THE BOTTOMLESS POOL
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Aspiring 331/3 authors run the gamut. Barker has gotten proposals from academics, indie rockers, teenagers, famous novelists, and workaday fanboys. "There's just a bottomless pool of people who wants to write one of these books," Barker said. Even in the off-season, he receives at least one proposal a day.
Many publishing executives wouldn't deign to consider a manuscript unattached to an agent, let alone cast an open call for submissions. Not so for Barker. "I love the fact that we're often publishing the first book by an aspiring writer that turns out to be brilliant," he said.
But this presents its own set of problems. The last time 331/3 put out the call, they didn't ask for much — just a few paragraphs about the book and the writer. In turn, they received nearly 600 proposals. This year, Barker required a 2000-word draft of the opening chapter, a complete outline, the author's full résumé, a detailed marketing plan, and a comprehensive analysis of any books already written about the chosen record. The end result: each proposal came in at around 20 pages.
"We're asking them for a lot of stuff this time around, and I think it did dissuade people — which is fine," Barker said. "I got e-mails from people asking if we really wanted all this stuff. Yeah, we do! I wanted people to take it a bit more seriously."
Barker certainly does. "Every evening, every weekend, [I'm] just plowing through them," he said. He reads upward of 25 proposals a night, interrogating each one with a series of questions: who is the author? (When, for instance, Jonathan Lethem wanted to write about the Talking Heads' Fear of Music, it was a no-brainer — but that kind of sure thing doesn't come along so often.) How good is the writing style? (Barker values engagement above all else and is bored to tears by precise musicological analysis.) What is the album, and how many books have been written about it? (Oh no, not another book about Blood on the Tracks!) How many fans does the artist have, and how literate are they? (This last question may present a problem in the case of a recent proposal of Insane Clown Posse's The Great Milenko, to be approached through the lens of social history.)
As thorough as he is, Barker's process remains intuitive. "When your head gets so full of stuff, there are ultimately elements of luck involved," he said. He is, after all, one man — a busy man, one who admits to not knowing everything about music, and whose personal tastes veer toward what he describes as "stupid, lame, early-'80s English tastes."
In the end, he must rely on instinct. The vagaries of this metric are written into the series' original mission: interesting books about interesting records by interesting people.
This strategy has its detractors. "As people keep pointing out to me, there are some very angry customer reviews on Amazon," Barker said. Particularly contentious is Mountain Goats singer John Darnielle's take on Black Sabbath's Master of Reality, in the form of a fictional diary of a 15-year-old kid in an insane asylum.
"[T]he real BS here is that this book offers absolutely ZERO information or insight on Master of Reality," wrote one disappointed customer. "Good god this is an atrocity," wrote another.
"It's not what they were expecting," Barker said. "I'm not happy that people buy these books and get upset, but the whole point of the series from day one was to try different approaches to writing about music. If every book was the same, it would be really boring."