Monday, March 07, 2016
On Writing a Coffee Table Book
by Akim Reinhardt
I wrote my first poem when I was 11 years old. Simple quatrains with an ABCB rhyme scheme, it was a meditation on the 6th grade coming to an end. I enjoyed the work of writing it and was proud of the finished product.
Up until that point, whenever an adult had posed that most rote of questions (What do you want to be when you grow up?), I typically responded "baseball player" or "president of the United States." The former because I loved playing baseball, even if I wasn't very good at it. The latter because, if you had to make an abstract choice about the far distant future, why not just pick the top thing?
But after assiduously penning that first set of verses into lined loose leaf paper, another idea began to take vague form: Perhaps I could write for a living.
During the next decade-plus, I found various ways to entwine myself with written words. I continued composing lots of poems. I wrote for the 9th grade yearbook. I struggled and failed with short stories. As a freshman in college I took an introductory creative writing class. As a sophomore I began writing about music for the college newspaper. As a junior I took a second writing course. After graduating I did some freelance work for alternative weeklies. Around that time, I began writing songs, and my earlier interest in poems was eventually usurped by the crafting of lyrics. I took another swipe at short stories; they were now a lot better, but highly derivative.
During those years of knock around jobs and cheap rent, I thought very hard about being a writer and put in a fair amount of practice. Could I actually do this?
I could write for volume, while the quality (for my age) was pretty good and steadily improving. But my desire to be a writer was hampered by haziness concerning the professional avenues.
It seems to me that most people who want to be writers want to write fiction. But that wasn't a calling for me.
Journalism might've been a good way to go. To this day, I still thrive on deadlines. Haven't missed a 3QD column since I began over 5 years ago, and the motherfuckers aren't even paying me.
[Note to the editors: I love you motherfuckers.]
Journalism could have turned into a good writing career, I suppose. It's a dying field in many ways, but so is the professorate, and I pulled that off.
I'm friends with a couple of journalists now. Sometimes I look at them I wonder why I didn't follow that path. It was, after all, one of the various writerly directions I was pointed towards during my early 20s. But I was young and unfocused, probably too unfocused to stick with the freelance gigs and build them up into an actual career.
At the time, I still felt very connected to poetry, but I had no illusions about it being the basis of a career. So I just took one ludicrous moon shot. At the age of 23, I applied to the Iowa Writer's workshop. I sent them a portfolio of my poems, typed up on onion skin paper.
Of course I was turned down. The idea of being a poet ended there, more of natural causes than anything else. The rejection didn't "destroy" me. Not in the least, quite frankly. Rather, my poetry writing was already petering off.
Nearing my 25th birthday, I had reached the point where I knew I would always be writing, but I was no longer very interested in trying to be a Writer. Instead, I just wanted a life where I had the opportunity to pursue writing as I wished; if some of it got published, that would be great, but hardly essential.
And so I began taking graduate courses in history partly because I knew it would allow me to keep writing, both as an academician and beyond. Unlike journalism, and far too many other things in life, I stuck with it. I made a career, and it has allowed me to publish in print and online, not only academic work, but also a wide range material, including creative non-fiction, memoirs, political commentary, reviews, travelogues, satire, and even some experimental poetry.
But over the years, first as I sauntered through the many possibilities of writing for a living, and then as I actually published an eclectic mix material, not once did it ever occur to me that I might get paid to write a coffee table book.
* * *
I was 45 years old with one published history book and another nearing completion when a friend mentioned something, almost in passing, via instant message. She was an editor at a commercial press and her publisher had a series called _____ in 100 Moments.
Would I be interested in doing one, she asked.
Does it pay, I asked.
Yes, she said, it would.
Yes, I said, I would.
I pitched half-a-dozen nouns to fill in the blank, two or three of which I thought had potential. The one they liked was 20th century America. Was I up for it?
But it was then that I made what turned out to be a very wise decision. I said I would co-author the book.
I had no qualms about writing, particularly something that didn't need footnotes. But finding over 300 images as well? It started to sound like perhaps more work than I wanted for a side project. I was willing to split the advance with someone to make it go smoothly, and in fact I had just the person in mind.
My friend Heather Rounds previously worked as a journalist in Kurdistan and had recently published her first novel, so I knew she could help out with the writing. More importantly, she also curates art shows, so I figured she could help out with procuring the images as well.
At first it seemed to me that each of us could both do both things. I could write about history since I was a historian, and if I got her the info, which would not be difficult, she could also bang out entries. On the visual side, she knew how to get pictures while I was already familiar with some of the relevant historical images.
We got together, talked it over, and decided to do it. However, it quickly became obvious that there would be a stricter division of labor than I had envisioned.
In many ways, Heather is a better writer than I am. But she doesn't write like I do. Sentences don't scramble out of her and then line themselves up one after another like ants on the march. For her, as is the case for many writers, writing is laborious. It's a very. slow. process. Each word is an outsized burden the ants strain to carry, not the endless tide of ants themselves.
Meanwhile, there were technical aspects I was unfamiliar with that were crucial to acquiring images. Digital pictures had to be of certain size and quality, something I didn't know anything about, but she did.
So it was settled: I would write, she would garner images.
By the time it was over, I had written everything except for 1 of the 100 entries. Towards the end, I just didn't have it in me to summon 400 words about "Break Dancing." On the flip side, I located only a few of the nearly 350 images we ended up using.
Heather and I had occasional lunches to touch base. We emailed here and there to coordinate matters. But once the two of us sorted out what the 100 moments would actually be, we mostly we worked independently.
In some ways, writing a coffee table book was no different than writing an academic monograph, a newspaper article, a song, or this essay. Writing is writing.
But in other ways, it was very different.
Early on, my editor told me to think of my target audience as someone making an impulse buy from a stack of books on a pallet at Costco.
I'd never been to Costco.
When contemplating the book's relationship to the marketplace, I devalued the importance of my prose. It's a coffee table book. I assumed roughly half the sales would be driven by the cover. Another 40%, I mused, would come about from people flipping through the pictures and liking what they saw, not what they read. Honestly, how many people buy a coffee table book because of the words?
I could be very wrong about that. Maybe the words beyond the title and the copy on the dust jacket are more important to sales than I suspect. But no matter. That's how I conceptualized the book during the writing process. I saw my work as not even secondary, but tertiary to its success.
That attitude granted me a certain freedom. A cynical interpretation would be that it allowed me not to care. But that would be inaccurate. I'm proud of my writing. I proofread emails before sending them out. I would never let the quality of my published writing, in any medium knowingly suffer. And as a professional historian, the quest for historical accuracy is just second nature. Even though The 20th Century in 100 Moments won't be appearing on my C.V. (Curriculum Vita, or what academics call a resumé), I would still be horrified to publish something that played fast and loose with the facts.
Rather, believing my prose would be marginal to the book's success simply made it easier for me to get in a zone and let the words fly.
Another element of the writing process was not seeing the book's images before I wrote. That wasn't intentional, it was simply the result of Heather and I working independently after creating the list of moments. Consequently, my writing wasn't shaped by the images, nor was her selection of images shaped by my writing. Rather, my words and her images triangulated around 100 "moments" such as Prohibition or Jesse Owens winning four gold medals at the 1936 Munich Olympics.
Not tethered to specific images, not burdened by a need to cite sources, and perhaps undervaluing the words themselves, my pace of writing accelerated.
After submitting a sample chapter of about 5,000 words in February of 2014, I wrote the remaining 47,000 words in just 6 weeks later that summer. The bulk of that came in two weeks. Within those feverish two weeks, there was one day, one very long day into night, when I wrote over 7,000 words.
The publisher requested 50,000, words but my initial draft was well over. Each of the 100 moments had been targeted for about 400 words. But researching as I went, I typically overwrote moments and then cut them down, discarding extraneous info and tightening the prose. There were also various introductory segments.
I submitted 52,000 words, but probably wrote about 55,000 words, 85% of them in a month and a half.
The manuscript I churned out in a little more than six weeks wasn't terribly different from what has now been published. There was a copy editor to clean up the prose a little bit, but that was about it.
There was also an acquisitions editor, of course, my friend who'd first approached me. She offered input along the way. But it was her first coffee table book as well; she'd previously been an academic press editor, and before the book was in production, she returned to that world.
There was also a managing editor. But he had no input into the book itself. He was more concerned with busting our chops about the deadline.
I thrive on deadlines, as I've already mentioned. I also pride myself on not missing them. But then again, this was a side project. The advance wasn't something you could live on, and I had a full time job. Needing to work around the academic calendar, I checked with the acquisitions editor, well ahead of time, about pushing the deadline forward. She was absolutely fine with it.
Turns out the managing editor was not.
The night before Christmas Eve, Heather and I got a punchy email concerning our "breezy" approach to deadlines. It was news to us.
Some indelicate words went back and forth, but eventually it was all sorted out.
Apparently Barnes and Noble was interested. That's a big deal, ergo the stress. The managing editor also wanted it to be a Father's Day book, not a Christmas book, as we'd previously believed. That meant getting it to the publisher in China by a certain time, which was now slipping away.
All of this was part of a larger miscommunication problem. For example, around this same time we also found out crucial details about permissions for images, which was bound to cause delays. It's also when we learned that the publisher had accounts with organizations like Corbis and Getty Images, which would have allowed us to purchase images for a greatly reduced price. That in turn would have substantially altered our strategy and Heather's tactics for acquiring the images.
All of these miscues, which in the end were partly our fault and partly the publisher's (I still believe mostly theirs), led to some comical effects. For example, one of our moments is the raising of the American flag on Iwo Jima during World War II. However, the famous photo of that flag raising, shot by war photographer Joe Rosenthal, is not one of the images we used for that moment. Instead, we have such surrogates as the U.S. postal stamp commemorating the flag raising, and a picture of the statue in Washington, D.C. that is modeled on the famous event.
In the end, however, despite the intemperance, the confusion, and the postponements, it all worked out. The book finally shipped pre-orders last month, a year later than originally scheduled, and half-a-year after my second academic book was published.
Whether The 20th Century in 100 Moments ends up on tables at B&N for Father's Day, I don't yet know. That, and reviews in select magazines will probably determine whether Heather and I ever see any royalties beyond our advance.
Would we do it again?
Well, we, probably not. Heather and I had a great working relationship, but I think one coffee table book was enough for her.
Me? Possibly, but not by myself. My initial instincts were correct; given my skill sets and the demands of my career, writing and curating a book of this nature by my lonesome would be too much work for too little pay.
But with the right partner? Sure. Or at least Maybe. After all, writing for money ain't all it's cracked up to be, but 11 year old me, the one who marveled at that first poem on lined loose leaf paper, will always get a kick out of it.
Akim Reinhardt's website is ThePublicProfessor.com. Heather Rounds' website is here. Their new book, The 20th Century in 100 Moments,is here.
Posted by Akim Reinhardt at 12:35 AM | Permalink