So, You Want to Write a Book!
If you hope to write a book, you're not alone. In a recent survey, 81 percent of Americans said they had a book inside them. What does it take to make the leap from idea to bookstore shelf? This article will give you a brief overview and point you to many sources of additional information.
You learned to write when you were a kid (though the learning process never stops, even for bestselling authors). I'll focus instead on the business side of publishing - specifically, commercial nonfiction for adults which may be less familiar. No article could possibly cover the subject completely. But I'll explain the basics and tell you where to find more information. Though this article isn't about self-publishing or writing for children, I've included brief sections on these subjects at the end, with a few leads to get you started.
Becoming an Insider
(by Sarah Wernick)
If you want to write a book, no one can stop you. Just do it! You don't need anyone's permission or a lot of money to publish. You can put up a website or make copies at a print shop. These can be excellent options (see below for more on self-publication).
Having your book published by a commercial publisher is a different story. If that's your goal, it's helpful to know how the publishing business works. Even if you have connections with people in the industry. I suggest that you educate yourself before calling on them. If you know the basics, you'll learn more from your mentors.
The best way I know to get an overview is to read Thinking Like Your Editor: How to Write Great Serious Nonfiction - and Get it Published, by Susan Rabiner and Alfred Fortunato (WW Norton, 2003). Susan Rabiner is a former editor who is now an agent; Alfred Fortunato is a writer. Together, they take you on a behind-the-scenes journey from book proposal to publication.
- Take a writing course at a local adult education or university extension program. You'll get valuable help from the instructor and classmates at every step of the process. Most programs have websites with online catalogs.
- To keep up with current book happenings, subscribe to Publisher's Lunch. This superb daily electronic newsletter which has a shorter free version summarizes news stories and features from all over the Internet, providing links so you can read more if you like. Subscribers also receive a weekly report about recent book deals.
- Publishers Weekly is the leading industry trade journal. Subscriptions are expensive, but most public libraries carry it.
- Consider joining the National Writers Union. Membership is open to anyone who is actively writing and attempting to publish. NWU offers useful publications, contract advice, and networking opportunities, including an active online discussion group for book writers. Once you're a published book author, you become eligible for the American Society of Journalists and Authors and the Authors Guild, which offer other benefits.
- Attend writers conferences. Shaw's Guides provides a comprehensive, searchable list. My favorite is the annual conference of the American Society of Journalists and Authors, which takes place each spring. If you can't attend, you can order tapes or CDs and listen to individual sessions.
The Time Frame
Books, like elephants, develop through a long gestation period. The process is accelerated only on rare occasions say, for a topic or author making headline news. Here's a more typical schedule (though details and timing vary): A book is conceived in January, and published two years later.
January to February: Author writes a book proposal.
March to April: Author finds an agent.
May to July: Agent submits the proposal to editors - and sells it.
August to September: Agent and publisher negotiate the publishing agreement, which the author signs.
October: Author begins (or continues) writing the book.
January: Publisher starts to design the book and to write the description for the catalog that goes to booksellers.
March: Author submits the manuscript.
April: Editor reviews the manuscript and gives comments to author.
May: Author revises the manuscript.
June: Manuscript is copyedited.
July to August: The book enters production. The author receives galleys - the typeset pages - to check and correct.
September to October: Bound copies of the galleys are sent to book reviewers, book clubs, magazines that might be interested in publishing an excerpt, media producers, journalists, and others who might help promote the book.
November to December: Pre-publication marketing continues.
January: Finally - publication day!
For comic relief: a New Author Timeline by novelist Brian Malloy.
Writing a Book Proposal
Most nonfiction books are sold before they're completed. Instead of laboring through an entire manuscript, as novelists usually must do, the nonfiction author prepares a book proposal and sample text. The proposal typically runs from thirty to sixty pages. Strange as it may seem, you might have to submit a book proposal even if you've already completed the entire manuscript.
You can learn how to write an effective book proposal by reading books on the subject. Thinking Like Your Editor, mentioned above, covers proposals. But I suggest you also read one or more of the following:
- The Art of the Book Proposal: From Focused Idea to Finished Proposal, by Eric Maisel, PhD (Tarcher, 2004). This superb book is filled with insights as well as examples and ingenious exercises. It's helpful for anyone writing a book proposal, but consider it a must-read if you get stuck. Maisel is a psychologist and creativity coach, as well as an author. He presents the book proposal as an essential part of the creative process, one that will help you focus and shape your book.
- Nonfiction Book Proposals Anybody Can Write: How to Get a Contract and Advance Before Writing Your Book, revised and updated, by Elizabeth Lyon (Perigee, 2002). This is an excellent, informative how-to book with many brief examples from successful proposals.
- Write the Perfect Book Proposal: 10 That Sold and Why, second edition, by Jeff Herman and Deborah M. Adams (John Wiley & Sons, 2001). In addition to instructional material, this book offers extensive excerpts from successful book proposals, with candid comments about them.
- The Shortest Distance Between You and a Published Book: 20 Steps to Success, by Susan Page (Broadway Books, 1997). This covers the entire publication process, starting with the proposal (including an excellent chapter on coming up with a title, as well as an appendix with her own book proposal) and continuing through publicity, royalty statements (and remainders), and planning your next book.
A proposal includes information about marketing as well as about the content of the book. Publishers not only want to know about your professional credentials as, say, a wedding planner; they're interested in your speaking experience, and your connections with likely markets for your books. For a wedding planner, that might include gift shops and other businesses or organizations that cater to engaged couples.
Your personal resources for selling a published book are referred to as your author platform. Platform is to publishing what location is to real estate. The stronger your platform, the more marketable your proposal. For an excellent checklist that will help you present your platform effectively, see this article by publicist Annie Jennings.
Book proposals also describe existing books on similar subjects, and explain how yours will be different. You need to show that there's a strong demand for books like yours but that your book offers readers something the others don't. Go to a bookstore and check out the competition. While you're there, pay attention to book jackets (see box below). Read the acknowledgements too - you'll learn about agents and editors who might be interested in your book.
Learning from Book Jackets
The first few pages of a book proposal are the most important, because they must entice the reader an agent or an editor to continue. Often, a publisher will draw upon the proposal when writing the book jacket.
You can learn a lot by reading the jackets of successful books that are similar to yours. (An alternative is to read the short book descriptions at Amazon.com or another online bookseller). Look at the title - an appealing title is a strong selling point. See how the book is distilled to its essence on the jacket flaps or in the description. Even a 500-page book is boiled down to about 200 words. Indeed, many covers manage to describe the book in a single phrase or sentence.
Once you've studied other authors' book jackets, write the copy for yours. This exercise will help you write an effective proposal. And you may be surprised to discover that it's useful for thinking about the content of your book.
Finding an Agent
A book can be sold without an agent. If you're hoping to publish with a university press or a small publisher, you can submit the bookyourself (though you might want an agent or a literary lawyer to check the publishing agreement before you sign it). But it's much easier to sell your book to a large commercial publisher if you work with a literary agent. Indeed, some major publishers won't consider proposals unless an agent submits them.
Below are resources that can help you find a literary agent. The books and most of the websites include not only listings but also articles explaining how agents work, so you'll learn how to approach them and what to expect:
- See the website of the Association of Authors' Representatives, the leading organization of literary agents. The site provides a searchable database of their members, with contact information, as well as articles of interest to authors.
- Find information about more than 200 agents at Publishers Marketplace - click on "agents" on the menu to the left. If they weren't looking for new clients, they wouldn't pay to be listed there.
- Search the extensive agent database at Agent Query. Also check out the articles and other resources for writers offered by this excellent free site.
- Browse listings at WritersNet, a directory of writers, editors, publishers, and more than 300 literary agents. The page for agents includes links to several helpful articles.
- Visit a library and check Literary Marketplace, which has the most comprehensive lists of agents and editors. Also look for guides to agents - several are published annually.
- Ask friends and colleagues. Your networking opportunities expand if you join a writers' organization or take a class.
- Attend conferences and workshops at which agents speak. Agents attend these events because they're interested in meeting new writers.
- When you look at published books on similar topics, check the acknowledgments writers often thank their agents.
Use the Internet to learn more about agents who interest you. These days, many literary agencies have websites. At a minimum, these sitesprovide contact information. But they may offer more, including agent biographies, client lists, directions for submitting material, and useful articles for writers. The online resources above often provide website addresses; if not, a Google search might turn up the official site (if there is one), as well as other information about an agent you're considering. For example, you might find an interview with the agent, a notice about a writing conference at which the agent is speaking or even a complaint about the agent in an online discussion group.
For more information on selecting and working with an agent, see the following books and articles:
- Literary Agents: What They Do, How They Do It, and How to Find and Work with the Right One for You, revised and expanded, by Michael Larsen (Wiley, 1996).
- Targeting Agents, by agent Ethan Ellenberg, offers savvy, thoughtful advice.
- 11 Ways to Find the Agent or Publisher You Need, by agent Michael Larson, provides specific suggestions and points to numerous resources.
- FAQ from the Association of Authors' Representatives. It includes helpful information, such as a list of questions to ask an agent you're considering to represent you.
- Literary Agents: Writer Beware from the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. This page offers extensive advice and information, with a focus on cautions for writers seeking an agent.
Five Ways to Attract
Selling the Idea to a Publisher
When your book proposal is ready for submission, your agent or you, if you're not using an agent sends it to selected editors. If you're approaching publishers on your own, have a look at How To Be Your Own Literary Agent, revised edition, by Richard Curtis (Mariner Books, 1996). A new edition is promised shortly.
For lists of publishers, see any of the following:
- Literary Marketplace, available at most public libraries.
- Publishers' Catalogs provides a large database, which you can browse by subject or by name of the publisher.
- For lists of independent publishers and academic presses, see New Pages.
Check out the websites of the publishers you're considering. You'll find their current catalog of books, which is the best indicator of their interests. Many publishers provide valuable instructions for authors on their website, including directions for proposing books and submitting material.
Your book may sell quickly, with several editors bidding for the privilege of publishing it. Or the process might be considerably more discouraging. If your proposal is rejected, read this insightful article by Marcia Yudkin: The Ten Most Common Reasons Book Proposals are Rejected and What These Reasons Really Mean.
As you revise your proposal, buoy your spirits by recalling the experience of Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen. Their anthology of inspirational stories was rejected by 140 publishers. Even their agent gave up. But they persevered and found a publisher. The book? Chicken Soup for the Soul. It was published in 1993. A decade later, the original Chicken Soup book and three dozen offshoots have sold 80 million copies.
Publishing agreements often run a dozen or more pages that's single-spaced, legal-size pages and contain bewildering (but important) legalese. Get translations and interpretations before you sign.
These books contain chapters on book contracts, as well as other useful legal information for writers:
Clearing Rights and Permissions
You may find these books useful for different purposes:
Carmack's Guide to Copyright & Contracts: A Primer for Genealogists, Writers & Researchers by Sharon DeBartolo Carmack
Clearance & Copyright: Everything You Need to Know for Film and Television by Michael Donaldson
A Guide to Oral History and the Law by John A. Neuenschwander ((Oxford Oral History, with chapters on legal release agreements, subpoenas and FOIA requests, defamation, privacy issues, copyright, oral history on the Internet, institutional review boards (IRB), and duty to report a crime, with sample legal release forms, oral history evaluation guidelines (Oral History Association), and more.
The Permission Seeker's Guide Through the Legal Jungle: Clearing Copyrights, Trademarks and Other Rights for Entertainment and Media Productions by Joy R. Butler, an entertainment and business attorney, on "using someone else's intellectual property for financial gain"
Writing the Book
The best all-purpose advice I can give you is this: Don't try to go it alone.
When you write for publication, you're writing for readers as well as for yourself. Unless you show your manuscript to other people, it's impossible to know how readers will respond to your work whether they will find it engaging, understand it, react in the way you expect.
That's why even experienced professional writers seek critical feedback on books-in-progress, and treasure the friends and colleagues who help them improve their work. Just look at the acknowledgments pages of published books.
Where do you find critical readers? One simple way is to take an adult education or university extension course. Or join a writers' organization - if they don't have an appropriate group, start one. You're not limited by the resources in your community. There are many
critique groups online. Check out the list on WritersWrite.com.
If you reach the conclusion that writing a book is too difficult or too time-consuming, consider working with a professional writer. See my Book Collaboration FAQ for more information about this possibility.
A Few Words of Caution
On the fringes of publishing are enterprises that prey on people who yearn to see their book in print. Read Writer Beware, Victoria Strauss's blog posts warning about the sharks out there in the literary waters, including fee-charging agents, dishonest book doctors, fraudulent subsidy publishers, and fake contests. Strauss also maintains the Writer Beware website of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. Though the organization's focus is on fiction, the information they provide is useful for nonfiction writers too.
Publicity: Reaching Readers
Most first-time authors assume that the publisher will take care of publicity, and that their work is done (except for attending book signings and giving media interviews) after the book is published. Not so.
Commercial publishers publicize all their new books through their catalogs and websites; they send out review copies. What happens beyond this minimal (though important) effort varies, depending on factors like the author's fame, bookstore orders, and other early indicators of a book's success. The publisher's limited publicity resources are devoted to likely winners. This may seem counterproductive. Why spend money to publicize a book that people already know about, rather than one that needs help to emerge from obscurity? But it actually makes sense economically: There's more profit to be made by doubling the sales of a book that might otherwise sell 100,000 copies than doing the same for a book on its way to selling 5,000 copies.
Though you can't count on your publisher to do everything you'd wish to publicize your book, there's a great deal you can do on your own or with minimal support. The resources below are helpful for published authors. But they're also valuable at earlier stages including when you're writing the proposal:
- Publicize Your Book: An Insider's Guide to Getting Your Book the Attention It Deserves, by Jacqueline Deval (Perigee, 2003) is outstanding, with extensive practical information. Also see Deval's helpful list of publicity links.
- The Publishing Game: Bestseller in 30 Days, by Fern Reiss (Peanut Butter and Jelly Press, 2002) offers detailed, ingenious advice to authors. Visit Reiss' website, PublishingGame.com,
to sign up for her free e-newsletter and to request a free Hot Contacts sheet with contact information for magazine editors, talk show hosts, and more.
- Publicist Annie Jennings offers useful free articles and superb free teleseminars. Join her mailing list to receive announcements.
- Book marketing guru John Kremer offers extensive free information for authors and small publishers on his website, Book Marketing Update, along with listings for reports that must be purchased.
- Bella Stander, who presents workshops on book promotion, has an excellent list of resources.
Writers organizations provide valuable services for published authors seeking to promote their books. For example:
If you can write a check, you can publish a book. Thanks to new technology, the check need not be a large one. You can publish online. Or you can produce simple books, with stapled bindings, at your local copy shop and if you're willing to make a larger investment, your book can be professionally edited and designed.
The good news about self-publishing: You won't have to wait two years to see your book in print. You'll get to call the shots: Your book will bear the cover you approve and the title you select; no one can tell you to cut material you'd like to keep. And once the expenses are paid, you keep all the profits.
There's bad news too. Instead of receiving an advance, you'll have to pay to have your book printed. All the tasks of production from designing a cover, to editing, to preparing an index are your responsibility. Even if you hire professionals to help you, there's much to learn and a lot of work.
You may have access to people eager to buy your book for example, you might be a successful seminar teacher or a visible member of a relevant organization. But if you lack such connections, marketing can be an uphill battle. Many doors are closed to self-published books:
Bookstores don't routinely stock them; libraries don't buy them; mainstream publications don't review them; TV and radio producers are reluctant to feature them.
For a balanced look at the pros and cons, see Self-Publishing FAQ, by Moira Allen. The article links to a free publication called Step-by-Step Guide to Self-Publishing.
To understand the options - including photocopying, offset printing, digital printing, and various kinds of POD (Print on Demand) services - see this lucid explanation
by Aaron Shepard, who writes for adults and children. He's published with traditional publishers and has self-published. Another page on his website links to additional resources.
Also check out the information at the Writers Collective, which provides assistance to self-published authors.
The following popular books on self-publishing provide valuable advice and lots of enthusiasm. But be aware that the authors who sell services to self-publishing writers tend to gloss over the drawbacks:
- The Complete Guide to Self-Publishing: Everything You Need to Know to Write, Publish, Promote and Sell Your Own Book, fourth edition, by Tom and Marilyn Ross (F&W Publications, 2002).
- The Self-Publishing Manual: How to Write, Print and Sell Your Own Book, fourteenth edition, by Dan Poynter (Para Publishing, 2003). Poynter's website has helpful free information and many promotions for the reports he sells.
- The Publishing Game: Publish a Book in 30 Days, by Fern Reiss (Peanut Butter and Jelly Press, 2003).
If you decide to self-publish, have a look at this review in PC Magazine, which describes what happened when the author sent a manuscript (a poetry collection) to six companies. Along with the reviews, which appeared in the magazine's May 27, 2003 print edition, the online version provides how-to information and interesting comments from readers.
Publishing a Children's Book
The world of children's books is different in many ways from that of adult books. If you don't know the "rules" about genre and other issues, you may be shut out. So it's wise to get oriented to the field before you submit anything even if you're a published author of books for adults. Each of the resources listed below will lead you to many others:
- For a quick overview, read The Complete Idiot's Guide to Publishing Children's Books, Second Edition, by Harold Underdown (Alpha Books, 2004). Don't be put off by the obnoxious series name; the book itself is excellent.
- The leading organization for children's book authors is the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI), which has nearly 20,000 members and many active chapters in the US and elsewhere. They offer outstanding print and online resources to members, as well as excellent conferences (most open to non-members too) and other networking opportunities. Even if you aren't interested in joining, check out their website http://www.scbwi.org for helpful information and lists of links.
- Two children's book authors whose websites provide rich resources for writers are: Verla Kay (http://www.verlakay.com) and Harold Underdown (http://www.underdown.org). Each of these sites includes an extensive list of links that will help you find other useful resources.
- Consider taking a course in writing children's books. Many adult education and university extension programs offer inexpensive classes or workshops on the subject.
Here's to your success in publishing!
Updated April 21, 2006
More Helpful Links on How to Write and Publish a Book
Before You Write That Book (Barbara Ehrenreich's sensible advice, 3-19-07 --listen to it!
Start Here: How to Get Your Book Published Jane Friedman's exceptionally helpful page)
Practical Tips on Writing a Book from 23 Brilliant Authors (posted on PLOS blogs by Steve Silberman, 6-2-11). Tips from Carl Zimmer, David Shenk, Cory Doctorow, Deborah Blum, Maryn McKenna, and others.
The Stephen King Drawer Method for Writing Better (Stacey Roberts, ProBlogger, 3-26-14) " A manuscript should take a season to write, King says. "Then he will put a physical copy of it in a drawer and forget about it for at least six weeks.... Distance yourself from your work so you come back to it with a more professional attitude."
My First Time (Paris Review video series) Watch writers discuss the trials of writing and publishing that first novel, that first play, that first book of poems ...
9 Ways to Vet an Independent Book Editor (Chris Robley, The BookBaby Blog, 5-30-12)
For Writers (Jamie Chavez's helpful pieces about getting started, getting edited, the editing process, the publishing process, and other important aspects of getting a book published. See for example her example of the difference between a synopsis and marketing copy.
Publishing a Book Is Not NEAT (Ed Cyzewski, 9-9-14)
What You Can and Cannot Control in Book Publishing (Ed Cyzewski)
ABookInside.blogspot.com How to Write and Publish a Book. Author Carol Denbow on how to write a fiction, nonfiction book or novel; find a publisher or publishing option; and market your book for free. Tips and expert advice.
About That Book Advance (Michael Meyer, NYTBR, 4-10-09, on the changing realities of advances against royalties)
5 Questions to ask before you start to write your non-fiction book (Paul Lima, 5-26-12)
How to Get Your Book Published (Jane Friedman, writing, reading, and publishing in the digital age)
The 10 REAL Reasons Your Book Was Rejected: A Big 5 Editor Tells All (Ruth Harris, Anne R. Allen's blog, 2-22-15)
How Long Should You Keep Trying to Get Published? (Jane Friedman). Includes Recognizing Steps That Dont Help You Get Published
Is This Title O.K.? (Andy Martin, Draft, NY Times, 9-01-12)
10 Things Emerging Writers Need To Learn (Michael Nye, Missouri Review, Working Writers Series, 8-5-13)
ASJA Freelance Author Search (American Society of Journalists & Authors, independent nonfiction writers, many of whom write books)
Association of Personal Historians (APH). Personal historians help ordinary people write and independently publish their memoirs and personal histories (in print, audio, or video).
3 Essential Elements Of A Book's First Page (Writer's Relief staff, Huff Post, 10-21-12)
Author Enablers (Book Page's blog of advice for aspiring authors, by Kathi Kamen Goldmark and Sam Barry of "Don't Quit Your Day Job" Productions, authors of Write That Book Already! The Tough Love You Need to Get Published Now)
Before You Write That Book by Barbara Ehrenreich
Getting It Published: A Guide for Scholars and Anyone Else Serious about Serious Books by William Germano.
Book Doctors. You've shown publishers your book proposal and samples and they've said, "You need to work with a book doctor." Here are links to some explanations of What Book Doctors Do. But then, how do you find a good book doctor? I know three of the editors who work with this group, and they've been editing manuscripts with a track record of success as books for MANY years: Independent Editors Group
The confessions of a semi-successful author (Jane Austen Doe, Salon.com, 3-22-04, on the "noir" side of publishing)
FAQ about book publishing (CaderBooks)
From beat reporter to book author 500 words at a time (Rod McQueen, Canadian Journalism Project)
Helpful tips from a Harvard writers conference (Livia Blackburn's blog, A Brain Scientist's Take on Writing)
Hope and the Magic Lottery(Seth Godin)
How to Get a Book Deal with World's Largest Publisher by Timothy Ferriss (author of The 4-Hour Workweek (not a typical book or author -- a super-self-promoter!)
Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die by Chip Heath and Dan Heath. The key elements of a sticky idea, they write, are simplicity, unexpectedness, concreteness, credibility, emotions, and stories. Practical strategies for creating sticky ideas.
Making the leap from news to books: Critical questions (The Open Notebook--The story behind the best science stories). The questions that go into books might be different from those that drive newspaper and magazine journalism. With that in mind, Charles Quoi asked six successful science authors (Deborah Blum, David Dobbs, Matthew Hutson, Maggie Koerth-Baker, Maryn McKenna, and Carl Zimmer) what questions they have found themselves asking of themselves or of their sources when writing books. Are there essential questions that journalists might not ask but which book authors should? Interesting responses.
The New Farm System: From Blog to Book (Iris Blasi, Digitalbookworld, 2-12-10)
Sarah Wernick's FAQ on Collaboration and Ghostwriting
So You Want to Be a Writer (advice for aspiring writers from Wallace Stegner, Francine Prose, John Kenneth Galbraith, and others, in The Atlantic)
The top 5 secrets to getting a book deal (Alan Rinzler, The Book Deal)
The Uselessness of Querying Editors (Scott Edelstein, contradicting advice you've heard elsewhere, and notice that it's different for editors and agents: )
So You Want to Write a Book? Writing Tips From Robin Rice (video, part of a series, which includes What's in a First Draft? (video) and How to Write a Blockbuster Novel (based on Al Zuckerman's book Writing the Blockbuster Novel.
When journalists become authors: a few cautionary tips (Peter Ginna, Nieman Storyboard, 12-15-11)
You've Finished Writing Your Book. Now What? (podcast of Dick Margulis on the Paula B The Writing Show)
How to help an acquisitions editor, the one who might buy your book (W. Terry Whalin, Right-Writing.com). Point 4: "Never push for an answer about your project--except after months without a response then only inquire gently. If you push for an answer, you will get it. 'No.' I regularly tell authors if they want an answer about their work, I can give it immediately. 'No.' It's not what they want to hear. Yes takes time. Sometimes lots of time."
Free downloadable e-books on writing, from Michael Allen:
On the Survival of Rats in the Slush Pile by Michael Allen: http://www.kingsfieldpublications.co.uk/rats.PDF
The Truth about Writing ("an essential handbook for novelists, playwrights, and screenwriters" by Michael Allen, free on Scribd):http://www.scribd.com/doc/17414179/The-Truth-about-Writing
How to Write a Short Story That Works (by Michael Allen, via Scribd)