So You'd Like to Get a Book Published

An eight-book author's report from the front.

Posted Jan 10, 2016

Amanda Mills/CDC Public Domain
Source: Amanda Mills/CDC Public Domain

Here are lessons I've learned from getting my eight books published and not published, 4 by major publishers, 4 self-published on Amazon's CreateSpace. In the past, I haven't followed all these principles but am, starting with my next book.

Aim to write the definitive book in a small niche.  It is more difficult than ever to get your book published by other than a vanity press. That's because more books than ever are submitted to publishers and millions of books have been self-published by authors willing to sell them inexpensively on Amazon. That makes it tough for commercially published books to make a profit unless you're a Name or have some other asset. Pirated books ("free downloads") also take a toll on author income. Most authors end up netting less money per hour than they could have earned flipping burgers at McDonald's.

Your best shot is to aim for a niche market. Many authors think that writing a book of broad appeal is the most likely route to a publishing contract and big sales. True, some bestsellers have wide appeal, for example, The Power of Habit  and Presence but your odds are very long in trying to compete in that general-interest space.The author of The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg, is a Pulitzer-Prize-winning New York Times columnist. The author of Presence, Amy Cuddy, is a Harvard professor who gave an acclaimed TED talk that has been viewed 30 million times. Without such bona fides, you're probably wise to aim to write the best book in a microniche.  

Most buyers want a book that's targeted to their individual situation that warrants reading a book rather than just a Googled article or two. So, psychologically oriented authors may be wiser to write Litigator Burnout than Mental Health for Lawyers, Anxiety Reducers for Ivy Leaguers than The College Student Guide.

You need an agent.  Unless you're already a Name, you need an agent if you expect publishers to read your proposal. Most prominent publishers, overwhelmed with proposals, will read only agented ones. Agents serve as a free curation service for publishers.

Send not a proposal but a brief query letter to a half-dozen agents that specialize in your type of book, for example, psychology or self-help..The query letter should, in 150 to 300 words, make the case for your book and present your key bona fides for writing and promoting it. Ask if they'd like to see your proposal (See below.)

My favorite way to find a good agent who specializes in your kind of book is to visit a large bookstore's section that would include your book, for example, psychology or self-help. Look in similar books' acknowledgments page. Authors always thank their agent but only if that thanks is effusive is s/he likely worth putting on your list. Then, to get an agent's contact information and querying instructions, just Google the agent's name and the phrase "literary agent." or "literary agency."

Write a crisp proposal.  Generally, all that's required are:

  1. A few paragraphs on the need for your book, including its differences from competing books.
  2. A brief bio, focusing both on your bona fides to write the book and your platform for promoting it: for example, your list of past speaking engagements, outlets for your article-length writing, the radio, podcast, or TV show you host or frequently guest on. If you're written books before, report the number of copies sold.
  3. An annotated table of contents. Describe each chapter in a paragraph or two, including a nugget or two of sample content. That content must be fresh and important, not obvious nor same-old/same-old.
  4. Write one full chapter that's filled with fresh information, crisply written.
  5. Any plans you have for marketing the book other than the obvious. For example, if you want to write a book on the psychology of prison guards and plan, after the book is published, to make a tour of a dozen major prisons, mention that.

Have realistic expectations

Star authors get a lot. The publisher may pay for prominent placements on Amazon and Barnes & Noble's sites, be able to get your book into mass retailers like Wal-Mart and Target, pay for an in-person or online author book tour, and even pay to advertise your book.

Here's what the rest of us can expect:

Cachet: A a publisher deemed you one of the tiny percentage of submissions worthy of investment.

Exposure. Being published by a respected publisher gives you a shot at getting your book reviewed and of appearing on bookstore shelves, although that matters less today with ever more bookstores closing (even 197 Barnes and Nobles) and an ever higher percentage of books sold on Amazon.com.

Money. Advances for non-stars have shrunk. Today, first-time not-august authors typically get a $5,000 to $15,000 advance against a royalty of 8-12% of cover price.

Guidance. Count on getting only modest guidance as you write your manuscript and in post-submission editing. If you need more editorial help, you'll need to hire an freelance editor. Here's guidance on how to find one.

Marketing help: As your book is published, the publisher's in-house publicist will try to get you media interviews, your book reviewed, etc. But unless your book takes off in the first month, s/he'll move on to the next book. You'll then need to do most marketing yourself and/or hire a publicist, which will cost you thousands of dollars and often doesn't yield even that much in additional book sales.

Even if you hire a publicist, if you expect to sell many books, commit to spending at least a few minutes every day on marketing. Choose the marketing approaches you find most appealing. For example, if you're an introvert, send article-length versions of your book to targeted media outlets. If you're a party person, throw a book party in which you celebrate your book's publication. If you love public speaking, try to get speaking gigs and permission to sell books after your talk or instead of a cash speaker's fee, that the organization agrees to buy a number of your books at a discount that still leaves you enough profit.

Self-publishing. That's a great option if your main goal isn't money but getting books to give to clients and friends. My favorite approach to self-publishing is Amazon's CreateSpace. It's an easy way to get your manuscript turned into a printed book and e-book, cover and all, and, within days, to have it available on Amazon and other outlets. And Amazon does all that for you for no cash, just 35% of sales--a much better split than book publishers give authors. Plus, you can buy your book inexpensively, for example, $3.00 for a 200-page paperback plus $1 shipping if you buy 10, and you only need buy one.

Alas, only a tiny percentage of self-published books make significant money. For example, even though I have publicized the availability of my four Createspace-published books on PsychologyToday.com, my blog, website, Facebook, Twitter, and NPR-San Francisco radio show, those books combined have sold fewer than 1,000 copies.

Why you should still consider writing a book.  Most book authors find that the main benefits of writing books are not pecuniary but a way to learn and to share. Even if you're an expert on your subject, in writing a book, you learn a lot and cohere what you know. You also get to share that organized expertise with people, which feels good. Looking back, I'm glad I've written all my books.

I plan to continue writing books even if they make little money---although hope springs eternal.

Marty Nemko's bio is in Wikipedia. His new book is The Best of Marty Nemko.