When scholars approach me for help writing a book proposal, especially when they believe their topic will be of general interest, my first piece of advice is always: Read Thinking Like Your Editor by Susan Rabiner and Alfred Fortunato. Their book lays out in blunt, unvarnished prose how to write a proposal that will win over editors and shows why "because it’s interesting" is never reason enough to get someone to buy a book.
Rabiner, a New Yorker whose conversational style is a tsunami of ideas and insights, has held editorial positions at Random House, Oxford University Press, Pantheon, and Basic Books. For more than 20 years, she has run (or co-run) her own literary agency. It has represented many scholars whose books have won awards and/or became best-sellers, including Nancy MacLean, Elizabeth Warren, Martha Nussbaum, Larry Sabato, Andres Resendez, Greg Grandin, and Mario Livio.
I interviewed her about academics and their books for the Scholars Talk Writing series. Those used to the hedging typical of academic discourse can be disarmed by Rabiner’s directness. Her intensity tends to scare the bejesus out of people unaccustomed to having intellectual klieg lights shone on their ideas. Ultimately, Rabiner is as generous as she is smart and has earned a devoted following among her authors (and former assistants), many of whom have become close friends.
Thirty-five years ago, when I was an undergraduate at Yale, you taught a seminar on the role of argument in serious nonfiction writing. Then, as your assistant, I heard you explain to big-name academics that they didn’t quite get how to make an argument in their books. You’re still talking about this. Why is argument so important?
Rabiner: Because if you don’t understand the need to make an argument in scholarly writing, you don’t understand scholarship. That’s what my many years as a university-press editor taught me. Young scholars have difficulty getting a precise handle on exactly what argument entails because it refers both to how you move through facts to reach a conclusion and to the conclusion you reach — as in, "What argument does the book make?"
And if that is not complicated enough, argument is also what allows even the most densely intellectual material to be successfully shaped and structured into a narrative — which is another way of saying it provides the connective thread that takes the readers from facts to resolution in a way that holds their attention, indeed keeps them wanting more.
How can focusing on argument help a book?
Rabiner: A book is not an aggregation of facts with a conclusion dropped onto the end of it. What makes a book cohere in all its elements — pacing, drama, organizational strategy, logic, character — is a powerful argument at its heart that both emerges out of and deeply influences every word on every page.
Books do have to operate within certain parameters or scholarly conventions having to do with fairness. You can’t just say anything. You can’t just vent. And of course you can’t make up events, dialogue, characters, facts — not to mention footnotes or archives — or "doctor" the material in some misguided attempt to create false drama. There not only has to be a solid factual justification for everything you say; that factual justification also has to pass the smell test of "is this a reasonable explanation of events?"
Readers — be they literary agents, editors, or the ultimate consumers — do not abandon critical thinking when they read a book. They are very much engaged in a back-and-forth with the author, asking at every moment, "Am I still on board with where this author is going with the material?"
But here’s the good news, especially for those who seek commercial publication. A book that rigorously observes scholarly conventions comes with an implicit imprimatur of quality that commercial editors want and respect — indeed, need. It protects them — the editors — from surprises down the line when the book is reviewed by someone who understands the goals of real scholarship and quickly takes apart a book that does not.
Let me also take a moment to dispose of the notion that "fairness" means neutrality, that it somehow prevents authors from taking a strong stance on their subject matter. All of us in publishing want to hear your voice, your interpretation, your passion, even your outrage. We want you to respond to your own material as strongly as you choose to do so. But we just want that response to occur after we, the readers, have been given an opportunity to take in the facts, hear the logic guiding the presentation of the facts, so that we buy into what you have to say.
So what makes a scholarly work commercially viable? Two things: the strength of the narrative and, even more important, whether the proposed book has explanatory power to answer the questions disturbing us today. The subject matter can be as old as time. The topic can be one that has been written about again and again. But the message has to be about something that matters now.
Can you define what you mean by narrative?
Rabiner: Sure. You don’t create narrative by simply inserting lots of anecdotes, character portraits, or description. Those features are terrific but are not meant to stand on their own. They are part of a story that creates a kind of tension in the reader — a need to find out where the book is going and how it will add up.
And remember, the story doesn’t have to be a story about people. It can be the story of an idea — how and why we once believed something and now do not. It can be the story of an event that we have been interpreting one way but should be re-examining in a different light.
The best way to think of narrative is to see it as akin to a quest — in the case of intellectual books, a quest to unravel an intellectual mystery. Its raison d’être is to ensure that readers will keep on reading. And they will keep on reading as long as they feel there is more coming that is worth their time and the payoff in the end will be worth the journey.
If this seems confusing, just remember that there is already one person who went on this quest: you, the writer. So as you are writing your proposal, think back to what made you so curious about the subject that you had to investigate it further. What question was so powerful that it had to be answered? What did you discover along the way that disturbed you, surprised you, made you rethink where to go next? Your book evolved into an intellectual adventure. Capture that sensation, and the reader will follow you to the end.
I’ve heard you talk about two different types of books: serious nonfiction and narrative nonfiction. You’ve said that it’s far easier to place narrative nonfiction with trade publishers. Can you explain why?
Rabiner: The two are very different animals.
Serious nonfiction is research-driven argument — whether written by academics, journalists, or independent scholars. While a work of serious nonfiction may well have some characters and, at times, comment on their psyches, its primary aim is to make sense of an event, an idea, or a time and place. Its goal is to offer a new interpretation, to be explanatory. That’s why serious nonfiction lends itself so well to endless re-examinations of known events. The events haven’t changed but what we are interested in regarding those events does change as our priorities change and that’s what creates room for new interpretations.
Narrative nonfiction is character-driven and highly psychological, focusing on what it is like for an individual or group to go through a particular experience that in some way, real or imagined, threatens the person’s or people’s sense of well-being. It essentially grapples with the fact that although we are all human and all exposed to the same fears and desires, we process experiences very differently in the privacy of our minds and psyches. Thus narrative nonfiction is neither intellectual nor the story of an event. It zooms in on what its characters are thinking and feeling about themselves and the world around them, all from their highly personalized points of view. It may play off facts, but its point is not those facts themselves but rather how people react to them. Its goal is to be experiential — to capture an experience as the people who lived it experienced it. If this sounds a lot like fiction, it is meant to.
The one genre that bends both ways is biography. There are biographies that are deeply psychological — indeed, their justification is the strength of the psychological journey of the character. There are other biographies that are compelling because of the external problems the character has dealt with. Occasionally there are biographies that capture both the psychological journey of the character and reinterpret his or her time. But distinction is less in execution than in why this biography will have resonance for today: Is it because of the psychological journey of the character or characters? Or is it because what they had to deal with suddenly has greater meaning for what we have to deal with today?
So can scholars who don’t want to write narratively come up with a book that has commercial appeal?
Rabiner: There are some topics that are just so new and so little understood that an author can write what I refer to as a "guided tour" — take the reader through material that isn’t narratively driven by an argument. For everything else, you need an argument. And if you have an argument, you have a way to tell it as a narrative.
What’s the current state of publishing serious nonfiction?
Rabiner: I hate to identify trends because they can change tomorrow. But if you want a snapshot of what I am seeing right now, it would be this:
- Serious history — what scholars are trained to write, and journalists write as well — will always remain a staple of commercial publishing. But there’s not much interest in white male history, unless it is more narrative (psychological) than serious or is a real boy book (one in which men are tested — be it in the world of business, the battlefield, the sports arena, or even the competition for women). The one bright spot in history are books that capture the lost story of women, minorities, and other previously ignored groups.
- Politics is super-hot — from serious political analysis to rants.
- Science is hot as always, but is now leaning more toward the biological sciences than physics, which used to dominate.
- Psychology remains a strong category both at the low end and at the very high, very technical end.
- Biography right now is dominated by either strongly psychological portrayals or portraits of people who are not dead white males.
- Business and technology is a little slower than a few years ago, but original work will still find an enthusiastic audience.
- Memoir, especially written by women, is very hot.
- Ensemble stories — those about a group — are also highly appealing.
Then there are the "outlier" books. These were likely bought for very little money, or by small publishing houses, or by junior editors. No one expected them to be successful. Here are some of the titles that I could describe as surprise successes: The Metaphysical Club, Gotham, On Bullshit, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Godel Escher Bach, On Immunity, The Physics of Star Trek, and Nudge.
Having said that, a good book will always find a home. It may not command a big advance. It may take more time to place. But everyone in the publishing industry respects quality work. So the best advice I can give any would-be author is to write the book you believe in. Make it the best book it can possibly be. Don’t get hung up on whether it will be published by a commercial publishing house or a university press. If it is as good as you think, it will find its audience.