I had the great honor of getting to pen the inaugural Ask and Editor advice column over on the Chronicle Books blog last week. Folks wrote in with questions about book proposals--how best to submit them, how we choose which ones to publish, how to get feedback, and so forth--and it was my privilege to answer their questions (as best I could!). People have said it's a helpful piece, so I thought I'd go ahead and re-post it here in it's entirety. Happy Publishing Wednesday!
Ask an Art Book Editor
You’re a creative person and you’re sitting on a pretty great book idea. So how do you get it out of your head and into the world? Editor Bridget Watson Payne has been helping authors do just that for over 10 years, and now she wants to help you. Email your toughest editorial questions to firstname.lastname@example.org and they could be answered in the next column.
A lot of people who are already well-known seem to get book deals. Do you have to be famous to pitch something to Chronicle?Absolutely not. For certain kinds of projects, of course, having a “platform” (which basically means being well-known enough to have fans and followers you already connect with, and who will be interested in your book) is a huge plus. But there are plenty of other kinds of books where it really is all about the distinctiveness and awesomeness of the content—AKA your work. Humor and pop culture books are one great example of that; art, illustration, and curation can be as well. If what you’re doing is super witty, or clever, or drop-dead gorgeous, or just makes me say “yes! exactly! of course this should be a book!” then I am not going to get hung up on your level of fame or lack thereof. There are all different kinds of projects—some are author platform-driven, some are content-driven—and there’s no better or worse about that, they’re just different.
How much does your personal taste factor into which books you choose to develop?This is a tricky one. I’ve been doing this for over a decade and some days I’m still working it out. It took me a long time to really internalize the fact that just because I love something personally, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a fit for Chronicle’s list. I don’t have to make every single project I personally like into a book because we can only make so many things, and also I (like everyone) have some weird pockets to my own taste—things I might be super into but that maybe not very many other people would dig, or where perhaps it’s for an audience that may indeed be out there but we’re not sure how to reach them. If I took on those projects, knowing on some level we weren’t the right home for them, I would be doing everyone, especially the authors, a disservice. However, there is also something to be said for honing an awareness of when I myself am indeed the ideal consumer for a particular project—if I love something, and I can envision us reaching lots of other people like me who will also love it, then that’s when my own personal taste can be really useful. So it really just becomes a question of having gradually learned over time to distinguish the parts of my taste that are super weird and niche from the parts that are more readily applicable to a wider audience.
What’s the weirdest proposal you’ve received that’s actually become a book or product?That would probably be The Secret Life of Syrian Lingerie. It’s a design book about the lingerie industry in Syria, which included undergarments that lit up, played music, and were adorned with all kinds of amazing decorations. It was one of the very first books I acquired way back when I started doing the editorial gig, almost ten years ago, and I just fell in love with the project—how strange and amazingly creative this kind of fashion design was. In retrospect I’d say this was definitely before I learned to do the thing I was just talking about—separating the very weird part of my own taste from the more widely applicable part. But in that case, hey, it worked out!
I’ve submitted a few times to Chronicle Books but nothing has worked out yet. How can I get truthful feedback about what would make my proposal stronger?
There are actually a few different questions to consider here. The first thing to think about is that not every project we do, not every author/publisher relationship we have, was an instant hit the very first time we were pitched something. I have a number of authors—both big-name ones and lesser known rising-stars—who sent in as many as half a dozen ideas that didn’t quite work for us before nailing the one that totally did. So to a certain extent the answer is just grit and persistence. One idea doesn’t work? Come up with another idea, and another. The great thing about being a creative person is that (barring creative blocks—and we have a book to help overcome those!) there is always more where that came from. Just keep going!
The second part, of course, is the question of how to make a book proposal stronger. I’ve got another blog post over here full of tips and tricks that might help with that. But the third aspect of your question is perhaps the most interesting of all—the part about getting truthful feedback.As editors we try to be as truthful as possible when writing decline letters to folks about the reasons a particular project isn’t going to work for us. But we do get a ton of proposals and we don’t always have the time to give the level of detailed feedback people might like. When you’re in the situation of feeling really confident you have a great book idea, but suspecting it’s your pitch or proposal that could use some serious reworking, I would recommend talking to a literary agent or creative consultant. This is someone who can really take the time to do a deep dive with you into the pros and cons of your proposal—what’s working and what could be improved. Here are a few Chronicle alumni who could help you out:
What’s the one piece of advice that you think could most help those who dream of being published?
Don’t be discouraged by rejection, and don’t take it personally. Nearly every person with a great success story, if she’s being honest, also has dozens of rejection stories. I might almost go so far as to say that the only sure way to be told “yes” about anything (not just book proposals!) is first to be told “no” a whole bunch of times. I decline great projects all the time—not because they don’t merit publication, but simply because they are not a good fit for what Chronicle does. And I always really hope that those people will take my decline letter, not as a roadblock or a major disappointment, but as motivation—either to research more publishers and find the perfect homes for their ideas, or to cook up new ideas to send back to me. I hope they think “I’ll show her!” and then I hope they do! Grit, tenacity, and the awareness that although, yes, you probably have poured your heart and soul into your project, it is not your heart or soul that is being rejected. A decline is simply a business decision and not a reflection on the intrinsic worth of either your project or your self. A consciousness of that is invaluable.
Get more personalized guidance from Bridget on July 30th at her Makeshift Society SF workshop: Publishing for Creatives.