By Dylan Klempner
Patricia Ryan Madson is the author of IMPROV WISDOM: DON’T PREPARE, JUST SHOW UP.(Bell Tower, 2005) and a professor Emerita from Stanford University where she taught since 1977. In their Drama Department she served as the head of the undergraduate acting program and developed the improvisation program. In 1998 she was the winner of the Lloyd W. Dinkelspiel Award for Outstanding Innovation in Undergraduate Education at Stanford
If you had one publishing tip for young authors it would be…?
Hold to your purpose. If you have a book that you want to have published, keep working to make that happen.
I’ve been a university teacher for 30 years. During the last 20 years, I began teaching a class for Continuing Studies at Stanford University on improvisation for adults. The course became immensely popular. What we were doing in class seemed to fill a need. People enjoyed playing improv games, not so much for their comedy value but for their liberating value. Improv helped them trust their own ideas, think on their feet, and work together without a plan.
Within the first year of teaching the class, I started getting adult students, business people, retired librarians and others that would say, “You know, you really should write a book.” I started taking notes about the class I was teaching and people’s reactions to it. I think from the very start what was in my heart and craw was the notion of writing a small philosophy book that used this metaphor of improvisation to help people learn the things that improv teaches. There were some life skills that could be taught and discovered.
I started writing little essays…I wrote in the academic form. Pretty much everything I had to say was footnoted. It was like a class manual of improv games with sources. Sometimes I would write versions that were much closer to a philosophy book rather than an academic book. In the mid-1980s, I began to look into what it would mean to publish a little book. There wasn’t anything in the market quite like what I was intending. I approached a couple of academic publishers at the time.
I didn’t know that if you’re trying to sell a book to a publisher, you don’t send them the manuscript of your beloved book. You send the book proposal.
I was turned down by a large number of publishing houses. I got some polite thank you letters. Probably the most useful information I got was one editor at a small press said, “Ms Ryan, it looks like you have two books here, probably an academic textbook and a little self-help book. You should decide which it is and then write that.” The truth is, I didn’t want to write a little textbook, a manual for improvising in the classroom. I did want to write that philosophy book.
I contacted [Nina Wise, author of A Big New Free Happy Unusual Life and said I’m trying to find an agent. And she said, well let me introduce you to mine. So I was introduced to a New York agent at the Sara Jane Freymann Literary Agency. She liked me. She signed me. She said, you have to write a book proposal. I will help you with that. A book proposal is a sales pitch for why the world needs this idea, why it’s fresh and new, why only you can do it, and why once it’s in the world you’re going to guarantee large numbers of sales based on the different ways you are going to be promoting it.
It almost doesn’t matter if you have a good book or even that you’re a good writer. What matters in terms of finding a publisher is some sense that they get through that book proposal that what you have is not only going to be valuable but that it’s attractive in a bunch of markets. A good book proposal has statistics. I did my research and found out how many improv groups there are in the United States.
I wrote the book proposal and spent quite a bit of time back and forth with my agent who helped me edit until I got it looking really sharp. That was November 2004. She sent my book proposal to 20 publishing houses. Within 3 weeks there were 12 of them that expressed favorable interest. The agent then negotiates with the publishing houses about what the advance is going to be. Sometimes there is a bidding war and the largest advance will win it.
In my case, there was a publisher that wanted to bid. But what they really wanted to do was take my idea and make it part of their trendy self-help series for singles. They wanted to know if I’d have a ghostwriter take the ideas and tweak them in the fashion that they liked. They even guaranteed a large number of paperbacks all over airports and bookstalls. Now this might sound attractive to some authors. But first of all, I didn’t want to give over my book to a ghostwriter. I knew what I wanted to say. Secondly, I insisted that the book had to come out in hardback at least at first. I would not accept a paperback-only contract. That gave me a little bit of leverage. That is actually how I got to make a contract with Toinette Lippe and her small imprint house, Bell Tower Books.
Can you take us through what goes into a book contract, from your experience with publishing Improv Wisdom with a division of Random House?
The advance on the book was $28K to the agent and author. My agent gets 15% of whatever I make. That $28K was an advance on future sales. Then the author gets the agreed upon percentage. I think my contract gives me somewhere between $2 and $3.50 per book. I was thrilled beyond words.
Now there is an e-book version and an audio book version. Part of my contract gave Random House the rights to both of these. The book had been out 4 or 5 years before they did it as the electronic book. They didn’t want to exercise their option to do the audio book. So that reverted back to me and as the author I got the audio rights back.
And what did you do with the audio rights?
Just last year I hired a studio and an audio editor and using my own voice, put that together as an audio book. I am very pleased that I did that because there are some readers that are blind. And, some readers these days are only listening to books.
So, in addition to publishing tips, tell us a bit about editing a book and working with an editor.
The successful writing is in great part due to my amazing editor, Toinette Lippe. She was the founder and editor of Bell Tower Books, an imprint of Crown/Harmony Books owned by Random House. She was the editor of the first English translation of the Tao te Ching. As a first time author, I didn’t know what an editor did. I had gone over it and condensed it. Before I got an agent, I hired a Canadian editor who went through it chapter by chapter and revised it and gave me feedback. I had what I thought to be the finished book. What’s amazing to me is that my “finished book” has nothing like the clarity of the manuscript that was finally published by Bell Tower. That was due directly to this wonderful editor, Toinette Lippe.
She taught me about writing. She taught me about understanding the readers’ vantage point. She gave me new eyes and valuable tips. She would send the manuscript back and forth in the mail. We were not working online with editing software. I would get the chapter with some sort of general note each week. The other thing I learned from her was the value of being concise. She said, “Patricia, it’s clear you are a teacher because you like to say the same thing over and over and over again. In the classroom, that may be useful. But when you do it in a book, you are insulting the reader.” That idea was a revelation to me. I had the thought that if you made a point then you needed to elaborate on that point. I discovered that a lot of my writing was unnecessary. It became clearer when I didn’t repeat myself or give a second example, or when I didn’t use four adjectives but I found one good adjective that made the point. All of the sudden, [with] her editing—circling words, adding a question mark or “really dear, did you really mean that”—I was able to step back and look at it from the readers’ vantage point. As soon as I took her edits, the manuscript got so much better, so much cleaner and clearer. I was very grateful.
I guess some writers have a lot of ego about their precious words and so when someone starts striking them out they become sad or defensive. All I could see with her help was that everything she suggested went to the point of making my message clearer and more profound. If the book is clear at all, a lot of it is due to her gentle guidance and her persistent red pencil of strike-outs.
It sounds like you were open to the education she was providing as a book editor. I find that as a writer that the ego immediately pops up when I get corrected. But I learned that what you’re saying about being open to criticism is true. Do you have advice for people who have a difficult time receiving constructive criticism? How can they work with an editor?
I suggest that they ask themselves, “What’s important here?” If what you’re saying is important and an editor offers you another way to do that that is in some ways clearer, first of all, can you see their point? If someone asks me to look at their writing I start doing this kind of editing, although some people don’t want it. Not all editors are skillful and maybe some have their own agenda so it’s difficult to make a global statement, but I advise: “always be open to all suggestions or criticisms.” Toinette said to me once that her job was to edit and my job was to take her suggestions and use those that forwarded my purposes. But she said “If there is something that is really precious to you that I have struck out or have demeaned, by all means leave it in there. It’s your writing, finally.” She encouraged me to fight back if there was something I thought worth fighting for. I almost never needed to “fight for something.” She had great taste.
The dance between editors and writers is one of the most exciting things that is not talked about. It becomes a partnership. I remember when the book was finally published. It was like she was the midwife. Together our child was being born on May 5, 2005. I really feel that way. Her voice helped give the book its value. Today when I’m looking at someone else’s writing I can hear her little English voice on my shoulder.
She wouldn’t let me use an exclamation point. An exclamation point was for something deeply, truly special and the writer should not go around throwing them after everything they thought was important. I think the last paragraph in the book, “Improvise!” has an exclamation point. That was allowed.
What kept you going for 20 years as Improv Wisdom evolved into what it finally became?
Somewhere I had a deep vision that the things I understood through the improv classroom coupled with the psychological and spiritual understanding I had from studying with David K. Reynolds—my Constructive Living knowledge— were a powerful set of ideas that could help the world. I wanted it to be a book for everybody, not for drama students, not for just improv students, not for business people. This was a strong purpose and that got clearer and clearer. I want to give this metaphorical story to the world. It kept evolving.
I always had a belief that at some point it would be published or it would find its true form. Of course it’s discouraging if you send out a manuscript and you get back “No thank you.” I have a stack of rejections. But I think I was patient. There’s something about the improviser that you don’t have to have results right away.
An improvisation can take twenty years. My book is an example of that. I held to my purpose, which was to create a little philosophy book that helps people using these ideas. I made mistakes along the way. I kept coming back to that purpose. I kept noticing how whatever was happening was thanks to the efforts of others. And finally a whole army of people brought the book to life and have been part of its ongoing life.
When people read the book, it helps them. I know that. Just this week, a minister at a congregational church in Dallas, Texas used it as a reading. And then …a theology professor Mark Schmeil at St Louis University is doing a course on improv wisdom. They are going to do a 13-week course studying the book. It is inspiring to know that the book’s small message has such a wide birth.
What thrills me most is to hear from someone who says, “I’ve read your book several times. I’m reading it for the third time and it’s all underlined.” Wow. I’m dazzled to imagine someone has kept the book and read it more than one time.
The book teaches some simple principles: Knowing your purpose, accepting reality, doing what you need to do, and developing the eye of gratitude. All of the things we have talked about come from the work of David Reynolds. It’s not really a Constructive Living book but it uses some essential perennial wisdom combined with things that I learned from improv.
How did you get the international attention?
That’s the good luck of being with Random House rather than with a small house. Random House has an international division so that any book that is owned by Random House can be distributed by them. In my contract, Random House has the right to offer and negotiate with foreign publishers
How does foreign rights work for a book?
Foreign presses have to come to them (Random House). I will get an email saying we have an offer from a very reputable Russian publisher. The buy-in is $1,500, which is what the Russian publisher puts up against early sales. They say it will be published within 12 months. 75% of that [sales] comes to me and my agent.
How many languages is your book currently published in?
Nine. It was sold to Korea first, then Germany, Japan, Taiwan, Mexico, Italy, Mainland China, and most recently Russia. I sent off an email asking what the sales are in those countries. Here’s what we know right now. In Taiwan the book sold over 7 thousand copies. In Germany about 2,000. Japan about 4,000. Italy 800. I think.
How does that sit with you knowing that your book is available around the world in all of these different languages?
It’s thrilling. It’s like an enormous gift. I consider the book like my daughter. She’s my child she was born May 5th 2005 because books have publication days. And then she got to go visit in Germany and then she went off to Korea and there’s somebody somewhere in Japan munching an apple maybe reading some ideas about how to make mistakes. Or it might empower them to say yes to their spouse for a day. I think it goes to the simplicity and the utility of the book that it’s done so well in foreign sales.
Do you think there might be a reissue of Improv Wisdom?
What I would like to see is a 10th year anniversary edition with a new foreword and some of my paintings. But I don’t know anyone personally at Random House anymore, so I don’t think this will happen.
Any other useful advice for authors?
The one thing authors need to know is that you are the one who will be promoting your book. You need to love doing that rather than finding it a burden. I love talking about my book. I do every day. Know that if you get published, that’s not the end of it. You’ll be talking about it for the rest of your life. I think it’s wise to be generous too. Giving away copies is a good thing to do if you can afford it. One of the advantages of having an agent and trade publisher is they take care of posting your books on Amazon and they take care of distribution. My book is now in the 12th print run. That sounds kind of impressive, but print runs are about 2000 to 3000 books. With backlisted books, they don’t print 10,000 copies. They print one or two thousand and imagine this will be enough for the year.
A lot of writers are not teachers. As a teacher, you had a chance to test out the material before you put it on the page. What was that experience like? Did it give you a level of confidence?
Having a classroom as my lab was a great help. Since I was teaching these principles on my feet with people in a classroom I was testing whether or not the principles had any value. Students came back to me after class telling me that what we just learned in a lesson was valuable. For example, someone told me “I started saying yes to my boss and he’s a much nicer person to me.” Each chapter had some take home exercises to try.
The book finally got designed in a way in which each chapter points to a “try this exercise.” For example: “Tomorrow do this. Go home another way, and while you’re going a different way from work to home, see if you can notice some new things that you‘ve never noticed before.” I’ll give the reader an exercise that I might have given a student in a real class. I think the exercises “Try this!” allow the reader to actually be a student in my classroom and make the discoveries for themselves. That’s the best learning, isn’t it?