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What the rejection of a book proposal & selling used underwear have in common*

*and what they can tell us about the media landscape we’re living in.

So my book proposal that is making the rounds received its first rejection a couple weeks ago. The reason? The publisher doesn’t believe a large enough audience exists to justify their investment in the book.

I’d get depressed if I thought about that long enough… not because of the rejection itself (the whole process of conceptualizing, crafting, and pitching a book proposal is just so instructive and interesting that it actually makes rejection bearable), but because of what it might say about our society if I chose to believe the publisher’s underlying message. The book has an intellectual/academic bent to it, so what the publisher is saying, in effect, is that there simply aren’t enough travelers who are also interested in investing in a guidebook that has a scholarly patina.

The thing is, I don’t believe that.

What I was really going to work up to yesterday in my slapdash post about the Gary Vaynerchuk video was a meditation about something he says about there being a niche for everything, overlaying that observation with all sorts of articles I’ve been reading lately by authors (mostly in Poets & Writers) who are taking the most innovative approaches to creating and then promoting their work. Honestly, you can sell anything.

I didn’t build up to that, though, as I was running out the door to have lunch with Alison Wellner.


I started thinking about all this again last night, though, after reading David Page’s excellent (as always) essay about his struggle to decide whether to work on a second edition of his guidebook. Should he buck up and go to all the effort (and expense) of edition 2 without any assurance that the market for his book still exists? Should he go digital? Or should he just scrap it all because maybe travel guides aren’t relevant? David’s got all these heavy thoughts but he remains unresolved at the end of the essay. Is writing the second edition just an exercise in pushing back against print publishers who are anxious about their alleged, impending death?

My answer: No.



That’s where the used underwear comes in.

Francisco used to go to the flea market on 23rd Street every weekend. Occasionally, he’d come home with some sweet finds, but usually he’d come home with an entertaining story. Among the vendors selling genuine antiques were peddlers who’d palmed discards–tattered books they couldn’t sell at The Strand, scratched CDs, toaster ovens with short circuits, computer screens missing all their other hardware. And used underwear.

“I’m not kidding you,” he told me one Saturday afternoon. “There’s this guy I see there every week and he’s selling used underwear. He has a tremendous following. He always has a stack of bills in his hand. It’s incredible; how can you sell used underwear?”

Eventually, Francisco’s interest in the flea market waned. The “antiques” weren’t. But he continued going to 23rd Street on Saturdays, studying this guy for weeks, fascinated by what made a used underwear vendor so successful.


I won’t argue with the publisher– what’s the use of strong-arming someone who’s supposed to be your partner into unwilling submission? If they’re convinced that there’s not an audience or that printed matter is headed for the dustbin, then our relationship is doomed from the get-go.

But I do believe Vaynerchuk- there’s a niche for everything. Even used underwear. The work lies in figuring out how to leverage that niche successfully.


14 responses »

  1. I agree with you. There is a market for anything – however too often traditional publishers don’t have the know-how, the money or the time to invest in one particular book to leverage it to its best advantage.

    That’s where you can come in (if you so choose). Included in your book proposal should be a section on you or about your platform. In it, you should include any and all marketing you are willing or able to pursue independent of the publishers money and time.

    For publishers, having a writer who is both able and willing to give the book the specific attention and extra push it needs makes it a much more attractive acquisition.

    • Great points, and I agree. I included a pretty detailed marketing plan in my proposal, not just because I realized that publishers have limited resources, but also because I’ve been so fired up by what I’ve been reading about creative promo/marketing approaches that I wanted to try some of it out myself. 🙂

  2. I admire your optimism and glass half full, can-do attitude! I’ve always been an idealist, thinking “Oh I can be a writer, sell my memoirs someday….make a career freelancing.”

    My friends look at me like I’m crazy. “How will you pay rent, how will you SLEEP?” This year I’ve met so many great folks through Matador who do just that. And I know one day–if I’m patient–I’ll be able to do the same.

    So Julie, if you say it, I believe it: people will buy anything, even used underwear. Great analogy, great outlook.

  3. This post’s title is definitely one of your most intriguing – do keep us updated on how the book proposal progress is going!

  4. I like your perspective on this. It’s all about HOW you try to sell that something. Got my fingers crossed for you.

  5. I know that someone will pick up your book proposal… it’s only a matter of time 🙂

  6. Y’all are so sweet! And if no one picks it up, I shall publish it on recycled paper and stitch it together myself. 😉

  7. Hey, we specialize in do-gooder books no one else would publish and many don’t buy! It goes hand in hand with our miniscule marketing budget. Are you saying I’ve been doing it wrong all this time? Darn! Back to the drawing board I go.

    • Nola- I just told someone the other day that I’d be picking your brain soon! Thanks for the cheering on, and the laugh “The Evolution of Tonsils” (I like it!). 😉

  8. Okay, I will be series now. Unless you are trying to sell a poorly written manuscript on ‘The Evolution of Tonsils form 1603 to 1829’, then the publishers may not be recognizing that you, your connections & go-get ‘em attitude are a 2nd asset as valuable as a well done manuscript. Just an idea. I have many.

  9. That might be the best analogy I’ve ever heard. And like I said before, I’m totally a part of your market.

  10. Ohhh Julie…I could write a 10 page essay on this topic. As you know, I worked in the book publishing world for a while and, without intending to knock publishers, I think they don’t always understand niche audiences and work within very specific, unchanging paradigms. Plus, it’s not an exact science. Publishers will often pass up on a book that becomes a best seller under a different publishing company. I’m sure it’s just a matter of time before your book proposal falls into the right hands 🙂

    • Gabriela-
      I’d totally read that essay! I just read a really interesting interview with a publisher who has been in the game for decades and he said exactly what you articulated here. Thanks!


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