Since my book on the Minutemen’s album “Double Nickels on the Dime” was published in 2007, I’ve always known when it was pitch season for the 33 1/3 series because friends – and friends of friends, and complete strangers – have written to me asking for help and advice. This year’s deadline is fast approaching, and with it the number of emails has grown. I figured it couldn’t hurt to make a post about the process. So:
Your book needs to sell. The pitch process is wrapped in romance, to the point, sometimes, of distraction – I can’t think of another group of people more sentimental than music fans. We’re all the way we are because our lives were changed, somehow, by some album or band. (For me, it was the Sex Pistols.) It makes perfect sense, then, to try and pay back whatever debts we feel we incurred through writing about that band or album.
A lot of the pitches that I read never get beyond this point, though. Certainly there’s something to be said for simple appreciation, but there needs to be a hook. I don’t think that “(album) is seminal” or “(album) is underappreciated” or even “(album) is a product of a certain time and place” do the job, because pretty much any record you can think of is a product of a certain time or place, and is either seminal, underappreciated, or both. You need to have a better reason than these. Take a look around the ‘net at some pitches which were accepted – and pitches that weren’t. You’ll see these themes emerge and repeat.
The romance of it all –“I get to write about my favorite record!” –sometimes obscures the fact that you’re pitching a book idea to Bloomsbury Press. Publishing is a business. The bottom line is the bottom line. I remain convinced that the stories around some of my favorite records would be compelling ones. But no matter how well I wrote about, say, the systemic decay of New England mill towns, and how these monuments to a bygone era infiltrate the psyche of young residents and leach slowly into the creative process, who’s really going to buy a book about New Hampshire emo math metal giants Stricken for Catherine? Their friends and family, certainly, but that’s all of like eighty people. Consider the line between cult and seminal. Are the Embarrassment well-known enough to warrant a look? The Raincoats? The Slits? I don’t know the answer, or where to find the line. Consider your album in the grand scheme – and do so honestly – when pitching, because you’re asking Bloomsbury to invest in your assessment thereof.
I know talking about business torpedoes any and all romance, but you need to figure out why your book will sell. What hook will push it past the boundaries of ‘for fans of the band’? Why should money be invested in your idea?
Start now. Like today. The parameters of the pitch process, what with their samples and outlines, are more involved than they used to be, and allow authors a head start. But if you’re serious, you won’t rest on your laurels, waiting to hear back. The writing process inevitably takes way more time than you think it will, no matter how seasoned you are.
Even if you’re not writing during the wait, you should be doing legwork: gathering materials, developing contacts. It’s not a requirement to have access to the band you’re writing about, but it never hurts.
Transcribing any kind of interview will always take longer than you think it will, too.
If your pitch doesn’t get accepted, you can likely still have your work published someplace else, be it in print or online. This can only help your future prospects.
Add something to the conversation. Up above, I mentioned the Sex Pistols as The Band Who Did It For Me. Their absence in the series is, at first glance, very conspicuous. But after that first glance it makes sense.
I used to spend my lunch periods in the library of Concord High School, looking through microfilm for any fragment of information on the band. That’s how it used to be, pre-internet – I didn’t have the cash to buy the imported books about them, and I wanted to know all I could, so I was left to my own devices. In the 20+ years since then, there have been umpteen books about the Sex Pistols, magazine articles, films. And they’re all available easily online.
In 2014, I’m not sure there’s any need for another book about the Sex Pistols, any more than there’s a need for another book about, say, the Beatles. What more can be said about them at this point?
Consider this as you pitch. Up above, I mentioned an invisible line of importance. The line extends in the other direction, as well. Bands and artists who have been written about to death might have audiences, but because they’ve been so extensively researched and discussed, finding a new angle might be a challenge.
Scott Tennent’s book about Slint’s “Spiderland” is a fanstatic example: prior to its publication, the band’s history was largely a thing of rumor and innuendo. Tennent’s book is well-researched and –sourced, and does a great job not only putting the band’s work into context, but establishing a timeline and history for its release and subsequent impact. Touch and Go’s imminent deluxe re-release of the album, and Lance Bangs’ forthcoming documentary film on the band will continue the conversation.
Money should not be a motivating factor? Most potential authors haven’t been concerned about the monetary aspect of pitching the series. A few have, though. Let me tell you straight: there are way better way to make money than writing a book about an album. Don’t get me wrong here: the opportunities I have been afforded have been worth more than any advance, and I’m extremely grateful for them. Just don’t fall into the trap of thinking book sales = $. The royalty rate is 10% of net, which is around $1.50 per book – unless the sellers get volume discount (think Amazon and their ilk here), at which point it goes down to 50% of 10% of net.
My book was published in 2007, and is solidly in the middle of the League Table, which ranks all the entries in the series by sales. I expect my advance to be paid off sometime in 2017, if the current rate of sales continues.
Bloomsbury has changed the way authors get paid: advances are no longer offered (except under special circumstances). This means you’ll get checks after your book is published, rather than waiting, as I am, to sell enough books to pay down what you owe. If you have a steady job, this shouldn’t be a problem; it might be if you work on spec or freelance for a living.
Avoid the spectacle. When I pitched the series it was because I saw a hole in it I thought I could fill. I had no idea that there was a level of spectacle that accompanied the process: I simply wrote to then-editor David Barker, asked how to submit an idea, and followed his guidelines.
There’s hype on the series blog, what with its lists of proposals, shortlists, and (especially) commenters. Thank goodness I had no idea these things existed: it’s nerve-wracking enough to pitch without considering all the other people who have also submitted. Hell, the sheer volume of proposals is enough to stagger, to say nothing of finding out that multiple people have pitched your band/album . No good will come of obsessing after you’ve finally submitted: if anything, the endless feedback loop will make it harder. Dip in at your own risk.
Have fun. Seriously, what could be better than researching and writing on your favorite record? Don’t stress out about it too much. Have a good time. Hopefully things will work out. If they don’t…
Nothing personal. If you don’t get accepted, move on. Pitch again next time, either with the same proposal or with another one. You will know the process, which will make the next time easier.
I hope all this helps. If you have questions I haven’t addressed, or comments, feel free. Good luck!
Michael T. Fournier