On and off I have been talking about the process I take for writing a book, and will continue that conversation here in this post, to explain where I am just now – a very good place indeed – on my book on the origins of the Christian understandings of the afterlife.
In my previous posts I talked about how I go about doing my reading for a book, and what I said there certainly applies here. I’ve read hundreds of books and articles on the afterlife, starting with works that I knew would be broad-based and foundational, such as Alan Bernstein, The Invention of Hell; Jan Bremmer, The Rise and Fall of the Afterlife; Alan F. Segal, Life After Death: A history of the Afterlife in the Religions of the West; and, well, lots of others. From these (and other places) I made lists of primary texts and scholarly works that I needed to master and read all of them, and from them made fuller lists of books and articles to read, and read them, finding yet more things tor ead. And so it goes.
I took notes on everything I read (just on my word processor), filed in different folders (primary texts organized under “Greek and Roman”; “Jewish”; and “Christian” for example). I even have a file for books and articles that I’ve read that are “Of No Use” (i.e. irrelevant for what I wanted to achieve in the book – I make a note of everything I”ve looked at so I make sure not to have to look at it again!)
I spent about a year and a half doing all that. Which brought me to …
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Which brought me to Phase 2 of the process. I think of the process of writing a book in three major phases (each with sub-phases, that I won’t go into): Reading, Outlining, Writing. I’m now in the second phase of outlining, my favorite part.
Once I’ve finished virtually all the reading (I’m always deciding there are other things to read. But at some point, it’s pretty much done) then I sit back and think, from scratch, what I want the book to look like and what I want to go into it, from everything I’ve read, notated, and thought about. Of these many thousands of things in my head and already on the page (in my notes) what do I want to write?
One thing that is interesting – you wouldn’t know this without going through the process – is seeing how different your sense is at the end of the reading process is from when you began.
So let me back up. Most authors can get a publisher to give a contract for a book (to publish it) only when the book is completely finished. You finish the book, send it to a publisher, and they decide whether or not to publish it. It’s very hard to do, especially if you are an unknown quantity. Most of the time publishers won’t even look at the book if you haven’t already published books. That’s obviously a Catch-22!
The way almost every professional academic gets around it is to publish their dissertation: you write the publisher and say that this is a revised version of the dissertation that you did at such and such a university with such and such an advisor – and they’ll look at the manuscript to see if they want to publish. If they do, then that’s your first book; then, the next time you write a book, you inform a prospective publisher that this is your *second* book, that the first was published by so and so, etc.
And so scholars normally for their first, second, and later books get a contract for a book only when they either have finished it already or – for a second or third book – when they are far enough along that they have a chapter or two that a potential publisher can read and evaluate before deciding whether to extend the contract.
With trade book publishing it is a different matter. It is very hard to break into trade book publishing, that is, getting a book published with a publisher that caters to a general audience and that plans to try to get your book into Barnes & Noble and onto a best seller list. If you haven’t already published a trade book, it’s very hard indeed. You almost always have to have an agent represent you to promote your book with a publisher.
But it’s very hard to get an agent, since agents make their money by getting a cut of your (eventual) royalties, which means they can only represent books that they are sure are going to make money (or they will be out of a job) which means they have to be very, very selective in choosing who their clients are that they will be spending their time getting published.
How hard is it for someone who has never published to get an agent? Well, I suppose it’s not impossible, but it’s hard. My agent gets something like ten requests a week. But he has time for only – I’m guessing – twenty or thirty or so authors altogether on his list at one time. He works with each of these for years on each book they write. So if in the course of a five year period he is working with, say, thirty authors, during that same time he has received 2500 requests by potential authors to work with them. It ain’t easy to get him to agree to represent you.
Most people that I know from my academic world who have agents are people who already published a scholarly book or three, who have decided to go into trade publishing. They have a leg up getting an agent – the agent will consider trying to help them publish a book they have already written.
For authors like me who have already written a number of books, the process is completely different. I get contracts for trade books I haven’t event *started* to write. Someone at my stage proposes a book to a publisher and the publisher decides whether it is worth taking the risk. It’s a risk because they give a monetary advance as part of the contract. If you’re Stephen King its millions. If you’re not, it’s not. But it’s still a risk, since if the publisher bets badly, they will go out of business. They are very choosy.
They decide on the basis of a prospectus the author writes. These vary in length. The one I wrote for this afterlife book was fifteen pages. It described the book as much as I could in that short amount of space, and then gave a chapter by chapter breakdown of what I was imagining the book would look like. On the basis of that the publisher decided whether to offer a contract for it.
But now that I’ve done the research – reading and annotating – I am in a much, much, much better position to know what the book will actually look like. And it’s interesting –even a bit amusing – to see how I’ve matured, advanced, and developed in my thinking about the topic by comparing my current thinking with what I was thinking before I started doing the heavy lifting of reading everything relevant. More on that, as I continue to talk about the post-reading phase of the work, in a later blog post.[/mepr-show]