Looking for Gold
Tomorrow the 20th Winter Olympics begins in Torino, Italy and a great deal of attention will be focused on athletes who are seeking a Gold Medal. While admittedly, I’m not the most athletic person you will ever meet, since the last Winter Olympics, I’ve learned a bit about this process. In a six-week crash course, I learned about the life of Vonetta Flowers. This much decorated collegiate track and field star believed her quest for Olympic Gold was over with the Sacramento trials for the 2000 Sydney Games. Vonetta’s husband, Johnny, spotted a flyer encouraging the athletes to try out for bobsled. Living in Birmingham, Alabama, the Flowers only connection to bobsled was the Disney movie, Cool Runnings about the Jamaican bobsled team. With little faith that anything would happen, Vonetta tried out for bobsled and discovered her years in track and field paid off. She had the perfect set of skills for bobsledding and has become a top brakeman. Vonetta became the first African American to win Gold in the Winter Olympics. That first-person story is captured in Running On Ice, which I wrote for Vonetta. I had the opportunity to actually hold Vonetta’s Gold medal for an unforgettable experience. On television, I’ll be watching Vonetta and her teammate Jean Prahm attempt Gold on February 20th and 21st at the women’s bobsled races.
The search for gold isn’t only in an Olympic setting. It is actively happening in editorial offices. Editors are actively looking for the next bestseller or at least a book which will find it’s audience. Some books are slow at first and then become bestsellers for the publisher. These books may or may not appear on a “bestseller list” but their regular sales are a key part of the publisher’s goals. If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend Michael Korda’s Making the List: A Cultural History of a Bestseller. The Editor-in-Chief at Simon and Schuster examines the bestseller lists from the last century. There are surprising results on the list. Yes, publishers do the best they possibly can do and look for the best projects. They use their experience with past books to create plans and publicity campaigns. Their sales reps present the books to the stores and try and sell them into the stores. The search for gold or bestselling books is long and hard.
This week, I’ve been sorting through recent fiction proposals. Like normal, most of them are going back to the author or the literary agent as rejected. I dislike sending back these proposals but it’s part of the business—and always remember that it’s business and not personal. I understand it’s hard to recall because you get so much of yourself wrapped into your project.
As an editor, I’m constantly gathering information about publishing, books and authors. That information comes into play as I sort through these proposals. Yesterday I read an excellent proposal from an author who has sold over 500,000 novels. This type of sales history catches an editor’s attention combined with an interesting plot premise. One of the hardest things to see in these proposals is something that isn’t there. It’s the same with proofreading and other parts of this business. Missing elements are glossed over and often ignored. For this fiction author, I recalled her extensive personal marketing efforts for her last novel. This author organized her own author tour with book signings and media events in numerous cities. None of this effort appeared in her proposal. I picked up the telephone and called her agent who confirmed my memory of this effort. The agent is going to have this author prepare some details about her personal marketing efforts which I will use to supplement her proposal. This supplemental material will be important when I pitch the project to the publication board. It will show some additional information not in the current proposal. In general, a literary agent simultaneously submits these proposals to different publishers. If I’m able to add something to a presentation or a proposal, it presents the project in a completely different light to my publishing colleagues. It’s one of the ways as an editor, I’m looking for gold.
What can you take away from this story for your own writing life? With your proposals, make sure they are complete. To the best of your ability, make sure each line sizzles and snaps with the irresistible siren that says, “Publish me.” It’s not easy or simple. It involves a lot of work and effort. But it is possible.