Happy trails, and good luck with whatever writing is on your to-do list this summer.  We’re all in this together!

21 thoughts on “Crossing over, part II: Will I ever publish this book?

  1. Pingback: Crossing over, part I: What is my book about? | Historiann

  2. Hooray for the hectoring feminist introduction – sounds like it will make awesome discussion material in my classes, and for that I thank you. Also: take a look at this world. I think some hectoring is in order.

    FYI I also had a couple interactions with commercial agents that convinced me I didn’t want to write the book that they wanted to sell. Hence the “best of both worlds” vs. “fitting into neither” quandary. I wanted a narrative approach, without a lot of academic apparatus, but with a lot of text analysis. I know I’ve made some academics unhappy with the former and some general-public readers unhappy with the latter. The question is does the book succeed in reaching more people than it alienates, or would it have just been better to commit entirely to one approach or the other. Ultimately, however, I think I could only have written the book the way I did, so perhaps the question is moot.

    Is there going to be a part III of this series where you discuss more of your writing decisions? (I hope so.)


    • Thanks, Rachel. I think the intro–hectoring though it may be–has the virtue of brevity, which means that people who want to skip it and just go straight to the story can do that, too.

      I’ve been so flattered and encouraged by people’s interest in all of this process stuff–maybe I will write a part III in which I talk about the explicit models I used when writing my book.

      As to your book: I will let you know what my History of Sexuality students think about it. In fact, I’d love to have you Skype into a class meeting with them, as they really enjoy seeing the authors whose books we read and they have really good questions for them. I’ll be in touch about this.

      As a scholar, I noted that your scholarly apparatus is played down, but that’s because I understood (I think?) the kind of book you wrote, which is that you’re looking for a broader audience & looking to tell a story with the (voluminous!!!) literary evidence you have for Charity & Sylvia’s relationship. Scholars can follow your arguments & follow-up in the footnotes if they want to, but general readers don’t have to if they don’t want to because it’s not up in their grills.

      But you know what? You weren’t a first-time author with this book. You’ve written a scholarly monograph before, so I think you earned the right to write the book you wanted to write instead of the book other scholars in the field might have preferred. There’s plenty of historiography in your footnotes for those who want it, and plenty for those of us who want to get students to engage in these debates. Whatever!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Way to go, Historiann, with sticking to your metaphorical guns. (But what else would I expect of a rootin’, tootin’ cowgirl?) The more that we, as scholars, can do to show that feminism is essential in understanding and appreciating the breadth of earlier history, the better.

    As you mention, many of your prospective readers love historical fiction. I hang out a lot with historical romance novelists, many of whom are my most thoughtful fellow travellers on the road to learning about women’s history. They want to know what women’s experiences were really like in the past, as well as the prospects of broader social history, while also delving for distinctive narratives such as you are telling about Esther’s story.

    You and I know that sometimes there are really bright and well-informed people who didn’t get a Ph.D. and land a tenure-track job: why not welcome these prospective readers, rather than assume they’re incapable of appreciating the cool history you’ve crafted? Sounds as if you and your editor at Yale have it right!


    • Thanks! Who’dathunk I could sell not just the story of a little girl, not just the story of a woman who doesn’t speak English after age 7, not JUST the story of a woman who lives in a convent for 70+ years, BUT ALSO a CANADIAN HISTORY BOOK, to a U.S. publisher!!!

      The stakes are pretty high for this book, now that I think of it. . .


  4. Historiann,

    This is all incredibly useful! I love publishing stories because nobody ever tells you these things. I think it’s too close to talking about salaries which is (of course) considered tacky both in academia and American culture at large.

    As I’ve been simultaneously going it alone and aspiring to sell out, let me share two things I’ve learned by asking questions:

    1) When you go it alone, you don’t really have to be alone. The National Writers Union can help you! They’ll read contracts and explain what’s good and what’s bad based on their experience. They’ll also help you negotiate (which I desperately need). When I heard their representative talk, he had us all say in unison his mantra: “That sounds a little low.” I already signed my second contract with Johns Hopkins before I heard this, but if I can’t manage to find an agent for the next one I’ll be joining the NWU immediately.

    2) I won’t know for a while if I do manage to find an agent, because (as I learned through a long talk with a very successful historian who has one) you have to be within two years of producing a manuscript for an agent to take you on since trade publishers won’t wait any longer than that. Sure, 10% of a nice trip to Europe will cost you a couple of days of travel, but I know another historian whose agent got him six figures. I think it’s a worthwhile sacrifice if you’re capable of writing a book that might command that kind of audience.


    • Thanks, Jonathan, and good luck. For a six-figure advance I’m sure you really do need an agent. (My advance was 5 figures without an agent, so what’s left after Uncle Sam takes his bite is all mine.) The point you make about having a ms. pretty much at the finish line is an important one–this is so true, and it’s so counter-cultural for us academics to think about deadlines as DEADlines rather than “suggestions.”


  5. Count me in as another fan of the “process stuff,” even though I don’t have much to add (except that this discussion is also thought-provoking for a scholar who hasn’t yet, at mid-career, published a scholarly monograph, and knows that publishing one at this point will not necessarily be a gateway to a tenure-track job. Given those circumstances, and limited writing time, why not consider all the possibilities?)


    • Right on! If you don’t *have* to write a monograph to keep your job, why no think of the other books you could write instead?


  6. Thanks for posting this series Historiann! Please do write a part III, I would love to see what your models and inspiration were as well as hear more about your writing process. As other commenters have mentioned, it helps to hear about other people’s experiences.

    Its great to know that you were able to persevere and triumph after eight years of working on the book while teaching and doing the other aspects of our day jobs. I now have some hope that I can write the book I want to write, even if it takes a while. Congratulations!


    • Thanks, Matt! You can do it.

      You know, I hesitated before admitting that I’ve been working on this book for more than SEVEN years now. I was a little embarrassed by that, but then I thought: what’s the point of passing along that guilt and not making it clear how long it took me? Could I have done it in 5 or 6 years, if I had won a research grant sooner or if I hadn’t let the naysayers and the negative neddies get into my headspace. But that’s what it is. Why try to imply that writing this book was any faster or easier than it was? This stuff takes time.

      I will write a part III later this week about my literary and historical influences. You’re all going to be a little abashed at one of my most important role models. It was actually edited or ghost-written by a journalist! (GASP!!!)


  7. Historiann,

    Congratulations on the forthcoming book. I’m glad you did not give up because Esther’s story is amazing. Also, I loved the movie, so now want to read the book! I too find the process fascinating, so here are some thoughts from someone who’s two most recent efforts are crossover trade books.

    1. As you suggest, trade books are difficult to write. My first trade book also took seven years because after I researched and wrote a first draft, I then spent several years just re-writing and re-organizing to make it accessible to a broad audience. It is not easy to switch gears from footnotes to thinking about narrative arc and character development. The very process of writing academic history develops some bad habits you have to break to write a successful trade book. And, that starts with the book proposal. Here you need to write in first person, be willing to shamelessly brag that yourself, and talk about your wonderful marketing abilities. None of this comes easy for us academics.

    2. I’m glad you were able to do it by yourself but I never could have done it without my agent. He was my advocate who gave me a savvy sense of the market and also an honest assessment of my work’s strength’s and shortcomings. I owe my second trade book (and the five figure advance) entirely to him. During one of his lunch meetings with an editor, the discussion turned to filling a need in a series. My agent immediately said, stop right there, I know the person to write that book! I dropped everything to write the proposal, which was quickly accepted. He has been worth every penny to me. 15% of nothing is nothing, which is how much I would have earned in royalties without him.

    3. Don’t do it for money. Given the hours put in, I’m sure I would have more money if I got a second job bagging groceries. Yes, there is a small chance that you may have a best seller, but that is like winning the lottery. And, that is increasingly difficult given the steep decline in book sales. And by the way, the royalties on e-books and audiobooks are a much lower percentage than a “real” book.

    4. Don’t be deterred by the challenges. If you have a good idea, go for it! I love writing for a non-specialist audience – telling compelling and relevant stories – and believe it is critical for historians to do it. If we don’t, we abdicate our responsibility to the media talking heads. As a public historian, I think academically trained historians need to engage the public in all possible avenues. Heck, one of my goals is to write an historical novel. What better way to reach the public, and who can do it more accurately than us?


    • Who indeed? Thanks for commenting, Tad–it’s really good to hear from you, and I like your advice. You’re such an experienced writer in all these different formats, so thanks for sharing your experiences with us. I agree with your point re: public history and our responsibility to engage the public rather than hoard the knowledge we’ve learned. (I will do a post on this subject later this summer about my participation in an episode of Who Do You Think You Are, a genealogy TV show on TLC.)

      The historian-as-historical novelist turn is I think a really positive one. Deb Harkness’s success has a lot of us thinking about writing that might be both more fun and more remunerative. I’ve been contacted by another academic-turned-novelist recently–Sam Thomas–and am always happy to spitball ideas with people.


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

  9. Pingback: “Scent of a woman’s ink,” updated for a new generation. | Historiann

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