Shapiro, Susan. The Book Bible: How to Sell Your Manuscript–No Matter What Genre–Without Going Broke or Insane. New York: Skyhorse, February 2022.
Last winter I read Susan Shapiro‘s The Byline Bible and gained inspiration to write about why my grandmother, the daughter of a shtetl kosher butcher, made ham sandwiches in northern New Jersey. Many of Susan’s students have left her classroom and gone on to publish in prestigious publications and/or kickstart their writing careers. I wanted to hear more, and then came this new book, The Book Bible: How to Sell Your Manuscript–No Matter What Genre–Without Going Broke or Insane. I asked Susan some questions.
The Whole Megillah (TWM): What prompted you to write this book?
Susan Shapiro (SS): This grew out of the writing classes and seminars I’ve been teaching for decades at The New School, NYU and Columbia University, as well as online since the pandemic. It’s been very exciting helping many students publish short pieces, then get agents and book editors for their debut memoirs, novels, essay collections and children’s literature. I went from writing short pieces to books myself twenty years ago. After The Byline Bible, my first writing guide for short pieces, did well in 2018, this seemed a natural sequel.
TWM: Each chapter begins with a kind of what not to do. What was the motivation for that?
SS: I didn’t want to write a boring guide. I did a short piece in that style for a writing guide so I tried it. A few people in my writing workshop thought it came off sarcastic or flippant but I noticed the younger members really liked it. They laughed and said they saw themselves in the mistakes–for example, when I say, “Don’t finish a piece at 4 in the morning, decide it’s brilliant and without feedback send it to The New Yorker.”
TWM: For memoir, you recommend as a first step to write your most humiliating secret. Why?
SS: In teaching personal essay writing for 25 years at NYU, The New School and Columbia University, a lot of students were choosing very boring slice of life topics that put me to sleep. They weren’t readable or publishable. I loved the confessional poets–who wrote about their deepest pain and problems. So I needed a quick way to get my students to go deeper and darker. If I said, “write about your worst experience,” they’d all write dull things about death. But when I said, “write about your most humiliating secret,” they handed in pieces that were fascinating, brave and hilarious. And lots of them were published right away–in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post. And a whole bunch led to books.
TWM: Your students achieve high sales/placement rates. What do you attribute that to?
SS: I’m one of the rare writing teachers out there who intentionally focuses on publishing. I bring in top editors and agents who are very specific about what they’re looking for and how to pitch them.
TWM: How did your writing for middle grade experience differ, if at all, from writing for adults? What made you include writing for children in the Book Bible (I was surprised, as a kidlit author myself)?
SS: Well, I became interested because lots of my former students are killing it in kid lit: Abby Sher, Lexie Bean, Renee Watson, Maria Andrew, Alyson Gerber, Jeff Henigson, Dream Jordan, Melissa Walker, Bethany Hegedus. And another former student, Joy Peskin, is a great children’s lit editor at FSG. When Kenan, my “Bosnia List” coauthor wrote a piece about how he was exiled from Bosnia during the Balkan war at 12 years old, Joy said, “this reads like a middle grade novel.” I asked, “What’s a middle grade novel?” and she helped me understand the genre. I found it took a long time to get the 12-year-old male voice right. I found an amazing agent, Samantha Wekstein, and HMH editor Lynne Polvino who bought our middle grade book World In Between which was a thrill.
TWM: Where do most writers go wrong, irrespective of genre?
SS: As a writing teacher, I’ve seen a lot of aspiring authors who aren’t well read in their genre, who are rushing a manuscript and submitting it too quickly before they get expert feedback, revise several times to iron out the problems. The most successful writers I’ve seen write, revise, get tough criticism and are part of an artistic community. I think it helps to be a good literary citizen and buy books, show up to events for other authors, post and tweet work you admire (and not to curry favor from famous people.) I used to write tons of book reviews and author profiles to promote books I loved. That’s why I think I’m so lucky in publishing, I have good book karma.