Thursday, August 28, 2008

Break into Publishing

Many people, especially creative types (which is really all of us!) feel they have a book inside? So how do you get published?

I suggest that you begin by going down to your local Half Price Books (or the equivalent) and see if you can find an old copy of one of the annual Writer’s Market books. You don’t need the most recent year. For example, you could buy the 2006 Writer’s Market. It’s about two inches thick. In the beginning pages of this annually published book you’ll find instructions for how to write a query letter and how to format a manuscript. Following some preliminary articles about writing, the book consists primarily of listings of publishers and their requirements. It’s a great resource.

When I teach my grad-level writing students, I usually make it a point to tell anyone who wants to write a book that the best place to begin is by writing magazine articles on the same topic as the proposed book. (Writer’s Market also tells how to do this.) Going to a publisher with a book manuscript without ever writing magazine articles is like going to a church of 3,000 fresh out of seminary and applying for the job of senior pastor. Sometimes it’ll happen, but usually publishers want to see a track record. They need to know you are used to "being edited," that you can meet deadlines, that you have begun to develop a following on your subject, and that you know terms. (For example, SASE is a self-addressed stamped envelope and not some society to which you must belong, as one student thought.)

Once you’ve published several articles, put together a book proposal. Outline what you plan to include in each chapter, along with an analysis of "what’s on the market" (see below). Send the proposal (not manuscript) with copies of your articles to a publisher. If the editorial team likes your concept, the proposal will next go to the marketing department. The people in this department are looking for a couple of things. First of all, most books sell fewer than 5,000 copies. And the publisher wants to stay in business, so you need to convince the team that you can sell enough books to at least break even. You as the author are their best source of sales contacts. So they will want to see—in addition to your manuscript—some marketing information. Here’s what that involves:

1) Do a search of books related to your topic. Write up a page explaining what you found and how your book differs from every other book out there.

2) Make a list of the places where you’ve spoken in the last year. The publisher will assume that if you have a book, in the future when you speak, you will have opportunities to sell.

3) Write a list of all the key people who could endorse the book in a variety of venues (someone in your denomination, someone who has published a book, the president of a key organization).

4) Gather a list of all the organizations to which you belong. Include alumni associations.

5) List publications where you have published articles on the topic of your book to establish that you are becoming a known source on this subject. One advantage to writing for periodicals is a broader base for reaching people with your message. As I said, the average book does not make it past the 5,000 sales mark. Yet the average magazine has a distribution of more than 40,000 readers. So you will reach a much wider audience with your message by writing an article. Can you write a monthly column for the local newspaper?

The book publisher’s marketing department has a lot of say in the final decision, so the proposal's marketing section is a key element of your manuscript. Publishers operate on a narrow profit margin, so it is vital to the ongoing publishing industry that each time a publisher offers a contract for a book, the company can at least break even.

Consider other vehicles for publishing, too. Self-publishing is becoming a big market. If that interests you, go to the public library and get some past issues of Writer’s Digest magazine. Look up what they have to say on the topic. An advantage there is that via Internet you can sell to readers in Britain and Australia and Kenya and South Africa, where people speak English. (Most U.S. publishers don’t have reps in those places.)Self-publishing used to be called "vanity" publishing and it was looked down on, but now that so many movies are self-produced and called "indies," the stigma is disappearing. One advantage with these last two options is that you can keep a much greater percentage of the profits. For example, on a good contract, right now I make about 12 to 14 percent of retail sales. With self-publishing you keep 100 percent after you’ve paid for production costs. Even though you may not write for the money, greater income means you can re-invest what you’ve made to pay for the costs of producing a second book, if you want to keep writing.

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