In the near future, I’m going to be mentioning a number of books of mine that have either just been published or are in the works. I thought some of you might be interested in knowing the context of my adventures in book publishing.
Not too long ago, there was just one respectable way of publishing a book – going through a traditional publisher. At the highest levels of publishing, that usually means getting an agent, then working with that agent to develop a proposal, and sending that proposal to various editors at the major publishing houses in hopes that book contracts will be offered. If a publisher offers to publish your book, you get some money upfront (part of the advance) and more when the book is published. There is an editor at the publishing house who works on your manuscript with you. Then you also have the advantage of the art department (they will design the inside of your book and your cover) and the marketing and publicity people who will try to get your book reviewed and recognized by people in the book world and beyond. There are lots of other experts involved, too, in the many steps along the way.
The traditional book-publishing route takes a lot of time. If you are doing it for the first time, you need to find an agent willing to represent you, then write and rewrite your proposal, then send it out to editors. If you are fortunate enough to land a contract, it can take a while to finalize it. You work with your editor on the actual book, waiting for feedback on various drafts and then incorporating that feedback, will also take time. Once the content of your book is ready (i.e., once you’ve written it), it could easily be another year before your book actually appears in print.
A book published by a traditional publisher has an easier time getting noticed. It is more likely to get reviewed in the traditional media, and to appear on the shelves of bricks-and-mortar bookstores.
I went through that whole process with the first book I ever published for a nonacademic audience – Singled Out. I was fortunate to have representation by a terrific agent, Robert Lescher. Getting a big-time publisher to buy my book was harder. There were some editors who were interested but got overruled by their colleagues. I was happy, though, to be published by St. Martin’s Press, and had a great experience with my editor there, Nichole Argyres. (Marian Lizzi initially bought the book for St. Martin’s Press, but then got lured away by Penguin Press.)
Thinking and writing about singles is my real passion, and I hoped that Singled Out would be the first of a number of books on that topic. Before continuing, though, I wanted to see which aspects of the book were of greatest interest to readers. In the meantime, I decided to write a book about my other area of expertise – the psychology of deceiving and detecting deceit. It is a topic I researched for decades.
I spent a lot of time developing a proposal for a book called How Ordinary People Become Extraordinary Liars. I was in some ways more confident about the prospects for this book than I was for Singled Out. I had a reputation and an expertise that had been decades in the making. I had appeared on the Today show and other morning shows, and lots of other shows as well, to talk about my work on deception. My research had been described numerous times in high-profile publications such as the New York Times, the Washington Post, Time, the New Yorker, the New York Times Magazine, and many more.
My agent sent the Extraordinary Liars proposal out to some of the top editors. Some just weren’t interested. (No surprise there.) One editor with a fabulous reputation said that she loved the proposal but that another social psychologist had circulated a proposal on the psychology of deception just before I had. His proposal got a lot of attention, and he got a great offer. That book, the editor said, was going to “suck all the air out of the room,” so she didn’t want to buy my book. At that point, my agent advised me not to pursue that project anymore.
Maybe you already know that for the past several years (since around 2008), I’ve been working on what I hoped would be my next major book project, on the psychology of friendship. It seemed like a very promising project to follow up my previous work on singles, since friends are important in the lives of so many single people. In addition, the research and thinking on friendship within academic psychology was not nearly as well developed as the work on marriage and romantic relationships (I know you are shocked to hear that!), so I thought it was a terrific opportunity for me to step in and talk about friendship in fresh ways.
By early this year (2011), when I was ready to turn my full attention to getting a proposal ready to be sent to my agent and then to editors, I discovered that another person had again gotten there first. Her proposal for a friendship book was highly successful; she got a contract from a prestigious publisher amidst some fanfare in the publishing world. The implication was that once again, no big-time editor would want my book. (Yes, it is true that there are lots of deception books and there will be lots of friendship books, but once a proposal gets a lot of attention from the top of the publishing heap, any proposal even somewhat similar is no longer of interest to the major publishing houses.)
I am now back to square one, working to develop my next proposal to send to my agent and then to editors. I do want to continue to pursue the traditional publishing route. In the meantime, though, I have been following the publishing path that has become increasingly popular and even respectable – publishing independently. I’ll tell you more about that in Part 2.