Among the reasons for my recent hiatus from online activity in connection with my research on guns is frustration at my literary agent’s inability to find a publisher for my book, Gun Curious: Inside America’s Evolving Culture of Firearms. This is not due at all to his effort and expertise. He is annually one of the most successful sellers of non-fiction works in the US.
Last summer (2022), he began sending my proposal to editors at trade publishers like Crown, Random House, Scribner, St. Martin’s, Bloomsbury, Sentinal, and others. In three rounds totaling 19 submissions, all but one passed or did not respond (effectively passing).
Of course, I have to accept the possibility that the book I am writing is just not interesting or that I’m not the right person to carry the project. But there was a pattern in the editors’ responses that I could not help but notice:
Thanks for this, Don. The author is really impressive and this is a timely and important issue. That said, I have too many concerns about the size of the audience for a book on this subject, as well done as this is.
I think this is a pretty difficult sell. While Yamane’s approach to guns, gun laws, and gun culture is in a unique kind of thoughtful middle ground, I think we’ll be hard pressed to get people on any side of the gun issue (pro, anti, curious, etc.) excited enough to lay down money for the book.
I think it’s going to be a pass. It’s a smart proposal and we enjoyed reading it, but looking at the sales track for the comps, we’re concerned that none of them have broken out—even with some of the authors having bigger public-facing platforms than David.
“No audience for this book” is certainly an easy answer for an editor to fall back on, though perhaps too easy an answer because I recall hearing somewhere that the vast majority of books published do not sell out their advances. The idea that other books on American gun culture have not sold well (“broken out”) is certainly a reality I am fighting against.
But more discouraging to me is the idea that occupying “a unique kind of thoughtful middle ground” in the gun debates is a dead end. As much as I believe in my project, I have to admit that a book on Guns and the Demise of American Democracy OR Guns and the Salvation of American Democracy would be easier to sell.
Indeed, in my frustration last fall, I mocked up two competing book covers and developed a plan to release the same book under both titles and use sales figures as data on where Americans stand on the issue.
And, yet, I am still somewhat hopeful about this book project because the issue of guns remains essential and no one is approaching it in the way I do in Gun Curious. Before my last meeting with my agent, I re-read the entire 60+ page proposal and found almost nothing I wanted to change.
The proposal is now in the email inboxes of another group of editors, and as Sandy always reminds me (citing often rejected authors like Stephen King, J.K. Rowling, and John Grisham), it only takes one. So, please send your positive energy to Manhattan for me.
For those interested in the longer story of this effort, read on.
Any book I publish on American gun culture will be a long time coming. I have been deeply immersed in this study for over a decade now. Five years ago, I even submitted a proposal for a book on American gun culture (that included three completed chapters) to Oxford University Press. That book, Gun Culture 2.0: Rise of the Concealed Carry Nation, promised to tell the definitive story of the evolution of American gun culture from its grounding in hunting and recreational shooting (Gun Culture 1.0) to its current emphasis on concealed carry and armed self-defense (Gun Culture 2.0). The story was told from my perspective as a participant in and observer of Gun Culture 2.0.
The reviews of the proposal were constructively critical but highlighted that I was caught in the neverland between an academic study of gun culture and a more popular story about it. Believing that this work needs the broadest possible audience, I scrapped the idea of another academic book in favor of writing a trade book for a general audience.
Although I have written or edited 7 books before and try to write well “for an academic,” I had no idea how to write a trade book. So, I went back to school. I read books on writing. I took online classes on writing (through UC-Berkeley Extension and the Creative Nonfiction Foundation). I hired a writing coach. I had friends read drafts. I paid a developmental editor. Four years, hundreds of hours, and thousands of dollars later, I had a sellable proposal for Gun Curious and 7 (of 10) chapters completely written.
With no takers as of the start of 2023, however, I have started to consider what to do if no publishers commit to the book. One option I discussed with my agent is to set aside Gun Curious, which tells the story of American gun culture from the perspective of my personal involvement, complemented by my observations as a sociologist. In its place, I would write a book from my perspective as a scholarly authority on gun culture, one that would engage more directly with and respond to people’s opposition to guns and concern with gun violence. The title might be something like Responsible: Gun Ownership in 21st Century America. I definitely want to write a book along these lines eventually, so this would just be a matter of expediting it, then returning to Gun Curious down the road if Responsible received a sufficient audience to warrant a second book.
The downside of this path is that I have 7 of 10 chapters of Gun Curious already written and 0 chapters of the other book written. It’s also entirely possible that I could set aside Gun Curious to try to get Responsible published and receive the same tepid response, leaving me in the same position I am in now, but having invested a year or two or in another dead end.
Another option would be to self-publish Gun Curious. I am actually doing some research now on people who have used Kickstarter to fund book publishing. Although there are huge drawbacks to self-publishing in terms of getting the book in front of the people who really need it, the need to get these ideas out into the public square is also pressing.
I’m not sure how to weigh these competing needs. Hopefully some good news will come from this latest round of submissions that will render the need to consider this tradeoff moot.
I will keep you posted.
1) Some serious contrast of extension optical effects going in those book cover comps, especially on the right. Try drop shadows and/or a tint for the background;
2) Regnery might publish it, but that would limit it to a very narrow (minded?) market;
3) A friend of mine publishes travel guides through Kindle Direct. It generates a small but steady revenue stream, and self-publishing is not the credibility kiss-of-death it once was.
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I know I have an audience WITHIN the gun community that I could reach with Regnery or another conservative publisher, or with Kindle Direct. I’m less concerned about the prestige and credibility as with getting it into the hands of people who are uncommitted or opposed. Having a large, general trade publisher (I believe) will help with that. If that doesn’t work, I am prepared to try to do it myself and just work my ass off to get people to read it.
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As Matt said before me, self-publishing through KDP is a perfectly viable solution in the current day and age. I have firsthand experience and can say that the print quality is certainly professional enough for 98% of people if you put in the work to lay out the interior well. Whatever you choose, I support you patiently and will certainly be a buyer when the time comes.
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Appreciate the support and interest. I have had uneven experiences with self-publishing, but if I go that route I will probably do a Kickstarter to raise money to do the project right. And then have to work 3x as hard to get the book into the hands of people who are not already friendly to guns. That’s the audience I really want. I am hopeful that I already “have” an audience within the gun community, though the editors who have responded to my project so far have been unimpressed with sales figures for gun books in general.