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Wanna Write a Jazz Book?

If you're like me -- a freelance writer beginning a long and involved slog through what he hopes will be a comprehensive view of L.A. jazz from 1965 on -- you are simultaneously consumed with feelings of pre-accomplishment ("I'm finally embarking on my life's work!") and feelings of abject failure ("Who the hell's going to buy -- much less publish -- this thing?"). A friend of mine (OK, it's my main squeeze) recently sent me this somehwat hopeful, somewhat depressing memoir of jazz-book publishing by the late Leslie Gourse, author of the 1998 Thelonius Monk bio Straight, No Chaser.

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A VIEW OF JAZZ BOOK PUBLISHING
by Leslie Gourse

Anyone wanting to write books about jazz faces a special situation apropos advertising. Try to convince your publisher to put an ad in a trade magazine that goes to radio and tv talk show hosts, including the jazz radio shows. Also ask your publisher to put some ads in music magazines, because the book reviews may be long delayed.

All that is putting the cart before the horse.

First of all, you don't have to have a contract to write a jazz book. Major commercial publishers frequently say they don't know how to market jazz books, and they're right. Among those editors that do buy them from writers at least occasionally, the current, trendy attitude is that jazz books don't sell very well. If you are in love with a subject and want to write and publish it yourself, even as a very low budget, soft cover booklet, you can sell it by mail order through the music press. You can also try to publish a book with a British house, where the advances are usually very small, but at least you will have something to get started with. You will need income from another source to bring those options off.

I have written, contracted, and published four jazz books for adults, and I have another one coming out in January 1995. I have had one book for young adults come out in November 1994, another in January 1995, two more finished, without publication dates set, and four more under contract.

My first contract, for Louis' Children, about jazz singers, I acquired by writing three chapters, giving them to an agent whom I stumbled upon accidentally through a magazine assignment I had about an actor represented by her firm. I told her about my three chapters. She knew a jazz-loving editor personally. (That editor, who could make decisions without asking for approval from anyone, is now out of the book publishing business.)

For the next contract, I couldn't find an American publisher and sent my proposal to a London publisher, who bought it. After that book, Everyday: The Story of Joe Williams, was published, an editor at the British house referred me to a British-born agent who was working in New York. Both of us were living on the edge financially and we made a very good team at that time. She sent my proposal for a book on Nat Cole to an editor at St. Martin's Press, who turned it down; when nine other publishers turned it down, too, the agent sent it back to the editor at St. Martin's. This time he bought it, thinking it would be a backlist book - one that sold steadily and unremarkably over a period of years. He liked the subject. Without my knowing it, Natalie Cole was about to put out an album and reanimate her father's legend as well as her own, and I was going to have very respectable sales with my book, Unforgettable: The Life and Mystique of Nat King Cole.

As I was finishing it I became alarmed that my advance had run out. I was dependent on magazine and newspaper articles for my income. That is not enough. I have found that I need income from books and periodicals simultaneously so that I can scrape by. So I wrote a proposal to do a book on Sarah Vaughan, which was turned down by St. Martin's Press, where the editor had no idea yet how my Cole book would fare in the marketplace.

An editor at Scribner's bought it after nine other editors turned it down. By that time, Sarah was dead. Years earlier, an editor at a publisher asked me to write Sarah's biography with her, and I had asked her if she would do it. She said, in one of her very rare conversations with me, that she was too young and too busy, but she would keep it in mind. She could have earned the same money from two JVC Jazz Festival Concerts as she would have earned from an entire book - probably the deciding factor for her. Now I was faced with doing the book alone, but I had a great deal of help from her friends.

Since both that book and the one on Nat Cole got very good reviews, and quite a bit of publicity, I thought it would be easy for me to get another contract. Wrong. You would be astounded at the number of jazz subjects that I have had turned down by publishers in the 1990s. (Both the Cole and Vaughan books were contracted for before the economy took a downturn in 1991.) Publishers started looking for best sellers and other types of books that had nothing to do with jazz. Jazz books are most often published these days by university presses. I wrote a wonderful proposal for a book on jazz in Paris, and major publishers wouldn't take it on. A small publisher put out a book on the subject, but the financing must have been very slight.

The recent Ella Fitzgerald book was done first in England and reprinted at an economical cost by Scribner's. A new Billie Holiday book has the beauty of being about Billie Holiday. Publishers never tire of books about Billie, because she is such a tragic figure. Another Billie Holiday book is in the works by someone in England. There are probably others, too. I myself have even written one about her for young adults, for an American publisher.

That brings me to the subject of children's books. I have three other books finished for two young adult publishers and four more under contract. The young adult book publishing business is virtually booming apropos jazz. Many publishers of children's books are at least toying with the idea of doing something about jazz, and so it is possible to get contracts - but not on any subject of pressing interest to the contemporary jazz critic. That is, nobody is going to commission a book about a young musician, with the exception of a Marsalis, to my knowledge. The young players may be included in passing in jazz history books but never have biographies written about them. The same is true for the lost generation of musicians, who are now generally between the ages of 45 and 60. Subjects of published books are almost always Duke, Armstrong, Billie, Fats Waller, Bird, Dizzy (at last) - musicians of that vintage. (My young adults books Dizzy Gillespie and the Birth of Bebop was published in November by Atheneum and Aretha Franklin, Lady Soul by Franklin Watts in January.)

Furthermore, it's the very rare agent who likes to try to sell books about jazz musicians these days, and agents for adult books usually don't have a clue about the children's book market. Adult and children's publishing are two separate worlds. I have had to sell my young adult books myself, exploring the market completely on my own. I don't know how I did it. I just did it.

I hear that children's book advances run between $1000 to $10,000 and sometimes go up as high as $15,000. Forget about $15,000 advances, in my opinion. Maybe they really do exist. I know an agent who claims he gets $100,000 advances for kids' book writers. Advances are down in general now for most books, the Pope's success notwithstanding.

Young adult books run about 125 pages, or one-fourth the length of a book for adults (the latter including discographies.) The advances for my children's books, which I have been doing in two different series for one publisher, and as a single entry in another publisher's existing series, are about the same, percentage-wise, as an advance for one adult book from a major commercial publisher. And I do not pay fifteen percent to an agent.

I am not censored, not even when writing about Billie Holiday's life, and so I mix reality with common sense to try to come up with a valuable, engrossing story. Children like to read about sex, and editors are hip. The bottom line matters in children's publishing just as much as it does for adult books.

I don't want to seem completely cynical, talking about sex and money. They are definitely factors, however - especially money. To put myself on a more idealistic plane, writing about jazz for young adults brings the subject into the mainstream of contemporary life and teaches kids that there really was a Duke Ellington, a Bird, etc. Without the involvement of children's book publishers, the kids might never know about the masters. Even young jazz players start with McCoy Tyner and work backward until they discover Bird. And writing for young adults gives a writer a chance to put musicians into perspective in a special way, introducing kids to history they never lived through; I have just written about Mahalia Jackson and Aretha Franklin, whose lives were inseparable from the social, racial and political history of the country. Though Aretha, for example, presses on, it is her early career as a soul singer, with a voice that was a virtual flag of the civil rights era of the 1960s, that is most important.

So there are opportunities out there now to write about things that matter for kids of all ages.

The field has plenty of complexities. There is always competition and difference of opinion. For example, there's a classic children's book called Bird Played Bebop for very young kids. Most editors like it, but some say they don't. So the field is mined, just as the adult book world is. You never know where you are going to meet acceptance or rejection. Relatives, friends, and friends of friends always seem to get first preference from editors in any part of book publishing. I don't know how you convince an editor or a publisher that you and only you can write a particular book, but that is the conviction you should probably have.

If you blend book and periodical and liner note writing in your career, you will probably find it is good to write for periodicals and CD booklets, because the assignments are short and pithy and they keep you plugged into what is going on in jazz from day to day and allow you to keep refining your tastes and broadening your understanding of the world and artistic milieu in which you live; at the same time you will have the luxury and pleasure of writing a long, deep story for a book publisher and not have to go through the political ups and downs of looking for an assignment as often as you must in the magazine world.

Here's a word about agents. Children's book agents are hard to find, I think, and I also believe that any good agent is hard to come by. Although I have been lucky on occasion when dealing with the book publishing world through two different agents, I have also had the unlovely experience of having both agents tell me to stop writing about jazz, and to undertake idiotic projects that I would not have been able to stand, for one reason or another. (After one agent sold Louis' Children, for me, she wanted me to do research for a book by Shana Alexander. Another agent wanted me to do a book for $25,000! - as told to me by Diana Ross's hairdresser and, when I turned that down, she found my Cole and Vaughan book contracts. Another agent told me that the Cole book would never sell. Then after I finished the Cole book, the agent, who had been enthusiastic about it and made a great effort to get the contract, suggested I do a book on a woman painter whose real claim to fame was that she was a Communist - this after the collapse of the Soviet Union; when I turned that down, she wanted me to do a book on a woman journalist whose claim to fame was that she was supposedly the lover of both Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo. This same agent and I no longer could work together, and we came to a parting of the ways for personal and professional reasons.

I have had other agents who have worked, in one way or another, counter to my interests, sold nothing for me, and tried to send me on wild goose chases, because of their personal problems, or wonderful opinions of themselves, or their ineptness. In my opinion, it's a do-it-yourself world for jazz book writers; though it may take time, you should contact publishers yourself. Start with the editor-in-chief; call the office and get a name of an editor who might be interested in your subject. Send a proposal. If it is rejected with regret, ask that editor who else might be interested. Once in a while, you will get a good referral to a publishing company or an agent who really can help you. Once in a while, you may get a quick yes from an editor, but I think most people have to persist beyond all reason. I really don't have any simple answers, now that I think it over. You might try to write a great screenplay about a jazz figure.

[Originally published in JazzNotes, 7/01/95]

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