A 'Fact Checking Error'? Dystel & Goderich Ask Writers to Submit Their Own Bios

Submission guidelines at the Dystel & Goderich website (original emphasis): "[Y]ou should describe in two or three sentences—no more—what the book will be about. This is followed by another brief paragraph on why it is being written and then another on why you are qualified to write it....Finally, there should be a more formal narrative Bio of the author."

***

Back in the mid-1990s, I lived in Chicago's Hyde Park neighborhood. My wife was a medical student at the University of Chicago and I worked as a newspaper reporter.

I didn't know it, but also living in Hyde Park a few blocks away was a fellow just a couple years older than me named Barack Obama. At the time, he was a part-time lecturer at the University of Chicago Law School, and I'm sure that at one time or another we crossed paths. I had no idea who he was, and unless he was a regular reader of the Chicago Daily Southtown, I'm pretty certain he had no idea who I was.

During that time, another reporter and I decided we wanted to write a non-fiction book about aging super-jocks--men and women in their 60s, 70s and 80s who could still sprint or do an Ironman or play baseball.

So we searched long and hard for a literary agent, and finally we found one who liked our material. Her name was Jane Dystel, and she worked in New York City.

A few years earlier, Jane Dystel had agreed to rep another client: my neighbor, Barack Obama!

All these years later, my former neighbor is President of the United States, and I'm reading a kerfuffle about how Dystel's agency promoted Obama as being born in Kenya. The kind people at Breitbart News asked me to write a bit about what it was like writing material for Jane Dystel and how she worked.

Now let me say right up front: when it comes to Obama, I'm not going to speculate who wrote what, when. Dystel had assistants, one of whom is now her partner, Miriam Goderich, who says the whole Obama-born-in-Kenya thing was a fact-checking mistake by her. And I cannot speak specifically to the mechanism of Dystel's publicity. (Alas, Dystel was unable to sell anything I wrote, so she had no reason to promote me, but I'm getting ahead of myself.)

I can speak of what she was like to work with and how she generated material. In my dealings with Dystel, I found her exceptionally thorough and very professional. She had a template she wanted non-fiction writers to follow, and my writing partner and I followed her template closely. She was rather fastidious, going so far as to mail a personal "Season's Greetings" card in December.

All material she used in our proposals came directly from me and my writing partner. She edited our rough-draft proposals and gave us feedback, but the final versions were all ours. Our final versions, bio included, were then simply photo-copied, by us, and distributed to potential publishers. This was back in the pre-Google days, recall. 

I was asked to write the bio in the third person.

Our first proposal didn't generate any offers from publishers. We needed an advance to be able to afford to write it, and with no money forthcoming, we shelved the idea.

Several years later, my writing partner and I returned to Dystel with what we thought was a better proposal. We had joined forces with a Pulitzer-prize winning photographer, and we thought our proposed book, "Drinking from the Fountain of Youth: Profiles and Portraits of Ageless Women Athletes," would sell. Dystel liked the idea, and she agreed to rep it. I have pulled that proposal out of my files, and it is sitting on my desk as I write this.

That second proposal logged in at 59 pages, including original art and writing samples. My bio for that proposal was five sentences long. Of course, since it was a sales pitch, I puffed myself up: I highlighted how I had reported for Minnesota Public Radio and The Philadelphia Inquirer but omitted my years at the somewhat lowly Chicago Daily Southtown. I suppose I could have made something up (who would have known?), but I didn't.

Despite Dystel's encouragement and hopes, the second project also failed to sell. By that point, I was living in Southern California, and still hadn't heard of Barack Obama. I had moved from Chicago a few months after he was sworn into the Illinois State Senate in '97, and he didn't show up on my radar. Granted, my wife and I had a new baby, she was finishing med school, and had been preparing to move out of state at the time. Life was a blur. I didn't much care who Hyde Park's new state senator was.

Later, I would learn who Obama was when he made a speech in 2004 at the Democratic National Convention. A few years later I discovered we shared Jane Dystel--or at least we did, briefly, because Obama dropped her after his very delayed success with his book Dreams From my Father. For his second book, The Audacity of Hope, Obama, in the words of the New York Times, "untethered himself from his longtime literary agent in favor of Robert B. Barnett, the Washington lawyer who had gotten Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton an $8 million book advance and then landed Mr. Obama a $1.9 million, three-book deal."

Continued the Times

What happened between Mr. Obama and Ms. Dystel is not clear. Ms. Dystel declined to be interviewed for this article. Mr. Obama said, "It really had more to do with the fact that by the time 'The Audacity of Hope' was written, I was going to be in Washington and was obviously now very high profile." Mr. (Peter) Osnos called Mr. Obama’s decision to switch to Mr. Barnett, whose clients include former Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain, "disloyal but not unusual."

Meanwhile, I last had contact with Dystel two years ago. I came to her with another book idea. It was a memoir, like Obama's first book. In my story, I wrote about how I attended the University of Southern California's vaunted film school as a busted-broke middle-aged family man, a guy with three young daughters and a wife recovering from cancer, and how I had a stroke while in film school and ended up selling a prime-time television series to CBS while still at USC.

Dystel declined to rep it. She said she wasn't interested.

The story ends well; immediately after Dystel dropped me, I found another literary agent who loved my idea and sold it within weeks. My book, Film School, was released late last year, and Hollywood is already knocking at my door.

***

Dystel's full submission requirements from her website today (original emphasis):

Nonfiction Proposal Guidelines

We work very hard with our clients to help them create their proposals and because we think this part of the publishing process is so very important, we wanted to share our basic formula for putting together a non-fiction proposal.

The proposal is broken down into several parts:

The first is the Overview. This begins with a brief dramatic anecdote which is meant to get the reader, in this case the editor at the publishing company, interested in the material. Immediately after this anecdote, you should describe in two or three sentences—no more—what the book will be about. This is followed by another brief paragraph on why it is being written and then another on why you are qualified to write it

After this, you need to describe your audience who will buy your book—both demographically and statistically. The more numbers you have here the better.

The final element of the overview is a comparative section where you compare your book to others that would be found in the same place in the bookstore. In each case, you must provide the author, the title, the publisher, and the year of initial publication and, book by book, tell us how your proposed book will be as successful as those or more so.

The next element of the proposal is the Annotated Table of Contents. This consists of chapter heads and no more than a couple of sentences on what each chapter will contain.

Then you need sample material:

    • If you’re writing a general nonfiction book, we need at least one sample chapterthat matches a chapter described in your annotated table of contents.  The sample chapter is meant to do two things: show off the writing and tell us things we don’t already know.
    • If you’re writing a cookbook, there should be a section of sample recipes, which can be labeled as such. There should be 10-12 recipes from all parts of the book (i.e., one or more from the appetizer section, one or more from the soups and salads section, one or more from the entrees section, etc.). Each of these recipes should be accompanied by headnotes (about a paragraph of text introducing the recipe). Each recipe should be in standard cookbook format and should clearly state the number of people it will serve.  In addition to the sample recipes, you’ll need to include introductory text from one or two different sections of the book so that editors get a sense of your narrative writing style.

Finally, there should be a more formal narrative Bio of the author.

This is followed by links that serve as Support Material—reviews of previous books, recent articles by and about you from national publications, a schedule of speaking appearances, any national media appearances, etc.


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