Friday, April 07, 2006

Going To New York - Book Expo 2005

In March of last year I decided to go to the Book Expo that was taking place in New York the beginning of June. I had been working on a non-fiction novel with someone else and thought we could make a deal if we showed up to the Expo. A few days before getting on the plane I realized it would be a good idea to take more than one project - you know, not put all my eggs in one basket.

I decided to go with Everybody I Shot Is Dead. That meant picking out, scanning and printing four or five sample photos and writing a book proposal. Anyone who has written a book proposal knows what a pain in the ass it can be. You have to write a synopsis, an about the author page, something on how you plan to do your marketing and promotion, what already-published books are your competion and why your book is better than theirs. You're also supposed to include at least one sample chapter but at the time I was thinking all pictures and a few little anecdotes so I skipped that part. Besides, there was no time and I was just taking this project as an afterthought.

Somehow, I managed to put five or ten of the proposals together. I put the photographs in clear-view plastic sleeves and printed the proposal pages on nice white linen paper and bound everything into white folders. I felt like a proud little kid putting my dead rock star book report together for Show and Tell.

The Book Expo took up multiple floors of the Javitz Center in NYC. There were acres of books. There were big companies, little companies and many people dressed up in crazy costumes flogging their wares. And there were miles of aisles to walk. I don't usually like these kinds of things; too many people and too much information avalanching into little brain at once. But this one was fun because I got tons of free books. And a blinking Harry Potter pen. And there were celebrities. I saw Bill Maher. He was there to sign his new book. Actually, it looked more like a pamphet. I didn't get my pamphlet signed because I wasn't willing to stand in the line. Anyway, I'd already met him at someone's birthday party at the Chateau Marmont and he just didn't do it for me.

Tab Hunter was there signing his new biography. He was a hot teen idol in the 50s. I spent some time around him when I was young and riding horses in Calgary. He came up from California with his horse for the summer show circuit. His boyfriend was my trainer at the time. I would have waited in line to say hi to him but he was already gone by the time I realized he had been there.

I did meet a high-end PR person at one of the conferences and pitched her the books. She really liked them and decided to put them up for discussion at her firm. If you don't have knowledge of what it takes to get a book published, I can tell you this - IT"S HARD. You send a query to agents and they get back to you eventually (somewhere between a few weeks to a year or never) and if they like your query they ask for a proposal. You send that in and you might hear back in a couple of months or a year or never. Then, if they decide to rep you, the cycle starts all over again with the publishers. UNLESS, YOU KNOW SOMEONE. I write screenplays too and it's a similar scenario. So, I figured this heavy-weight PR firm knew all the right people in the right places and I'd easily get a deal on the non-fiction book, being that it was the kind of thing that Oprah would like.

She cleared it with her "people' and they agreed to send it to a couple of agents they knew. I had also given them the Everybody I Shot proposal - not to send out, but just so they would know I wasn't a one-trick pony. Then, after I bought a new suitcase to carry my hundred or so new books, I happily returned home. A week or two later I got an email from the PR lady saying she'd sent both proposals to a BIG AGENT. Both proposals? You weren't supposed to send out both proposals. That was July 6th.

On July 22nd I got an email from the agent's assistant about the proposals:
"While they were all of interest, only one really grabbed our attention. That was Everybody I Shot is Dead. We would like to see more of what you plan for this book, especially some writing samples. Though the photographs would be a large part of the book, the writing is what will really carry it. We look forward to seeing more! Please send it directly to us at the physical address below." An even bigger surpise. Only problem was I hadn't done any writing on the book. Hadn't even thought about it.

By August 18th I had five and a half double-spaced pages on John Bonham of Led Zeppelin and sent it off. Just for fun, I'm going to give you a little taste of what I wrote. I don't know if this is exactly the way it will run in the book. Please let me know what you think. This is the first paragraph + two sentences:

"Led Zeppelin II was the first hard rock album that I ever bought. I ran home (too young to drive) and threw it on the crappy little stereo I had in my room. With headphones on, I cranked it up and went insane. The first song was Whole Lotta Love -- Jimmy Page’s screaming guitar and Robert Plant’s orgasmic wails blasted in one ear, traveled through my brain, went out the other ear and then back again. The throbbing rhythm of John Bonham’s drums and John Paul Jones’ bass took hold of my gut and didn’t let go. I’d never heard anything like it. Not that I understood the sexuality of the song at the time – I hadn’t had sex yet – but that didn’t stop Led Zeppelin from viscerally touching me “Way, way down inside.” I played that album over and over again until every word and every riff was etched into my being. Little did I know I would become a rock’n’roll photographer and have the opportunity to shoot them six years later.
I had no idea what to expect when I knocked on the door of the suite at the Vancouver Hyatt. All I knew was I had been summoned."

On September 1st I received a letter from the BIG AGENT. He said, "...We concluded that though you have a fresh take on the music scene of that era, we are unable to commit to what we envision as a four color coffee table/memento book..." blah, blah, blah... "For the record, we found the concept highly engaing and we wish you much luck in your pursuit of representation."

The rejection didn't bother me at all. I always assume that rejection means they are the wrong person for the project. It's them, not me. I was just happy that he thought it was worthy of being a "four color coffee table book" as opposed to just a soft cover rock'n'roll book, which was what several BIG PUBLISHERS offered me on "Starart." I turned them down. And I will do the same with this book. These people gave us beautiful music - they deserve a beautiful tribute book. I don't care if I have to print it myself and sell it on the corner of Hollywood and Vine.

For those of you who managed to read all the way through this long-winded post here's a visual taste from the book, as it is printed in the proposal:In case you can't read the small type, the inscription it says:

Michael Bloomfield
July 28, 1943 - February 15, 1981

Why do those three lines always make me cry?


Margaret said...

I think they turned it down because they want the writing to be brief and pithy, amounting to an elaboration of the pictures, which are the real sell. If it's going to be a coffee table book, it will be more artful and arresting if there's not a lot of cluttering type to dilute the impact.

Witty, observant captions, personal only where it sharpens the reader's focus on and understanding of the subject, would be the way to go.

Your experience of putting on the Led Zeppelin record, for example, is of limited interest unless you're a celebrity in your own right or unless it's so lyrically written as to evoke a pang of identification in the reader because of the universaility of your experience that afternoon. Safer and more to the point to talk about the picture--how the shot got taken, things they said to you, observations about the expression on their face, or their clothes, or pose, what music they were playing, things you would have asked them in retrospect, gossip about them at the time--anything that makes the photos come alive.

You'd have a dynamite book on that basis.

Come to think of it--brain flash!--since it was Dawn Eden's site I found you through--a collaboration between you and Dawn, what with her rock background and marked gift for titles and short descriptions that are at once, charming, clever, and tightly packed would be success guaranteed.

Good luck, can't wait to see your shiny new book.

Chesher Cat said...

Thanks for chiming in, Margaret.

Your comments open up a potentially interesting publishing debate which I want to address in a new post...maybe tomorrow's.

That aside for the moment, in my case the agent wanted more writing in addition to the photography. As much as he liked the project, I knew in advance it wasn't right for his agency. Their non-fiction clients are in a completely different genre.

Your input got me thinking and I am looking forward to the more feedback from readers as the comments will definitely help shape the book as it moves forward. Everybody gets to play a part.