My graduate school mentor, Dr. Bill Richardson, formerly of Georgia State University, currently at the University of South Dakota, once told me never to pin all my hopes on one manuscript. If the book fails, or takes years to get into print, you need to have at least one other project — ideally, multiple projects — ready to go.
Dr. Richardson is a wise man.
Even as the manuscript that would become Coming For To Carry Me Home snaked its way through the twists and turns of peer-review, I searched for a topic for the next book.
I had written a memoir about my family’s struggles to care for my mother between the time she suffered a debilitating stroke in December 2003 and the time she died of lung cancer in February 2007. I called it Dreaming Out Loud for reasons I will explain in a future posting.
Unlike the usual history and political science books I have written — where my academic degrees and my track record sometimes prompt an editor to take a chance on publishing the work — a memoir, at least one involving non-celebrities, is incredibly difficult to market. In the wake of highly-publicized scandals such as the controversy surrounding A Million Little Pieces — later found to have been partially fabricated — selling a memoir, especially without the services of a literary agent, is an uphill battle.
As an aside, my wife at the time, Paula, is the real-life heroine of Dreaming Out Loud. If that book ever makes it into print, readers will be astonished to see the lengths one human being (in this case, Paula) will go to comfort another human being (my incapacitated mother) in her hour of greatest need. I hope one day to tell the world this remarkable story of love and compassion. It is a departure from my usual tales of the Civil War and terrorism, which typically portray humanity at its worst.
But I digress.
In marketing Dreaming Out Loud, I devised what I thought was an ingenious strategy. I would approach a publisher with a “two-for-one” offer: If you agree to publish my memoir, which is already completed, I will write a nonfiction work on a trendy, sexy topic for free. In essence, the moneymaking book would carry the memoir and absorb potential sales risks.
Proud of myself for mastering crafty intellectual gymnastics, I searched for an appropriately juicy topic. I did not have far to look.
I was shameless in selecting terrorism as my subject. In the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States, the subject has become a new source of fascination, intrigue, and fear. Yet terrorism is not a new issue; it has been a concern for governments and the citizenry since antiquity. Even the United States, which has enjoyed the advantage of an ocean to insulate it from the power politics of European affairs for much of the nation’s history, has not been immune to acts of terrorism.
Having found a suitable topic, I prepared a 48-page book proposal titled “On American Soil: Terrorist Attacks in the United States.” I included the usual episodes from recent history — The Unabomber, the Oklahoma City bombing, Eric Rudolph, as well as Osama bin Laden.
I also reached back into history to include less well-known episodes such as the Mountain Meadows Massacre of 1857 (another September 11!), Luke “Dr. Black Vomit” Pryor Blackburn’s Yellow Fever plot during the Civil War, the Colfax Massacre of 1873, the Los Angeles Times bombing of 1910, the Wall Street bombing of 1920, and the Puerto Rican Nationalists’ assassination attempt on President Truman in 1950, among other events.
On July 19, 2009, I submitted the book proposal (along with my “two-for-one” offer) via e-mail and snail mail to my former editor at Rowman & Littlefield, the company that published my book Carpetbaggers, Cavalry, and the Ku Klux Klan in 2007.
On August 3, the editor responded with a short note indicating the terrorism book proposal “looks promising.” He made it clear, however, that he was not interested in publishing, or even discussing, a memoir.
Ah, well — so much for my “two-for-one” plan. In my world, half a loaf is better than no loaf. Never look a gift horse in the mouth. A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. Pick your cliché; I was satisfied with partial success.
A note to publishers: Dreaming Out Loud is still available.
On August 14, the editor sent an email saying a book on terrorism would fit nicely with the publisher’s list. Before he would commit to signing a contract, however, he wanted to solicit outside feedback.
“Uh-oh,” I thought. “Here comes the nasty peer-review.”
Two weeks later, on August 28, he sent a short email: “Just a note to let you know that the feedback I received is very positive, and I’d like to discuss it, and a contract, with you next week. Are you free to talk on Tuesday morning?”
He had asked several booksellers what they thought about offering a new book on terrorism written for a popular audience. Circumventing the customary academic peer-review, he had gone directly to the source of success or failure in the marketplace. The booksellers were wildly enthusiastic.
As for me, I was flabbergasted. I had never sold a book proposal so quickly. Forty days after contacting the editor, I had a publication commitment. I had chosen a topic outside my comfort zone based mostly on sales potential. I found it ironic that a proposal I cared very little about was the proposal I sold so easily.
Yes, how ironic: On one hand, I possessed a completed manuscript I absolutely loved (my Lincoln book, which later morphed into Coming For To Carry Me Home), yet I had no publisher. On the other hand, I had a proposal without a manuscript, and I was relatively indifferent to the subject matter. Yet I had a publisher.
Here cometh the lesson: Never forget that writing for publication is a business. You can blog your brains out for free and tell the world of your passions, just as I am doing now, but if you follow the traditional route to publication, you had better adapt and learn to compromise. Always keep sales in mind. Passion for the subject matter is fine, but you still must sell the product, or at least offer a reasonable possibility of doing so.
In our subsequent telephone conversation, the editor told me he liked everything about the proposal except the title. “On American Soil: Terrorist Attacks in the United States,” in his view, sounded too academic and boring. I agreed. I promised to find a suitable replacement title in the near future.
In the following weeks, I searched for a title that was both lyrical and descriptive of the book.
I found inspiration, as so many people before me have done, in Shakespeare and the Bible. Based on these sources, I changed the title to The Swords of Wicked Men: Terrorist Attacks on American Soil.
Two epigraphs inspired the title:
That high All-Seer that I dallied with Hath turn’d my feigned prayer on my head And given in earnest what I begg’d in jest. Thus doth he force the swords of wicked men To turn their own points on their masters’ bosoms.
--William Shakespeare, King Richard III, Act V, Scene i
The wicked draw the sword and bend the bow to bring down the poor and needy, to slay those whose ways are upright.
A funny thing happened as I searched for a new title. I fell in love with the subject. The “high All-Seer” had tricked me into a passionate response; he “hath turn’d my feigned prayer on my head and given in earnest what I begg’d in jest.”
As I write these words in August 2011, I am laboring to complete The Swords of Wicked Men. My initial draft is due at Rowman & Littlefield on November 1, 2011. Ideally, the book will appear in the marketplace in time for the eleventh anniversary of 9/11 in 2012.