So You Think You Want to Write a Nonfiction Book... PART TWO

Part II – Finding Your Idea a Home

I got the idea to write this book on Sir Barton in the summer of 2013. At the time, my kids were still young, one in kindergarten and the other in preschool, and I was teaching writing at a local university. After years in the classroom, I was looking for a change: as much as I enjoyed watching my students hone their skills, I knew I was putting my own writing farther on the backburner with each semester. I had had ambitions to be a published author as a young person, writing my first novel at age 12, but I saw how challenging the pursuit of publication could be. Sir Barton’s story was compelling enough that I started researching and writing without any assurance that I would find an agent or a publisher, operating on faith that others would find him as fascinating as I did. My goal for this blog post is to help you avoid doing just that.

I spent nearly two years writing and was far along in the process before I learned what I should have been doing. Fortunately, I eventually found the right publisher for this project and certainly I learned so much from the process of writing this first book that should make writing others easier. I want you to take away that same assurance so that you can start your own projects on the right foot.

As always, I start this discussion with the reminder that this information applies to nonfiction books. The process of writing and publishing fiction differs from nonfiction in several ways. If you are thinking about writing a nonfiction book about any subject, this blog post is for you!

The A-ha Moment

In the summer of 2016, I was a little over two years into writing the manuscript for Sir Barton and the Making of the Triple Crown. I had already written a short first draft, which covered his thirty-one races, and then had started layering in research and identifying connecting events between races. I was not yet finished with the manuscript, but I was on track to finish in plenty of time to start looking for a publisher and getting the book ready for publication – or so I thought.

To start learning more about the business side of the writing process, I went to a Writer’s Digest workshop in Nashville, armed with questions and ready to learn more about finding an agent and a publisher. The workshop featured agents that one could pitch to, sessions with agents and others where aspiring authors could ask questions, and tables of books on the process of writing and publishing for our continued edification. I discovered when I got there though that about 95% of the workshop was geared toward fiction writers. Yikes.

Now, when you walk into your local bookstore, fiction might feel like it occupies the majority of the space. But, if you walk around, you realize that everything from biography to cookbooks to self-help is nonfiction. That’s a significant chunk of floor space. However, I found far less on the process of writing and publishing nonfiction than fiction because of the very nature of the genres themselves: a cookbook is quite different from a biography of a President. However, for the most part, regardless of the type of nonfiction book you might be writing, the process does have some universal aspects. The first one I learned about is a book proposal.

No Pressure or Anything

At this workshop, none of the available agents worked with nonfiction so I saved my questions for the gentleman from Writer’s Digest who was moderating the panels. He had published a nonfiction book himself so I knew he would have some insight into the process. The first thing he asked me was “Do you have a book proposal?” That is when I learned something I wish I had known in 2013: I needed to start the writing process with a document that showed I had a plan.

I taught business and technical writing for several years prior to shifting from the classroom to my home office. I knew what proposals entailed so I knew I could likely tackle a book proposal with no problem. I researched the format and its expectations before I started writing. In a nutshell, a book proposal outlines 1) the book you’re writing; 2) its place within your chosen genre; 3) your marketing plan for your book; 4) your qualifications for writing your book; and 5) your plan for writing the book and samples of your work. For fiction, an agent or a publisher wants a finished manuscript; for nonfiction, they want to see how you will get to the finished manuscript. Fiction is a more subjective area while nonfiction tends to be objective, hence the difference in approach.

I paused writing Sir Barton to research and then craft the book proposal. I gave myself a week to write it and then another week to edit and hone it while also creating a list of agents that sought sports or history projects. For Sir Barton, my proposal contained

  • 1)An overview of the book – a two to three page summary of your book
  • 2)A profile of the target audience – information about the people I thought would be most interested in the story of Sir Barton
  • 3)Information about me, including my qualifications – a discussion of my career to that point and the skills that made me the right person to write that book
  • 4)Comparable titles – currently available books on similar subjects
  • 5)Marketing and promotion – a plan for how I envisioned a book like that one would be marketed, including media appearances and other opportunities
  • 6)A detailed table of contents – the outline of the whole book, including summaries of each chapter
  • 7)Sample chapters – three chapters from the current draft that gave a glimpse into what to expect from the finished book

I had the benefit of my time both teaching and writing proposals when I took on writing this book proposal, but I still needed to learn more about it before writing this important document. Now, if you read this and feel even the tiniest bit intimidated, fear not: a number of resources on writing a book proposal are out there. My favorite is this article from Jane Friedman:

Armed with assurance that Sir Barton was worth pursuing and faith that I had the stuff to do it, I put myself out there for the next part of the process: finding an agent.

Lay Your Ego Aside

The digital age makes it far easier to self-publish your own work than ever before. You can turn a manuscript into an ebook with only a few hours of effort. Certainly, if you’re willing to undertake the financial risk, you can even find a printer and get your own hard copies to sell. While both are viable options, I wanted to pursue a traditional path to publishing before considering self-publication. For the purposes of this discussion, I’m going to focus on the traditional path to publication. This meant finding an agent.

An agent is basically an author’s advocate. They help you find the right publisher, negotiate contracts, and function as the go-between for the author and the publisher. They are an asset because publishers prefer projects already vetted by agents they trust rather than having to assess book proposals themselves. Like publishers, agents do not take on every project that comes across their desks. The goal is to target agents that are familiar with the type of project you are working on and reach out to them first.

To do that, I used websites like Manuscript Wishlist and Query Tracker to identify agents that worked with history and/or sports projects. I also looked for agents that other authors in my genre had used. I crafted a query letter and then made a list of agents I wanted to target.

Think of a query letter as the cover letter for your resume: the cover letter introduces you to the potential employer. A query letter does the same for your book proposal. It introduces you and your project to the agent and then gives them contact information. If an agent is interested, they will reach out and ask for the book proposal. Sometimes that took a week; others might not respond for six weeks. Occasionally, one would ask for the book proposal and I would send that on. Of the two dozen or so agents I queried, six asked for my book proposal. None took me on as a client.

Rejection can derail even the most steadfast and confident person. It can take the wind out of your sails and leave you feeling that your project is not worth it. I had days where I did feel deflated by the rejections even though I knew it was simply part of the process and not a personal slight. I believed in Sir Barton and thought the project had to find a home somewhere. Ultimately, though, I had to move forward without an agent. That is where serendipity intervened.

Home Sweet Home

Agentless, I was on the verge of directly querying potential publishers and simultaneous considering self-publication when I got messages from two separate people asking the same question: What about the University Press of Kentucky (UPK)? They had an imprint, Horses in History, which appeared to be where Sir Barton belonged. It was a natural fit, right?

It wasn’t that easy: I still had to send in the book proposal. I had to wait for the project’s approval and negotiate a contract, a challenging subject that takes research into what to expect from a publisher given the type of project and the phase your career is in. I had to learn about the process of publication and what I needed to do versus what I could expect UPK to do. After some negotiations, I signed a contract and we agreed on a timetable for completing the project. We discussed particulars from marketing to manuscript. I was lucky because UPK and I found each other at precisely the right moment to get Sir Barton out in time for that important 100th anniversary of his Triple Crown victory.

Odds are that most projects will not have similar serendipity. Had I not found UPK when I did, my next step would have been to reach out to publishers directly, especially those who had comparable books in their backlists. So, for example, if you are working on a cookbook, you would research publishers who have titles similar to yours and then you would query them much as you might query an agent. Go to your local bookstore and find books similar to the one you’re working on and note who published them. You will find that books from smaller publishers do share shelf space with larger and perhaps more familiar companies. If you are a new author, a smaller publisher might be more open to a conversation than others who will be looking for writers farther along in their careers.

Wherever you are in the writing process or your career, you have options for this project you have taken on. Armed with information, I hope you will take on this next phase of writing your book with the confidence and motivation to get it done. I know I can’t wait to read it!

The Take Away?

As writers, our work is the focus of our lives. We have discovered how much we enjoy the process of writing and the satisfaction that comes with the final product. Our subject matter is as meaningful to us as our family: it is our life’s work. While the craft part of writing a book is essential to this process, this practical side of the process is important as well.

This second part of my discussion about how to publish a book was meant to focus on what is essentially the business side of writing nonfiction. Initially, I thought that phase was meant for the end of the writing process, but I found in my time on Sir Barton that instead it needed to be concurrent with the actual writing. I take that knowledge with me into this next project, creating and sending out queries and book proposals before starting the bulk of the research and writing for this new book. I know that taking care of the practical side of writing will take care that uncertainty about the home for this new project and free me up to focus on the writing.

For the third and last installment of this look at writing nonfiction, I will focus on the fun part of writing and publishing a book: finishing and then supporting your work. Learn more about what happens when you’re done writing and you have to get the darn thing ready for publication. You’ll also hear about the next practical aspect of writing a book: marketing, a process that can challenge even the most extroverted of the extroverts.

Next time – Reaching the Finish Line: the Final Act of a Nonfiction Book