During my trip back to the Windsor area last Christmas, my father got a call from a childhood friend, someone I vaguely remembered having visited us once when I was younger, but not anyone I thought my father still communicated with. They didn’t talk long, but from where I was reading the paper at the kitchen table, I could hear him on the phone in the basement rattling off the state of the family: Cousin 1 just had a baby and has turned into quite the sailor; Cousin 2 took a job as a news reporter in a big city; Cousin 3 is graduating journalism school this year and thinks he might look for a government gig, since J-schools produce far more graduates than there are jobs. Then there was a pause.
“Oh, no, no he’s here. About a week. Uhh, well he lives in Toronto now, working for [redacted]. It’s not a particularly high paying job, but he likes living in Toronto, I guess. You know my brother [redacted] had some health issues there for a while…”
And that was it. My cousins all had lives worth talking about at length, but his only son works a low-paying job and lives in Toronto. No mention of crossing the one thing I never thought I would ever do off of my life’s list of ambitions. Remember this if you think having your name on a book spine will change your life in any meaningful way.
But it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try.
That said, it’s a magical day for all bloggers, zinesters, journalists and jawjackers: the submission window for the 33 1/3 series is open again, to any and all with a dream and an idea. I’ve had requests come in here and there from people asking for insight into the process, so I thought I would chip in my limited knowledge, specifically for the up and coming and unpublished. Really, the tips offered by my colleague and author of the guide on Portishead’s Dummy, R.J. Wheaton, are as on point today as they were then, but there have been some tweaks to the series since he finished his.
While I’m somewhat wary of posting my original proposal outright (at least not until the book comes out), I will say that the process is much more elaborate than it was at Continuum (the publisher of the series before being bought by Bloomsbury and transferred to its academic division. This will be important in a moment). After I’d submitted mine I compared it to Rob’s and I think my component on marketing and promotion was almost as long as his entire proposal. It was a different time then.
So what changed? Bloomsbury isn’t fucking around, for one. In the post announcing the call, they list six albums that are back up for grabs in this round alone, and I recognize at least one that made the cut from my cohort in 2012, and I can think of at least another that was cancelled and three that almost were. As such, they’ve added a hard deadline on completing the manuscripts between this July and next June (the implication there being you would know if they accepted by June 2014, I’d guess). I found out in August 2012 I’d been approved, and handed it in just under a year later, and I suffered from personal setbacks and terrible bouts of general avoidance. Anyone of sound mind with a respectable work ethic could complete one in no time. That said, allow me to echo some of my man R.J.’s most salient points.
Pick an album you love, and that lots of other people love, too.
You might still be bumping that Treble Charger album like it’s 1993, but that doesn’t mean that readers on an international scale will give a shit. I’ve gone on record saying Donuts was never my first choice, not because it wasn’t one of my favourite albums, but because I didn’t think I had a way into it, I didn’t think I had anything new to say, I thought I lacked the vocabulary to approach an instrumental album. I thought about Tribe’s Midnight Marauders, Refused’s The Shape of Punk to Come, Hum’s You’d Prefer an Astronaut, albums that I held as close as Donuts, but I couldn’t find a way in to any of those either. The Tribe record had the fan love, but lacked a narrative, at least one I could find. The Refused album had the fan love and the narrative of a punk band throwing the rule book out the window and imploding, but punk and hardcore overall were not scenes I felt any particular kinship to outside of this one record (which may have made me better suited, who knows), and the Hum record was far too inside a choice, I thought. It wasn’t until I started thinking about Donuts not just as a record about death (which had already been discussed at length across message boards and blog posts for years) but how that theme and the sounds on the album pushed and pulled each other, why did the record sound so different from everything he’d done previously? As the cover blurb reads, “If Donuts is a record about death, why did Dilla make this record about death?” Having that tumbler of the lock fall into place made unpacking the rest of it in my mind easy. So I had a work I was passionate about, plus I had what I thought was a perspective that would start to move the discussion about the work to new places, as people supported my ideas or tore them apart. And I knew I had a work and an artist that continues to grow in influence and audience acclaim every year.
Maybe most importantly, I had an album I could stand to listen to hundreds of times front to back repeatedly. You really don’t know how many times you’re going to end up listening to the subject of your book, so if there’s even one song on it you don’t feel a way about, think long and hard about it.
Emphasis on academic.
The publisher of the 33 1/3 series is now Bloomsbury Academic. In the Continuum days, there was more leniency for writers to go into their own personal relationships with the album they were writing about, tell their stories as well as those of the music, or take very artful approaches (indeed some of the best entries in the series, like John Darnielle’s book on Black Sabbath or Douglas Wolk’s on James Brown, do just that). While I don’t think the editors would ever rule out another exceptional proposal of that sort, the segment of the corporate umbrella the series now falls under provides a bit of resistance to those approaches by default. Put it like this, my book is not free of the first-person pronoun and has some (possibly indulgent) passages that can’t be considered straight academic. But I’m certain the multidisciplinary approach I tried to take when interpreting the album is definitely what got me in the door. The proposal specifically asks you what sort of college-level courses your proposed book could be used for. Remember who the boss is.
Come up for air.
Research is fun. Research is your friend. Research is necessary. Research allows you to feel like you’ve put in a full day of work when you haven’t written a word. Which is technically accurate. But research is an anchor, and an anchor will drag you down into a deepening spiral. This is what anchors do. There will always be something more you could know, and it’s very possible you could look up on March 1 and realize you haven’t written your sample chapter yet. Make a list of questions, find the answers you need, and get on with it. You can fall in a Google hole after you get approved.
The game ain’t the same
On our drive to the train station at the end of that aforementioned trip home, my mother asked if I’d reached out to the local Detroit and Windsor media outlets (I had) to sniff out any interest.
“Why would he have to do that?” asked my father, “They have people to do that, don’t they?”
“Not anymore!” said my mother, “Jordan still has a lot of work ahead of him!”
She was being a tad melodramatic. It’s not like you hand the manuscript in and then it’s all on you to promote and market the thing, there are people to help you (hi Tanya and Charlotte!) but as you can see in those proposal requirements, they want to know you have ideas about how and where to promote your book. I have a dedicated Twitter and Facebook page for the book, and hashtag the hell out of any book-related posts on my Instagram. You’re a writer, you likely recoil in horror at the idea of putting yourself out there like that, so do I. But things can happen when you least expect it, and if you’re not there to capitalize on them, you’re missing out on potential readers (and sales, real talk)
Example: On Saturday night, my phone blipped with a notification that I’d been tagged in something on Instagram. Turns out former Jaylib DJ, Beat Junkie co-founder and Funky President J. Rocc got his galley copy of the book and posted a photo of it. He didn’t need to do that, he and I have met and corresponded but he doesn’t know me, posting that photo was all about celebrating Dilla (which is why I wanted to write the book in the first place). As of this writing that photo has over 600 likes. Not Beyoncé numbers, but that’s 600 people who didn’t know about the book on Friday, who do now. So when people are asking when they can get it, and what it is, it’s on me to jump in and answer those questions, preferably with poise and gratitude, just like it’ll be on you.
Knowing the tools at your disposal and how to use them won’t get you by if the writing or ideas are weak, but it’ll certainly turn some heads if they can sense you have a plan.
Pick two out of three
Neil Gaiman once gave a speech about making art in a freelance economy and summed up his survival techniques thusly: Make good work, be easy to get along with, and deliver it on time. If you can’t do all three, two will get you by. Personally, I always tried to go with the latter two. Being Canadian means I’ll always be courteous and apologetic to a fault, so that was easy, it’s in my blood. On the evening of July 31 I’d been up for about 27 hours by the time I sent the draft in, I may have actually fallen asleep while typing (see if you can spot where I did!) and if I’d felt I needed an extra day or week, I likely could have asked for it. But something in my core wouldn’t allow it: I’d signed a contract for August 1, and basically fallen off the planet in the subsequent 10 months, I might take every last second before the end of business that day, but god damn it that draft was going in. My editor’s relief was apparent in her reply.
You can see in those guidelines how seriously they are taking this deadline. You might be tempted to play with timezones or the 24-hour clock. Don’t.
Don’t talk yourself out of it
I am a nobody. I have two years worth of clippings working in the Canadian student press and this blog. In the comments of the submission call some are bemoaning the fact that it’s open to all, they’d like to see the editors court more established writers instead of making the process available to everyone. I see the point, but I also don’t think trying to commission these books before the fact is necessarily any better. As one of the nobodies who only got the chance because the process is open, I’m obviously biased, but I think there are people out there who might not write for Pitchfork or Rolling Stone who have waited their whole lives to write about the album that means the most to them, and the 33 1/3 series might be their only shot to do so. And it’s not like any of us have to read the hundreds of proposals that don’t make it, so why are you complaining?
When I decided to submit, I was at one of the lowest points of my life personally. My six-year relationship was collapsing in on itself, I was faced with the reality of finding a place to live and surviving in this city on a modest income (He pissed me off, but it’s not like my Dad was lying). I found out about the last submission call in the final three weeks of a four-month window. And I threw myself into it with a level of dedication that probably terrified most people who knew me. But the idea for this book was the only thing I had, and I clung to it like a life-preserver. Who knows, maybe that desperation transmuted into a sense of drive that permeated into my writing by osmosis. All I knew was I had to do it, even if it seemed like there were a thousand reasons not to.
And I still feel like a nobody. I look at the other writers selected from my cohort and I see working journalists, poets, college professors, and then me, the Canadian schlub who still worries men in fedoras are going to knock on my door very soon to inform me that Bloomsbury has realized what a horrifying mistake they made by giving me an opportunity. I’m told us sensitive creative types feel this way most of the time.
Maybe you do, too. But I’m urging you to put it aside, and power through it, if you think it’s something you’d want to do. I’ve said many times to friends that I am the Cinderella story here, the best and worst of an open submission process. J Dilla really did change my life, that’s not just some shit on a fucking t-shirt. If my clumsy ass managed to get it together long enough to pull this off, there’s no reason you couldn’t.
Submissions are being accepted until 9.00 am EST on March 3rd, 2014. And not a minute later.
Oh, and I’ll co-sign Rob’s recommendation to read Jay Hodgson’s Understanding Records. It’s a phenomenal take on sound engineering for the lay person. And he’s a delight to talk to.
Good luck, y’all. I’m rooting for all of you.