Ever since my first book, Written in Stone, found a home at Bellevue Literary Press I have had a number of people ask me how to publish their own books. How does a book go from being an idea to a real, dead-tree product? I will be discussing some of the details of this process (especially using online resources to write and promote books) with Rebecca Skloot and Tom Levenson in a few weeks at ScienceOnline2010, but I thought I would cover some of the basics here.
The first and most crucial step of the process is coming up with a book to write! This is not as easy as it might sound. Identifying a good subject for a book relies upon finding a balance between the general and specific. A book’s topic needs to be something that it is possible to write an entire book about (as opposed to a long essay or article) but it cannot be so broad that it is impossible to effectively cover the topic in any detail. A “book about evolution”, for example, would be way too general. You would have to find a focus, a story, within that larger subject.
You also need to be capable of telling the story you wish to relate. Almost every day I learn about something that makes me say to myself “An interesting book could be written about that…”, but in most cases I am not capable of writing that hypothetical book (if it has not already been written by someone else!). I might lack the passion or expertise to take on the project, and these two factors are very important to writing science books. If you lack passion for your subject you cannot generate interest among your prospective readers, and without at least some expertise they might not believe you, anyway. Given that it takes years to write a book, from the day of its conception to the day it hits the shelves, you have to feel a need to write a particular book or else it can easily become an unpleasant chore. Who wants to read something you don’t really want to write?
Most people who have asked me about publishing, though, already have an idea in mind. So what comes next? Should they just call up a publisher or … ?
The correct answer is “Write a proposal.” This is one of the most difficult parts of the entire process. A proposal is a formal outline of what your book is going to be about, from start to finish, and how you present your idea will make all the difference between just saying “I am working on this book…” and really doing it.
There is no single way to write a nonfiction proposal, but good ones will include the following ingredients; an overview of the book that will hook prospective agents/editors, a description of the intended audience, a listing and discussion of competing works (highlighting why your book is different), publishing details (how long the book will be, if there will be illustrations, projected time to completion, &c.), an “about the author” section listing relevant works/expertise, a listing of chapters with a page-long description of each, and at least one sample chapter. Fleshing out these sections should not be rushed. The proposal is going to be your introduction to the people who will, with any luck, get behind your project, and as the old saying goes you only get one chance to make a good impression. And, while it is good to include one sample chapter in your proposal, you might want to write two or three in case you are asked for what else you have. You don’t want to write the whole book, you want to keep your project flexible at this stage, but writing a few chapters will definitely help give you a head start and let you show off what you can do. Overall, though, you can’t send of a half-assed proposal and expect agents and editors to be impressed. That brings us to the next step.
Once you are fairly pleased with your proposal it is time to find an agent. Working with an agent is an essential part of publishing as most publishing houses won’t even look at your project unless it comes through an agent. Publishers rely on agents to separate the wheat from the chaff, and your book will have infinitely better chances of being picked up if it is introduced by an agent. If you just send it in yourself it will either wind up in the trash or become a part of the morass known as the “unsolicited proposal pile” that interns dread.
Finding the right agent for you can be difficult, though. The first step is figuring out where to look. There are internet resources available, a simple Google search will help you find some agencies dealing with nonfiction, but there is another way. Look through the “Acknowledgments” sections of some of your favorite science books and recent books that are similar to yours. Authors often thank their agents, and once you have a name you can hop on Google and find how to contact that agent. By following this method you at least know that the agent is interested in science publishing.
But wait! Don’t just send off that proposal! Agents can be very particular about what they want and how they want it. Poke around their websites and see what they are looking for (if they are looking for any new clients at all). Some might want the whole proposal in an e-mail, while others might want a mailed query letter (basically a condensed, one-page proposal outlining the project). And don’t expect a quick reply. Agents get lots of proposals and query letters, and it can take months to get through them all. In my case I sent out a query letter for Written in Stone to a certain agency, did not hear anything back for months, and then, after I already started working with my agent, received an e-mail saying the agent was interested in hearing more about the project. Cast a wide net and be patient; the formal process of getting a book started can be slow.
(I should note, however, that I met my agent in a different way. A kind friend chatted up an agent about the book I was working on and then the agent contacted me about it. We immediately hit it off and starting working together right away. This is unusual, but obviously it is not impossible, so be sure to make the most of your social network in looking for an agent, too.)
So let’s say you find an agent who loves your idea and wants to work with you. They will then work with you on spiffing up your project to be more attractive to publishers. This is why flexibility in the project is important. Some details of the project you had in mind might be changed, and your agent will help you present your project in the best possible way.
Once the proposal has been finalized your agent will send it out to publishers. For me, at least, this was the start of an emotional rollercoaster that lasted for several months. Some editors responded with gruff, even insulting, replies while others wanted to know when I could make it to their offices in New York City to discuss the book. It was a very frustrating time. Sometimes editors would bring up questions or concerns that I had specifically addressed in the proposal (I recall thinking “Did they even read this?” a number of times), and other times I was gratified that, even though they could not take on my present project, they wanted to hear about whatever else I might come up with in the future.
What I did not expect, however, was the difference in reaction between popular and academic publishers. Going into the process I did not know that the academic publishers would be submitting my proposal to experts for review. Their responses would often come with comments from those (usually anonymous) experts. What was interesting, though, was how this review process influenced reactions to my book. Popular publishers would sometimes complain that Written in Stone was too technical for lay audiences while the scholarly reviewers of the academic houses would claim that my prose was too sensationalistic and did not sound scientific enough!
I tried to keep a level head throughout the process, though. I knew not everyone was going to like it, and if a publisher said “No” there wasn’t anything more I could do. Still, the responses could cause me to be optimistic one day and very frustrated the next. I was excited when a publisher asked for me to come meet them at their office and deeply disappointing when, a few weeks later, they replied that they decided to pass on the project for reasons completely unrelated to the concerns they discussed with me during the meeting. But that’s just how it goes, I guess.
In the end Written in Stone was picked up by Bellevue Literary Press, and I think it is a good fit. I am honestly still surprised that the book was picked up at all. I thought that I would have to spend at least another year beefing up my resume before anyone would be interested in my work. My story is definitely unusual, but I hope that some of the details I have shared here will be useful to those of you with your own projects. Good luck to all of you!