My book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, was completed not long ago and since then I’ve turned to the much less inviting project of finding a publisher for it. Writing it was a very interesting, private task. The hard slog of getting out in the world, manuscript in hand and asking strangers if they’d like to stop whatever they’re doing and give ear to my “elevator pitch” – not so much.
The most recent phase of the “marketing” agony involved my accompanying Jerry on his trip to San Antonio to participate in meetings of the American Academy of Religion. Normally he’d be making that journey without me. But my friend and colleague Elmer Sprague told me to attend the philosophers’ professional conference in Baltimore this January (the APA) because live editors can be encountered at the book exhibits. Since my book overlaps the religion and philosophy categories, I thought, as long as I’m doing this, I might as well start at the religion conference.
Everybody today is flooded with information and publishers are no exception. They are inundated with manuscripts and book proposals. Their defense is not to deal with authors except through literary agents. That way somebody else has done the initial vetting. But professional associations can also play the sorting role that agents play for publishers nowadays.
You know someone
who knows someone
who knows someone.
It would be hard to exaggerate the difficulty, for me, of doing this: going from counter to counter to explain that I had just finished writing a book about a spiritual-philosophic journey. If it was a real journey (I imagined they would think) what the hell was I doing here, hawking it?
My walking handicap gets worse when I’m under strain. In San Antonio, it got so bad I would have welcomed being carried around the Book Exhibit hall on a stretcher.
When we got home, I spent about a week putting sample pieces of Confessions into the form one can attach to the bottom of what is called a Query Letter. One attachable piece would be just the Table of Contents and Preface, another just Selections from the whole manuscript, a third just my updated c.v.
The Query emails went out the following week, all thirteen of them, to each and every House for which I had a card bearing the coveted e-address of an editor.
By this past Friday, every name on the list from San Antonio had been checked off. I could repair to my favorite French café (ingredients flown direct from Paris every 24 hours, the chef a master of his country’s ancient baking arts) to contemplate the meaning of Life, Love and Loss over divine baguette sandwich, lofty coffee and a divine sweet. Abigail’s heaven. My wants are simple.
Night had fallen by the time I came home. Routinely, I checked my email and lo!
Here’s one from an editor at Columbia University Press, a classy House, asking to see the whole manuscript! Included in the editor’s email was a list of recent titles that Columbia Press has done that are on a wavelength with mine. (I didn’t think anyone was on the wavelength of my book, but apparently some authors are. In this world, we’re not as alone as we imagine.) Attached as well was a breakdown of the kinds of information their marketing department would want to have.
Now I know that this is not the same as the offer of a contract. Barriers of every type and size can still emerge to block a contract. But I also know from experience that nobody gets published without the backing of an editor. So – even sounding all due cautionary notes – this is what they call a
Great Leap Forward.
Columbia University Press? I went to Barnard, have an M.A. and Ph.d. candidacy in philosophy from Columbia, but left it to take my doctorate at Penn State, giving up the more prestigious degree and passing written comps a second time to get out of a place I thought stale and bogged down in careerism. I’ve written about that decision in Confessions. I’ve long thought (to paraphrase Nathaniel in John 43) “Can any good thing come out of Columbia?”
But … but … Columbia University Press showing interest? Well, that’s different! Years have passed, water has flowed under the bridge and it could be an entirely different place by now! What pleasant familiarity the great quad could evoke! Is that nice little below-street-level Viennese café still there? I could meet my friend Barbara for tea if I’m already at 116th Street!
Of course, the press is probably not located on campus. But still, all of a sudden, the majestic expanse of the concrete quad, the noble statue of Alma Mater, the fine bronze replica of Rodin’s “The Thinker” in front of Philosophy Hall, the college song,
Stand Columbia! Alma Mater
Through the storms of Time abide –
they all come rolling back. Let’s face it: