Tips for Would-Be Authors (and Speakers)
I wrote this piece a few years ago after numerous requests for help from individuals who aspire to seeing their ideas in print.
The following suggestions are based on my own experiences and conversations with other authors. There are loads of books and articles on getting published that will likely include other ideas. Read them.
Talk to other writers, or a trusted bookseller or librarian. Do your homework. Also, most publishers have guidelines on their websites that can be of great help.
Check my website for links and updates. (I have several journal-type blogs here describing some of my experiences, including a few unpleasant surprises I never would have anticipated. See links below.) Meanwhile, here are some ideas to get you started.
• Look for a publisher who has a track record with the market for whom you want to write. If you don’t know who your market is, you’re probably not ready to write yet.
• Check out books that look like the kind you hope to write, or how you’d like your book to look when it’s done. Consider the readability, white space, layout, cover design, illustrations, even the typeface or font they use. (This step is easier if you have an actual brick-and-mortar bookstore nearby, especially one that has a section with a selection of books in the genre you plan to write.)
• When proposing your book to a publisher:
• make your intent clear (why you’re writing it)
• indicate your market (as specifically as possible)
• and describe your background (whatever credibility you have behind what you’ve written or plan to write, including your own experience, observations, and research).
If you have a table of contents, or have identified specific topics, include these as well.
Be specific. If you can find a copy, check out Lisa Collier Cool’s How to Write Irresistible Query Letters for more information.
• Whether or not you need an agent will depend on the publisher and the book you’re writing. For publishers who do not accept unsolicited manuscripts, an agent may be the best way to get in the door, especially if you’re an unknown quantity. Check out the latest edition of Writer’s Digest for information on what individual publishers require. Many publishers now have submission requirements listed on their websites.
Note: I have never used an agent. My first publisher “discovered” my book at a book fair and offered to take it on as one of their own. Other publishers made my acquaintance through other authors or conferences where they heard me speak. And I haven’t been shy about asking for referrals or approaching contacts on my own.
Also note that the publishers with whom I’ve worked (about a dozen on initial versions of a project) have all been smaller houses, most of them specializing in self-help or education, some with resources for parents as well. I’ll never know if my books would have gotten wider distribution or brought in bigger royalties had I worked through an agent, so it’s hard for me to speak to this particular issue. Nonetheless, I did get my books in print and want to be clear that there are many roads to that destination.
• You do not have to submit a finished manuscript, although some sample of your writing beyond your query letter can be useful, perhaps a few chapters, if you have them written. I was advised to place a copyright sign (© 2006, Dr. Jane Bluestein) on each page I submitted.
• People often ask me about having their manuscript or idea stolen. I can’t speak to this as even the most indifferent or incompetent publishers with whom I’ve worked were, as far as I could tell, pretty ethical. I do know people who have filed copies of their work with an attorney, for example, or even mailed copies of their work to themselves in a sealed box or envelope. I don’t know if that would stand up in court, so check with an attorney who has some knowledge of intellectual property rights and protection.
• Ask for an escalating royalty, if possible. I’ve had some publishers who simply wouldn’t go above ten percent and others who started at fifteen percent and went to twenty as certain quantities were sold. I once agreed to a royalty that started at six percent but I encourage authors to pursue publishers who offer at least ten to fifteen.
I suggest running a contract by an attorney who can spot language that might trip you up in the future. (I say this from experience, having lost the rights to two of my books—neither of which were ever printed again—because of a couple of words that still look pretty innocuous to me.) At the very least, if it’s your first contract, show it to another author or two, people who have signed with publishers and may see a few things you might want to ask for or add.
• I advise against doing a “work for hire,” one in which you get paid a flat rate for a particular piece, after which they own the piece and all rights to it. (Accepting a fee for a single chapter or a foreword you’re contributing to someone else’s book is a different story and this agreement is much more appropriate in that case.)
One of my first contracts offered $10,000 for the 21st Century Discipline (which ultimately became The Win-Win Classroom). It was a lot of money at the time, and badly needed, but I turned it down. They eventually came back with a royalty arrangement that didn’t exactly knock my socks off, but it ended up being far better in the long run than a work for hire would have ever been.
• Try to keep ownership of the copyright of your book. I’m not sure of the value as long as the publisher continues to print and sell that title, but it’s advice I was given and have been able to follow on most of my contracts. (I will ask someone at the Authors’ Guild and update accordingly.)
• Not all publishers offer an advance—money up front before the book is published. I’ve had a few small advances, which helped when I was working on something for a particularly long time, or one that required a great deal of research or some out-of-pocket expenses. Just remember, this is generally income that will eventually be held against royalties once the book goes on sale so if you get a chunk of money at the start, you’ll have to wait until they’ve sold enough books to cover that amount in royalties before you receive any more income from your project.
• If you plan to resell the books either through workshops you give, a website, or a catalogue, ask for a larger discount on books you purchase for resale. This helps your publisher, and many are willing to offer larger discounts on larger quantities or at the time they reprint your book. Publishers generally offer a 40% discount for authors.
I have arrangements that range from 50-70% off the retail price, although they often require a rather large purchase for me to secure this price. And don’t forget that you’ll also have to pay freight or shipping charges, which can be pretty steep, and store the books once they arrive.
• Your visibility and your own efforts at promoting your work are two of the most important ingredients in getting your books to your market, and increasing your sales. Consider your willingness to advertise your books in your workshops or professional organizations or publications, for example; to be interviewed by the newspapers, radio or TV, or appear in Web chats; or to set up a website or a blog to let people know who you are and what you have to offer.
A lot of authors I’ve met have been very shy and uncomfortable about letting the world know about their work. Of course, I’ve also known writers who turned into slick, pushy salespeople once their books were out, turning every workshop or conversation into an infomercial. You really don’t want to do this, especially if an organization hires you to do a training or keynote and will expect you to deliver content, inform, entertain, and help people— not sell books. It’s creepy and unprofessional to do otherwise.
Just know that the bulk of marketing, letting the world know that you and your book exist, will very likely fall on your shoulders, regardless of your publisher’s promises and best intentions.
• It has become very difficult to compete with today’s online book distributors. (If you have any doubt, see how many independent bookstores you have left in your town! Even the chains that existed when I started writing are nearly all gone now.) Book buyers have come to expect big discounts, quick deliveries, and in many cases, free shipping. Be prepared to take a pretty big hit here. Even small books cost a lot to ship, and prices keep going up.
• If you can get your books on Amazon or other online distributors, so much the better. If you self-publish, price your books at a high-enough rate to be able to offer the discount these distributors or bookstores would request. (A few other things to consider: Printing on the spine for spine-out display, an ISBN number, and bar code. See RR Bowker for more information.)
• Self-publishing options that didn’t exist a few years ago are now available. Print-on-demand makes it possible to offer your book without having thousands printed (and stored in your garage until they sell) and the demand for eBooks has shifted the market significantly in this direction in the past few years.
Note: Unless you are really good at desktop publishing and design and have a firm grasp of book layout and design conventions, you definitely want to consider hiring this out. And by all means, get your work edited by a professional editor before you go to print.
• Special note for speakers and consultants: If you are also hoping to build a career or side business as a speaker, look for any opportunity you can get to speak on your book topic, or a related subject. Professional conferences are always a great place to start, but keep in mind that most educational conferences expect you to pay your own transportation, lodging, and meal expenses, and in many cases, the conference registration as well. Your local schools, PTAs, libraries, and bookstores may also be open to hosting a presentation or booksigning. Network with other speakers and get yourself seen as much as possible.
Note: I am specifically responding to educators who ask about developing their visibility, credibility, and demand as a speaker. I imagine that these tips would apply to other professions.
• At this point in our economic history, a website is an absolute necessity, even if it only offers contact information and a bit about who you are and what you do. If you can include a shopping cart so people can buy directly from you, you may get a few direct orders. But be aware that people are going to check online for the best price or ePub version, even if you offer a free autograph—which is always a nice idea to do.
• You’ll probably want to have some print material available with ordering information for your book—either directly to your publisher (who may be able to print extra covers or bookmarks for you) or to wherever your book is available. Include the link (URL) to your own website. At the very least, have a business card that includes a picture of the cover of your book, or at least the title after your name: Author, <name of book>.
I’ve had bookmarks or business cards made for most of the books I’ve written. Google “business cards” for companies that will turn your design into professional cards to direct people to you and your book. (I’ve used overnightprints.com, and colleagues highly recommend vistaprints.com as well.) It’s an excellent and reasonable investment.
• Blogging and podcasting are excellent ways to build some buzz about your products. So is social media and so are newsletters, both of which will help you to stay in touch with your market on a regular basis. Be careful because marketing can sap a lot of your creativity and you need a good bit of balance and commitment to continue creating content and getting it out there.
• Network with other authors. Ask and try what’s worked for them if their strategies resonate with your intentions, energy, personality, schedule, and ambitions.
• If you decide to take on the tasks of order fulfillment, which also includes things like storing inventory, invoicing orders, and shipping your books out. Regardless of which route you take, you’ll be well served by checking out John Kremer’s 1001 Ways to Market Your Books (or signup for his newsletter) or any of Dan Poynter’s books.
Update: September 2017
I wrote the first version of this article in 2006. I was still very busy speaking and actively promoting my business and resources at that times. Things change, as they say, and technology aside, nowhere have I seen more or faster changes in my life than in publishing.
My last book was released in August 2015. It has been getting fabulous reviews and has led me to entirely new audiences and markets with different funding streams—all of which is wonderful. However none of it has been reflected in sales through the publisher. It’s been two years and I’m still a few bucks away from clearing my small advance and actually making money on the product. (I can’t even find my book on their website.)
Several of my books have gone PoD—print on demand—which in today’s world is a short step up from Out of Print. I have the rights back to some and may pursue getting the rights to the others. But then the question is “Rights to what?” I’d love to keep the content available, but that means a lot of work and some expense on my end. I’m not quite there yet.
Someone recently asked me if I’d write another book for a publisher, and at this point, the short answer is No. Please understand that I’ve been at this since the early 80s and I’m tired. I would never discourage anyone from writing or pursuing a publisher, as long as they understand that for the vast majority of authors, the marketing bit can be more of a DIY project than people are prepared to take on.
There is always the chance that your book will just take off. That still happens. Often. But even the best books have a shelf life, and if you’re writing for an academic or tech market, that life can be extremely short. (I recently watched a very enthusiastic college professor pick up a copy of one of my books, one she wanted to use in her class, and say, “Oh, too bad,” when she saw the copyright was more than 5 years old.)
We used to sell thousands of dollars worth of books at my speaking engagements, but even on-site sales have dropped. We are stocking fewer and fewer copies of books, moving closer to the time that we will simply stop carrying any inventory at all.
People are buying differently these days, and the good news is, you have options that can work to keep your costs low and your garage free of boxes and boxes of books. I still recommend hiring someone to edit and design your book, as well as someone who can get it online. In other words, with services like CreateSpace and Kindle Direct, I’ve come full circle to seeing the value in self-publishing, which is where I started in 1982!
Going with the publishers I’ve signed with was a great move for me at the time and I honestly have no regrets. I still care for the individuals involved who are, for the most part, in a very similar boat. I absolutely support anyone who wants to go that route. Build your network and choose options that will work for you. And whichever way you go, I wish you even greater success than you can imagine for yourself.
I’d love to hear from you. If you are a speaker or an author and have other ideas to share, please let me know what has worked for you.
The original version of this article is included in The Book of Article Reprints, written a few years ago after numerous requests for help from individuals who aspire to seeing their ideas in print. An updated version will appear in future versions of that publication.
•Random Thoughts on the Blank Page: A Bad Case of Writer’s Block
•Writing About Perfectionism: Including problems with co-authorship, switching to a different publisher after nearly a year of research and writing, and creating a satisfying ending to a long and challenging journey.
•Whatever Happened to 21st Century Discipline? How this best-selling title ceased to exist and the win-win solution with what I ended up doing instead.
•What’s a Purchase Order: Confessions of an Accidental CEO (An article about how I started my business as an independent speaker and writer and how it has evolved over the past few decades!)
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