So, you want to write a book — Advice for prospective authors

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Each week I am approached by someone who wants advice on publishing a book. It is clear that so many people are eager to share their life experiences and insights with the world, and are looking for guidance about finding a reputable publisher who is eager to publisher their work. As someone who has done this a few times, with four different publishers, I will share what I know. This guidance is specifically for nonfiction books… I know nothing about publishing fiction.

Keep in mind that publishers are just like venture capitalists.

Publishers need to invest in new books. And, they need to invest in books that have a high probability of success. Just like venture capitalists, they know that most of their investments will not be home runs, so they need to invest in those books that have a real chance of breaking out. They look at several factors to evaluate the probability of success.

  • Publishers want authors who already have credibility on the subject. For example, if you are writing about science, they want a scientist with domain expertise. It is even better if you are at a well known institution that also confers credibility. If you are writing about gardening, then you need to be able to prove that you are a master gardener. And, if you are writing about baseball, then you need to demonstrate that you know more about the sport than your readers.
  • Publishers are looking for authors who already have an audience. The initial budget for marketing new books is usually small — especially for first time authors — so they want authors who can guarantee that they can get the word out to a large number of people. This can be via social media with lots of followers, through public speaking to audiences that purchase books, or via traditional media for celebrities. You can have the best book in the world, but publishers won’t be interested if you can’t help promote it via your own channels. If you want to publish a book then start by building your platform — an audience who is interested in what you have to say.
  • Publishers want books that match their area of expertise and interest. They are building a portfolio of books, and they must all fit together in some way. A great hack is to go to your local bookstore and see where you would want your book shelved… Then, look at the publishers represented there. Pick up the books that look similar or complementary to the one you want to write, and read the acknowledgements. In most cases the specific editor is mentioned. Contact that person! This guarantees that you are reaching out to those who already have an interest in the domain on which you are writing. This is very similar to venture capital — It makes no sense to send your business plan to someone who doesn’t invest in your area.
  • You might want an agent, and you might not. My experience with agents has been filled with problems. Yes, they have access to publishers, but they also come between you and the editor with whom you will work, and take 15% of anything you earn. Most important, working with an editor is very personal. It is like having an investing venture capitalist on your company’s board of directors. They have a huge impact on how your venture evolves! I’ve had the same editor for my last three books. He is an amazing coach and a fabulous sounding board. I can’t imagine selling my book to the highest bidder and then hoping to have a good editor who is a great match for me. With startup companies, sometimes it is smart to go with an investor who offers a less attractive term sheet because they offer the best coaching for your venture. The same is true for authors… Also, I have given book proposals to two different agents who would have had me work for months and months on the proposal before showing it to publishers. I decided to go it alone, with much faster and better results. In all cases, I was able to build a relationship with my editor, and we were both confident that it would be a good match.
  • Advances are just that… When you do get a contract from a publisher, the amount you receive is an advance on future royalties for the book. That means that when the book comes out, you start earning out your advance before you see any more money. The advance is just like seed funding for a start up. Those with a track record of publishing success or a substantial audience are going to get a larger advance… Once your book comes out, and if it does well, then the publisher will put in a second and third and fourth round of funding for more marketing. Many people get upset that their publisher doesn’t spend a lot to promote their book initially. They can’t afford to do that for all books — they will do something, but it won’t be a lot. That’s why they want authors with credibility and an existing audience. If your book shows real promise with high early sales, then they will be happy to put more fuel on the fire.
  • Writing a book is hard work… It typically takes a year to write a book, and almost another year of editing and production. For me, each book has its own personality — I write each one in a different location, and the manuscript comes together quite differently each time. Just once, the book was born fully formed and seemed to write itself. That has never occurred again… Right now, I’m working on a new book and I feel as though I have dumped all the ingredients in my kitchen on the counter, and am trying to figure out what to make of it. Another time, it felt as though I was combing tangled hair, trying to get all the knots out as I edited and edited and edited… If you want to write a book, acknowledge that it is a long hard process that requires a remarkable level of commitment. But, it is absolutely worth it. A while ago, I wrote a blog post about why I write. Essentially, writing is a way of thinking. It forces me to dig deep, to explore ideas, and gives me permission to ask hard questions of myself and others.

I hope this has been helpful, and welcome input from those who have something to add or a completely different point of view.

Happy Writing!


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