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~ Writing a Biography ~ STALKING THE ELEPHANTAbout Writing Biography and Imagining a Life


An editor at work (Wikipedia)
   What Makes for a Good Biography Proposal? BIO’s 2018 Conference in May included a panel that provided a few helpful insights into what that is, as well as tips on what to avoid.

      Moderator Will Swift (Pat and Dick: The Nixons, an Intimate Portrait of a Marriage) presided over a panel entitled “What Four Top Editors Look for in a Book Proposal.” All of the four—Amy Cherry of W. W. Norton; Tim Duggan of Tim Duggan Books at Crown (part of Penguin Random House); Michael Flamini, Executive Editor of St. Martin’s Press; and Kristine Puopolo of Doubleday agreed that right now, publishers are most interested in lives that “speak to the current moment” (Puopolo), especially the lives of people of color, gay and transgender people, and “women who have done remarkable things” (Flamini). They also noted a special hunger among readers for books that can help explain the current political situation.

       Tim Duggan noted that “authoritative tomes” continue be popular, but Kristine Puopulo said that publishers are more open than they once were to more unconventional forms of life-writing (as an example, she gave the commercially and critically successful Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks). Puopolo said that she is also seeing more proposals for group biographies, which are also of interest because, as she and Flamini both pointed out, are especially good at “humanizing” a historical period through multiple subjects.

      The answer to the question of what editors look for in a biography proposal appeared to be slightly more complicated. If the subject is one that has been much written about, the panelists agreed that the proposal must either bring a new angle to it or promise to provide new information that will change the public’s perception of the story (for example, through newly discovered letters or interviews with members of the subject’s circle who have not been interviewed before). At the same time, a “beautifully written” proposal that promises substantial psychological insight can turn a figure who has been considered minor or overly familiar into one of real interest. Amy Cherry, who edited a recent and well-received biography of Constance Fenimore Woolson, pointed out that this can also be said of subjects who, like Woolson or Zelda Fitzgerald, have always been regarded as mere “appendages” to a major (male) figure.

      Whether the figure is familiar or not, one of the most convincing elements of a good biography proposal, Cherry continued, is the passion that “vitalizes and illuminates” a subject. She also looks for a “wild enthusiasm for evidence." She considers both ingredients essential because they indicate that the writer will have what it takes to labor through the “five, ten, or even twenty years” necessary to complete a serious biography.

       Finally, all four panelists agreed that a proposal must, by virtue of the quality of its writing, contain an implicit promise to bring the subject to life. Furthermore, said Michael Flamini, a biography can’t simply be a pretext for analyzing a figure’s political achievements, monarchial reign, or literary output—“The life has to be interesting in itself.” (Since a number of figures who led cloistered or outwardly uneventful lives have provided fodder for absorbing biographies—Emily Dickinson and Alice James come to mind—one would have liked to hear more about the panel's definition of “interesting.”)


      What puts editors off? According to these editors, the biggest red flag is an indication that the finished book will be “too long.” Spiraling production costs, said Amy Cherry, mean that “only a major, major figure” can justify a financial investment in a door-stop biography of 200,000 words; she volunteered that she herself has recently been encouraging authors under contract to her to make their books, “if not short, at least not over-long.” (Duggan made a tongue-in-cheek observation that an author could always “say in the proposal that the book will be 100,000 to 150,000 words and then just turn in 200,000,” then hastily added that he was only joking.)

       Excessive financial expectations, said Puopulo, which are often implied by invoking comparisons with bestsellers, are another major red flag. Making comparisons to earlier books to point out how they are similar or different, or emphasizing what will be new about this one, is important because comparisons can give the editor a greater understanding of how the writer envisions the book. Most biographies, however, sell between ten and thirty thousand copies, which usually makes it both unrealistic and naïve to compare a subject to that of a bestseller like Hamilton. Puopulo said frankly that authors and agents have to be prepared to settle for a “reasonable advance, something we can afford.” An author’s best strategy, she said, is to invoke comparable books published in the last five years that did well critically, then point out the ways in which the present one will be different, or better. (She pointed out helpfully that literary agents have access to professional databases they can consult to find out for the proposal writer how well a previous book has sold.)


       Whether a biography is aimed at a trade or at a crossover audience—that is, one that combines general and academic readers—credentials are important. Academics are usually assumed to be capable of grappling with complex subjects but are also expected to demonstrate that they can write for a general audience—which includes demonstrating the ability to resist including more details than will interest general readers. Journalists and independent scholars, on the other hand, must not only demonstrate the ability to tell a story well but need to point out what qualifies them to write a serious book about this particular subject. (By way of example, Tim Duggan pointed out that while an extensive background in sports writing would be useful writing a biography of Willy Mays, it would not in itself be seen as adequate preparation for a biography of Ronald Reagan.)

      If the panelists seemed to set a high bar, they did have some heartening news for first-timers who may not yet have the much-touted “author platform” publishers talk about, sometimes defined as “the ability to sell books because of who you are or who you can reach.” Having a website well in advance of publication is fundamental these days, and cultivating a network as you go along is important. But a “network” doesn’t have to mean an extensive following on Facebook or Twitter. Cherry explained that, in the case of biography, which is heavily researched, even proposal writers who don’t possess a pre-existing professional network can point out the opportunities that will come to them in the natural course of their work to cultivate relationships with experts or friends of the subject—relationships, she said, that often result both in the pre-publication blurbs that may influence prospective buyers and in favorable reviews and word-of-mouth that is likely to help sell the book after the book is launched.

     Adapted from the August, 2018 issue of The Biographer's Craft; reproduced by permission.
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