Wednesday, October 5, 2011

A Leap of Faith

Years ago, when publishing was in its heyday, established authors could sell from concept. Here’s how it worked. An author and an editor did lunch. (The publisher picked up the tab.) They discussed possibilities for future projects. When the editor liked an idea s/he said, “Write me a proposal.” That was it. There was trust that the author would deliver a book that they would be happy to publish. The author walked out of the lunch confident of an assignment with money to follow. That was then. Now even established writers have to do proposals complete with a marketing analysis, detailed outlines, maybe a few well-written chapters, and loads of background material. Then they wait for the proposal to be reviewed before a full committee, which seems to be more dedicated to why they shouldn’t do a book than why they should. In these hard times, the beleaguered publishers must constantly consider their bottom line when investing in a project.

The best editors, however, still know how to imagine along with authors. We all know that every book starts with a vision—a fleshed-out idea of how to create a work. Other parts of society are not quite so visionary. As much as we would like to think otherwise, most people don’t “get” innovative ideas. The popular show, Mad Men, about the advertising industry back in the sixties understood this. Fully articulated and illustrated presentations were required to in order to leave nothing up to the imagination of their clients. They knew that even when a concept has merit and is worth a try, every innovative venture, every work of creativity, requires a leap of faith in order to turn a concept into a reality.

What, then, is innovation? I have defined it as: Creating something new from disparate existing elements used in novel ways to solve a contemporary problem while forecasting its own future growth and development. In my
outside-the-box proposal published last month in this blog I proposed using nonfiction literature in the classroom (nothing new here), combined with professional development from the authors themselves (nothing new here) to help teachers use their books effectively, and ending up with an author visit with the students after they’ve studied the books (this doesn’t happen often but there’s nothing new here, either.) What makes this program innovative? Its scale (school-wide, many authors and many books) and the timing of the professional development—just before the books are to be used by the teachers, so they can immediately apply what they’ve learned and the timing of the author-visits with kids (just when they’ve completed studying a book). The technologies that makes such an ambitious program possible and even more importantly, affordable, are interactive videoconferencing—face-to-face conversations between the authors and the school participants and a wiki, a collective online document that chronicles contributions from all the participants and serves as a written record of the project. The authors don’t need to travel and schools don’t need to pick up the travel expenses and the in-person personal appearance fees. All of us authors know the excitement of a school visit. It is often the highpoint of a school year. I’ve always wondered how the teachers took advantage, back in their classrooms, of the energy and enthusiasm generated by these visits. I believe that my program for Authors on Call does just that. What we’re really offering, beyond expertise and excellent writing is inspiration and excitement. My problem: I needed to find a school willing to test this idea.

Dave Kaplan, principal of the
Edith A. Bogert Elementary School in Upper Saddle River, NJ is willing to take that leap of faith. I met him last spring when I did the traditional author’s visit at his school. Right away, I noticed something unusual about Dave: He was truly interested in me. He attended all my presentations, including my lunch with some of the children. (You should know that this is very rare. Most principals say, “Hello,” and disappear.) I mentioned that I had this idea of a huge collaboration between authors and teachers. Was he interested? He said, “Yes.” But he didn’t get back to me until July when we could make an appointment for him to hear me out.

After our conversation, Dave emailed me: “I just typed up my notes from this morning and as I was typing, I felt my excitement really mushrooming! I'm so thrilled about this venture.... Again, I'm so pumped about this innovative journey on which we're about to embark, and look forward to working with you!” When he introduced the concept to his faculty, he asked for nine volunteers (one to work with each author). He got 28! The entire school! So far, so good. We are currently in the book selection process, where the teachers are doing the choosing. This has only fueled the excitement. The teachers had no problem “getting” the idea and realize that they are part of an experiment; that no one has done what we’re doing. Ultimately, the measures of our success will be from the students and the books themselves.

We are mid-air in our leap of faith.

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