What It Means To Be A Writer, Part 2 => Getting a Book Deal

June 13, 2012
This entry is part 2 of 6 in the series What It Means To Be A Writer

In my first post in this new series I’m writing, I discussed the process of identifying the book you want to write. This comes down to answering these questions:

  • What topic do you want to write about and what do you want to say on that subject?
  • Do you have the expertise and writing skills to do that?

Once you’ve answered those questions, and therefore defined the book you want to write, the next step is to get a book deal: officially begin turning the idea of a book into an actual book. Now, to be fair, what it means to be a writer doesn’t always follow these steps (e.g., I’m sometimes lucky enough to be offered book deals without answering the first question), but when you’re just getting started, this is the logical path.

To be absolutely clear, there’s a big difference between just writing a book and publishing a book. If you have a computer, you can write a book. Anybody can. Or just a typewriter. Or a pen and paper. Or a stick and a whole lot of sand. Whatever.

That being said, very few people are so compelled to write that they will do it for free, by themselves, and not plan on sharing that writing with anyone. If you are one of those people, I’m going to assume that you don’t care what I, or anyone, has to say about writing and publishing. But for the rest of you, the two obvious publishing choices are:

  • Use a traditional publisher
  • Self-publish

With both, there’s the additional consideration of an agent, which I’ll also discuss in my next post in this series. As for myself, I’ve formally published with two publishers, and had serious discussions with a couple of others. And while I haven’t self-published yet, it’s been on my radar for some time and I have a better-than-average sense of what that means, I believe. Let’s look at self-publishing first, as it’s the easiest route for publishing (note that I did not say “most successful”, let alone “best”).

Simply put, I would strongly recommend against starting by self-publishing. If your most important goal is to “publish” a book, which is to say turn a bunch of writing into a printed, possibly bound, sell-able product, then self-publishing is definitely the way to go. However, if your goals include any of the following—

  • Making money
  • Establishing a name for yourself
  • Learning about publishing
  • Building an audience

—then self-publishing is probably not a good way to start. On the other hand, self-publishing does make sense if:

  • You’re comfortable with non-guaranteed money
  • You want complete control over the book
  • You’re willing to put in all the time and effort to make it happen
  • You’re okay with failure, despite all your efforts

I say this because if you’re trying to self-publish, you have to…

  1. Write the entire book yourself, and write it well.
  2. Compose the book (i.e., turn the writing itself into a properly laid out format).
  3. Handle distribution.
  4. Handle marketing.
  5. Hope that enough people find your book.
  6. Hope that enough people want to buy it.

Even if you have the skills to do 1-4, which are very different skills, you have to have enough connections (or be good enough at marketing), to pull off numbers 5 and 6. Way too much of a hurdle for new writers, in my opinion.

So, let’s assume you’re going to create this book through a traditional publisher, then you have to do two things:

  • Find the right publisher for the book.
  • Convince the publisher that you’re the right author for that book.

Failure to do those two things will guarantee failure to publish your book. Of the two, the first one is the main reason many people don’t get the book deal. If you bring an idea to a publisher that doesn’t publish in that area, or that has already published in that area, the publisher is going to say no. This is a very common mistake beginners make. You need to spend some time researching the right publisher for the book you’ve envisioned. Keep in mind the right publisher may not necessarily be your favorite publisher. Fortunately, finding the right publisher is very easy to do: go to a library, a bookstore, Amazon, or the various publisher sites. What books has that publisher put out? Would yours fit in? Would yours compete with an existing book of theirs (which would be bad)?

The most important step in getting a book deal is finding the right publisher for your book.

Once you think you’ve found an appropriate publisher for a book, convincing the publisher that you’re the right author for that book is relatively simple. If you’ve put in the thought to come up with a specific idea, including your take on it, and you’ve properly matched the book idea to a publisher, you’ve done most of the leg work and demonstrated an understanding of how the system works. From there, do two things:

  1. Follow the publisher’s process for submitting book ideas
  2. Write well enough

Again, not following the publisher’s instructions for submitting an idea is a very easy way to be turned down. Most, if not all, publishers have very explicit instructions on their Web sites for how to submit proposals. If you can’t follow those instructions, you’re pretty much telling the publisher you can’t follow the instructions for writing the book itself as they would need it to be done. It’s really that simple.

Depending upon the publisher, the proposal will include some combination of marketing material, biographical information, and a table of contents. The marketing material would explain how you see the market for this book, what your perspective on the topic is, how your book would compare to some others in the same field, and in what ways your book would be better. This all goes towards convincing the publisher that this is a book worth publishing. The biographical information should convey your qualifications to write the book. Keep in mind that this doesn’t have to include previous formal writing experience, although that’s always helpful. The table of contents (TOC) also goes towards demonstrating both your perspective on the book and your ability to write it (i.e., a well-thought-out TOC suggest that you’ve properly conceived of the book.

All of this, obviously, has to be well written enough. I emphasize “enough” because you don’t have to be a great, brilliant writer right from the get-go. The book will have many editors that will help with the writing, provided you’re giving them good enough material to work with. Especially when it comes to technical books, most experts don’t have formal writing skills, and I don’t think that publishers are expecting that, although it does help. But put in the effort to follow the proper rules of grammar and spelling, at the very least. Even if you just pay attention to Microsoft Word’s spelling and grammar tools, that’s a start.

If you bring the right idea to the right publisher, and submit a good proposal, the publisher might then ask for a writing sample, such as a example chapter, before making the final decision. Again, this doesn’t have to be perfect, but has to be written well enough. It also gives you a sense of how hard it will be to write a book. If you get to this point in the process, don’t cut any corners, because you’re really close!

If the sample is well received, hopefully the publisher will offer you a book deal, which is what you wanted. In my next post, I’ll talk about what a book deal means, and how you might negotiate it. But first, three more things…

First, understand that publishers want to find good books to publisher. That’s their business after all. They need you and your book idea just as much as you need them to publish it.

Second, ironically considering what I just wrote, know that some publishers are better than others at handling submissions and communicating with prospective writers. Years ago, when I was represented by an agent, I submitted a book idea to a major, well-respected publisher. Through my agent, I knew this was a book they wanted, but they just sat on the proposal. I literally never heard anything back from them, even though this was a book they wanted and it was delivered via my agent to a specific person within the publishing house. As far as I know, they never published that book by anyone.

As another example, I had many, many, many conversations with a comparatively small technical publisher on a potential JavaScript book, which later became my “Modern JavaScript: Develop and Design” book, with another publisher. I submitted the full proposal, with all the marketing and biographical information, and a detailed TOC (even though I don’t normally have to do that these days). We had conversations and I tweaked the proposal more, and resubmitted it. The publisher sent the proposal out to people in the field to review it. I then looked at that feedback and tweaked the proposal again. The publisher very much wanted the book, but wouldn’t pull the trigger on the deal until they were 100% absolutely sure. I gathered that because they were a smaller publisher, they were not comfortable taking any amount of risk. Whatever the case, I eventually tired of jumping through hoops and terminated the discussions, later publishing the book through Peachpit Press. Four years later (at the time of this writing), the original publisher has still not published a core JavaScript book (even though they are one of the few publishers that don’t have one).

Third, to end on a positive note, here’s how I got my first book deal: I learned about PHP somewhat accidentally in 1999. At the time, there was only one or two titles available on the subject, neither of which was for beginners. I had always wanted to write books, and had taken a “getting published” while working at Georgetown University. And so I came up with the idea of writing a beginner’s guide to PHP. I looked at the publishers that might fit such a title, and decided upon: Peachpit Press, Wiley (For Dummies), and whomever publishes the Idiot’s Guide series. Peachpit was very interested and asked for a sample chapter. They actually had another PHP proposal at the same time, so I had to not only demonstrate that I was right for the book, but that I was the better choice for a book they were interested in. Fortunately, my writing sample and other communications did that. One day they called me up to say “Congratulations”. I got my first book deal about four months after conceiving of the idea. Twelve years later, I’ve written 23 books!

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