Well, hello there! My apologies for being incommunicado for the past few months. I’m sure you all have been doing some cool and crazy things. I have been traveling a bit and riding my bike a lot but mostly, I’ve been writing my book. And for those of you who have read previous posts in the Historista’s Guide to the Writing Life series, you know that this is great news, because it means I managed to sell the book to a publisher.
So here’s what happened.
Selling the Book
Back in January, my agent sent my proposal for “Path of the Dead Man” out to editors at the trades and to university presses who had expressed interest.
It was a mere two weeks between that moment and the bid deadline. During that time, I tried desperately to pretend it wasn’t happening, and that this wasn’t going to determine my life for the next few years. I did not succeed in this effort. And so I fretted. A lot. What would happen if no one bid on the book? What if there were bids, but they were really low? Like, so low that they wouldn’t even pay for research trips? I had already decided that I would not write the book for free. I was hoping for an advance that would work like a salary, paying me to write for two years.
Near the end of the two-week period, there was good news. Several presses had expressed interest and said they would be bidding. And one editor wanted to talk to me on the phone.
Thankfully, the editor quickly put me at ease.
We talked about my life in academia, and found we knew people in common, which was crazy and amazing. We talked about the challenges involved in my book structure (30 chapters, moving between the perspectives of nine different people), and about the kinds of books I like to read.
And then she asked me a really great (and hard) question:
“What is the emotional center of your book?”
This is not a question that academics usually ask about their work, and I didn’t have a great answer for it then. But I’ve been thinking about it ever since, and it’s helping me to find threads that tie all of the chapters together.
In the end, several bids came in; the editor with whom I chatted had submitted the highest one. And it would, in fact, pay me to be a writer for two years. And so, my friends, I am happy to report that I will be publishing “Path of the Dead Man” with Scribner (Simon & Schuster).
Signing the Contract
The bid process was really fast so the contract process felt slow. When it arrived in the mail in March, I was thrilled – here was tangible evidence that all of this had actually happened.
For the most part, a trade contract reads like a university press contract. There are some differences – a lot of provisions concerning the advance, the strange quirk that the press pays the agent, not the author – but there was one item that gave me pause.
24. Author warrants and represents that c). the Work has not been previously published, except for any portions identified by the Author as being previously published.
I called my agent.
“Ummmm,” I said. “Sooooo. I’ve got two essays out already, two in process, and two that I’ve promised to write in the next year.”
So it appears that this is one of the major differences between publishing with academic and trade presses. In academia, it is pretty much expected that a scholar will publish multiple pieces taken from her larger project. Not too many, of course. But enough to establish a track record and to get good feedback from readers before sending the book out there into the world.
In trade publishing, this practice is tantamount to giving away your intellectual property. You’re basically leaving it on a park bench where anyone can steal it.
“Tell me that you own the copyright on all those pieces,” my agent said.
“Ummmmmm,” I said.
There was nothing I could do about the essays already out. For the works in production (an essay in an edited collection and an article in a journal), I negotiated with the editors to retain the copyrights to my pieces. And then, sadly, I had to email two of my colleagues and pull out of their projects. I’m lucky that it was early enough in the process (no one had started writing yet) and that my colleagues are nice people; those bridges may be lightly singed, but they are not burned to the ground.
And I won’t be publishing any work about the Civil War in the desert Southwest in any format until sometime in 2019.
So, to recap. If you are thinking of writing a trade book:
- Don’t write any articles or essays that include any material from your book before you secure an agent, write the proposal, and sell it.
- If you already have and it’s not too late, negotiate for the copyright to your own work.
Since March, I’ve been churning out chapters. Not as many as I planned, but enough so that I feel like I’m making good progress. I’ve workshopped a few of them with Book Squad (my crew of historians in the Boston area who are also writing books). The narrative is starting to take shape, which makes me happy. And I’m submitting pages to my editor at the end of October. We’ll see what she says.
I hope this series on the Writing Life has been useful. Don’t hesitate to get in touch if you have any questions about this exciting but strange process.