Fiona Handyside is a Senior Lecturer in Film Studies and French at University of Exeter. Her major current research interest is in how films map out various stages of the female lifecycle, and in particular how the figure of the girl is used to articulate a whole series of questions concerning feminism, postfeminism, and questions of female ‘progress’. She is working on a book length project on Sofia Coppola, to be published with I.B.Tauris, and co-editing International Cinema and the Girl: Local Issues, Transnational Contexts, to be published by Palgrave. She is the author of Cinema at the Shore: The Beach in French Film (Peter Lang, 2014, forthcoming) and Eric Rohmer: Interviews (University of Mississippi Press, 2013).
I took a long time to submit a monograph proposal. This was because back in the early 2000s when I was emerging onto the job market, articles were what was really needed, and I filleted my thesis for those. So I had to think up a whole new project from scratch, while also working at establishing a foothold in academia (moving from a temporary position to a permanent one, etc). I came up with a project – the representation of beaches in the cinema – amazed that, in the flurry of publications on film and space, and especially films and cities, no-one had addressed this exciting and essential topic. Once you start looking, beaches are everywhere! I began to give research papers on the topic and with help from colleagues and mentors finding a shape to the project. Then I got together a book proposal, carefully worked through, with many structures rejected before I thought it was perfect. The response was outright rejection from the publisher, my sample chapter not sent out to readers, and the suggestion that it would better to have a book more generally about space, as beaches was ‘too niche’. (Given this publisher now has a whole series dedicated to spaces on screen, I feel maybe I was just ahead of the curve!)
I was thrown into a tail spin – this represented three years of work! I shelved the project and wrote a different, commissioned book (I’d had to apply competitively for the commission, but it was in a dedicated series with an excellent General Editor). I then entirely re-worked the proposal, with a different focus (on 3 directors), then sent it off to two more publishers. One rejected simply saying ‘it’s not right for our list’, the second rejected with four reader’s reports, two very positive, one middling, one that would make your hair curl. The latter completely ripped to my shreds my sample chapter. Luckily, an article based on that chapter had just been accepted by Screen, so I was able to relativise that the most prestigious journal in the field clearly thought it was OK. Some of this feedback, very kindly sent onto me by that series editor, did help me significantly improve the project: they were right it needed to get back to its original point, the beach, the thing I had lost faith in – my original research insight. Trying to please a publisher had simply muddled my own thinking. I re-drafted, and sent off my new proposal to a series I thought would work for the book – New Directions in European Cinema. I concentrated on French cinema rather than trying to cover everything (I do think there’s a book to be written on beaches generally in cinema, and I’m part of a Continuum journal special collection that does look at a global cross-section). Maybe that has to be a project for a more advanced researcher, with the clout and profile to obtain significant research leave and probably a network to back it up though. I got the contract, and am now in the process of putting together my index. In the meantime, I’ve obtained another contract for an edited book, and am in the process of negotiating for another book contract with a different publisher, having done my research on their series and where my book might fit.
What I wish I had known:
• Have faith in your proposal. The idea is probably excellent. Don’t waste all that work by giving up on it completely. But be ready to listen to feedback – don’t get too defensive. When responding to feedback, always remember to thank the person who’s taken the time to provide it (probably for free) – even if it is through gritted teeth!
• Don’t, however, accept all feedback. There’s never any need for people to be vicious and rude. Sadly, anonymity sometimes makes people behave that way. They are not worth your time. Feedback from publishers (or their assistants) can sometimes be a way of fobbing you off – try not to get too diverted following every single thing they say.
• Target a publisher who specialises in your area. In particular, for a first book, I would probably recommend going for an already established series with an academic general editor. They will probably be actively looking for contributions to the series, and they’ve already done part of the hard sell to the publisher for you.
• Aim for a very prestigious press, but remember, it will probably be more difficult to break in. Any contacts you can use, do. Include on your proposal recommended referees. Also remember different subjects have different presses that are more appropriate. Think about works for you, not some crazily impressive colleague down the corridor who might just happen to be working on a ‘sexier’, more commercial area.