December 5, 2004

1. Booknotes

The best book-related show on American TV, Booknotes, is ending. The host, Brian Lamb, says that he has been spending 20 hours a week, for the past 15 years, reading the books that are discussed on the show, and he’d like to do something else with all that time. One wishes that he would hand the reins to someone else (or to a team of interviewers), instead of discontinuing the show. Lamb is starting another interview show (“Q & A”) in the same time slot (Sunday night at 8, on C-SPAN). I might mention in passing that there’s a famous book show on French TV — it’s called “Apostrophe”, if I’m not mistaken — and that show is continuing.

As I was writing the above paragraph, I visited the Booknotes website, and stumbled into a preview of a wonderful interview with an English professor named Mark Edmundson, who has just written a book called Why Read? The Edmundson interview airs tonight at 8. You can find the Edmundson interview, and many other interesting interviews, on the Booknotes website. Booknotes is ending, but the archive lives on — and a wonderful archive it is.

2. Mark Edmundson

After I watched the Edmundson interview, I did some research on the Internet, and I discovered that Edmundson isn’t the obscure professor that I thought he was, he’s well-known. I also discovered that he shares many of my views, including my dim view of deconstruction (and other contemporary literary theories). Here are some comments on Edmundson’s book that I gleaned from Amazon:

Edmundson laments the state of liberal arts teaching [and] effectively caricatures critical theory as the soulless antithesis to his own humanistic pedagogical ideals.... In this important book reconceiving the value and promise of reading, acclaimed author Edmundson dramatizes what the recent identity crisis of the humanities has effectively obscured: that reading can change your life for the better.... Mark Edmundson’s [1997] Harper’s Magazine article “On the Uses of the Liberal Arts” is reported to be the most photocopied essay on college campuses over the last five years.... Edmundson encourages educators to teach students to read in a way that can change their lives for the better, rather than just training and entertaining. He argues that questions about the uses of literature — what would it mean to live out of this book, to see it as a guide to life — are the central questions to ask in a literary education. Right now they are being ignored, even shunned. And if religion continues to lose its hold on consequential parts of society, what can take its place in guiding souls? Great writing, Edmundson argues. At once controversial and inspiring, this is a groundbreaking book written with the elegance and power to change the way we teach and read.

It appears that Edmundson is the Allan Bloom of our time. While Bloom was a fan of Plato, Edmundson is a fan of Emerson. Edmundson believes that Emerson speaks to the individual, inspires the individual, changes his life for the better. Edmundson speaks respectfully of Nietzsche, but Bloom has a negative attitude toward Nietzsche (Bloom was a Straussian — a disciple of Leo Strauss — and Straussians want moral absolutes, and abhor moral relativism à la Nietzsche). In short, Bloom is a fan of old classics, while Edmundson is a fan of new classics, 19th-century classics. I feel closer to Edmundson than to Bloom.

3. Selling Philosophy

A writer is often enthusiastic about his most recent writings. The possibility of publishing my book (Conversations With Great Thinkers) in Brazil inspired me to revise and expand it. (The Brazil project has been delayed, but will probably come to fruition in 2005.) I’m enthusiastic about the new version of my book; I think it’s significantly better than the earlier version. I sent it to publishers in 12 foreign countries (Japan, India, South Korea, Serbia, Argentina, Ireland, Italy, Russia, Egypt, France, Poland, and Thailand). I told these publishers that the book sold well in Taiwan, was published by two Beijing publishers, and was accepted by the first Brazil publisher who looked at it. And since it’s now a bigger and better book, it should do better than it did previously.

So far, only one foreign publisher has responded — an Irish publisher, who said that they published academic/scholarly works, and weren’t interested in my book. But I haven’t lost hope that at least one foreign publisher will be interested. Meanwhile, I’m starting to explore the American market. (Although no man is a prophet in his own country, I don’t want to completely ignore the American market.) I called the owner of a bookstore (the store where we have our book discussion group and our Socrates Café), and asked her if she knew any publishers or literary agents. She referred me to an agent who specializes in non-fiction books. I called the agent. The agent said she’d look at some sample chapters, and she said that I should write what’s known as a “proposal.”

I had never heard of a proposal, but now I realize that it’s an important part of getting a non-fiction book published. (There are even books devoted to the art of writing a proposal, such as Write the Perfect Book Proposal: 10 That Sold and Why.) There are three key elements in a proposal: Market, Competition, and Promotion.

Market What’s the market for your book? Is there a need for your book? Is it likely to sell enough copies to turn a profit?
Competition Assuming there’s a market for your book, has another book already entered that market, already filled that need? In what way is your book different from, or better than, the other books in that market?
Promotion How can you promote your book? What can you do to increase sales — to help the book get out of the red, and into the black?

I regard my book as a literary-philosophical work, and such works aren’t designed to fill a need, aren’t designed for a market. In fact, in an earlier issue of Phlit, I poked fun at the notion of a market for philosophy. But since a proposal seems to be a necessity, I gritted my teeth, and wrote a one-page proposal. I started with the title: Conversations With Great Thinkers: New Paths in Philosophy. (I like this title because it suggests that the book is both a discussion of the classics and an original work.) Then I reviewed the book’s publishing history (Taiwan, China, etc.); I think it’s important to argue not only that the book can sell, but that it already has sold. Finally I discussed the three elements that I described above:

Market There’s a huge worldwide market for philosophy that is readable, non-academic, and wide-ranging. Consider the enormous sales of Sophie’s World, by Jostein Gaarder. Consider the popularity of Joseph Campbell’s books and documentaries; Campbell’s interview with Bill Moyers is the most popular of all PBS documentaries. Consider the popularity of books by Christopher Phillips (such as Socrates Café: A Fresh Taste of Philosophy), and books by Alain de Botton (such as The Consolations of Philosophy). My book appeals to people who are excited by ideas, the sort of people who made Gary Zukav’s Dancing Wu Li Masters an international bestseller.
  • Sophie’s World is a commentary on earlier philosophers, but my book is both a commentary and an original work. It contains many ideas that can’t be found elsewhere, such as a theory of history that predicts a renaissance in our time. It brings together thinkers who aren’t brought together elsewhere, such as Shakespeare and Jung. My book is more than a popularization of the classics, it’s a literary work in its own right; this isn’t the case with Sophie’s World.
  • Though it can serve as an introduction to philosophy and the classics, my book differs from most introductory works by having passion, an argumentative edge. In this respect, it might be compared to Allan Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind, which brought passion to the humanities, and became a bestseller. But while Bloom & Company sing the praises of Plato and Rousseau, my book explores topics that are hotter, more contemporary, such as Jung, Zen and the occult. Bloom & Company stick with the old classics, but my book deals with “new classics”, my book is on the cutting edge.
  • Thirty years ago, Eric Hoffer’s books (such as The True Believer) were popular. Hoffer’s aphoristic style is similar to mine, but the topics he discussed (such as Fascism and Communism) are no longer hot topics.
Promotion I can increase sales by touring/speaking. For the past 6 years, I’ve organized a philosophy discussion group at a local bookstore. We recently started a 2nd group, a “Socrates Café.” I’m not averse to discussing philosophy in public — in fact, I enjoy it. I don’t have a full-time job, so I can devote a lot of time to speaking at bookstores, etc. I can even promote my book overseas. I write a newsletter on philosophy and literature, and e-mail it to subscribers around the world. I can increase book sales by using the Internet — my newsletter, my website, etc. A British TV station (Channel 4) listed my website as one of the five best philosophy-related websites on the Internet.

I sent this proposal to a literary agent, along with sample chapters, etc. I’m awaiting a response. If an agent sells a book to a publisher, they get 15% of whatever money the book earns. If you decide to look for an agent, experts say that you should use word-of-mouth (as I did), or look at a book that’s similar to yours, and see if the agent is mentioned (this also applies if you’re looking for a publisher/editor). Experts say that using a big directory, which lists thousands of publishers/agents, isn’t the best way to find a publisher or an agent (it’s too impersonal, and too many writers are taking that approach). I plan to look at Mark Edmundson’s book, and see who was the publisher/editor/agent.

In addition to trying to publish my book, I also applied for grants from four foundations, including the Ford Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation (every public library has a book that lists foundations and grant-makers, and I got addresses from this book). I began my pitch by saying “I’m writing to inquire about whether my project is of interest to your foundation.” Then I described my literary work, and finally I concluded by saying, “A grant from your foundation would allow me to put more time and energy into my writing, which I believe is of value to readers both here and abroad.” It seems that most foundations are trying to support specific causes or regions, hence I think it’s unlikely that a freelance writer like me can find support for a literary work. Many foundations make grants only to organizations, not to individuals.

4. New Edition: Modern Times

When I expanded my book, I created two new chapters, “Modern Times” and “Physics”. I published my thoughts on Physics in an earlier issue. Here’s the other new chapter, “Modern Times”:

[The rest of this issue is now Chapter 10 of my book Conversations With Great Thinkers.]