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Anatomy of A Failed Book Proposal

The deed to my deep holdings in the fabled Hollow

I’ve been copyediting the forthcoming Guide to Literary Agents 2012 book, and seeing all of the do’s and don’ts on sending your queries and proposals to agents reminded me that one of my big ideas for a book flamed out a little while back.

Since I was familiar with the fundamentals of writing a book proposal, I think I put together a reasonable effort, one that addressed the usual requisites of Synopsis, Chapter Outline, Sample Chapters, Market Overview, Platform, and Blithering On About My Background. If you Google “How to Write a Book Proposal” you’ll get results out of the yin-yang (wipe them carefully), but Michael Larsen’s How to Write a Book Proposal (updated to its 4th edition) is considered a classic.

If you can no longer bear the act of reading words on a page (the horror!), you can listen to Ted Weinstein’s Book Proposal Bootcamp audio recording, which is quite good. He has other proposal-writing tips on his site as well.

It All Starts with a Drink. No, I Mean an Idea!
Of course, you need an idea for the book. Mine started with a callow, whiskey-drinking youth who, upon seeing a prompt on a Jack Daniel’s bottle urging fans to write the distillery, wrote something like this: “Why, not only do I enjoy consuming Jack’s finest in a conventional way, but I also brush my teeth with it, and keep a glass on my bedside table, at the ready to ward off night sweats and other less congenial spirits.”

Little did I know that would prompt a tide of strange letters and documents, and even stranger objects (a rabbit’s foot, rubbing stone, chewing tobacco, sippin’ glasses and more) sent from the distillery to me. My first return letter from them came 35 years ago. I received another a month ago and I’ve faithfully returned the favor back to them, quirky letter for quirky letter. Even when months would go by without receiving a letter, that’s a lot of correspondence, marketing gimmick or not. (A lot of whiskey too.)

Thus, my thought that were I to package up the correspondence, and scans and photos of the mailed oddments between us (sent through their sister organization, the Tennessee Squires), and include a kind running chronology/commentary of what was happening personally and socially over the course of the correspondence, that would make for a weird, whiskey-soaked memoir. Egads, a book!

Putting the Kibosh on the Korrespondence
Anyway, if you scan the proposal, you can see that it’s a fair amount of work to put one together. It was composed a while ago, so some of the info is out of date. But one issue that Little Tommy forgot (and which was pointed out only toward the end of sending it out to a number of agents): I don’t own the copyright to letters sent to me. And when I politely inquired of the Tennessee Squires (of which I am a bonafide landed-gentry member) if I could assemble all our correspondence in a book, they politely turned me down. I asked twice, but no go. They just weren’t interested in publicity about the Tennessee Squire organization. Or they didn’t like the smell of my breath, who knows?

Anyway, I still might publish a shorter recounting of all this high-proof business, because it’s amusing. The next proposal I write, about Hugh Hefner’s pajama collection, will have all copyright issues solved in advance.

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7 thoughts on “Anatomy of A Failed Book Proposal

  1. Bob Newhart based an entire comedy career on sharing one side of a conversation.

    You own the copyright to your letters, don’t you?

    Just a thought.

    85 Charing Cross Road is a powerful work of human art. Tommy Does Jack could be as well, just, y’know, with a different title.

  2. “Let me declare right now that Tennessee men who chew Moore County’s finest are men—I had a small bite of the plug in my mouth for only about a minute before my belly was bucked into the Milky Way and my mind dropkicked into purgatory.”

    A delightful 35-year whiskey epic, and those letters are amazing!

    What a shame the gents wouldn’t consent.

  3. Joel, both you and Jodi have given me a different thought on how I might reconstitute the letters so I could evade the copyright cruelty. Still pondering it on the self-publishing potential. I’ll have to pour three fingers and mull…

    [Man seen months later with several-inches-thick layer of leaves and mold, frozen in pondering posture….]

  4. Annie, I really do still have that tobacco. It has a fine greenish furze on it, and smells of the tomb. It could probably power a nuclear plant now.

  5. Thanks Megan. I’m still mulling how I might put the story together without the copyright issues. Maybe I’ll have to pour myself some JD (it is Friday, after all) and think it over…

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