By Caitlin Kelly
Ever stand in a bookstore, see thousands of books and think — how the hell did these even get here?
If you work in journalism, publishing or academia, writing and publishing a book is a big deal, a standard milestone of success and achievement that you’re expected to reach as many of your peers will, and sometimes sooner, and more successfully.
When it comes to trade non-fiction — i.e. books written for a general audience, not academic — the trajectory is fairly consistent.
You, the writer, come up with an idea.
— Maybe it’s a historical figure who intrigues you enough to want to write a biography.
— Maybe there’s a trend in current culture you want to explore and have a specific and interesting viewpoint on.
— Maybe you have exclusive access to a compelling story no one else can tell.
— Maybe you’ve been working the beat and have so deeply understood a special subject that you’ve got amazing sources willing to tell you things they won’t tell anyone else and you can tell it best.
You need to know what else is out there, the comparables, what’s been published, by whom, in what voice, by which publisher(s) and, key, how well those competitors sold.
You need to think your idea through carefully, maybe check it with a few smart friends to hear their thoughts on it.
You must have a clear and consistent track record of writing well for demanding editors and audiences, especially if this is your first book. EVERYONE wants to “write a book” but not everyone (yet) has the skills and stamina to actually do it successfully.
You need to find an agent, without which you will have a difficult-to-impossible time trying to get a major publisher to read and consider it. You essentially ride in on their established coat-tails and reputation, since they are there to know the marketplace and who would potentially be most interested in your project and why.
You need to win their representation. If you’ve previously published and have a good and established reputation as a writer, you’ll probably know many other published writers, several of whom might be willing to introduce you to their agent(s.) Then you hope to find one who feels like a good match. That’s a delicate mix of personality, skills, experience, vision for your project, etc. (The agent I’m working with, who was recommended to me by a writer I know, told me he got [wait for it] 10,000 unsolicited submissions in 2017. He took one.)
You need to have an established “platform”, ideally a combination of expertise and track record writing on your subject and in that genre, and an audience hungry to pay money to read more of your work. That’s your blog, Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn following.
You need to put out a fair bit of unpaid labor to create a complete book proposal, with marketing plan, your bio, your idea, table of contents and chapters outlined.
You need to decide what the minimum advance is you can afford to work with — if it’s $30,000 paid out quarterly, for example, how will you make up the additional income you need for living costs, let alone paying for travel and research help, if needed? Can you get a grant or fellowship to offset costs?
You need to hope…because there’s no guarantee anyone will buy the idea.
If they do (yayyyyyy!) you’ll sign a very lengthy contract, agree on the date to submit your manuscript and get ready to rumble.
They’ll also have done a P & L (profit and loss statement), which makes immediately clear(er) that acquiring and publishing a book is very much a business deal, not the imagined, unsullied realms of Art.
Along the way, your title may change, you’ll see a few possible ideas for its cover, (which you won’t have the power to change, only consult on), and work closely with your editor, making whatever changes s/he requires. Your manuscripts will be copy-edited and possibly checked by the publisher’s lawyers to make sure you and they can’t be sued successfully.
If it all goes well, within 18 to 24 months at the earliest, your book will be available to readers and you’ll sit there, gnawing your fingernails, waiting to see if they, and critics, like it.