I have written a book for a popular audience, and it has been a long and interesting process. I'll probably write about it in detail when things have moved farther along. For now, I am very pleased to have signed a contract with an agent. The book is about two projects I directed near Cuernavaca, Mexico. It tells the story of the residents of these sites (Aztec provincial peoples), and also about how archaeology gets done: everything from screening dirt and identifying faunal remains to my random sampling disaster involving broken glass, beans, and peso coins, to getting excavation permits to trying to keep our kids safe and healthy in Mexico. As I started writing the book, I went to the website of Norton press, figuring that would be an ideal publisher. "We don't deal with authors, only with agents." Hmmm, that led to a big search of agents, and instructions on how to find an agent, what does an agent do, etc.
I sent off a bunch of book proposals to agents, and got a big stack of rejection letters. Some agents came right out and said "not commercial enough," and the others said something else but their reason was probably the same. That was an upsetting experience. I am used to my writing being judged for its scholarly and scientific value, not for its commercial potential. And I am used to being successful with my publishing efforts, without a lot of rejections. But fifteen rejections for one project? A humbling experience.
One agent expressed interest in the topic, but said that my writing was "clear but not vivid." She was not ready to offer a contract unless I could improve the writing. Well, "clear but not vivid" is pretty darn good for an academic, but evidently not for popular nonfiction. So I paid for a writing coach, who went over the entire manuscript and gave me excellent advice and editing. She especially liked my use of Monty Python's "Life of Brian" to make a point about provincial peoples in empires ("What have the Romans ever done for us"?). Writing in a narrative style is very different from writing in an academic style. I think I finally figured it out, and it was fun doing the revisions on the chapters. So, now evidently my writing is sufficiently vivid for an agent to offer me a contract.
There will still be a bunch of revisions to do, artwork to assemble, and then we have to find a publisher. But at least the project is moving forward, and my prose has moved beyond "clear" to "vivid."