One Year, 50 Pages. Why Book Proposals Are Worth the Trouble.
[Editor's Note: This piece--about writing a book proposal with Paul Liebrandt--first ran May 18, 2010 on the original, short-lived, 1.0 version of Toqueland. As I'm teaching a class on cookbook proposals tonight at the Institute of Culinary Education (if you missed it, no worries, we'll be doing it again in July), and co-presenting with Paul tomorrow night at DeGustibus, it seemed like a good time to re-post it. The story has a happy ending: Clarkson Potter will publish the book in 2013. You can read a little about it at the top of this site's book page, and stay tuned for frequent updates as the project comes together.]
NEW YORK, NY. MAY 18, 2010 — Having just introduced this site in December, on the occasion of the publication of my last book, I’ve only been able to speak about writing in the past tense. But this past weekend, as I tweaked a proposal for a new collaboration, I thought it might be interesting to spend a little time in the future tense and share a bit about the great unknown for a writer like myself who primarily makes his living in the book world . .. the next project.
For about a year now, I’ve been engaged in an ongoing dialogue with Paul Liebrandt, the wildly talented chef of Corton restaurant in TriBeCa, about writing a book together. Usually proposals come together much more quickly for me, but this was a unique relationship because unlike the other chefs I’ve worked with–most of whom I’d known pretty well socially before we became business partners–Paul and I had never met until a mutual friend took me to dinner at Corton for the purpose making a literary match and sending us off down the book path together. (It also took a while because we connected while I was barreling down the homestretch of penning Knives at Dawn, so meetings were few and far between at the outset.)
Following that fateful evening, Paul and I began a series of get-togethers geared toward figuring out what the book might be. It’s one of my favorite parts of my job, for reasons best explained by that classic line from Stephen Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George: “White, a blank page or canvas. His favorite. So many possibilities.” When you first start brainstorming, there are no boundaries, no rules about where the process might take you. My personal MO is to encourage the chef I’m working with to get all the ideas he wants to examine, all the advice, opinions, and stories he has to offer, on the table and then devise a concept that will serve as the tree from which all those ideas can protrude like so many branches.
We started out by meeting in the food-book section of the Union Square Barnes and Noble, leafing through everything from picture-less memoirs to visually stunning coffee table tomes. It was a useful crash course in each other’s likes and dislikes and a chance for me to begin to understand who Paul was, both as a chef and a person. Best of all, it was immediately apparent that the guy has the one thing I can’t manufacture for a collaborator: A point of view, and not just about The Food (I cap it like that because that’s the way he talks about it–as the focus of some sort of eternal, existential quest) but also about what it takes to succeed in the kitchen; Paul came up working in some of the best kitchens in London (L’Escargot, Marco Pierre White) and those experiences were intensely influential, as was the transformative year he spent working for Pierre Gagnaire in Paris.
We then sat down and engaged in a number of long, Inside the Actor’s Studio-type interviews where Paul took me through his life from earliest childhood up through Corton. It might sound precious or artsy-fartsy, but I approach writing “in voice” the same way certain actors approach their roles–total immersion. My goal is to get to a point where I can sit down and get lost in the character of the chef, writing the way he or she might were they sitting at the computer. (Despite all the effort that goes into it, it’s not always easy to get to that place. For some reason, I find it easiest when I’m closest to being unconscious–either just before turning in at night or–better–immediately after waking in the morning. For better or for worse, my best, longest stretches tend to come during bouts of insomnia.)
After that, periodically, Paul and I would sit down, often in the dining room of Corton at midday (they don’t serve lunch) and brainstorm, eventually hitting on the concept and then interviewing further to really drill down into it. I can’t flip all the cards and reveal exactly what that concept is just yet, but it might surprise you to know that although there will be recipes in the book, it is decidedly not a cookbook.
Then the real work began: Creating a proposal. Proposals are one of the least understood aspects of the business of selling books. Truth be told, they serve a bit of a gatekeeper function–separating those who are serious about doing a book from those who aren’t ready to put in the effort to craft and write something that can sustain a reader’s attention for the better part of a few hundred pages.
Properly executed, proposals are a lot of work and a total leap of faith. The goal is to make the book as palpable as possible for the publisher. (I often refer to a proposal as ”the Cliffs Notes version of the book.”) To do this, you have to invest loads of mental energy and time, essentially shaping the entire beast from start to finish. There’s no set-in-stone format, but my proposals have a title page, a list of chapters (named as they will be in the book), an overview that summarizes and sells the overall concept, a few paragraphs about each chapter, and sometimes a sample chapter. In the case of the proposal I’ve been writing with Paul, we’ve laid down about fifty pages, almost 20,000 words, that have been revised multiple times as we’ve whipped it into shape these past few months–reviewing drafts together, course-correcting when necessary, and layering in as much detail as possible.
That might sound like an awful lot to do on spec, but I’ve come to look at proposals as down payments. There are a lucky few authors out there who can sell a concept on a two-page memo, but for most of us, the hardest work comes before you have a contract or earn a dime. Family and friends find it amusing that I sometimes pull all-nighters down the homestretch of a proposal, given that nobody’s paying me yet, but if you put in the work on a proposal, the book itself is that much easier to produce because you’ve created a road map for yourself, and also done some of the actual writing already (for example, you can most likely revise that proposal overview into the introduction to the actual book).
The other great value to getting a proposal right is that you have a clear vision and so can communicate that vision to your editor, art director, and the rest of the publisher’s creative team . .. which makes everybody’s job easier when you start the larger collaboration of actually producing the book.
As I write this, Paul and I are in the process of incorporating feedback from our agent and getting ready to send our baby out there into the world. It’s always an interesting time–a time of optimism and speculation about which publisher you’ll end up doing business with, when they want to publish the book, and if they love it just the way you conceived it, or have some thoughts they want you to incorporate.
The publishing wheel turns slowly. A project sold next month will likely not be published until 2012, or later. It’s a long time, especially when you’ve already been living with the thing, at least in its formative stages, for 12 months. But that’s also what makes it so gratifying . .. there’s nothing like seeing the printed book for the first time, especially when it matches the vision you had in your head when you first put it out there.
PS If you worked in a major American restaurant in the 1970s or 1980s (kitchen or front of house), I'd love to hear from you and possibly interview you for my forthcoming oral history of that era. Please reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.