How far will I compromise for that deal Part 2

I woke up this morning to a very funny post by Catherine Czerkawska, an agent's letter to Emily Bronte:
Ah yes, how to make her book more sellable, in these tricky publishing made me laugh, not just because it's so spot-on, but also because I'd been wrestling the night before with that very issue and the question of a whole new proposal for my Muses book. Yes, it's all about how I make it more sellable...and after four of the first five publishers we'd tried sent it back saying it's not commercial enough (including the editor who loved it, but whose marketing dept vetoed it), that's become the biggest sticking point.

'Commercial' means 10,000 sales plus. It doesn't matter that what I'm selling is literary non-fiction, not crime fiction, and hardly likely to make five figures (I made four figures with Between the Sheets, which I regard as something of a miracle). And it doesn't matter if you get a tiny advance and no publicity budget. That's what the sales dept have to believe you can shift, for mainstream publishers to take you on. And shift anyhow you can.

So at the moment, my proposal isn't going to guarantee 10,000 sales (I never thought it would!), probably because it's still got a whiff of academia about it. Just a whiff, it's a very long time since I did academic research. But a whiff is often enough. And here's a whiff for you - Rebel Muses is about 12 female literary muses during the modernist period who, I argue, rebelled against the constraints of the role. Here's part of what I wrote in my original proposal:

"Against a modern backdrop that allowed women to run magazines, live alone, earn a living from their writing, be autonomous and independent, living in London, New York or Paris, the twelve female Muses included in this book were active to the point of interfering. They fought to express themselves, to make connections, to guide and direct. Together they challenged the traditional notion of the Muse, to redefine her for modern times. From Vivienne Eliot to Laura Riding, they covered every aspect of the literary world. They were literary hostesses, authors, poets, amanuenses and editors, as well as figures of inspiration.
But in battling against the traditional passive notion of the muse, many of them consigned themselves to terrible fates, to madness, alcoholism, social ostracism, and in some cases, an early death. Did their rebellion lead them to such ends? Or was it the very condition of being a Muse in the first place that forced such unhappy conclusions on some of them? Did the modern age, which had helped them challenge their roles in the first place, fail to help some of them survive it? And what of those who did survive?"

After discussions (editors, agents, writer boyfriends, booksellers etc, thank you all for your perseverance), I realised that that second paragraph full of questions was just too much. I've been thinking like an academic (which would be fine, if I wanted an academic publishing house to take this on, but I don't), not a literary journalist, which is what I am. So..........I need to narrow it down, streamline it. No ambiguity. No confusion. Cut it down to seven literary muses who all came to bad ends or endured real misery (Lucia Joyce, Zelda Fitzgerald, Vivienne Eliot, Georgie Yeats, Violet Hunt, Ottoline Morrell, Laura Riding).

Seven who were not just Rebels, but Doomed Rebels. And not just Doomed Rebels. I mean, what on earth were they rebelling against exactly? 'The Muse role' isn't quite enough - this has to have a social/sexual/feminist impact. As I looked at my seven Doomed Rebel Muses I realised something much more journalistic - how much they were precursors to the kind of rebellious 'Muses' you had in the 60s - Marianne Faithfull, Yoko Ono (oh, I can picture the publicity tagline now). I also realised something else too - instead of feeling like I had sold out, or dumbed down, I felt excited. Actually excited. Pioneers of the sexual revolution! Muses who were Ahead of Their Time! Now, this I like very, very much.

I'm not suggesting - in the manner of Catherine's letter above - that Emily Bronte might have punched the air when her publisher suggested calling Heathcliff 'Cliff Heath' and that he and Cathy could get married after all and live happily ever after. Clearly there are works of genius that shouldn't be interfered with at all by the market. But, oddly enough, I think the market might just have done me a favour here - given that I'm not writing a work of literary genius -  by pointing me in a clearer, bolder direction.

From feeling tired about my Muses (I almost cried at the thought of having to re-work a 7000 word proposal), I'm brimming with excitement. It's as though these women have suddenly come alive to me, just as the ones in Between the Sheets did. I just have to hope that this time I've got it right, but you know what? Even if I haven't, and the powers that be still tell me I'm not commercial enough for them to publish me, that's fine. I've found the book I desperately want to write, the stories I really want to tell.             


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