Mr. Melville Submits a Proposal

Any writer who’s ever tried to put together a proposal package for an editor or an agent knows the unpleasant truth:  Writing a proposal sucks.  You have to make up a summary version of something that you’re telling at novel length because you haven’t got any way to say it that’s shorter; and you have to put the prose equivalent of false eyelashes and fishnet stockings onto something that is — you devoutly hope — subtle and understated, or at least is naturally flashy and dazzling and not some tasteless imitation of the real thing.

Take heart.  And consider the example of Herman Melville, who in 1850 wrote to his English publisher:

“In the latter part of the coming autumn I shall have ready a new work; and I write you now to propose its publication in England. The book is a romance of adventure, founded upon certain wild legends in the Southern Sperm Whale Fisheries, and illustrated by the author’s own personal experience, of two years & more, as a harpooneer. Should you be inclined to undertake the book, I think that it will be worth to you 200 pounds.. Could you be positively put in possession of the copyright, it might be worth to you a larger sum — considering its great novelty; for I do not know that the subject treated of has ever been worked up by a romancer; or, indeed, by any writer, in any adequate manner.”

This is an effective proposal — the publisher in question bought the book.  Consider what it does:   It lets the publisher know when the projected work is going to be finished; it describes the nature of the book in terms of how it would appeal to the reading public (it’s a “romance of adventure” in an exotic setting — “the Southern Sperm Whale Fisheries”); it lets the publisher know of the author’s special qualification through personal experience “of two years & more”; it demonstrates that the author can think of the project in commercial terms and is willing to negotiate.

Wisely, the proposal doesn’t say, as Melville later did when he wrote to Nathaniel Hawthorne:

This is the book’s motto (the secret one), Ego non baptizo te in nomine – but make out the rest yourself.

Melville didn’t enjoy the commercial side of writing (“Dollars damn me,” he wrote — to Nathaniel Hawthorne, again; the long-suffering Hawthorne deserves a gold star) but he could make himself do it when he had to.  And if he could, so can we.

Ego non baptizo te in nomine patris, sed in nomine diaboli — “I do not baptize you in the name of the father, but in the name of the devil.” It’s one of Captain Ahab’s memorable lines from Moby-Dick.

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