Saturday, February 5, 2011

Submitting biography

I'm working on a biography of a major female Australian historical figure. [I have removed the information the writer sent me lest he give away his good idea. - AS]

It's my first biography and my publication track record only includes corporate and policy tomes published by the Australian Government.

Here are my questions.
Is it best to finish the biography before submitting it to a publisher or agent?
If the answer to the above is no, are three or four chapters enough to have complete (and polished beyond the first draft)?
And is a proposed completion date of 2013 reasonable or laughable?

I'd also be grateful for any information you may care to share, on the blog, about publishing historical biographies in Australia.

I'll answer the first two questions together: it used to be okay to submit non-fiction on a partial manuscript - it was expected, even - but now it's getting harder to do that. I think publishers make a rod for their own backs if they expect a lot of journalists and academics to write full manuscripts before submitting anything, because usually their day jobs are all-consuming. But, in the current uncertain climate, they're looking for more certainty. However, as I'm privy to knowledge about your subject matter, I think you could get away with a partial submission - just don't be surprised if you're asked to come back later with a full manuscript.

As to your third question: your subject has been dead a long time. Why would it matter if you're not finished until 2013? (Unless there's a competing work being written by someone else.) Just as long as you're upfront about how long you'll need. What you shouldn't do is tell a publisher you'll be ready by January 2012 and in January 2012 say, 'Oops - I lied.'

General information about historical biographies: it's entirely dependent on the subject. If you're writing about your dear Aunt Vera and her twelve children growing up in Wallabadah, don't expect to have much success. If you're offering a new spin on Lachlan Macquarie, though, let's have it! [Note to readers: Lachlan Macquarie - certainly not female - is not the subject of this writer's biography.] Personally I'd love someone to do something on Inigo Jones, but perhaps it's an audience of one ...


Caitlyn Nicholas said...

Oh dear, I seem to have got Inigo Jones confused with Inigo Montoya... Wikipedia to the rescue!

Carole Anne Carr said...

I'd love to write a biography, I'm sure it must be such fun.

Nom de Gare said...

Re submitting a full manuscript v. sample chapters, my sense is that it depends on the author's profile. An established writer or journalist with a track record of good work and/or a marketable name can definitely approach a publisher with just a proposal, even quite a vague one. This happens all the time. But everybody else will need much more - either a complete manuscript, or something close to it. It's one thing to have a great idea for a biography and a decent writing style, quite another to pull it off over the course of 80,000 words or more. The publisher will want to know how you handle structure and pace, and therefore what sort of editing will be needed. If you're a first-time author, a few sample chapters, however polished, won't reveal this.