One of the best things about writing a nonfiction book is that you can often "sell" that book to a publisher before it is actually written. Most nonfiction publishers make decisions based on proposals rather than on finished manuscripts. By submitting a proposal, you can determine whether your book has a market before you spend months (or even years) researching and writing it. Better yet, you can often do so without an agent.
Marketing your book via a proposal is a two-pronged process. The first step, discussed in this article, is to find a publisher (or several publishers) that seems "right" for your book. The second step, discussed in Part II, is to convince that publisher that your book is right for them.
One way to find a publisher is to simply pick up a market guide and check the "book publisher" section. However, this isn't the best way -- or even a very good way! For example, one leading market guide lists 109 publishers who handle books in childcare and parenting. However, each of those publishers is likely to have very different interests and requirements; Charisma Press, for example, certainly isn't going to want the same type of book as "Celestial Arts." To narrow the field, you'll have to read each and every one of those 109 listings -- a daunting task! Fortunately, there's a better way.
The best place to start your search for a publisher is your own bookshelf. If you're writing about a nonfiction topic, you probably already have several books on that topic. Take a look at the books you've collected. Pick out the ones that you enjoyed the most, or found most useful. There's a good chance that the publishers of those books are the ones who will be most interested in your proposal, because of the similarity of content and approach. If your book will be more comprehensive than your "favorites," look for the publisher of the most comprehensive book on your topic to date; they might be interested in a book that takes that topic to the next level.
Another approach is to check your bookshelf for books on a comparable or related topic, but not necessarily the same topic. For example, if you're writing about a craft or hobby, look at the craft books on your shelf. Is there a publisher who produces good books, but nothing on the topic you want to cover? Look at publishers of broader topics -- for example, a publisher of pet-related books who hasn't yet brought out a book on "caring for the older cat," or a regional publisher who publishes books about your state, but hasn't covered your specific area.
After you've checked your own shelves, it's time to visit the bookstore. Find the section where you believe your book would be most likely to be sold -- e.g., the parenting shelf, the craft shelf, the travel shelf, etc.
Once again, your goal is to look for books on the same, or similar, topics. See if you can find books that cover the same general subject area. For example, if you're writing about stained glass, look for other books about stained glass. Look for publishers who are covering related topics but haven't covered yours yet (or recently). Find out what, if anything, has already been published on your topic; you don't want to reinvent the wheel! Keep in mind that two of the questions you'll need to answer in your proposal are "what books are already out there on your topic?" and "how is your book different from or better than those books?"
A bookstore may not be the only place to find books on your topic area. Another question to ask yourself is "where do I buy the books I like to read on this subject?" If you're writing about pets, check the book section of a pet store. Books about local history might be found at a local museum. If you're writing a Christian book, check the Christian bookstore. Check the office store for books on business and computers. Some categories of books are sold primarily through specialty stores, book clubs and catalogs; for example, the Military History Book Club offers dozens of books that you would be hard-pressed to find in your local store.
Consider running a search on your topic on Amazon.com. Thanks to Amazon.com's new search and "look inside the book" capabilities, you can often "browse" the results right on the screen. Finally, don't overlook the library!
Now that you have a stack of books on "related subjects," you're probably wondering what you're looking for. How do you choose a potential publisher from so many options? Here's a handy checklist for evaluating those publishers:
1) Is the cover appealing? Despite the old adage, people do judge books by their covers -- and books with unattractive covers may sit, unnoticed, on the shelf. Does the book make you want to pick it up and browse? Or does it make you want to move on to the next?
2) Is the content interesting? Skim a few pages; do they hold your attention? Do you want to read more, or are you instantly bored, confused or "put off" and ready to put the book back on the shelf?
3) Does the writing style match your own? If you're writing a scholarly tome, you'll want to find a publisher who handles more academic works; if you're writing for the "average" reader, however, you'll want to find a publisher who puts out books written in a more lively, general style.
4) Does the content match the "depth" of your own book? Some books offer superficial overviews of a topic, while others provide complex explorations that may be over the head of the average reader. Make sure that the publisher offers books that have about the same level of depth you want to provide.
5) What are the author's credentials? Does a travel publisher offer books only by writers with 20 years of travel experience? Does a self-help publisher offer books written only by PhDs and MDs? Will your credentials be enough to get you in the door -- and convince the publisher's readership that you know what you're talking about?
6) Does the book include illustrations? If your book will include illustrations (such as graphs, charts, line drawings, black and white photos, or color), look for a publisher who routinely incorporates such elements into its books. Conversely, if you don't intend to include illustrations, don't bother with a publisher who produces lavishly illustrated books.
7) Would the book appeal to the audience you envision for your book? If you consider yourself typical of the type of reader you want to target, would you buy a book from this publisher?
8) Does the book match your audience's price range? Do you believe your readers will cheerfully plunk down $35 for a glossy coffee-table edition, or are they more likely to prefer an inexpensive paperback? What would you pay for your own book?
9) Is the book well-produced? Do you like the cover, the text style, the layout, the feel of the paper? Does the book seem well-designed, or does it look "cheap"? Would you be proud to have a book that looks like the one you're holding?
10) Where is the publisher located? It's generally best to look for a publisher in your own country, at least to start with. Worry about foreign-rights sales later. (One thing to note: If you're doing all this research in Barnes and Noble, do not bother evaluating titles with the Barnes and Noble imprint. These are reprints, usually of out-of-print books and books originally published outside the U.S.)
One final thing to watch for, of course, is a book that is "exactly" like yours. If your book has already been done, your chances of selling it are slim. Keep in mind, however, that there is room for a great deal of variation on a single topic. No matter what has been written on a subject, there's usually room for a different angle, an analysis of a less-explored topic, or a different viewpoint. Another thing to check is the publication date: If the last book on your subject was written ten or twenty years ago, it may be time for an update!
Once you've completed your bookshelf and bookstore research, the next step is to find out exactly what your "chosen" publishers require. This is where a market guide can come in handy. A market guide can often give you a capsule description of a publisher's wants and requirements (such as whether it accepts proposals). More importantly, a market guide can often direct you to the publisher's Web site, where you may be able to find the publisher's complete guidelines. (Or, just try doing a Google search on the publisher's name.) Here's what you want to find out next:
1) What is the submission process? Should you approach the publisher with a proposal, a query, or a complete manuscript? Do submissions have to be agented? (If a publisher says "no unsolicited submissions," this usually means that you must begin with a query.) Most publishers explain exactly what they want to receive, including the maximum length of a proposal, the number of sample chapters to include, and so forth. Consider this a test: Publishers don't want to work with authors who can't follow their guidelines!
2) What type of payment is offered? Does the publisher provide an advance? Does it give any figures on "typical" advances? What royalties does it offer? If possible, try to find out whether royalties are based on "list price" (the cover price of the book) or "net sales" (the discounted price at which the book is sold to stores). How often are royalties paid?
3) What rights does the publisher demand? Book publishers usually demand a fairly broad grant of rights, including translation rights, audio rights, movie rights, electronic rights and more. Subsequent sales of these rights are usually split 50/50 between the author and publisher. However, some publishers demand more. Some "series" publishers require books to be written on a "work-for-hire" basis, meaning that you are giving up your copyright and any future rights to the work (including the right to create derivative works, such as sequels, or even competitive works). Before giving up your rights, make sure that the return will be worth it.
4) How long will it take to produce your book? The amount of time required to actually publish a book once it has been accepted (and delivered) varies widely -- anywhere from nine months to three years. If your book is on a "timely" topic, a long publication lag time can mean poor sales. Also, keep in mind that though you'll receive your advance before the book is published, you won't see any additional royalties until six months to a year (or more) after it has hit the shelves.
5) Where does the publisher sell books? Do its titles appear in bookstores? Can they be found in mail-order catalogs or book clubs? Are they sold in specialty stores? Make sure that your book can be found by potential readers; if a book never shows up on the right shelves, it's not going to sell.
6) Does the publisher expect money from the author? If so, run, don't walk, to the nearest exit: You're dealing with a subsidy publisher. The exception is university presses, which often do require an author subsidy. You may eventually choose to go the subsidy or print-on-demand route -- but don't confuse that with commercial publishing!
In short, you're looking for a publisher that you can do business with. If a publisher offers terms that you don't like, don't expect that publisher to change those terms for you! However, keep in mind that going through an agent can help you retain certain rights, or negotiate a higher advance or royalty rate. Even if you don't use an agent to find a publisher, you may wish to use one to help you negotiate an agreement.
The next step is making contact. The research you've just conducted should tell you whether to approach a publisher with a complete manuscript, a proposal, or an initial query. A query is much like a magazine query; it's simply a short, one-page letter that describes your book and asks whether the publisher would like to see a formal proposal. Publishers often respond more quickly to queries, particularly if they're not interested -- which will help you refine your search even further. Also, most publishers don't mind receiving simultaneous queries, though many do object to simultaneous proposals.
Sooner or later, however, you'll have to develop a formal book proposal. And that's the subject for Part II!
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