Home girl Novella Carpenter threw an open house Saturday and welcomed whoever wanted to come tour her urban farm, meet her goats, chickens, bees and rabbit; buy her book, Farm City; and exchange information about urban homesteading. I came home with a bag of ripe prune plums, made into jam, and goat poo and hay on one of my sneakers.
Sometimes things happen for the best. Such was the case a few days ago, when a woman emailed me to say she had worked with two book coaches but was only 60 percent satisfied with her book proposal and wanted another coach. She had found me through a Google search.
I was skeptical. Why on earth should she need a third coach? Was this a bad sign? Plus, I don’t usually find clients this way. Intrigued, I asked to see the proposal.
I saw what was wrong immediately: 1. Part of any good book proposal is stating the business case. These two coaches had let her write a whole proposal without contemplating the book’s chances for commercial success. 2. Her idea was too broad and needed more focus to differentiate it. 3. She named only best-sellers as her competition, so why would anyone choose a book from an unknown? 4. She had not created a platform (her ability to identify and develop readers who would spend the money for her book) to attract agents and editors.
Worst of all, she had spent so much time and money, only to get to this state. What bothered me most was the realization that, even though she had hired professional book coaches, she would still be part of the 97 percent rejection rate. Momentarily, I considered the possibility that coaches don’t matter. Dismissed that. Then I felt more charitable towards the coaches. Was it partly because she wouldn’t hear their message?
I said I would only work with her if she would be willing to focus her book more sharply and do serious back-up work to create a platform. I said it that way because I just can’t take on a client whose book idea won’t succeed.
She replied that she would choose someone else. It was a relief. She was not ready to do the work required to be part of the 3 percent who succeed.
David Leite told me I should not rant on this blog. Then he emailed me a 1400-word rant about food writers who are bitter about the success of food blogger Julie Powell and the coming movie based on her book, and of course I got worked up.
Powell wrote Julie & Julia, about a year of cooking her way through Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking. The upcoming movie, Julie & Julia, is based on Julie’s book and My Life in France, a memoir of Julia Child written by her nephew.
There’s a lot of sour grapes from traditional food writers about how food bloggers are being taken seriously, and hand-wringing about how Julia Child wouldn’t be taken seriously today. As the movie release date approaches this weekend, the carping increases. David pointed me to Virginia Willis’ blog post and comments as an example.
Here’s the drift of the comments going around and my response. Thanks to David for inspiring me.
1. Julia Child could not get a cookbook published today because she doesn’t have a platform. Rubbish. Publishers still publish books from authors with small platforms. They are also still taken by excellent writing. If Child was around today, she’d probably start a a blog to help her with her platform. Maybe she’d have a Facebook page and a Twitter account, because she was always accessible to the adoring public, including us food writers. When she died just about everyone I knew had a story about the time they met her.
2. Julia Child wouldn’t get a TV show today because she’s an accomplished cook. I agree. That wouldn’t be the main reason she’d get the job. But she was also a supreme entertainer, and — hello! That’s what television is all about. The Food Network makes no secret of it. Maybe the fact that she was a Cordon Bleu-trained chef would come third in her list of qualities, after excellent content.
Perhaps the old guard of food writers sees themselves in this victim version of Julia Child, the skilled chef whose talents are not appreciated. But Child would never be a victim. She’d be more like Judith Jones, her editor, who started a blog to promote her new book. These seasoned food writers also dismiss a newcomer like Julie Powell, which leads me to the third comment making the rounds…
3. Julie Powell has no right to be so successful because she’s a) “not a serious (read: formally trained) cook,” b) only a blogger, and c) the Julie/Julia Project was a publicity stunt.
Let’s look at these charges individually. Regarding a), Of course she wasn’t a serious cook. She was learning how to cook by cooking her way through Mastering the Art of French Cooking for a year.
Re b), She might have only been a blogger but her idea and writing were good enough to be serialized on Salon.com and led to a 6-figure book advance. And the editor didn’t care that she was not professionally trained.
And re c), I don’t think she ever dreamed that her idea would lead to a book and a movie. We’re a celebrity culture, she was young and attractive, she had a great idea, and once Amanda Hesser wrote about her in the New York Times in 2003, the calls from literary agents and the whole circus began.
Ironically, Mastering the Art of French Cooking will now sell all over again to younger audiences inspired by the movie. I was a little shocked to see that Knopf put Merryl Streep on the cover. Talk about art imitating life. So Julia Child can sell a book today, even if she looks like Merryl Streep. Julie Powell’s book relaunched this month as well, with a new cover showing scenes from the movie.
I’m going to watch the movie with a bunch of gal pals and enjoy myself. I’ve adored screenwriter Nora Ephron since the 1970s, when she became the first woman to have a column in Esquire magazine, then considered nirvana for serious non-fiction writers. And even though I’ve been a print writer for more than three decades, I’m not bitter. It’s a new world in publishing. I’m just trying to keep up.
P.S. If you need any more proof of the decreasing power of print journalism, here’s an account of Sony’s first-class treatment of food bloggers prior to the movie opening. So far her post has generated 90 comments, none snarky. Thanks to David Lebovitz for the tip. And here’s the Matt Bites interview with all three stars.
In my last post, I wrote about book proposals and why they fail. But hey, maybe you just wrote a good one for a cookbook, memoir, reference book, travel guide, etc. And you’re ready to send it to a literary agent or editor at a publishing house. Where do you get the right list of names?
One of the best way to find agents is by referral, or by looking in the acknowledgments of books by authors you like. Also look in the Food & Lifestyle and Cookbook categories in Agent Search.
A blog by the editors of Writer’s Digest magazine, on the Guide to Literary Agents website, holds many keys to successful querying. Guest bloggers tell success stories of how they got their agents and the blog profiles agents too. The editors post real query letters that have led publishers to buy books, then post commentary about what worked and why. Thanks to Jane Underwood at the Writing Salon for passing on this terrific resource.
Here is the newspaper’s top 5 points of flawed business plans. They translate well to the same reasons book proposals end up in the trash:
1. Writers are smitten with the elegance of their technology. The corollary is writers who are so in love with the subject of their book they don’t bother to explain why it needs to be published in the first place, and who would care
2. The writer isn’t sure what the initial target market is. Even worse are book proposals writers who say “everyone” will buy the book. “Everyone” is not a market. It’s better to have a smaller, identifiable market than a vague large one.
3. The numbers look good on paper. Book proposals don’t contain numbers. But they do need to be believable. Agents and editors can see right through hype, such as saying the book is destined to become an immediate bestseller.
4. The team doesn’t have hands-on experience. The author lacks sufficient qualifications to write on the subject of the book.
5. The writer can’t find anything but good things to say about the opportunity, instead of acknowledging some weaknesses. It’s best to address any fears or doubts that might come up in the mind of the reader, instead of leaving him or her to wonder.
I’ll take a realistic and specific proposal every time that’s easy on the hype, and one that answers and slays any concerns that come up.
While reading Garret McCord’s post on writing a book review, I thought about the criteria I apply while judging a book for the James Beard awards or for the International Association of Culinary Professional’s (IACP’s) annual cookbook awards. I’ve judged books for years, and the system between these two groups is different.
James Beard is a little more fluid than IACP. The committee sometimes creates new categories if necessary. One year a photo book was the overall winner. Judges look at the publication as a whole, including the graphic and typographical presentation, the research, the writing style, and the reliability, but there aren’t a ton of guidelines.
I emailed Kathleen Purvis, head of the Charlotte Observer’s food section, who handles the awards, and asked her what constitutes the most important criteria. She hesitated to say. “You should write the best book you can, not the one you think will please judges,” she suggested I advise. “In my years of working with books,” she continued, ” the books that come from the heart, the ones where you can tell the writer has something he or she really, really wants to share, are the ones that always stand out. Passion shows. Look at a Julia or a James Beard or a Laurie Colwin or a Richard Saxe and that’s what stands out every time: One person’s voice, one person’s mission to share something.”
Now that’s good news, because it’s the nature of blogging: your thoughts on a subject that obsesses and delights you.
IACP, on the other hand, uses written guidelines to help judges decide. I looked up the criteria from the last time I judged, a few years ago. It might have changed, but here’s what I have for writing cookbooks: Is the choice of subject meaningful? Is the perspective or point of view noteworthy, original or distinctive? Is the research thorough and accurate? Is the information presented in a way that is easy to follow? Is the writing clear and direct? Is the writing voice distinctive? Are the ingredients listed in the order in which they are used? Does the recipe tell you everything you need to know to make the recipe successfully? Are there hints about timing, variations, do-ahead steps or substitutions? If there are headnotes and tips, do they enhance the recipes? Does the book speak meaningfully to its intended audience? Does the book deliver what it promises?
There’s another section on judging design, which authors don’t control. Then overall: Consider the quality of the book in comparison to other books of its type. Does it accomplish its goals? Does it have major flaws? Would you buy the book for your own library or recommend it to friends? Does it make a major contribution to the subject?
Now of course you’re not going to write a book simply to win an award, because that’s not a sustainable proposition. Writing a book is too hard. But the next time you come up with an idea, apply this criteria and see if it stands up. For more on what constitutes a good idea for a book, see this piece on my website.