Publishing for Nonfiction Authors (Jane Von Mehren)

March 15, 2024 | 1:06:41

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Today’s episode provides a thorough walkthrough of the publishing industry for aspiring nonfiction writers. Our guest is Jane Von Mehren, Senior Partner at Aevitas Creative Management and a former Senior Vice President at Random House. Jane explains the structure of the publishing industry, how to take your area of expertise and start thinking about a public-facing book, what agents are for, what agents look for in authors, what you should look for in an agent, how to find an agent, how to write a query letter to an agent and how to craft a book proposal that your agent can shop to publishers. 

Our patrons will also hear a bonus segment that discusses how an agent shops your proposal to publishers and what happens after that. We also talk money—what kind of advances can first time authors expect? And we provide a number of concrete tips on how to write for a general audience. All of that plus our What’s Good segment where Jane shares something good to read, do and listen to. To get the full interview, just go to .


[Robotic music] This is Phantom Power.

Mack Hagood: Welcome to another episode of Phantom Power, a podcast that usually focuses on sound. Today is a bit of an exception. We’re doing an episode that many of you reached out and asked for. My guest today is Jane Von Mehren. Jane is a senior partner at Avitus Creative Management. She is a former senior vice president at Random House. She’s been an editor and publishing executive at Houghton Mifflin and Penguin. And then there’s the least of her accomplishments: she’s also my new agent! Today, we’re going to do a thorough walkthrough of the publishing industry for aspiring nonfiction writers.

But before we get to that, a couple of quick notes:

Wow. I just feel like we’ve been cruising through this season with this twice-a-month schedule. It’s already March and it’s been a little while since I mentioned what’s coming up in two weeks. We will have recent Princeton PhD in history, Benjamin Lindquist. Ben’s going to be talking about the history of talking computers. Next up is Marie Thompson of the Open University, who just co-edited a new special issue of the journal Senses and Society on tinnitus and the aesthetics of tinnitus, so that should be an interesting conversation. I had some folks ask for more tinnitus material, so I’m looking forward to that one. And soon we’ll be chopping it up with Neil Verma of Northwestern. We’re going to talk about his brand new book on narrative podcasting.

I also want to remind you that we have a new feature where you can leave a comment, ask a question, or just say whatever you feel. Just go to power, press the button, and start talking. I’d love to hear from you and maybe play your comments or questions on the show. So that’s power.

 Okay. Onto today’s show. At the start of this season, I did an episode called “Going Public.” And in that episode, I talked about my interest in pivoting to more public writing and public scholarship. And I mentioned finding an agent and learning to navigate the space of non-academic publishing. And I heard from a number of you who said you’d like a deeper dive into that space. And so I asked Jane Von Mehren if she’d be willing to come on the show and basically give a primer on trade publishing and how to navigate that world as a first time author. Jane graciously said yes, and we really get into it today. If you listen to this episode, you will have an action plan by the end of the show. 

We talk about the structure of the publishing industry, how to take your area of expertise and start thinking about what a public-facing book might look like, what agents are for, what they look for in authors, what you should look for in them, how to find an agent, how to write a query letter to an agent, and how to craft a book proposal that your agent can shop to publishers.

Our patrons will also hear a bonus segment that discusses how an agent shops your proposal to publishers and what happens after that. We also talk money, like what kind of money are we talking about here in this world? Then we provide a number of concrete tips on how to actually write a book for a general audience. All of that, plus our “what’s good” segment where Jane shares something good to read, something good to do, and something good to listen to. To get that full interview with all the bonus content, just go to power.

First, let me tell you a little bit about Jane. Something happened in her freshman English class. Jane von Maren read a poem that changed her life.

Jane von Mehren: I wrote a poem called “The Idea of Order at Key West” by Wallace Stevens. It was about the role of art and culture and how art can be a force of healing and of just making the world right in a way.

I became so focused and loved the poem so much that I completely changed my direction. I became an English major and I studied poetry for the rest of my college career, which turned out to be an amazing education for somebody who went into publishing, became an editor, because when you work on poetry, you’re learning to look at a work as a whole at the same time that you’re looking at it line by line, learning about this way in which the whole and the parts relate, which turned out to be an incredible education for somebody who works with writers and editing and things like that.

Mack Hagood: The summer after Jane’s junior year, she got a job as an Editorial Assistant at Crown Publishers.

 And though she did finish up her degree, she really never left the publishing world from that day on. 

Jane von Mehren: It was very clear to me within weeks that I loved the job. It was a combination of working with the writers, which was really fun, but also beginning to see two things about publishing. 

One is that it is a team effort. So many other people are involved, whether it’s the production people who help you get a manuscript ready to go to the printer with the copy editing and all of that kind of thing.

Then there are the production people who design the pages. What is it going to look like? There are the sales and marketing and publicity people. The other thing that I think was very surprising was that the job is also a sales job. Much of your job as an editor is convincing other people that this book is worth their time, worth their money. 

Trade publishing, in particular, is a business first and foremost. And although everybody who goes into it goes into it because they want to be able to publish amazing books, at the end of the day, we all have to make money. 

The business has to make money, and that’s a hard thing to learn about and to figure out.

Mack Hagood: A hard thing to figure out, but one that Jane excelled at. Going up through the ranks in her early years

Jane von Mehren: When you go into editorial, you start as an editorial assistant, and then there are these steps that you go up. 

You become an assistant editor, and then an associate editor, then an editor, senior editor, executive editor, editorial director, editor in chief. Those are all the sort of steps. And so I did all of those things pretty much. 

Mack Hagood: While Jane slowly moved up from editorial assistant to senior vice president and publisher at Random House, the industry was changing. Reading habits were changing. 

Bookstores were consolidating, e-books looked like the next big thing, and of course, Amazon rose up and started throwing its weight around. Publishers often responded with belt tightening.

Jane von Mehren: They decided not to have a trade paperback publisher. I lost my job. 

Mack Hagood: After decades of working in the publishing arena and rising to the top of the game, Jane was suddenly on the sidelines. 

Jane von Mehren: It was a moment where I really had a chance to stop and think, what do I want to do with my life?

 I’d gone up this ladder and done really well, but you know, my job at Random House was so much about budgets and schedules and co-op programs, and not about what are the books, who are the authors that I want to work with. So that was the moment when I became an agent. 

Mack Hagood: Today, Jane von Maren is Senior Partner at Avitus Creative Management, a literary agency that represents everyone from award-winning fiction and non-fiction authors to celebrities.

I think what I’d like to do at this point is perhaps lay out a toolkit for aspiring nonfiction authors in our audience, with an emphasis on those who have already been writing in the academic world because a lot of our listeners have been doing that.

 And then also to some extent, you know, people who are working in the space of sound or music or media because that’s definitely the interest of most of our listeners.

 So I thought maybe we could start off with the lay of the land in the publishing industry and then we could move on to more of the writing side of things. 

Jane von Mehren: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. Right. Sure. 

Mack Hagood: So let’s talk about presses. You know, there are academic presses. There are trade presses.

 Maybe there are presses that are somewhere in between. Could you talk a little bit about that situation?

Jane von Mehren: So as you point out, there are academic presses and there are trade presses.

 I think the major difference between the two is that an academic press is usually most focused on publishing work that contributes to an academic discipline, that they are a that the work be new, that the work be, you know, and again, in addition to what is already out there.

Some academic presses also have financial imperatives, while others do not. So, that part of it is usually less important in terms of making acquisition decisions about why they’re acquiring something. 

And then there are academic presses that also don’t pay in advance; they only pay royalties, so that can also be different. Many academic presses also don’t have a huge, what we would call, bookstore or trade distribution. 

You wouldn’t find a lot of those books necessarily in Barnes & Noble, for example, whereas a trade press is really about books that are for a general audience and are going to be sold through regular retail bookstores, whether it’s Barnes & Noble, Amazon, or your local independent bookstore. 

They also sell books through what is called the mass market channel, which includes Target, Costco, places like that, and airport stores. Not every book goes through those channels, but some of them do.

Mack Hagood: Mm.

Jane von Mehren: And there are even some books that will be sold, let’s say, in Urban Outfitters or places like that, which are more gifty-type things.

 Now, the sort of middle, the sort of press that’s in between the academic press and the trade press, I think does exist, and it really has to do with editorial focus. They’re still trade presses. 

And so, the one that comes to mind most readily is Basic Books. And Basic Books is part of the Hachette Book Group, which is one of the big five publishers. 

And yet, most of their authors are academics, and they are looking for books that really contribute to the conversation, or and their hope is to have those books be important in the academic setting but also be important in the trade, among general readers.

 They’re not necessarily looking to have a number one bestseller all the time, but they are looking to have books that are serious and rigorous and that add to the conversation.

Mack Hagood: Would Verso be another example of a press that’s kind of respected by academics but also read by non-academics?

Jane von Mehren: Yes, although I think they also have a focus as much on having books that have real rigor and things like that, but they also have a sort of point of view about the kinds of books that they publish. 

The same as Bold Type Books, right? Bold Type, which used to be Nation Books, that’s somewhat leftist, somewhat political, that kind of thing.

Mack Hagood: You know, um, I guess it was almost a year ago now, actually, I went to a writer’s workshop at the Jackman Institute for the Humanities at the University of Toronto. And it was this really amazing workshop where a bunch of academics who had published academic books but were now thinking about writing for the public were assembled.

 It was led by Gretchen Baca and Evelyn Jago. And I learned a ton, made some really great friends, people working on really interesting stuff. But I remember with the opening of that workshop, they were kind of talking about the differences between academic presses and trade presses.

 And they said, most of you in this room are going to be tempted and are going to want to write a crossover book that appeals to both academics and non-academics because you want to reach a wider audience, but you’re not ready to let go of that academic audience and the respect that they would have for your work.

 But they’re like, this is extremely difficult to do, and that you’re probably going to wind up with a book that non-academics can’t read and academics don’t respect. And they were basically saying, like, pick a lane, you know? And I was comfortable with that. I really wanted to write for a general audience. But I wonder your opinion. First of all, do you agree with that dichotomy? Yeah.

Jane von Mehren: Yes, I do. I think that there are times when academic writers feel that they need credibility or to be respected by their academic peers in an academic way, and that often means a book that is not accessible to most general readers. And so you do kind of have to pick a lane. It is pretty difficult. And I think that one of the things that is different about a trade book is that you are writing for a general reader and you have to write things that will appeal to them in one way or another, which does not mean that you have to not have rigor or high standards or have complexity.

It just means you have to speak and write in language that is free of jargon, that is accessible to a wider group of people. And I think that for some people, it’s very hard leaving behind the sort of structure that you get from certain kinds of academic language and ways of putting together arguments that are very natural and comfortable in an academic setting, whether it’s a paper or an academic book. In a trade book, those just aren’t going to work.

Mack Hagood: You know, I had sort of a commercial writing background before I went to grad school, and there was a kind of writing that I learned to do in grad school, which is extremely defensive.

 Right? Like you’re couching every claim, saying, “Well, of course there are these three exceptions. Of course, folks, I know, I know.” You know, like you’re just waiting for people to poke holes in your argument, and it makes a lot of sense as an academic to do that, but it’s extremely tedious for a non-academic to have to read that. 

Like, I think, yeah. For a general audience person, they’ll see a PhD behind your name and they’re probably like, “Okay, I believe you know what you’re talking about. Just tell me what you want to say.” Right? Like, and make it interesting. Like maybe put it in a story rather than some kind of terse academic language.

Jane von Mehren: Yeah. Exactly. Yeah, I think that’s right. I think people, readers who come to a general trade book aren’t looking to poke holes in it, which is not to say that some people don’t. 

You know, some people will say, “Oh, well, I don’t believe this” or “I take issue with this,” but that’s not the agenda. Whereas I think sometimes among academics, when you’re reading something, you’re reading it to sort of see how does it fit into what you know about this subject or how does it relate to the work that you’re doing, and so there’s probably a lot more sort of compare and contrast that’s going on simply as you’re reading something. I’m intuiting that. I may be wrong about that, but it seems to make sense.

Mack Hagood: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, it’s a gamble. It’s a pivot to a different audience, and your former audience is going to look at that and say, “Hey, what about us? Are you no longer a serious part of our community?”

 Like that’s a risk. That’s a bit of a loss. And that’s probably not for most academics. Most of us probably aren’t going to want to do that, which is fine. But I think that sense that, “Oh, well, I can have it both ways,” it’s just going to be a huge temptation because of that.

Jane von Mehren: Right. So, I guess I have a question about that, which is, by writing a book for a general audience, it doesn’t seem as if you necessarily need to exile yourself from an academic world.

It’s just this particular work is going to be for a general audience. You could presumably still be writing for an academic audience, right?

Mack Hagood: Yeah, yeah, that’s absolutely true. I don’t want to overstate the decision, but I think because our time is so limited, there are so many other things that are on our plate besides just doing our research.

 You are kind of committing to a whole book, that’s probably a year or two that you’re just not going to really be able to devote to your usual mode of scholarship.

Jane von Mehren: Mm-hmm, mm.

Mack Hagood: Yeah. Okay, so let’s say you’re a person who has decided, I do want to make this pivot and I’m going to be looking at the trade press world. 

Are there certain categories of books that tend to do better than others, that are maybe more legible to non-experts or have more of a built-in audience that a sort of media or music writer might gravitate towards?

Jane von Mehren: That’s a really interesting question and a hard one to answer because it changes. I think there’ll be certain periods of time when there are lots of books that are in one vein and then people pivot because it’s been done. So let’s say lots and lots of memoir-type books and then people don’t want the personal voice. 

They want something that’s more grounded in research or, and then they think, “Oh, we want something else.” So I think it’s hard to answer. In terms of music and media, I think that there have always been lots of books about music, everything from musicians writing about their own work or their own lives to people writing about music, whether somebody like Ann Powers, the music critic who’s done a lot of writing about music and things like that, to even the business of music and things like that.

Media is also something people write about a lot. Sometimes it’s more from a business perspective, discussing the rise of a particular kind of media. Then there are critiques of it. I think right now lots of people are writing about AI, which is not quite media, but obviously impacts all of that. 

Again, these things are cyclical. It depends on what’s in the air and the zeitgeist, what people are drawn to and interested in. But I think one of the things about writers and about people who are experts is that they have expertise. 

The trick, in a way, for a trade publisher is to give an editor the sense of why this expertise, why this book matters, why, you know, what is it adding to the conversation that’s going on right now?

 Why is what you have to say really important? And why are you the person to bring this part of the conversation forward and make it feel urgent and important in the moment? The moment that we’re in is very compelling to an editor.

Mack Hagood: Yeah, I’m thinking about certain kinds of books that maybe have a little bit of a built-in audience. So like you talked about music, like a music book could be sold at a record store as well as a bookstore.

Jane von Mehren: Mm hmm.

Mack Hagood: Especially if it’s sort of pitched towards a particular genre or audience, like an artist. So I was just down in New Orleans and I went to one of the bookstores I like down there, and there’s just a New Orleans section right when you walk in, and that’s what I was looking for, right.

Jane von Mehren: Yep.

Mack Hagood: So, so I think those kinds of things, like if you’re thinking, you could maybe think about how could my research expertise be framed in such a way that it makes sense in one of those spaces, perhaps?

Jane von Mehren: Absolutely. I think it really also depends on what your research expertise is. So for example, if you, you know, does it make sense to focus on a particular place? There’s a strength to that. 

And so if you have a book that is really going to highlight, say, something that happened in New Orleans and let’s say it’s about music, you have an area from which to grow, right? New Orleans is a great place to launch because it’s connected, but, but you also, it’s also recognized that.

You know, New Orleans is a place where certain kinds of music come from, so the fact that it’s also about music gives you that broader, more national audience.

You don’t want something that is so narrow in scope that it feels as if only New Orleans is going to be interested in it, if that makes sense.

Mack Hagood: Yeah, yeah, yeah, absolutely. I suppose another possibility, and again, this is like, gets into that trying to thread the needle, I suppose, between academic and non-academic, but people who are coming from an academic background, could they be thinking about, okay, this is a trade press book, it’s written for a general audience, but it could also be useful in an intro class on X.

Jane von Mehren: Yes.

Mack Hagood: That’s something people might want to consider? Hmm.

Jane von Mehren: Wise to think about, especially for somebody who is an academic, and there are publishers who are particularly adept at making sure that their books are seen by university professors, college professors.

 Norton is one of them, obviously, since they have a huge textbook arm themselves. Penguin Random House has long had a very strong academic reach into both high schools and the college arena.

 In fact, when I was at Penguin, they really, literally had two sales reps who would travel the country talking to professors about Penguin books. They weren’t trying to sell them. They were just saying, “Hey, we have this book. Would you be interested?” 

And we also actually got great ideas for books from their reports. It was incredible. They would say, “I was talking to so-and-so, and there was really a need for a book about X,” and somebody would think, “Oh, that’s interesting. Let me see what I can do.”

 So I’m not sure if they have those reps anymore, but it was really fun. And most of the biggest publishers, HarperCollins, Simon Schuster, Macmillan Hachette, and Penguin Random House do have some kind of marketing that is focused on schools and universities. Yeah.

Mack Hagood: Let’s say at this point, you’ve decided you’re doing this trade press lane, you’ve thought about, you know, what general niche you might want to be going for. What do you do next?

Jane von Mehren: Right. Right. So I think two things have to happen. One is you have to have some sense of what the book is or what you want to write about because when you approach an agent, you’re going to want to approach them with something in mind. 

That usually happens in the form of a query letter. So you’re writing to somebody and saying, you know, I’m Mack Hagood. I work here. This is my specialization. I want to write a book about X. 

Sort of being able to give a sense of what that book is in a few sentences that are very compelling and a sense of, you know, what kind of exposure you’ve had to a trade marketplace before, whether it’s being interviewed by the Washington Post or having your work written about on or some other place. 

Or you’ve written a bunch of pieces that have appeared in academic journals. Those are also useful. What you’re trying to give is a sense of who you are in the world. And then you can send that off. 

And most of those query letters are done by email. And one of the questions I often get is, well, how do I know who to send to? And that’s a really good question because you do want to send to somebody who is going to be open to the kind of work that you’re doing. 

And one of the things that I always tell people to do is go and look at the acknowledgements in books that are similar to the kind of book you think you want to write. It doesn’t have to be exactly in your subject area, but sort of have the kind of seriousness that whatever, how general market is it versus a little bit more academic what the writing level is and things like that. Go and look at the acknowledgements and see who’s there. 

That’s one way of figuring it out. Another way is there is an organization called Publishers Marketplace, which some of it is free. Some of it you have to subscribe to, but you put and you will get to it. 

And it has all this incredible information about who buys what kind of books how, and then what’s their, you know, what agent’s email addresses are, not everybody’s email addresses are on there, but a lot are and so it can give you it’s a great way of getting information and then how to figure out how to get in touch with people. And those are really. Really good ways. 

Another way is to talk to people, you know, do you know people who have been published in the trade area? Do they have agents? Kind of ask people and you can get connections that way. I mean, the way that you and I met is pretty unusual. You should tell that story, Mac.

Mack Hagood: Basically, the very short story is I was being interviewed by a reporter from the Washington Post and I just mentioned that I was thinking of writing a trade press book, and she’s like, you should meet my agent. And that was like, which Yeah, I mean, I don’t know how common that is, but I, but I.

Jane von Mehren: Right, it is, yeah.

Mack Hagood: The idea though is that it’s these social connections that you could think about, who do I know who is publishing now? And could I approach them and ask them about.

Jane von Mehren: Right Exactly. Exactly. And you know, and in our case, the reporter who was interviewing you wrote to me and said, I just interviewed the most amazing guy. He wants to do a trade book.

 Do you want to be introduced? And so, and I said, yes. So and the, the, the truth is that that kind of referral happens a lot. I get a lot of clients from people I’ve published or people I represent who say, Oh, I know somebody who’s interested in doing this. And would you like to meet them? Which is great. 

And then there are also people that I represent who I reach out to myself. I have read something where they’re quoted or they’ve written a piece that I found really interesting and then I reach out to them. 

So that happens too, particularly early on in your agenting career when you don’t have a lot of, you know, there aren’t tons of people referring things to you. And so it’s and it’s really fun.

Mack Hagood: Yeah, I feel, I feel like I should credit the person who introduced it is Stacey, Stacey Colino. And she is actually someone that you work with, right? 

Jane von Mehren: Yes, she’s my client. Stacey is somebody who often works with experts and helps them write their books. 

So the first book that we worked on together was a book that she wrote with Shana Swan, who is a worldwide famous epidemiologist, and she’s done a lot of work about falling sperm counts and what that means for men and also humankind. 

So we did that book, and she’s done a lot of different things. She’s just an incredible science and health and wellness reporter and has been great to work with. So, and has very good instincts also for who would make good writers. 

Mack Hagood: I can also say that I did pursue the Publisher’s Marketplace, which is really fascinating, like a wormhole that you can lose weeks in, if you allow yourself to.

 It’s a little overwhelming, the amount of information that’s out there, but just like searching for your favorite nonfiction authors and finding out who their agents are. And there’s even this really very strange coded language about how much money each project sold for, allegedly. 

I mean, I don’t know how much to believe these things that you see in Publisher’s Marketplace, but somebody has to disclose these numbers. I don’t know who’s disclosing, if it’s the agent or the author or probably not the publisher, right?

Jane von Mehren: A book deal comes out without any kind of disclosure of how much money is involved. 

From my perspective as an agent, I think it’s nobody’s business. It’s the author’s business and, you know, they don’t necessarily need to know why. How much a book sold.

 Other people don’t need to know. And although there are times when a publisher or an agent will want to sort of indicate that it’s sold for a lot of money because One of the ways in which Publisher’s Marketplace is used is that foreign publishers will look at what has sold.

 Movie and TV people look at it. So there are times when you’re trying to signal the rest of the marketplace or other parts of the marketplace by what you say in the sales announcement. So that can be why it’s there. And most people, they’re accurate, but the ranges, the good sale versus the, I can’t even, I rarely put in the numbers. 

Mack Hagood: Yeah, yeah,

Jane von Mehren: I don’t remember all of these.

Mack Hagood: The terminology is something like a nice deal, a very nice deal. It’s really funny.

Jane von Mehren: Exactly. Exactly. Yes. Amount of money. Hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Mack Hagood: Yeah, yeah, it really is. 

Jane von Mehren: Exactly. It is. So, but so, and then once you send out that query letter, what is the next step? 

So hopefully, you get a response. And one of the things that are probably really hard is that a lot of times you don’t. I, as an agent, do try to respond, but sometimes it’s just, you know, you get so many emails a day and don’t necessarily, you can’t necessarily respond. 

So I don’t, I sometimes don’t, I try to, but I sometimes don’t. And then if you do get a, you know, Oh, I’m interested in this, send me what you have. So with nonfiction, you’re selling your book most often.

 Using a proposal and that process, that proposal process is sort of an art form because it’s a document that serves a bunch of different purposes. It is both a sales document and an editorial document and a kind of mission statement and getting all of the elements of it.

Put together is tricky, but you should have something That is a little bit longer than your query letter to be able to send to show What the writing is like and what you’re thinking about for the book and so and if you don’t You know, there are agents who will work with you from the ground up, often They’ll want you to have something Yeah,

Mack Hagood: So in my case, I had the application that I wrote for the National Endowment for the Humanities Public Scholar Grant. 

And I just sort of took off some of the more academic edges of that. And basically had that available so that when you asked me, you said you were interested in seeing more, I think I sent you some version of that thing, which sort of gave you a pretty good sense of it. 

And I mean, maybe we should clarify your, I mean, the relationship between an agent and an author.

 Certainly one hopes there will be an ongoing relationship that could span numerous books, but in the beginning, you’re really selling one particular project, right? So this is really about, I’m pitching this particular book and how do you as an agent, because you know, you work on commission, so you need to be placing good bets on books that are going to reward your time financially.

Jane von Mehren: Mm-hmm.

Mack Hagood: How do you decide who you’re going to work with? What project looks good to you based on these query letters or other ways that you meet authors?

Jane von Mehren: That’s a great question. I think part of what makes being an agent an amazing job is that you are able to work on anything you want. So part of it is I read something and I think, “Oh, this is so interesting. This is so exciting. I really like the sound of this.”

First and foremost is, am I interested? Partly because the time that you’re going to put in over, you know, over the next however many months, possibly years, is significant. 

And so you have to feel enough excitement and interest to want to do that. And then I think there’s also a sense of knowing how publishers think and thinking about how does this particular idea seem in terms of what people are looking for, what people are interested in, what’s going on in the world at the moment. Are there books like it that I can think of?

 When I’m reading it, do I think, “Oh, so-and-so editor is going to love this?” Do I immediately start thinking about who are the editors who are going to be potential buyers of the book? So it’s things like that. Have I done something in this space before?

 There are certain, I think each one of us as agents develop areas that we’re interested in, and you kind of end up having authors who kind of fit into sort of groups. 

They’re not all doing the exact same things, but you can see how they’re connected. So, for example, when we first spoke, I think I spoke to you about this book called Golden, which is about the power of silence, right?

 It’s related but not exactly what you’re doing, but it was in a world that seems similar. I could see how the dots connected and it also was something really interesting to me. 

Mack Hagood: That’s a book by Justin Zorn and Lee Mars. And that’s one that you successfully sold.

Jane von Mehren: Yeah, yeah, yeah. We had an auction for it, and it went really well. It was published by Harper at HarperCollins. Yep.

Mack Hagood: That’s great. I’ve dipped into it a little bit, but I’ve held back from actually reading it because I didn’t want to get too influenced by it.

Jane von Mehren: That’s fine. No, and it’s funny because, you know, then you read the book and you think, and particularly me, as somebody who was an editor for many years, there’s sort of choices that you think, “Oh, would I have done that, or might I have wanted them to do slightly different things with, you know, as they were developing the book, you know, once it was sold?”

 Some things changed from the proposal and things like that, which happens, and that’s appropriate because ultimately once the proposal is done and you’re working with an editor, then it is the editor who needs to drive that, the editorial process.

Mack Hagood: Yeah, yeah, and I definitely want to talk about that more a little bit later, but I did notice in the book that they seem to make a move that is a little different from what we usually do in the academic world, but seems to be a very common move in nonfiction where they kind of tell the story of how they got interested in this subject matter and like how it sort of captured them that they almost set up like a little mini crisis in the introduction and then they realized that they were able to sort of transcend this problem through embracing silence, which sort of clarifies what the topic of the book is about but also kind of sets up the stakes for it and gives a narrative entryway for the reader. Like, “Oh, this is interesting. I see how they got into this.”

Jane von Mehren: Yeah, it’s a strategy now that, you know, I noticed certain strategies that authors use in trade press books, and that seems to be one of them.

Mack Hagood: Yes, I think that’s right. I think it’s a way in which authors can lay out what the book is about, what they’re exploring, and doing it in a way that the reader can identify with. “I may be an expert, but I’m a human being like you, and I’m dealing with the same issues out in the world that you are.”

Mack Hagood: So, yeah, yeah, it’s a different strategy. But maybe we can get back into talking about your process of thinking about who’s an author that I want to work with when I was sort of doing research online I found this rather intimidating and, for some reason, to me depressing word kept popping up, which was platform, that an author needs to have a platform. Can you talk a little bit about that, what that is and does that factor into your considerations as well?

Jane von Mehren: Platform is a word that publishers and agents talk about all the time. And what it means is what are the things that you as an author bring with you that will help you get the word out there about the book, connect to your audience, and kind of help the publisher publish the book in a way so that the book will sell more copies.

And it ranges widely. So it can be the fact that you have been interviewed by various journalists, and therefore you have a connection, you have a relationship with some of these journalists, and when your book is published, you’ll be able to reach out to them and say, “Hey, I’ve just published this book, I’d love you to, you know, I’m gonna have my publisher send you a copy, I’d love it if you, you know, took a look, you want to write about it, that would be great,” or whatever. 

It may be that you’re out there doing lectures all the time, and so you have that kind of audience, and if you’re doing lots of lecturing and talks, you can sell books perhaps. It may be that you have a podcast, and you know, the podcast will help you to get the word out about the book.

All of these things are ways in which you, as an author, bring this platform, this ability to say, “I’m not just Jane Von Mehren, I’m Jane Von Mehren, who is also well known by these journalists, and I have connections with them, and so they’ll help get the word out.” So who do you know? 

What are the things that you have access to that can help you get the word out about the book so that it will sell more copies? And it’s a variety of things. For example, you’re an academic.

Is your institution interested in helping get the word out? There’s all kinds of things. So do I think about it? Yes, I do. And I think about it because publishers think about it. 

There’s nothing worse than having somebody say to you, “Well, this is so interesting, but this person has no platform.” And the platform question has become more and more important because there are fewer book reviews, there are fewer physical bookstores that people are going into to just see books. It’s a lot harder to make people aware of books than it used to be. 

So the fact that you, as an author, have the ability to reach out to an audience who is going to be interested in what you’re writing about, is really important. That is very meaningful to a publisher because it helps them be able to do more.

Mack Hagood: Well, I think the large variety of things that you put on the table there, and the fact that none of them were social media, I think makes it much less depressing to me when I said that.

Because I have seen, you know, some, and this probably varies by genre of book, but I have certainly seen people who seem to equate platform with how many followers do you have on Instagram? Yeah. And for me, that’s very few. 

Jane von Mehren: Right, right. So I will say that social media is one way to have a platform, and I will give credit to publishers for having become more sophisticated about the way that they look at social media because it’s not just how many followers you have, but are they engaged? 

You know, you could have a million followers. But if none of them are actually engaging with you or only a small percentage, it doesn’t really matter, right? It’s not meaningful. 

So I think that’s definitely something that has changed. There’s also the fact that maybe you don’t have a huge social media platform, but you know five people who do, who are huge supporters of your work, and who have very engaged followings. 

That can be as meaningful as anything else. So there are lots of things, you know, and I think the other thing that publishers will tell you is that if social media is not your thing, if you don’t feel comfortable doing that, then you shouldn’t because authenticity is really important and being able to engage is really important and if you don’t want to do that, then you’re not really going to be able to build a following there and you’re just wasting your time. 

So there are probably kinds of, you know, for example, if you’re doing cookbooks or you’re doing lifestyle kind of stuff, you probably do need to be on Instagram and connecting with people because people are looking at those pictures and all of that kind of stuff. But for many people, social media per se is not the only way to have a platform.

Mack Hagood: I think that’s so helpful, especially that piece about authenticity with social media. I think the wasting time, just trying to get your numbers up. I think that comes across. And I also think there’s just something strange. Like voodoo or mojo with social media that I don’t have, it’s just not a space where I spend much time. I love having conversations like podcasting for me. It’s a one-on-one thing. 

It feels intimate. I learn so much from doing it like that is something I can easily spend my time on. Engaging on social media. It just feels like a chore to me so I’m glad to hear there are other options, but for some of our listeners, you know, they’re really great on social media so I guess the lesson here is play to your strengths and what feels right what comes naturally?

Jane von Mehren: Yes, I think that’s exactly right. That’s

Mack Hagood: We’ve talked a lot about the agent side of the equation, what the agent is looking for in the author. What should the author be looking for in an agent?

Jane von Mehren: A great question. So I think one thing about the author-agent relationship is that ideally, as you pointed out, it lasts for many books, so you’re hopefully signing on for a long-term relationship, and so you want to feel comfortable. 

Not only does this person understand your work, but does this person understand what I want from this? Not everybody is necessarily looking to get the most amount of money for a book or there are reasons that having a book come out at a certain time is really important. 

You want an agent who is going to understand those things and be able to work with you on those things. It’s not that an agent is necessarily going to be able to do everything that you want. But you want them to at least be on the same page and everybody working towards the same thing. 

So I had a client who was up for tenure, so it was really important that we sold his book. Luckily we did that. Um, but it, so for his tenure decision, it was really important that he had this book under contract. And so that was great. I had, you know, that can be one thing.

Mack Hagood: I mentioned to you, but I’m kind of in that situation too, except it’s for a full-time professor, so yeah, I got to get this proposal done.

Jane von Mehren: Done. Okay. Okay. There we go. So there, but there are things like that and then, you know, and sometimes being published by a particular publisher might be really important to you, so, you know, maybe that means that you accept less money than somebody else because you really want to be with a particular publisher or a particular editor.

An agent I think you asked me that question if there was a particular, and I felt pretty undistinguished in that I had no preference at all. I was like most people.

Mack Hagood: Most, most people don’t, I will tell you that most people don’t have a preference, so you are not alone. 

And the other thing is that you want somebody that you feel that you can really. Talk with and be, you know, and be able to be very transparent. Your agent is an advisor. 

So you want somebody who’s gonna be able to not only say, “Oh, this is how we can do what you want to do.” But also somebody who’ll say, “You know, I understand why you want to do that. 

But actually It’s not the right move for you. And here’s why.” And things like that. You want somebody who’s an advocate, but who’s also willing and able to be clear about. Why something makes sense or doesn’t make sense.

Mack Hagood: Yeah.

Jane von Mehren: Jane von Mehren: So I think there’s that. And I think having somebody who’s had experience inside a publishing company is really helpful.

Mack Hagood: Right.

Jane von Mehren: Not necessary, but I certainly find I’m surprised by some things that I know that even colleagues who have been agents as long as I’ve been in publishing, so for decades, things about the workings in-house that they don’t know, that I would have thought they would have known so.

Mack Hagood: Yeah. Working with you, I mean, seemed like such a no-brainer in a sense, because you had all of this experience and, you know, I just felt like we had a really good rapport, and I felt comfortable talking to you. I could understand what you were saying, all those.

Jane von Mehren: Mm-hmm. Mm.

Mack Hagood: You know, I spoke to some other agents, and there are differing experiences there.

Everyone had different strengths and weaknesses. I just wonder, like for people who are maybe weighing like maybe somebody who has less experience than you, but the rapport is really good.

Or conversely, somebody who has tons of experience, has sold tons of books, but maybe that rapport isn’t there as much, right? Like I feel like with you, there was a sweet spot where I could, the middle of the Venn diagram was there, but I think for maybe a lot of people, there might be a kind of choice that if they’re lucky enough to have a couple of agents interested, they might need to choose between those two scenarios.

Do you have any thoughts about that?

Jane von Mehren: I think the one thing that I would say is you want to have a clear sense of how the agent likes to work and so that you get a sense of is this somebody I’m going to be able to get in touch with and have them respond to me. Is this somebody who I can ask all my, you know, seemingly dumb questions, but there are no dumb questions, but you know, that was going to have the time and the patience to do that. 

Is this somebody who understands what my book is or what I’m trying to do? So I think it’s that kind of thing. I think somebody who’s younger and hungrier sometimes can be the right choice because they’re younger and hungrier and they have more, you know, they have fewer clients.

They’re excited about moving forward and that can be a great option. Somebody who’s been at it a long time, and who does tons and tons of deals, can also be great. 

I think that that person, who’s done tons and tons of deals, and maybe there’s not so much rapport, what you want to make sure in that case is that they’re going to give you enough time that they’re going to be willing to because I think that sometimes happens that they’re the senior person and, you know, of course they can sell your book. But you’re not necessarily going to get the best sort of advising and the best attention from somebody like that.

Mack Hagood: Yeah, and I would reinforce that just based on my experience with friends who have had either prominent literary agents or prominent editors wound up feeling kind of like the small fish in the big pond and didn’t maybe get the attention. 

Either to help them craft the book into what they really felt like it could have been or perhaps didn’t get the strong marketing push from the publisher, even though they landed with a dream press.

Jane von Mehren: Yeah, I think all of those things are true when it comes to the publisher itself. A lot of the things that happen in the sort of marketing and publicity process and selling process are partly up to the editor and then partly completely out of control of the editor. 

And so it’s a tricky balance. And in fact, this is a place where your agent can be helpful both in terms of setting up realistic expectations and also, being able to ask the questions, facilitate the conversation so that you can get more of what is possible, you know, asking for, for a full-page ad in the New York Times is probably not possible. And so let’s not add, you know, let’s, let’s not go there, but,

Mack Hagood: That’s what we were doing for my book, but…

Jane von Mehren: But there are other things that are possible. And so let’s focus on those things, right? So yeah.

Mack Hagood: Yeah, that makes sense. Okay. So let’s wrap up this piece about the industry and the agent and what happens with two last questions, which are what exactly is the proposal that you and the agent work on together? 

And then I want to know about it. After you’ve finished this proposal, what are you going to do with it? 

Jane von Mehren: Yeah. What happens? Okay. So the proposal itself is as I said, it’s this weird document that is a sales pitch, editorial, sort of example, exemplar, and a kind of mission statement. 

And I think I may have even described it to you like this when we first spoke. I often compare it to a set of blueprints for a house. And that first page, which is the overview, is that pretty picture of the outside of the house.

And it’s kind of the, You know, what is this book, why am I writing it, why now, who’s it for, and a little bit about what the structure of the book is. And then as you, you know, as you lift the pages you get inside and you see the plumbing, which might be about the author, and then there’s the electrical that might be the comps and the audience and, you know, and so on. 

Some other thing that’s the marketing and publicity plan and then you have sample material and chapter summaries which help the editor see how this big idea and sort of vision of the book that you’ve laid out in the overview is going to actually be realized in the course of the book and it’s a balance between what’s actually going to be in it sample sample writing and enough kind of promise of what you don’t want to put everything into the proposal that’s one of the weird things and chapter summaries is often a misnomer because you don’t want to summarize everything you want to sort of give a sense of here’s here’s what it’s going to be and I’m also going to talk about this this and this so that you keep you don’t want an editor to finish reading a proposal and think oh, that was great Thank you, you know on to the next you want them to think. Oh my god. That was so interesting. I need to know more So it’s this interesting balance

Mack Hagood: Things that jump out for me there, first of all, I mean. In contrast to a non or in contrast to a fiction book you’re not presenting the entire manuscript like it so this proposal is sort of like you said the blueprint that is going to Show what you’re going to do in the book. 

So I think one thing that I’ve noticed that academics tend to think is like, Oh, I’m going to write this book and then I’m going to find an agent and get this book published. 

Like that’s a little bit putting the cart before the horse, right? Because part of what you’re working with an agent for is for their expertise on what the market is interested in. 

And then how to pitch that and you might wind up writing a very different book from the one that you just wrote on your own because it has a scholarly import because you’re kind of not selling just scholarly import right like As you said a moment ago, there has to be a why a why now a who cares? Sort of dimension that you need to

Jane von Mehren: Yep,

Mack Hagood: Spell out in that proposal

Jane von Mehren: Yep, yep, exactly. That’s exactly right. And the other thing is that a proposal is potential, right? If you write the whole thing, then an editor can say, Oh, okay.

 I don’t, I don’t think this works. And whereas in a proposal, there’s still the opportunity to say, well, I’m not sure that this table of contents is in the right order, but it’s only a table of contents, right? 

You can change it. And so it’s all potential. And which is not to say that. You know, when you have a manuscript that the editor won’t edit it, but if you’re selling it based on a manuscript, it’s often more difficult. 

And, you know, for example, in fiction where you do have to sell a full manuscript, at least for your first book you often get people who will pass or they’ll say, you know, if you revise it, I will look again. 

Here are my thoughts. I, you know, but I’d be happy to look at it again. And so you have to go and revise it rather than buying the book and working with the author to edit it to make those revisions. 

So a proposal is a, it’s a really hard thing to do because you are juggling all of these different sorts of focuses and, and things that you have to do with a proposal, but at least you’re not writing the whole book. 

And once you have a proposal, you also have a terrific map for what you are going to do. So even if you end up changing some things, you still have something very strong to work from. 

Mack Hagood: As someone who is working on the proposal right now, it’s been really interesting to me. How similar it is to just straight up writing, right? I mean I’m coming up with the structure in advance in this way. 

I mean, it’s very clarifying. It’s a learning curve for me and it’s a challenge, you know, there’s a part of me that’s like, come on, I just want to get to writing the book. But, but on, on the other hand, it’s like, well, this is going to make writing the book so much easier. Because if someone buys this and signs onto it, and it’s like you said, I’ve got that blueprint. 

So, so you, you’ve got this proposal and then there are also sample chapters or a sample chapter is a, I’ve seen people say two chapters. I’ve seen people say one chapter, like where do you come down on that?

Jane von Mehren: So I think nowadays people want to be able to see what the book is without having to read a hundred pages, right? So if you can keep it to 60 or 75 pages, you’re in great, great shape. If it’s more, it’s fine, but being

Mack Hagood: The proposal and the sample chapter.

Jane von Mehren: Yeah. So if it’s more, it’s fine, particularly if it’s really fun to read the way yours is. And so I think one chapter is fine. 

There are some proposals that I have sold that do not have any sample chapters, but each of the sort of chapter summaries really feel like they begin with a kind of narrative that is kind of, might be in the book, and then you get to the end of it, and then there’s more of the kind of, in this chapter, I’ll do blah, blah, blah, blah. and so it really de, it depends on how good a writer you are, you know, and how effective you can be. But having a really good chapter.

Mack Hagood: I didn’t even know that was a possibility. That’s the way I’ve been trying to write my sample chapter description. So

Jane von Mehren: That’s great. Good.

Mack Hagood: Maybe I can get out of writing a sample chapter.

Jane von Mehren: Yeah, we’ll see. We’ll see. Absolutely. We will see. So that’s good. So I think usually nowadays one sample chapter is fine, particularly because the overview should also be in the voice, you know, should kind of be the voice that you’ll be using in the book. And so that also, you know, serves as a kind of sample of your writing there too.

Mack Hagood: So, you’re writing the proposal, the way you’re going to write the book, like if it—

Jane von Mehren: To a certain extent. Although there are places where you’re going to be very explicit and, you know, write in a way, in this book I will, which obviously in the book you would never do. So—

Mack Hagood: Right.

Jane von Mehren: That’s why it’s a weird document because you do both of those things.

Mack Hagood: So, okay. So we’ve got the—

Jane von Mehren: The—

Mack Hagood: The uh, proposal.

Now you’ve got the proposal. You’re satisfied with it. You’ve given a lot of feedback and the author has responded, and now it’s a nice polished document. What do you do with this thing? 

Jane von Mehren: When I get very close to having a document that I think is pretty much done, I will ask a colleague to read it. And that is because I want somebody who hasn’t been immersed in the process to read it the way an editor would, with fresh eyes, and sometimes that read surfaces something that is seemingly really obvious that I’ve missed, that you’ve missed, and you know, it happens.

And so it’s just a great sort of, what do you think, what would you add, what are— you know, I might be worried about something and I’ll ask, like, Has— you know, have we, is this convincing or etc.? And so once we do that and get it all put together, then I will start doing two things.

One is a submission list. Who am I going to go to? And I will probably have started it along the way as we get close. I start talking to editors about the project and sort of get some sense of what people might think. And then I start writing my pitch letter. So that’s me, positioning the project for the editor.

And I often think of it as being sort of like the way an editor would pitch the book to their sales, marketing, and publicity team. So it’s sort of positioning it for a publisher. And part of that letter will be at the end, I’ll say, you know, Would you please get back to me with your initial response by such and such a date because on such and such a week we’re going to introduce the author to interested publishers.

And that’s a way of creating a timeline. It doesn’t always— Sometimes it works that way, but sometimes it’s faster, sometimes it’s slower, but that’s the way it goes. And then also an expectation that, you know, that you will have, be having conversations with interested editors. And hopefully you, and then you have all of that done.

And then what I do is I write an email that says, “I’m so excited, I’m going out with this incredible project by my client, Mac Hagood, and then here’s, here’s what it’s called.” Sort of a sentence about what it is. My pitch letter is below. Please let me know if you’d like to see it because I want everybody to buy into getting it.

I don’t want to just send something out because you know, you have an inbox, I have an inbox, and you know what happens sometimes. So that way, you’ve made people buy into it. And then when I send it, I will say, “I’m so glad you want to look at it. Here it is. Please would you confirm that you safely got these pages so that I know that they’ve gotten it.”

And then if they don’t confirm, then I can go back and say, “I’m just checking. Did you get it?” And, yeah, so then, yeah, and so then you just wait for that first person to get back to you. I have one colleague who will start telling people that he’s getting responses even if somebody has rejected it.

I usually wait until somebody comes and says, “Oh, I really like this, but.” You know, and then you start telling me, “I’m just getting a response, checking in, not trying to rush you, but I’m hearing from people.” And then when I make that first meeting appointment, I will go back and say, “I’m starting to schedule meetings.

I’d love to add you to the schedule,” you know, that kind of thing. So you just want to do what you can to kind of create momentum.

Mack Hagood: Yeah.

Jane von Mehren: And then you go through the whole process. We have these meetings. Sometimes it’s one. Sometimes it’s three. Sometimes it’s 10. You never know. You have the meetings and shortly thereafter—

Mack Hagood: So, just to clarify, am I at this meeting or is it this?

Jane von Mehren: It’s about you. Yes, absolutely. Yes. You, yes, you are at the meeting. It is really the author and the editor. I’m there. I’m there, but I don’t do a lot of talking. Sometimes editors will bring marketing and publicity people. Sometimes it’s just the editors. We have these meetings afterward.

Mack Hagood: What do folks talk about at the meeting? They’ve seen the proposal already. They know what they—

Jane von Mehren: Mm hmm.

Mack Hagood: —know what you’re pitching.

Jane von Mehren: Yes. So they want to get a sense of the author, what they’re like, if they have questions about the proposal. Sometimes they want their marketing and publicity people to see an author. Sometimes you feel as if they’re asking you questions that were answered in the proposal and that’s very common. And partly that may be the editor asking questions in order to get you to talk about something they want their colleagues to hear.

Mack Hagood: Huh.

Jane von Mehren: And it’s also the opportunity for you to meet the editor, to find out about how they work with authors. Find out what the publishing company is like. So it’s mutual, you know, you’re looking at it from both perspectives. They’re looking at you and you’re looking at them. And so they are also trying to sell themselves to you.

Mack Hagood: And I assume all of this can happen over Zoom or whatever—

Jane von Mehren: Now, yes, yes, in the old—

Mack Hagood: —change.

Jane von Mehren: It is a big change. It used to be all in person or sometimes by phone. There would be phone conversations, but  nowadays it’s pretty much all Zoom.

Mack Hagood: Okay. So then—

Jane von Mehren: Then after those—

Mack Hagood: —meetings. Okay.

Jane von Mehren: And then I will set what’s called a closing date, and that’s a day that we’re going to accept offers and we’ll figure out depending on what has happened, how many people are interested, etc.

We’ll structure the closing in different ways it might be. Everybody give me your best bids by such and such a time on a particular day. Or it might be we’re going to take first bids and then we’ll take the top three bidders and move them along to the next round. It just depends. Nowadays most closings are best bids.

And that’s partly because the different companies have different rules about whether they can bid against other people within their corporation, right? So HarperCollins only gives you one bid, no matter how many people are interested. Random House has different divisions, and the different divisions can bid against each other, so long as there’s somebody outside of the corporation, outside of Random House.

So you could have two Random House divisions and Simon and Schuster, but you couldn’t have two divisions from Random House bidding against each other. So if you know you only have two Random House people, you’re only going to do best bids because you have to get them to just give you their bids.

Things like that. So it’s— it’s tricky. So structuring how you’re going to do it is partly based on who the players might be.

Mack Hagood: And since we’re talking about bidding, I, I know this is an extremely nebulous thing, but like, what kinds of money are we talking about? Because I think for a lot of academics, I certainly, for me, I had no idea. Like—

Jane von Mehren: Right. Right. So the money varies wildly. One of my colleagues, in fact, one of the founders of the agency I work at says the following, that most of the books that we sell, sell for between 75 and 500,000. And, you know, and what he says, and I see your book being in that, in that vein. And that, you know, and that is really true.

Most of the books we sell are in that range. There are some that are higher and there are some that are lower. And you often don’t know where you’re going to end up until it starts happening.

Mack Hagood: Yeah. And I’ve spoken to a couple of other agents and they said very similar things. They’re just like, there’s no telling, you know, if I could predict how much a book would sell for, I’d be making way more money.

Jane von Mehren: I mean, right. Exactly. And the reality is that people who do tell you how much they’re going to sell your book for probably don’t know. And to me, that can be a red flag, unless they’re saying, I see this book as being similar to a particular kind of book that I’ve sold and that sold for about like that kind of thing would be okay. 

But if they say, oh, I can get you three hundred thousand dollars for this book, I think that’s a red flag because they just don’t know, nobody knows. Yeah.

Mack Hagood: Well, I think for—

Jane von Mehren: If you’re really gonna count on the three hundred thousand dollars, I mean, I would just take it, you know, they don’t know, you shouldn’t take it for anything.

Mack Hagood: Right, right. Don’t go buying that Porsche.

Jane von Mehren: Right, exactly.

Mack Hagood: Get that midlife crisis car. Well, I mean, I think for those of us who have written academic books, this is like such a different scale that like the bottom end sounds pretty amazing.

Jane von Mehren: Right. Yep.

Mack Hagood: Okay. Well, wonderful. I thank you so much for, I think people will find that extremely helpful to just— I mean, this has been such a great walk through of the industry and how it all works. 

Just, this is just amazing. So maybe we can wrap up with a little bit of talking about the work itself.

And maybe some tips about writing a trade press book for people coming out of the academic world.

Jane von Mehren: Right.

Mack Hagood: What do you think is maybe the most important thing that academics need to know when they’re approaching writing non-fiction?

Jane von Mehren: Mm hmm. Well, I think the first thing that I would say is to remember that people like reading stories. And so if you can write about the subject that you’re writing about in a way that involves storytelling, whether it’s about your own life, and I think that is often why people do go to their own life, because it’s a way of bringing the subject into the real, into the world.

Or you can tell stories about other people. So, for example, in your proposal, you have that incredible opening down on Coney Island with, and I’m going to forget his name, but in the water trying to, yes, trying to record the sounds of the ocean. That’s such a stunner. You’ve never heard, I had never heard that story before, but even if I had, the way you read it, it’s so visual and you can just imagine being there that it’s very effective, it draws readers in.

So I think that’s one thing, is use narrative writing to make the subject approachable and draw people in. And I think the other thing is to remember that ideas are important and how can you write about your ideas and you’re thinking about them in a way that is approachable to somebody who knows nothing about them.

You want to assume that your reader is intelligent and is educated, but is not a PhD. And so what backgrounds do you need to give them? What sort of girding and context do they need to have in order to understand the subject of your book? And I think the other thing is, and we talked about this when we were talking about the proposal, is keep thinking about what is the ultimate reason that somebody is going to be reading this book and making sure that you’re not necessarily always saying you need, you know, this is important because, but that you’re writing the book so that you surface the stories, the thinking, the ideas that connect to ultimately why somebody is reading the book and why they’re— What is it that they’re hoping to get out of it?

The last thing that I would say is that you want to think of your book as a book that has a kind of narrative arc, that you’re going from a beginning to an end and what are the steps along the way that get you there so that as a reader is going through it, they feel that they’re, whether it’s learning about a period of time or a subject, that they’re learning the information in a way that makes sense, that helps to develop the bigger ideas that you have, and that makes for a reading experience that people want to keep reading. They want to keep going because everything that you are presenting is so interesting or so compelling or so necessary that they want to keep turning the pages.

Mack Hagood: Yeah. You know, what you’re saying there, it reminds me of, um, forgetting the exact title of this book, but Vivian Gornick it’s “The Situation and the Story.”

Jane von Mehren: Mm hmm. Mm hmm. Mm

Mack Hagood: Is talking about writing memoir and, and there, there’s this sort of divide that she draws between the situation, which is the sort of who, what, where, when and how, you know, the, the sort of like the argument of a book, but then the story, which is the emotional experience.

It’s the thing that you’ve come to say to the reader. There’s some kind of paradox or question or, or there’s, there’s this momentum to it that makes the reader want to keep reading. I don’t know if that speaks to you at all.

Jane von Mehren: Yes, it does. Beautifully said. So it’s, I always love hearing the way that writers talk about these things, or people who have studied writing talk about them because they come at it in a different way, but absolutely.

Mack Hagood: One of the things we talked about at that workshop that I mentioned earlier was I don’t know where this comes from, to be honest, but it was something that we just kept talking about during the workshop, but it was the ladder of abstraction.

And, and basically the idea was that you have at the bottom, you have concrete details and, and, and just these sort of sensory elements, these, these very, you know, these pieces of narrative.

And then way up at the top of the ladder, you’ve got these really abstract concepts, right? The big ideas, the big

Jane von Mehren: Right.

Mack Hagood: And, there’s a sort of a middle of the ladder, which is I think academic writers tend to be, which is sort of like speaking in this kind of not completely abstract language, you know, it’s relating to the real world, but it’s, it’s using a lot of concepts that are kind of in that middle ground.

That’s not storytelling at the bottom and it’s not the big abstraction and but the suggestion in this workshop was you really want to go up and down the ladder and they’re like if you read a piece in the New Yorker, for example, you’ll notice that that’s what’s happening,

 right? Like, people will be in the details of storytelling with lots of sensory things and that make Make the story gripping, but then they’ll jump up to the top and the big abstract question of why do we care about this?

Jane von Mehren: Mm hmm.

Mack Hagood: And, and actually in, in podcasting in narrative podcasting, there’s a very similar thing. Ira Glass from This American Life talks about um, anecdotes and reflection points. And so the anecdotes are those details of story. And then every now and then, though, you need to pull back and say, why do we care about this little anecdote? Right? You need both. 

But you don’t want to be in the little ground where you’re not giving people this sort of. You know, sensory stimuli and narrative. And you’re also not giving them the big who cares thing. You’re kind of in the middle ground where you’re just assuming, well, we all believe that this is important and let me give you this really detailed information on it.

And that’s kind of not what people necessarily maybe want to be reading.

Jane von Mehren: Right. No, I think that’s absolutely right. That, and that’s a great way of thinking about it. And I think that the narrative that I talk about are those concrete details. And then the ideas are, you know, what am I trying to tell you? So, you do have to go back and forth.

And you know, it’s the, it’s a way in which a story, you know, a story or an image is worth So much it can create something in a reader’s mind and then once you’ve created that picture for them you can then draw back and say, okay, so the picture is important because I mean you don’t necessarily say it that way But that’s what you do It’s almost there are times when it feels as if what you’re doing as a writer is almost like being a filmmaker You’re doing it, you know getting close taking that sort of close up scene and then you’re pulling back so we can see the whole thing. And the two are really important. 

Mack Hagood: You know, like in my own work, cause I’ve, you know, the thing that I’m. That we’re working on, I’ve been studying this subject matter for over a decade now, and I did lots of interviews with people, but now that I’m trying to tell a story, you know, I’m realizing, well, a story has characters, right?

And, people can relate to characters. There are other people

Jane von Mehren: Right. Yeah.

Mack Hagood: But it made me realize that, like, I asked the wrong questions in my interviews a lot of the time, or not the wrong questions, but I asked a set of questions that was important for an academic project, and then I didn’t ask a whole other set of questions for, like, something that’s important for storytelling, which is, like–

Jane von Mehren: Mm hmm.

Mack Hagood: What did this person look like?

How did they dress? Did they have any weird quirks or, or like, you know, like those kinds of things that bring a character. To life and I think it’s really different to think about. Okay. I have an academic area of expertise. Where are the characters in that world? And what do I know about them? You know that that’s I’m sure that’s not the only way you could approach this kind of thing But that’s kind of how I’ve been approaching it.

And it’s it’s just making me have to think in a totally different way

Jane von Mehren: Yeah. Yeah. No, I think that’s really smart. And I think also the other thing that’s really important is to realize that often there’s a lot in your head that you know or that you can see, that you assume. And if it’s not on the page, your reader doesn’t know any of that stuff, so you have to figure out what are the things that I know, you know, or that I can see, that need to be on the page in order for the reader to really get it.

That can be a tricky thing.

Mack Hagood: That’s such a good point. It is so hard to step out of this thing you’ve been in for a decade I mean, I think the good thing is that those of us who have undergraduate students and do have the opportunity to teach our area of expertise to undergrads at least get a sense of what? What they don’t get could be really helpful

Jane von Mehren: Right.

Mack Hagood: Yeah, Jane, like I, I just, this has been incredibly helpful. I really appreciate how generous you’ve been with your time and your expertise. So just thank you.

Jane von Mehren: Oh, you’re welcome. It’s been fun.