Whether you’ve written a longer work of nonfiction or just have an idea for a book-length manuscript, you may wonder what the best route is to get it published. Should you go the traditional route or try self-publishing?
Self-publishing has some drawbacks. For one, you’re responsible for the design, editing, and marketing that a traditional publisher provides. Since there’s no vetting, self-published books can be perceived as lacking credibility and could get ignored in the market.
Working through the traditional publishing industry also has some drawbacks. It may mean initially finding a literary agent to get your manuscript through the door. Agents and publishers often work together to find the best books for publication. You also lose all rights to the content of your book, which may mean not publishing the book exactly as you had first envisioned it.
But the traditional publishing process tends to be the preferred way to publish, so here are some things to consider if you decide to try to go that route.
A traditional publisher typically pays authors an advance when they commit to publishing a book. They also have the connections to position the book in retail or academic bookstores, libraries, and classrooms, but these are obviously much more difficult to secure. Getting a publishing deal from a traditional publisher is challenging, but it may be worth the effort.
Below, you’ll find more information on the difference between traditional publishing and self-publishing, as well as how to write a book proposal and how to find a publisher for your book.
1 - Determine whether you have enough material to warrant a book
Whether you have a full manuscript or just the germ of an idea, first determine whether your concept has enough steam to populate an entire book. Brainstorm possible chapters of everything you want the book to explore. This can help you determine whether you have enough material to fill a book.
2 - Identify books that are similar to the one you plan to write
Analyze your competition and look for publishers whose books complement your own. Use that research to begin building a list of editors who may be interested in publishing your book.
If the theme of your book centers on mycelium, for example, and a publisher specializes in similar botanical-themed books, add them to your prospective publisher list.
3 - Determine whether you need to write the entire book first
You don’t typically need to write the whole book before selling it to a publisher. You’ll usually only need a book proposal and sample chapters. Nonfiction editors often prefer to guide authors through the process of developing the book. Hold off on writing the whole book; focus on developing a strong premise and hook, and put a lot of effort into fine-tuning a few sample chapters.
4 - Avoid revealing too much about your book’s main theme
Publishers tend to make their decisions based on the strength of a book proposal and sample chapters, not previous publication experience. Elizabeth Ault, editor at Duke University Press, notes that you shouldn’t give away your book’s main idea in an article as people will be less inclined to purchase the book. It’s better to create an outline for your book and use related ideas for articles you publish.
5 - Develop your networking platform
Establishing a platform can help solidify the notion that you’re an expert in your field. If you’re already presenting your work at conferences, on social media, in academic journals or in a professional networking community, you already have a potential audience for your book. When your book is published, you can promote your book to your audience when it’s published.
6 - Prepare your “elevator pitch”
When you’ve finished your book’s outline, you can begin working on your proposal. Begin with an elevator pitch that’s meant to entice readers to buy your book. This should take the form of an intriguing, single-sentence book description to hook potential readers.
Use your pitch in your query letter to publishers and others after your book is published. Writer’s Digest offers examples of elevator pitches to get you started. Here are a couple of samples:
- “Soft-Boiled: An Investigation of Masculinity & the Writer's Life, by Stephen J. West” Blending memoir, reportage, criticism, and detective thriller, Soft-Boiled is a self-reflexive portrait that grapples with questions of artmaking, responsibility, and masculinity.
- “A Hard Place to Leave: Stories from a Restless Life, by Marcia DeSanctis” A collection of stories about the lure of travel and the pull of home, and how these urges constantly collide.
7 - Create a submission list
Next, create a submission list: a list of the editors/publishers you think will be interested in your topic and writing style. Target a few publishers who are likely to bite on it. Avoid wasting your time pursuing every publisher you find.
Ways to create a workable submission list include:
- Use the list of potential publishers you compiled from identifying books similar to yours. If you believe that your book’s slant would serve to complement another published title, consider adding that publisher to your prospective publisher list.
- Attend conferences that acquiring editors attend. Pitch your book directly to them if the opportunity arises. Include your developed elevator pitch. If a publisher isn’t interested in publishing your book, they may suggest others who might. If they don’t, ask.
- Ask your published colleagues and others for publisher recommendations.
- Connect with editors on social media. Be patient and get to know a little about their publishing preferences before hitting them head-on with your book idea.
8 - Write a book proposal
The proposal, which is sometimes called a “pitch deck,” is a detailed packet you’ve created that includes your reader pitch, book synopsis, outline, and your CV.
Your nonfiction book proposal should include a query letter to the publisher and serve as the cover sheet or overview for your pitch deck. A letter to a publisher is similar to a query letter to a book agent. You can use this as a book proposal template:
- The opener. Include an introductory sentence that explains why you’re approaching this particular editor or publisher. Tell them why you think their publishing house is the right platform for your book. If your book would complement another book they’ve published, say so.
- A description of your book’s theme. Don’t make it a factual, dry accounting of everything that the book will discuss. Say what makes your book unique and include the elevator pitch you developed.
- Why you are writing the book and why it matters now. If the book is timely and in line with current events, mention that, and explain how it relates to these events.
- How large of an audience you believe your book will have. Include facts that back that up. Include what gap in the marketplace your book will fill. Detail your unique slant on your book’s topic.
- Who you are and your credentials that are pertinent to your book. Include information that qualifies you to write about your subject matter, such as relative education and experience. Don’t include extraneous information that bears no relation to your book’s topic.
What to include in your book proposal
Limit your proposal to a single printed page. The rest of the proposal should include:
- A proposed table of contents
- Detailed audience and market information. Instead of writing that the book is for “anyone who enjoys reading about botanical oil extraction,” for example, write “this book offers a seldom-used, but more efficient alternative, to using typical cold-press or heat processes to extract botanical oils.”
- List potentially competitive book titles and how your book will be different.
- Your bio, platform and how it can be used for marketing.
- List any awards, pertinent experience, and your willingness to assist in marketing the book.
- Highlight relative thought leadership you’ve published online.
- Stay positive. If you don’t have a substantial social media following yet, don’t mention it.
Benefits of Getting Published
Becoming a published book author can solidify your credibility, help you build your personal brand, and improve your positioning in your industry. It may also lead to other opportunities, such as speaking engagements. As a published author, you also qualify for membership in Newsweek Executive Forum where you can share successes and challenges with other published authors.
As you know, publishing a book takes time, planning, and patience even before you begin to flesh out your manuscript. By building your network, creating a strong proposal, and identifying the right publishing houses to pitch, you can set yourself up for book publishing success. Also, learn ways to further market yourself as an author.