This is the third post in a series about writing a book. Having just finished a new book on body language, brain science, and how people communicate, due out in May 2014 from Harvard, I’m posting a brief series on writing – what I’ve learned. Is it true that everyone who’s sentient has a book inside waiting to be expressed? What are the best ways to crank out a book-length manuscript? And once you have, what about publishing it? What does that terrain look like?
Last time I discussed the first step in writing a book – after you’ve decided to answer the question “why” in the affirmative – the book proposal. For this post, I’m going to walk you through the rest of the steps before the writing actually begins.
Armed with a brilliant proposal, your next step in the non-fiction book process is to find an agent. Unless of course you decide to self-publish; in that case, proceed directly to Greenleaf or Amazon or one of the other self-publishers and go for it!
But if you’re determined to get published by a traditional publisher, then you need an agent. How do you get one, assuming your sister-in-law isn’t best friends with that famous agent’s hairdresser?
Here’s a little trick. Find books that are similar to what you hope yours will be, and that you like, and read the acknowledgements. Every writer thanks her agent fulsomely in the acknowledgements, or she’ll never publish again. So collect the names of those agents, Google them, get their addresses, and send them a brief email detailing the idea and the spectacular size of your platform (all the people who are compelled to buy your book) and asking them to look at your proposal.
Let me stress here that the two things that you need to get a book contract are a great idea and a platform (those thousands of people who are going to buy your book because they’re all your cousins on your mother’s side, and your mother is really good at placing irrevocable curses on people who don’t do what she tells them to.) Without both no publisher will look at your proposal (and probably no agent).
Once you have an agent excited about your book idea, then stand by ready to speak to publishers about it. The best idea is to get a bidding war going between a couple of publishers. It’s important at this stage to be able to talk in crisp sound bites about your idea and your platform. That may help if the publisher wants to chat with you. In any case, be ready to read and sign that contract. A good agent will be extremely helpful at this stage, avoiding pitfalls in the contract, and cleverly signing you up for lucrative deals, extensions, product spin offs, and movie rights.
But you should also check the traditional thinking. The norm, for example, is to get as big an advance as you can, because most books don’t earn their advances back, and so it’s the last money you’ll ever get from your publisher – thus you get as much as you can.
But if you’re convinced that you’re going to sell tons of books, then it might make sense to ask for little or no advance, in exchange for a heftier share of the proceeds. For example, traditionally you might make $2 – 3 per book. But if you forego the advance, you could quite reasonably bargain for $8 – 10 per book sold. It’s up to you and your agent.
Once you’ve signed the contract, then break open the champagne. You’ll have to write the book next, but you need to celebrate your wins, and this is quite possibly the last time you’ll ever feel so positively disposed toward your publisher.
Many first-time authors are appalled at how little they hear from their publishers after the contract is signed. That’s because expectations and realities in this era of publishing are not well matched. As I said at the beginning of this blog series, publishers have less and less to spend on marketing because they’re making less and less from each book.
Here’s how it works. A typical book imprint will publish 100 books a year. The assumption is that 99 will sell fewer than 3000 copies total. They’ll make back their advance, but no more. The publisher is banking on that 100th book selling thousands and thousands of copies and making enough profit for the imprint to cover the other 99 – and allow the company to stay in business.
That’s why you’re not going to hear from them much after you’ve signed the contract. You’re going to do virtually all of the marketing yourself. They’re going to print the book, help you figure out a title and design a cover. They’ll copy edit the book – or rather, hire a freelance copy editor who used to work for a big publishing company. Then, they’ll distribute the book to the wholesale booksellers, Amazon, and some major independent bookstores, and sit back and wait for you to do the rest.
OK, enough bad news. Back to the champagne. You’ve signed the contract, and you’re ready to write the book. What next? In my next post, I’ll talk about getting from a book proposal to the finish line.