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Drafting Your 33 1/3 Proposal: 3 Tips from Jordan Ferguson

This week on the blog, author Jordan Ferguson shares his top tips for drafting your 33 1/3 proposal. There are only 2 more weeks to get your proposals in before our open call closes. Good luck! We can’t wait to see what you submit.

I feel like if you’re the sort of person to read a 33 ⅓, you’re the sort of person who would like to write a 33 ⅓. When I first saw the shelves lined with books at Sonic Boom Records in Toronto, I bought two on sight (Eliot Wilder’s Endtroducing… and Matthew Gasteier’s Illmatic) and started fantasy pitching what I might do if I got the chance. Years later I had the good fortune to meet RJ Wheaton (author of the volume on Portishead’s Dummy and the recent genre guide on trip-hop), who served as a living example to me that it could be done.

And it can! You have the opportunity to do it right now! Hopefully you’re already well at work on your proposal (I infamously did mine start-to-finish in the final week, which is not anything I would recommend to you) and since we’re nearing the end of the submission window, I thought I’d take the series up on their invitation to offer tips and encouragement. Here’s my three (or four, maybe five) tips on submitting your 33 ⅓ proposal.

Get Familiar

One of the best things about the 33 ⅓ series is simply how many things it’s been in the last two decades: rigorously academic or artfully  personal, sometimes at the same time. Determining the approach you want to take can be helped by seeing what’s possible, so pick up a couple volumes, on works from similar and dissimilar genres, and see what you respond to or don’t. Given the album I was pitching, I knew I didn’t want to insert myself into the work very much (something other authors in the series have done to great acclaim and effect), but that was all I knew. Picking up Christopher Weingarten’s book on Public Enemy gave many insights on how to untangle a work densely packed with hundreds of samples. There will surely be a volume in the series that can prove similarly inspiring.

As you start to draft your shortlist of potential albums, you also need to think about what you can bring to the discussion of those albums, what’s already been said, and what can you add to it. You will know when that idea hits. You might not know all the ways it will come together, but the thing that will make your book unique, that thing that only you can say in the present moment, you’ll know that when it hits you. The mythology behind Donuts was already becoming entrenched (and refuted) when I drafted my pitch, so I knew there were threads to pull at, but I wasn’t sure that was enough. It wasn’t until I was putting stock away at the bookstore I worked at when I picked up a copy of the scholar Edward Said’s book On Late Style. As I often did, I skimmed the back cover, and instantly a road in the woods appeared to me, and I just knew I had something, in a way I haven’t known before or since, frankly. While I’m not a huge advocate of “waiting for inspiration to strike,” I am a proponent of recognizing when it does.

One piece of side advice during the preparation phase: be mindful of how you spend your time. Research is mandatory. I love researching. But the research has to be balanced with time spent clacking the keyboard. I’ve had many days end with three hundred Google searches logged and a word count of zero. Come March 29, it won’t matter what you’ve discovered if you didn’t leave enough time to write it down.

Know Your Audience

You’ve settled on an album. It is an album you love. I hope it is, because you have no idea how many times you’re going to listen to it. But is it an album that lots of other people love? Can you connect with those people if and when your book comes out? The publisher doesn’t know who your audience will be, but you do. How are you going to reach them? What platforms are you going to leverage? Communicating with confidence who the book is for and how you’ll promote it to them will matter as much as your outline and your writing sample.

You have to remember, in 2012 J Dilla was still primarily “your favourite producer’s favourite producer.” Even among hip-hop fans, he was best known among the hyper-attentive, liner note-reading crowd. We were many years away from the lead singer of post-punk band Idles shouting him out from the stage of The Tonight Show. But when I was making my pitch, I had complete conviction that not only did Jay Dee belong on the list of artists deserving of a volume, but that the people who loved his music would be totally on board to hang out for 120 pages with someone who loved the man’s music like they did. I turned out to be more right than I could have predicted.

If you can write a book that gets read by all the people, that’s amazing. Start by knowing who the right people for your book are.

It Can Be Done

2024 not only marks 20 years for 33 ⅓, but come April it will be 10 years since my book on Donuts released, so I’m more than a little philosophical as I think about when I decided to submit back in 2012.

Then, as now, the roster of authors in the series contained novelists, journalists, musicians and college professors. I was, and I say this with no false modesty, a complete nobody when I submitted my pitch. My CV had little more than a couple years as a writer and editor for a tiny alt-weekly in my hometown. I had no idea if I could take on a project of that size, let alone one about an artist with such a dedicated and protective fanbase. I was coming through a crumbling relationship in 2012, so I latched onto that proposal purely as a means of survival, and I gave it a level of focus and dedication I’d rarely given anything in my life.  In so many other circumstances, I probably would have talked myself out of submitting. Who the hell do I think I am?  That impostor syndrome, am I right? Maybe you’re feeling the same way, like you shouldn’t bother, there’s no chance you make the cut.

But if this is something you really want to try, I am pleading with you to do it. Even if you don’t get selected, the greatest victory any writer can have is finishing the thing, whatever the thing is. What’s incredible about 33 ⅓ is that still, after 20 years, the submission process remains open to anyone. Because the editors have always known, that’s how you find magic. That’s how you get Jenn Pelly’s The Raincoats or Andrew Schartmann’s Super Mario Bros, works that might never have been considered for the series until the right person with the right pitch comes along at the right time.

That person could be you. I know from experience.

Best of luck, friends. I’m rooting for you.

Jordan Ferguson

is an occasional writer living and working in Toronto, Canada. His 33 ⅓ on J Dilla’s Donuts, now in its fifteenth printing, was the bestselling volume in the series the year of its release and named one of NPR’s Best Books of 2014. His writing has since appeared in Bonafide, The Wire and the Red Bull Music Academy. He is the co-author of an upcoming book on a beloved video game aiming for release in 2024.

J Dilla’s Donuts is available to buy in bookshops and online (including at Bloomsbury.com).

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