Crossing Over

Eric Jager writes about his introduction to the world of commercial publishing.

June 29, 2005

About 10 years ago, while reading a well-known medieval chronicle, I stumbled across an amazing crime story. The case involved a Norman knight, his beautiful young wife and the squire who allegedly raped her in 1386. 

The two men fought a celebrated judicial duel before the French king -- a fight to the death with lance, sword and dagger that also decided the lady’s fate. The affair was still controversial in France at the time I stumbled on the story, and many original documents survived, but no one had ever written a full-length account. Fascinated by the story, I started researching it and eventually began work on a book.

I also began talking with editors, literary agents, and even people connected to the film industry. At one point, I registered some material with the Writers Guild of America to protect my intellectual property. The book was represented briefly by a well-known Hollywood talent agency -- until the firm reorganized and my agent left, orphaning the project. Other literary agents read the proposal and sample chapters, only to turn the project down. Editors at highly respected trade houses read my material but politely rejected it, or hesitated indefinitely. An editor at a leading university press told me my book had "little commercial potential," while an editor at another top academic press read my proposal and offered me a contract right over the phone. Disappointed with the book’s commercial fortunes so far, I was nearly ready to accept the offer.

But around this time a very good literary agency took on the partly completed book, and within three days of putting it on the market they sold it at auction to a division of Random House. Foreign rights sales soon followed, and the deal notice in Publishers Weekly brought new film interest. The book was published last October, became a History Book Club selection, and was featured on NPR’s "Weekend Edition." After its January release in Britain, it was serialized on BBC Radio 4's  "Book of the Week." A BBC television documentary is now in the works.

Although I had published two previous books with university presses, this was my first venture into commercial publishing. Talking with editors and agents, as well as colleagues who had also “crossed over,” taught me a lot about trade publishing, which many scholars regard as the evil twin of the academic press. Some stereotypes are well-founded, as the cautionary tales below bear witness. Others are not, and academic authors can be in for pleasant surprises, as I also found.  Here is what I learned from my experience, arranged in the form of a Q&A.

Do you need an agent to publish with a trade press? No, not absolutely. Some trade presses do not accept "unagented" manuscripts, as a rule, and so it’s hard to get a foot in the door at those houses. But as I found from my own experience, some very good trade editors will look at unagented material, if you can get them interested in it with a good pitch letter (see below). But if you can interest an agent in your work, the agent will get an editor’s attention, probably with faster results and more money. That’s what agents do: use their knowledge, experience, and connections to market your work more effectively and with greater rewards than you could yourself.  

Which brings up a common misconception about agents: that they take your money and give little in return. First, legitimate literary agents never charge a fee up front but work on commission (usually 15 percent). Second, good literary agents always more than earn their commissions by getting you more money than you would ever get on your own. In fact, many agents pride themselves on securing advances that make up for their commissions several times over. If you begrudge agents their well-deserved 15percent, perhaps trade publishing is not for you.

How do you find an agent? Before an agent can sell your book to a publisher, you have to sell your book to an agent. To do that, you have to figure out what kind of book you’ve got. This is harder than it sounds. Most authors consider themselves the world’s expert on their own book, but often they have only a hazy idea of what it is in marketing terms. As the author, you see your book from the inside, but agents (and editors) see it first from the outside. What kind of book is this? What other books is it like? How can I sell it? Will the public buy it? The better you know your book from the inside while seeing it from the outside, the better you’ll be at selling it to an agent. In pitching my commercial book, The Last Duel, to agents, I described it as “the true story of a notorious episode in fourteenth-century France -- a fatal triangle of crime, scandal, and revenge that will excite and fascinate readers with its larger-than-life characters, its air of mystery and intrigue, its many contemporary echoes, and the fact that ‘this really happened.’”

Once you’ve figured out what kind of book you’ve got, you’re ready to look for an agent. Referrals are one way, if you know an author willing to vouch for you and your project. Another way is by sending an unsolicited pitch letter "over the transom" to likely prospects. How do you find prospects? By figuring out who has sold other books like your own. (If you skipped the previous step, figuring out what your book is, go back.) Draw up a list of books like your own -- in topic, genre, approach -- and find out who sold them, and to whom. How do you get this kind of information? By reading the acknowledgments pages of books similar to yours. By attending book talks or writers’ conferences and picking up useful leads. By subscribing to trade magazines or industry Web sites, such as Publishers Weekly and Publishers Lunch, which report on the latest book deals.

I found my own agent not by referral but by reading up on the industry, studying the acknowledgments pages of other books, and sending an over-the-transom pitch. But when I’ve told colleagues who’ve asked my advice about breaking into the trade market that they should read Publishers Weekly and research the industry, they’ve rolled their eyes, as if to say, "You mean this actually involves some work?" If you can’t be bothered to find out about the business you want to join, don’t bother to join the business.

How do you sell your book to an agent?  You need to write a short, punchy pitch letter that brings an agent bolt upright in his or her chair as though a gorilla just charged into the room. That’s a good rule of thumb, anyway. The pitch sells the proposal, which in turn sells the book. To change metaphors, you might think of the pitch, proposal and book (either sample chapters or full manuscript) as the top, middle and bottom of a pyramid, respectively. Since each part must sell the next, each has to embody your best possible writing. A sloppy or half-baked pitch won’t garner a request to see your brilliant proposal. And a botched proposal won’t attract an ounce of interest in your masterpiece of a book. Write every sentence of each part as if your publishing contract depends on it. Because it does.

Will I have to change my writing style to do a trade book? Yes, you’ll have to lose the scholarly jargon and the tangles of theory, presenting the results of your research in clear, exciting prose that people actually want to read. Remember, with a trade book, unlike many academic titles, readers generally will buy your book only if they want to, not because they have to.

The most readable books usually have a narrative thread. They tell a story that draws the reader in with intriguing events and vivid characters. Often they belong to a familiar genre, or they combine multiple genres. For example, Natalie Zemon Davis’s The Return of Martin Guerre (an academic press title that had great crossover success and even became a film) is not just history but also a kind of detective story.

Whether your book is about a historical event, a scientific discovery, a famous person or a not-so-famous person who lived a remarkable life, you need to make the reader want to read the story that originally moved you to write the book. To do this, you have to learn everything you can about your subject, and then forget everything you know -- or at least the fact that you know it -- in order to tell it afresh for others.

A friend of mine -- a very successfully published scholar with a string of popular trade titles -- told me that a literary agent once told him that there’s an important difference between telling the reader what you know, and telling the reader that you know. If academic authors have a fault, it’s the almost irresistible urge to tell readers that we know things. But popular readers are generally a lot less interested in the fact that you know something, or how you know it, than in simply knowing what it is. In early drafts of my own book, I often wrote sentences that began, “According to one medieval chronicler....” My editor finally said, “Just tell us what happens and leave the citation for the notes.”

What if a trade publisher likes the book but asks for major changes of genre, approach, etc.? This is where figuring out your own book, well in advance, is very important. You need to know your book better than anyone else, including your agent, your editor, and the marketing people who eventually get involved in selling and promoting it. Otherwise you run the risk of losing control of your own project, and finding your name on something you wish you hadn’t written.

When The Last Duel was on the market, one publisher weighed in with a nice bid but also said they wanted me to change the title and “make it more of a romance.” Now, my book was a fact-based historical account of an alleged rape that resulted in a legal case and finally a trial by combat -- not a subject that could be turned into a “romance” and still maintain its integrity. I told my agent that the "romance" idea was unacceptable, and that I would not consider this offer, although at the time it was the high bid.

On the other hand, you also have to be able to recognize good advice when you get it -- from your agent, your editor, your spouse, colleagues or anyone else with whom you share your work prior to publication. For example, my editor suggested that I divide my originally 5-chapter book into 10 or even 12 more bite-sized chunks to make it more manageable for readers -- advice I’m glad I followed.

A future article will deal with the writing process, working with a trade editor, and creating a book with the structure and style that a popular audience will actually want to buy and read.


Eric Jager is a professor of English at the University of California at Los Angeles, where he teaches medieval literature. He is the author of three books, most recently, The Last Duel:  A True Story of Crime, Scandal, and Trial by Combat in Medieval France ( Broadway, 2004).


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