How To: Tips on Getting Your Book Published
Congratulations! You’ve written
a book. Now what?
By Neil Chethik
I remember the exact moment I held the first copy of my first published book. I’d rushed home from my office, unzipped the FedEx package, then slowly – so as not to scuff the cover – extracted the smooth, dazzling result of four years of work. Out of habit, I first checked the spelling of my name. Then, I whooped loud enough to freak the cat.
That was seven years ago. Since then, I’ve had a second book published. In addition, as the writer-in-residence at a community literary center, I’ve worked with dozens of people who have brought me a manuscript and asked for help getting it published.
My first response is always to congratulate them. Writing a book is a fabulous accomplishment. But being a writer and being an author are two very different things. To become an author, you must be willing to answer – honestly and compellingly – three pointed questions:
1. Why is my book unique?
2. Why am I the best person to write it?
3. Why would somebody who doesn’t know me plunk down $24.95 to buy it?
If none of these questions daunts you, then you are probably ready to begin moving toward publishing your book. And by “publishing,” I mean traditional publishing – when a company pays the upfront costs of editing, designing and printing your book. You may even be paid an “advance,” or a guaranteed sum of money based on potential sales. Traditional publishing is different from self-publishing or “vanity” publishing, in which you pay a company to print copies of your book.
To secure a traditional publisher, here’s the process I recommend:
1. Investigate the books that have already been written on your topic. Go to a bookstore and visit the shelf where your book would – if it were published – be displayed. Then examine each book in that section to see what else has been written on the topic. Ask yourself if the world really needs your book. And be honest with yourself. Because a book that’s not needed rarely finds a publisher.
2. Write a book proposal. A book proposal is a business pitch (usually between 10 and 25 pages double-spaced) that summarizes what your book is about, why there is a market for it, what the book’s competition is and why you are the best person to write it. The proposal usually includes a tentative table of contents for your book, and a sample chapter or two. This document is required by virtually every reputable literary agent and publisher. (Check out the book How To Write A Book Proposal, by Michael Larsen, for valuable help on this task.)
3. Decide whether you need an agent. You need a literary agent only if you plan to go to one of the 25 or so largest publishers: Random House, Simon & Schuster, Knopf, to name a few. These publishers won’t look at book proposals sent to them directly by most authors. You have to go through an agent. If you’re seeking publication at a small or medium-sized publisher (or a university press), you can usually send your book proposal directly to the publisher.
4. If you need an agent, choose carefully. Literary agents are like real-estate agents. They agree in writing to try to sell your property – in the case of a manuscript, your intellectual property. They approach potential buyers (publishers) and make a pitch on your behalf. If they close the sale, they get a commission, usually 15 percent of your cut. If they fail, they get nothing. So they’re going to be careful choosing you. And you should be careful choosing them. If you’re going to sign with an agent, make sure you trust that the person will work with you and for you. (You can find a list of agents in the book Writer’s Market, which is usually in your library’s reference section.)
5. Write a personalized query letter to each publisher or agent. A query (or cover) letter is a personal letter to an agent or publisher designed to create interest in your book idea. You send it along with your book proposal and a sample chapter or two. The goal of the query letter is to so dazzle the agent or publisher that he or she must read your book proposal, and ultimately, your manuscript. Aim to be personal, upbeat and realistic in the letter. And don’t misspell the person’s name!
6. Don’t sign anything without your lawyer’s OK. If an agent or publisher tells you that he or she would like to represent your book pro- posal, or publish your book, bless them. Then have a lawyer look over the terms. I have known authors who signed too quickly and made little or no money even when their books sold well. Remember: Agents and publishers know the book business. You need a knowledgeable lawyer to level the playing field.
As you can see, writing and authoring are different skills. Writers tend to enjoy solitude. Authors are salespeople; they must be willing to make cold calls, pitch ideas, negotiate terms, withstand rejection and admit defeat when necessary. When one person can balance these two very different sets of personality traits within himself or herself – watch out, John Grisham!
Neil Chethik, author of FatherLoss and VoiceMale, is a member of the Downtown Lunch Bunch Toastmasters, in Lexington, Kentucky.