I recently read another author’s lament that her self-published book had appeared in the marketplace under another author’s name. Soon other authors in this discussion thread added their emotional stories about finding exact sentences or entire paragraphs of their works appearing in other books. Everyone lamented these problems that seem inherent in self-publishing.
No one should assume such problems occur only in self-publishing. Here’s my story.
As often happens to me in the spring, in March 1995 a brilliant idea captured my imagination. A book on breasts! Why were there hundreds of published works on World War II, for example, and nothing out there about breasts but dry tomes on cancer or breast feeding? What about the rest of the story?
The book I had in mind would explore each aspect of this hallowed and controversial feature of the female anatomy. I jotted down a quick outline as my brainstorming progressed. I went to the library and searched the “books in print” to see if something like this had already been published. I also searched the listings of ‘forthcoming books.’ Thrilled to find nothing similar to my concept, I dove into research.
By late winter that year, I had a chapter outline and partial manuscript, enough to start sending queries to prospective publishers. I kept checking the most recent edition of ‘forthcoming books,’ haunted by the idea that someone would beat me to the punch. My chapters included the following:
- Female Breast in Society: An overview of how the breast has been viewed in human cultures through art, religion, word derivation; the influence of the breast on women’s place in society.
- Clothing the Breast: evolution of women’s attire; how women’s identity is influenced by methods of dress.
- Woman Revealed: how artists since the earliest times have depicted the breast in statuary, engravings, paintings, and pottery; the use of the breast as a symbol of fertility; erotic depictions of the breast; breast in political and religious symbols; classic and modern realism; modern day entertainment and advertising.
- Her Pappes Round and Thereto Right Pretty: A review of breasts in literature including poetry and modern erotica.
- Glands, Ducts, and Fat: An overview of breast physiology and its functions, diseases, and treatments; history of breast cosmetic surgery, ritual mutilations, tattoos, and piercings.
- Mother’s Milk: Review of the biological process of milk production; examination of controversy over formula versus breast milk; breast feeding and breast milk in health and psychological development of the child.
- Pointedly Erotic: Review of the many roles breasts play in human sexuality
- Poking Fun: Jokes, slang terms, cartoons.
- Testimonials: Candid personal testimonials revealing views about breasts; photographs of non-glamorous breasts.
This was a working outline I fully expected to be refined as an editor provided experienced feedback. I said as much in my cover letter, which I sent along with the outline to all the major publishing houses. By early June, I had received form rejection letters from all of them. Of particular interest to my story here is the letter from Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. “Thank you for your recent letter. We have discussed the manuscript which you propose, and I am very sorry to report that it is not a likely prospect for Knopf…”
I regrouped and started contacting agents. I got interested responses from three agents and went with the first one who replied—the Claudia Menza Agency (NYC). Richard, the agent who wrote me, asked for whatever manuscript I had. I sent it to him in October. He projected a read/wait time of 10-12 weeks.
In January 1997, Richard called me to say that Knopf was coming out with a book very much like mine. I couldn’t believe it! Why no mention of this in the listings of ‘forthcoming books’? Why didn’t their rejection letter tell me they already had a similar concept in the works and save me months of work? I had no choice but to wait until the book hit the market January 28. I ordered a copy and steamed through it, hardly able to believe my eyes.
Authored by Marilyn Yalom, a professor at Stanford University’s Institute for Women and Gender and with two books previously published by Knopf, the book was entitled A History of the Breast. The table of contents:
- The Sacred Breast: Goddesses, Priestesses, Biblical Women, Saints and Madonnas
- The Erotic Breast: Orbs of Heavenly Frame
- The Domestic Breast: A Dutch Interlude
- The Political Breast: Bosoms for the Nation
- The Psychological Breast: Minding the Body
- The Commercialized Breast: From Corsets to Cyber-Sex
- The Medical Breast: Life Giver and Life Destroyer
- The Liberated Breast: Politics, Poetry, and Pictures
- The Breast in Crisis
At 279 pages, the book trudged through quotes, a few images, and a boring narrative.
To me, it seemed obvious that someone at Knopf saw my outline, thought it was a great idea, but didn’t think I had any credentials to be the author. Who was I? Not published. Not a professor. Just somebody out in the heartland with a great idea.
Richard tried to comfort me. He said things like this happen. He said it would be unusual for a big publisher like Knopf to resort to such tactics and that pulling together a book that fast would be difficult. I argued back—Knopf had my outline in March. Why no listing in the ‘forthcoming books’? What about Yalom’s stable of graduate assistants to kick up research?
Currently on Amazon.com, Yalom’s book has only ten reviews: six at 5 stars, two at 4 stars, and one each at 3 and 2 stars. On Goodreads, a deeper history of reviews shows an average 3.91 rating. One of the 29 people who wrote a review gave it one star with the following statement: “In reading this book I was hoping for something entertaining and engaging, or something that offered interesting anecdotes, historical facts, people, or situations. That is definitely NOT what this book is. It is actually more of a history of the depictions of breasts in poetry, art, and propaganda, and even then, the book is focused at least as much on a feminist analysis of these texts as it is on the presentation of historical facts/stories…”
In other words, Yalom drew largely on her previous scholarship in feminist studies. She evidently didn’t share my passion in celebrating the breast. But now the book was out there and my project was DOA.
On Richard’s advice, I rewrote. The new book, tentatively entitled simply ‘Breasts,’ would carry a less scholarly tone and take a more ‘fun’ approach to the topic. Richard and the agency liked the rewrite concept I sent two months later. That spring and early summer, I wrote the manuscript, commissioned sample photographs, and sent him the package in July. Over a period of months, we discussed various elements and tweaked the text. The following March 1998 they sent me a contract giving the agency sole right to represent my work.
Stay tuned—the next chapter of this story will be posted in my next blog.