26 Oct 2008

How To Help Yourself Get Your Book Published

There are so many articles with advice and tips on how to get published that what the world needs is another one! Thing is, as every writer is trying to do the same thing how can you stand out from the crowd?

Firstly, are you writing fiction or non-fiction? The two are rather different in the way they are considered by publishers. If you are a first-time fiction writer then there seems to be no short cut to actually writing the book. Unless you are already well known the chances of an advance on a novel are next to zero. Below I am going to concentrate on non-fiction writing but, if you are writing a novel within a well-defined genre then some of these tips may well help you too.

Do you need an advance?

We would all like to receive a nice fat advance for our new book! But if this is going to be your first book then you need to ask yourself whether you actually need an advance. In a sense, spending a year trying to get a publishing deal when you could have spent that time actually writing half the book can be a fruitless diversion of energy and resources. I cannot answer that question for you, but just consider how much income you already have, how long it would take to research and write the book and whether you need to take time off work in order to complete it.

Advances are usually split into three tranches; you receive a payment upon signing the contract, another one upon delivery of the manuscript and the last one when the book is actually published. There is some flexibility in the percentages of the payments so if your research is costly in terms of travelling, or you need to stop your normal job for some months, then you can negotiate for a higher first payment. Note that, if you have already written a large part of your book, then steps one and two may come in fairly quick succession. This will avoid the notorious author trap of having spent the first slice of the advance without having completed writing! Yes, it happens all the time!

What do publishers want?

From my experience, publishers rarely know what they actually want - they just know what they want when they see it! This is typical reactive behaviour but perhaps understandable when one is forced to look at hundreds of potential books. It is similar to market research questionnaires that often ask the same question prompted and unprompted, to see the difference between what people recall compared to what they can remember. Publishers work in a similar way, so you as the author need to prompt them into not only looking at your work but also reading it and feeling good about it.

The minimum publishers will ask for when considering a work of non-fiction is a one-page summary of the whole book - what it's about, why it's important and who will buy it - plus a list of chapters and a paragraph summary for each chapter, and also one whole chapter written (to show you can write). This is the bare minimum and should be considered as your sales brochure. Indeed, as any author knows, printing and posting a whole manuscript to many agents and publishers can become very expensive. I have seen that publishers themselves know this to be expensive and so when they are promoting a new book at one of the major book fairs they will often produce small brochures; they are known as "blads" (Basic Layout And Design). The blad is a sales brochure that publishers use to sell to other publishers for co-editions and translations. Especially if the book is illustrated, the blad is a small advert showing the look and feel and style of the new book and is around 20 pages or so. It also costs a fraction of the price to produce.

Turn your proposal into a blad

So, there is no reason for you as an author not to create your own blad with all the details listed above. It will probably be a little longer than the standard 20-page brochure, but it will be a lot shorter and cheaper to produce than a full manuscript. If your book demands illustrations then it is critical you include some examples. The honest truth is that if an agent or publisher does not like your blad then they probably won't like the manuscript either. But there is nothing more powerful than having a reader ask for more! If you send a whole manuscript then the agent can take it or leave it. If, however, you send your publishing brochure and they like it, then you are in a powerful position to negotiate a deal and an advance to complete your masterpiece. It also gives the publisher some input into your overall content.

A book, or rather, a non-fiction book has to be considered more an industrial product than a work of art. By this I mean that many people will have an input into the final look of the book. It is still your book but there will be editors and designers who take pride in seeing a little bit of themselves in the final object. By presenting a taster of your book you're showing that you know what you're talking about and can do so eloquently, whilst also leaving open that some of your themes or chapters could be under discussion. Listen to such advice as you never know, you may have missed something important.

Go forth and multiply

So now that you're armed with the essence of your book distilled into the perfect sales brochure, what do you do then? This really depends on the subject matter of your book. Is it a travel book, a history book, or maybe cookery or science or education? Whatever the subject area is, there will be a culture around that topic. A lot of agents and publishers actively seek out new talent. Many established writers already have their favourite agent or publishers so the publishing industry is always looking outside of their box. It may not seem like it reading one rejection letter after another, but that's where there is nothing more persuasive than personal contact. The art here is to make it seem as if they found you!

Your chosen subject area of expertise will no doubt have cultural events such as exhibitions, fairs, conferences, lectures and so on. Go there, be seen, and talk to people. This is, after all, something you are interested in, and passionate about. Don't be a bore trying to sell your book to everyone you meet, just enjoy the event but keep your publishing radar switched on. Take copies of your blad with you but be judicious about who you give them to. Writing is a competitive sport so avoid handing out copies to other authors in the same field. This may seem cynical but assuming as we are that this is your first book then you are not in a strong position regarding any possible plagiarism.

There will often be publishers at fairs and conferences - if it is a good conference there will definitely be publishers there. This is perfect! You are in your element, surrounded by people interested in the same things as you, with publishers trying to sell books on your favourite subject. The person you really need to speak to is the editor in your field. The sales staff are there to sell books that have already been published but the editor is always looking to the future. Be enthusiastic, but not desperate. You're an expert, you have a great idea, you have proof that you can write, just ease up and make friends. Swap business cards (oh yeah, get yourself some cheap business cards), hand over your blad and see where it leads. Whatever happens, you have made a very important step forward. You have direct contact details of an editor and he or she now knows who you are. You will at the very least get a considered and honest judgement of your work, rather than a standard letter, and if they like what they hear you're on your way to your first book contract.

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