Twenty Things American Publishers like

Christian Jennings looks at the types of books American publishers are commissioning based on the announcements on Publishers Marketplace.

There was a trueism in British publishing in the 1980s that four kinds of books were guaranteed to succeed: sure-fire winners included anything written on the Royal Family, steam trains, fishing or the Third Reich. More than twenty years on, the market has grown more complex, but despite all of its technological innovations, such as Kindles and e-books, most successful book ideas still fall into fairly strict categories.

If an aspiring author knows what kind of books publishers like to publish, which in essence means the kind of books that they can sell, then she or he will find it much easier to focus on the subject matter of their proposed work, and how best to present it to an agent, and thence a publisher. Every week in America a website, Publishers Lunch, updates the industry on recent deals done and books sold. Looking at this site’s news over a rough period of some three months this summer, various clear categories of successful ideas and themes emerge. These can be of help to authors, both first-timers and those looking to find a publisher for a second, third or fourth book. The details of the books used as examples have been taken from the site, the descriptions thereof in single inverted commas.

History. It works every time. If you can find a subject that has not been written about, or have a new angle on it, decent access to it, some untold stories and good sources, you are half-way there. Recent successful examples of historical books bought by US publishers include biographies, memoirs, historical narrative and inside, investigative stories.

Recently commissioned historical biographies in the US include that of Eddie Rickenbacker, America’s Greatest Flying Ace, and a biography of cowboy and businessman Charles Goodnight, who in the 1870s blazed the Goodnight Loving Trail ‘to lead one of the longest and most important cattle drives in US history and reshaped the American West.’

Narrative history includes the story of the American victory at the Battle of the Argonne in 1917, and a shining example of the genre, called White Horse Rescue : The Daring World War II Raid to Free a Hidden Equine Master Race, ‘the story of how a small group of American and German soldiers fought to save some of the most valuable horses in the world.’ And Montreal historian David O’Keefe’s Dieppe Decoded, ‘the story behind the Dieppe Raid, “the darkest day in Canadian military history” and one of World War II’s most perplexing mysteries.’

Memoirs include the ever-popular area of the military and the world’s special forces. A good example is Brandon Webb’s Lost Heroes: Fallen Champions of the US Navy SEALs, ‘the gripping and inspiring stories of eight Special Operations warriors who gave their lives in service of their country.’ Or Miyoko Hikiji’s ‘Woman at War: A Daughter of the Samurai in the War in Iraq, from an author who traces her ancestry to the samurai era in Japan, recounting her experience in the Iraq invasion as the only Asian-American woman in the U.S. Army.’

Then there’s history told through the focus of a very specific lens: ‘First Class - the History of Britain in 36 Postage Stamps, a history of Britain told through the key postage stamps of the last 200 years,’ is an excellent example.

And Travel as history: Rick Antonson’s Route 66 Still Kicks, ‘is a history-based travelogue detailing the author’s road trip driving the original Route 66, the heartland of America.’

Then history of Culture : David Hajdu’s Pop: A History of Popular Music in America, ‘covers the span of nearly a century, from the emergence of recorded hit songs in the early 20th century to the atomization of pop culture to the present.’

Investigative journalism. Always a solid stalwart of a subject, of which there is no better example recently bought in the US this summer than ‘The NYPD Tapes,’ written by a journalist, about courage and corruption within, well, the New York Police Department.

Geography and the environment. Journalist Ed Struzik’s The Future Arctic is ‘a look at the broad implications of biological and cultural changes unfolding in the Arctic, from its increasing military importance to the orca whale’s rise as king of the sea, and the far-reaching effects of oil and gas reserves.’

Any undiscovered aspect of the lives of public celebrities or historical figures, such as the Kennedys, the Churchills, Hitler, George Washington, Elizabeth I, Shakespeare or Martin Luther King. Look no further than the recent sale in the US of ‘Victura,’ the biography of a small boat owned and sailed by the Kennedy clan across the generations.

Cooking. A must. If you can include in your cookbook aspects of redeeming health and self-help, even better. If you can make it a biographical foodie travelogue, bingo. For reference see Elizabeth Bard’s ‘Picnic in Provence,’ where an American woman moves to the south of France, and produces a ‘memoir stocked with recipes while coming to terms with the trials and wonders of living in France.’ And Ana Sofia Pelaez and photographer Ellen Silverman’s The Cuban Table, ‘a photographed cookbook and contemporary overview of Cuban food culture.’ Or Hillary Davis’s Cuisine Nicoise, ‘a southern France cookbook reflecting the cuisine of her adopted home of Bar-sur-Loup, a medieval, unspoilt village a half hour from the bustle of the French Riviera.’

(A genre crossover between 10 and 11 would potentially be paydirt: think Churchill’s Secret Cocktail Book, Barbecue the Kennedy Way, or Hitler’s Croissant – One Tyrant’s Pastry Guide. One example of this does exist in English and Serbian in the former Yugoslavia, which is called ‘Tito’s Cookbook.’ A beautifully-illustrated book of recipes the ex-Yugoslav dictator, Marshal Tito, used to entertain and impress hundreds of visiting foreign dignatories to his country in the ‘sixties and seventies. A retro cooking dream.)

Business self-help, if possible written by a famous athlete, disabled chef, or special forces hero who triumphed over a difficult childhood. An example? Mountain climber Alison Levine’s ‘8848: Leadership Lessons from the Ledge,’ named for the height of Mt. Everest in metres, containing key leadership insights for business.

Alternative business and political philosophy. Such as? Former senior editor of Surfer Magazine Kimball Taylor’s ‘The Coyote’s Bicycle : The True Story of 7,000 Bicycles That Traveled Through the Black Market, Hollywood, The U.S. Prison System, The Military Industrial Complex and the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which uses the common bicycle as the connective thread to uncover the unusual ways in which ideas and influence move between nations’ political systems and seemingly unrelated institutions.’ Says it all.

Sport : Consider former Olympic gold medalist Tyler Hamilton and author Daniel Coyle’s The Secret Race: Inside the Hidden World of the Tour de France: Doping, Cover-ups, and Winning at All Costs, ‘a look at the world of professional cycling and the doping issue surrounding this sport.’

Health and medical science. Two American doctors have written ‘Do Helicopters Eat their Young?’ showing through case studies and personal experience just why neurology claims the title of ’queen of medical specialties.’ Or Cambridge immunologist John Rhodes’s ‘Plague’s End : The Story of the Global Defeat of Infectious Disease, a narrative spanning more than three centuries.’

Make yourself look and feel better. Preferably with recipes. Bob Harper’s ‘Skinny Jumpstart’ is a good example, ‘a 3-week program with new and fast-acting rules to get you in shape quickly for a reunion, wedding, or special event, complete with all-new recipes.’

Women, gender, and, if possible, the developing world. Look at Ritu Sharma’s ‘Teach a woman to fish,’ described as ‘a first-hand account of the broad systems that prevent women in the third world from leaving poverty behind.’ Or cultural historian Marilyn Yalom’s How Women Reinvented Friendship, ‘exploring female friendship in Western history, looking at the last two hundred years of female relationships as expressed in letters, novels, and contemporary media.’

Participatory humour : HogWild’s The Shitfaced Olympics: Drinking Games from Around the World, a humorous handbook of drinking games, complete with cocktail recipes.

And the noble travelogue, the personal stories of those from the west who immerse themselves in other nations’ political economic and psycho-social differences and live to tell the tale: Dave Prager’s Delirious Delhi: Inside India’s Incredible Capital, ‘the story of two New Yorkers amid 16 million Delhiites in a humorous and insightful exploration of India’s fast-growing and chaotic capital city.’

And lastly, but not least, there are memoirs of triumphing over a ghastly childhood. Two recent sales in the US stand out: Dr. Frank Spinelli’s ‘Pee Shy,’ described as ‘an inspiring and often humorous family memoir/love story combining suspense with a message of healing and empowerment for readers who do not always comprehend the affects that childhood sexual abuse has on victims’ adult lives.’ Or Joan Wulfsohn’s ‘Stalking Carlos Castenada,’ in which after a double mastectomy and the abduction of her children by her former husband, lessons learned from Eastern holy men, Western supermodels and a certain aging sorcerer, a woman learns to live a magical life bound not by spells and hexes but filled with wonder and abundance.’ And writes about it, and finds a publisher.