Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Ask the Author

You have questions. We have answers. Here’s what Sue Macy and Cheryl Harness had to say about this question from fellow blogger Loreen Leedy:

What are your main reasons for choosing a topic to write about?

Sue Macy said:
My first criterion for choosing a topic is my own curiosity. I have to want to explore the topic myself. Writing a nonfiction book requires months, sometimes years, of research, and without a personal interest in the content, I probably wouldn’t be motivated to continue.

My first book, A Whole New Ball Game, about the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL), was fueled by my love of baseball and my experience of studying women’s history in college. When I first found out about the league (it was mentioned in a book about “firsts” in women’s history), I was astonished that I’d never known about it.

I started doing research to satisfy my own curiosity, and I continued because the stories I was learning about the league and the women who played in it ignited my memories of growing up wanting to play baseball at a time when girls were not allowed in Little League or, like today, in the major leagues.

No matter how enticing a subject is, however, there’s another criterion that must be applied: marketability. If a book won’t sell, publishers (usually) won’t publish it, so I need to prove its marketability to them and to myself.

A Whole New Ball Game had the advantage of being the true story of the league portrayed in the movie A League of Their Own, so the publisher knew there would be popular recognition of the topic. (My book came out the year after the movie, but the publisher bought it knowing that the movie was in the works)

Also, since the league started during World War II, it related somewhat to the U.S. history curriculum, so a book about it was likely to appeal to the school library market. Indeed, the book is still in print some 16 years after its initial publication, at least in part because students every year do History Day projects about the AAGPBL.

When I do a book proposal, the inclusion of a page on the marketability of the book is crucial. Highlighting any upcoming events, anniversaries, and curriculum or media tie-ins helps a publisher see the book’s sales potential.

When I’m in the process of researching and writing a book, I am consumed by my interest in the subject, but I’ve found that the best way to sell a publisher on the concept is to communicate both my passion about the topic and the reasons why publishing it is a good business decision.

Cheryl Harness said:
1. Is there an expressed need for a book about a certain subject? Ask a knowledgeable bookseller. Ask librarians, students, teachers, and parents. In her column, Needed Subjects, in the most recent Bulletin of the Society of Children's Book Writers & Illustrators,, Libby Nelson reports a desire for, among other things, books about feathers, time-telling, and Nellie Tayloe Ross, the first woman elected governor in the U.S.

2. When I look at what's occupying the shelves at my nearest library and book store, do I see a need for a book that's not there, but ought to be and would be if I ruled the world? Regularly studying what's out there is a sensible habit to form and you know what Frances E. Willard, long-gone-dead head of the Women's Christian Temperance Union,, said about habits? "Sow an act & you reap a habit; sow a habit & you reap a character; sow a character & you reap a destiny." Which brings me to the business of a. dead people and b. falling in love with them.

3. Deborah Heiligman wrote about this in her July 21 posting and wonderfully, too. I could fall in love with old Frances E. Willard, even though she'd be turning 170 this coming Sept. 28. I mean, just read her telling about how she learned to ride a bicycle when she was 53, five years before her untimely death in 1898. (Yikes: 58!) I could at least develop a cerebral sort of crush on her. That's what I've done with all of my subjects over the years - of course, I'm pretty impressionable.

Your passionate fascination for your subject will fuel your initial studies. You'll need that fizzy enthusiasm/info combo if you're ever going to seduce some editor into doing what’s necessary to get her or his colleagues to sign off on a contract. If your book is ever to see the light of day, you must talk a publisher into gambling their money.
4. Will some editor who's managed to remain employed actually BUY my take on this or any subject? Will people--make that lots of people--out there exchange some of their discretionary income for a book about the subject I've chosen? Somewhere, someone will ask me about my subject's selling points. It'd be good to have an answer. I ought to know about comparable books, how they've done in the marketplace, and the subject's real-world relevance. I wish I'd had all this at my fingertips 20 years ago when I was telling a guy on the phone why a biography on Andrew Jackson would be a far out proposition. Impossible, he told me, bookbiz-wise.


Too obscure.

Well, there's a perverse pleasure in rolling one's eyes heavenward behind the back of a callow editor, knowing for sure that the world's going to hell in a hand basket, but having a knowledgeable pitch is more useful.

5. Can you link the subject to an approaching anniversary, the bigger the better? We're coming up on a century since the Titanic went down. Two centuries since the War of 1812 in which Andy Jackson got famous at the Battle of New Orleans - ha!

And 2012 will mark 600 years since Joan of Arc was born. (Oh baby!) The best book for finding such nuggets is Bernard Grun's The Timetables of History: A Horizontal Linkage of People and Events. (4th revised ed. Touchstone).

6. Do you have insider, up-close information on or experience with the subject? Pictures? Interview opportunity?

7. Have you been struck by a deep curiosity to learn all you can about pigs or the world's rivers or Stephen Foster, American composer?

8. For an excellent repository of nifty things to write about, let me recommend this book put out by the Core Knowledge Foundation, The Core Knowledge Sequence: Content Guidelines for Grades K-8. (ISBN 1-890517-12-7). It's loaded with lists of concepts, events, creatures, eras, and individuals, all so vivid & interesting & genuine that you gotta wonder how these subjects are routinely lumped under the label nonfiction, indicating what they're not. Ah well. Another subject for another day.

In the end, I'm thinking that settling on what to learn about and write about is a proposition of heart and mind. Be led by the one; dig in deep with the other. Or, I should say, choose your path, follow where it leads & keep your balance--like riding a bike.

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