2018 BIO Conference Panel – What Four Top Editors Look for in a Book Proposal

By Dona Munker

This panel, moderated by outgoing BIO president Will Swift, offered helpful insights into what should go into a biography proposal, as well as tips on what to avoid.

The four panelists—Amy Cherry of W. W. Norton; Tim Duggan of Tim Duggan Books at Crown/Penguin Random House; Michael Flamini, Executive Editor of St. Martin’s Press; and Kristine Puopolo of Doubleday—all agreed that at present, publishers are most interested in lives that “speak to the current moment” (Puopolo), particularly the lives of people of color, gay and transgender people, or “women who have done remarkable things” (Flamini). The panelists also noted a hunger among readers for books that can help explain the current political situation. Tim Duggan pointed out that “authoritative tomes” continue to be popular, while Kristine Puopulo felt that publishers are more open than they once were to “offbeat books” like The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Puopolo said that she is also seeing more proposals for group biographies; these can be hard to pull off, she explained, but, when successful, are especially good at “humanizing” a historical period through multiple subjects.

What do editors look for in a biography proposal? If the subject is one that has already been much written about, the proposal must either bring a new angle or promise to provide new information that will change the public’s perception of the story—for example, through newly discovered letters or interviews with members of the subject’s circle, who have not been interviewed before. Nevertheless, a beautifully written proposal that promises to rediscover a minor figure may be of real interest. The same is true of subjects who, like Scott Fitzgerald’s wife Zelda, or Henry James’s close friend Constance Fenimore Woolson, were previously regarded merely as “appendages” to a major figure, said Amy Cherry, who edited a recent biography of Woolson. At the same time, she went on, regardless of the subject’s familiarity or lack of it, the proposal must persuade the editor that a “wild enthusiasm for evidence” and a “passion that vitalizes and illuminates” will last long enough to see the biographer through the “five, 10, or even 20 years” needed to complete a serious biography.

Above all, the panelists agreed that the proposal must promise to bring the subject to life. As Michael Flamini noted, a biography cannot serve simply as a pretext for examining an achievement: “the life has to be interesting in itself.” (In view of the fact that a number of figures who led outwardly uneventful or even cloistered lives have provided fodder for absorbing biographies—Emily Dickinson and Alice James come to mind—one would have liked to hear more about the panelists’ definition of “interesting.”

What puts editors off? According to the panelists, “the biggest red flag” is an indication that the finished book will be “too long.” Spiraling production costs, said Cherry, mean that “only a major, major figure” can justify a financial investment in a door-stop biography of 200,000 words, adding that she has recently been encouraging her authors to make their books, “if not short, at least not over-long.” (Duggan made the tongue-in-cheek suggestion that his listeners “say in the proposal that the book will be 100,000 to 150,000 words and then just turn in 200,000,” but quickly added that he was joking.)

Excessive financial expectations, Puopulo said, are another red flag, since most biographies sell between 10,000 and 30,000 copies, which makes comparing one’s subject to that of a bestselling book—for instance, Hamilton or Leonardo da Vinci—in hopes of tweaking editorial interest, naïve and unrealistic. Authors and agents, she said, must be prepared to settle for a “reasonable advance, something we can afford.” A better strategy would be to invoke comparable books published in the last five years that did well critically, then point out the ways in which the present one will be different, or better. (Tip: literary agents can consult professional databases, such as BookScan, in order to find out for an author how a book has sold.)

Whether a biography is aimed at trade or a “crossover” audience—that is, one that combines general readers and academic ones—credentials are important. Academics are usually assumed to be capable of grappling with complex subjects but are expected to demonstrate that they can write for a trade audience, and especially that they are able to resist the temptation to include more details than will interest general readers. Journalists and independent scholars, on the other hand, must not only demonstrate an ability to tell a story but need to point out what qualifies them to write a serious book about the subject. (As Tim Duggan observed, an extensive background in sports writing would not in itself be viewed as a good foundation for a political biography.)

If the panelists seemed to set a high bar, they did have some heartening news for first-timers who don’t yet possess the much-touted “author platform” publishers talk about as essential to a trade book’s commercial success. The platform, sometimes defined as “an ability to sell books because of who you are or who you can reach,” doesn’t necessarily have to include an extensive following on Facebook or Twitter. Most academics, journalists, and many independent scholars can point to professional connections in the field they are writing about that can yield pre-publication blurbs or post-publication word-of-mouth. (Answering a question about whether jacket blurbs actually help sales, Cherry said that while they aren’t decisive over the long run, favorable quotes from experts in the field or other writers who are well known can help prospective purchasers make up their minds to buy the book.) However, even proposal writers who don’t possess a pre-existing professional network can point out the opportunities that will arise in the natural course of their research to cultivate relationships with experts or friends of the subject—relationships, Cherry pointed out, that often result not only in blurbs but in favorable reviews and word-of-mouth for the book when publication time rolls around.

Dona Munker, a former trade book editor, is writing about the twentieth-century “free-lovers” Sara Bard Field and Charles Erskine Scott Wood. Her blog, “Stalking the Elephant,” is about imagining and telling the story of other people’s lives.