The downside of writing books–Part 1

Before the stars in your eyes and visions of accepting the Pulitzer Prize block out any view of reality, I need to show you the dark side of the mirror. First of all, you’re going to be alone when you’re writing. This is not the same as working at a regular job, nor even like contract technical writing. Even if you’re working offsite for a contract, you’re in contact with people. But your acquisitions editor is not like your project lead. You may not talk to your acquisitions editor even once a week. You will possibly talk to the project editor once a week and even once a day as the book is getting close to done, but the project editor is only interested in page count, style, and editorial and mechanical questions, rather than process and production questions.

You have no idea of what “alone” means until you’re 2/3 the way through a hard book contract and you’re running a month late. It’s just you in your office, staring at the monitor, and (hopefully) writing brilliant prose. You may be a writer that likes a TV or stereo on in the background, but it’s still going to be just you and the computer. The bottom line is that you just won’t have much contact with people while you’re writing a book except when you’re not writing.

As a result, you can get depressed easily, particularly if you’re having trouble with a chapter that’s just not gelling. You can also procrastinate easily. Before you start a project, you should be completely honest with yourself about what kind of procrastinator you are. You can get derailed easily. Set goals for writing productivity and be absolutely honest with yourself. (You don’t need to show this to anyone else with the possible exception of your therapist but you need to track your progress.)

One publisher I know says that as many as 75% of all computer books are delivered from one to six months late. The reasons for this are many and varied, but most commonly, it’s because the authors lose focus, they get overbooked (one project runs late and slides into another), they get depressed, their support system breaks down (or their significant other loses patience with the enforced solitude), or because they discover they just can’t do this one.

Do you need an agent?

Although some non-fiction publishers prefer to work only with agented authors, you don’t have to have an agent to start with.

There are many things an agent can do for you as a beginning author. An agent is supposed to help you find a publisher and negotiate the contract, for which you will generally part with 15% of your earnings. Agents can provide a valuable entrance to the publishing business and some of the best will even give you help managing your career, but you shouldn’t sign up with an agent just because you think you need one. As you’ve seen, finding publishers can be easy and fun. For information on negotiating contracts, How to Be Your Own Literary Agent will tell you most of what you need to know. You might, therefore, be comfortable foregoing an agent entirely if you enjoy researching and contacting publishers and you are willing to consider negotiating your own contracts.

The moral of the story is: “Don’t get an agent until you know why you need one, then get the best you can find.” Stephen King says that if you’re a bad writer, your agent gets 15% of nothing; if you’re a good writer, agents will come looking for you and you can pick a good one.

Warning: Agents range anywhere from “great” to “terrible.” Moreover, an agent who works well with one person may be terrible for another because of personality and style differences. Ask your contacts who they like to work with and why. If you’ve already done a book or two, ask your acquisitions editor who they like to work with and why. Their preferences in an agent might be 180 degrees from your own goals, but it’ll be more information for making an informed decision.

Advances, royalties, and contracts

Suppose the acquisitions editor likes your proposal and offers you a contract. The biggest question to ask is “How much will I get paid and how often?” There are two types of payment you’ll be seeing: royalties and advances.

First-time non-fiction authors usually get royalties of 10-12% on the publisher’s net receipts–the income the publisher gets when they sell a copy of your book, which averages out to around half the cover price of the book. You’ll probably get about half your standard royalty rates for foreign sales, and there may be other types of sales that pay less than the full royalty. For a classic printed book (as opposed to print-on-demand or an ebook of some kind), most publishers expect to sell 10,000 to 20,000 copies over several years, so if the book sells well, you can make $25,000 or more in royalties.

Note: The profit margins on print-on-demand (POD) and ebooks are much better than for classic printed books, but there are a lot of factors that go into this. I’ll be talking about POD and ebooks in a future post, but just take it on faith that you’re probably going to make at least as much money selling a book these ways. I want to focus right now on getting you up to speed on the general concepts and inspire you to go write books of any kind. We’ll talk more about the specifics later.

An advance is a sum paid to you in advance to subsidize your expenses while you write the book. Advances are levied against your future royalties. Publishers generally pay between a quarter and a a half of the advance when you start writing, with the balance spaced out over the book. In other words, if you negotiate a $5000 advance, you’ll likely see something like $1000 up front on signing, another $1500 after the first two chapters are vetted, $1500 at the midpoint, and the remaining $1000 when you get done. The advance is yours to keep, even if the book doesn’t sell well enough to “earn out the advance”–that is, to generate enough royalties to pay for the advance you’ve received.

Publishers aren’t required to pay your royalties for a royalty period for 90 days after the end of the royalty period, and they don’t. Acquisitions editors may be sympathetic, but they don’t write the checks. Advances by themselves usually aren’t enough to live on. Plan on having other sources of income until your royalties start arriving, and always keep some cash in reserve in case they don’t. Don’t quit your day job right away.

Look out for clauses in the contract that let the publisher pay you a reduced royalty on discounted sales. These clauses usually work out so that the publisher can use your royalty to subsidize discounts to wholesalers. Remember that everything in a contract is negotiable, even if the contract is preprinted on pretty bond paper.

Find out what production costs you are liable for. For example, you may need to pay for an indexer to create the index on your book. Costs like this are levied against future royalties, not against your advance. Make sure there are no unpleasant surprises.

As a first-time author, you won’t have a lot of bargaining power. Don’t be afraid to ask for what you want, but don’t expect to get it. If you can get the publisher to increase your advance or the royalty rate a little and get 15 extra copies of your book, call it a victory.

Publishing contracts are a complex and fascinating subject. Buy a copy of How to Be Your Own Literary Agent by Richard Curtis and read it before signing your contract. If you want outside help deciphering the contract, consult a lawyer specializing in publishing, entertainment, or intellectual property law. Some literary agents will also review a contract for you for an hourly rate. You probably won’t need more than an hour, and you’ll learn a lot about what you are agreeing to.

One list piece of advice on contracts: never sign a contract with a publisher (or anyone else, for that matter) that you don’t trust. It doesn’t matter how much money you’re being offered, how good the deal looks, and how much opportunity the contract may give you; if you don’t trust the other party, you’ll sleep poorly every time you think of it. There isn’t anything worth that.

Choosing a publisher–Part 2

Phone the publishers on your list and ask to speak to an acquisitions editor. The acquisitions editor looks for authors, solicits and reviews book proposals, and is the project manager for a book. If you already have an idea for a book, you can present it to the acquisitions editor for consideration and see if she likes it. If so, send her the proposal you’ve drafted. (Be prepared to send a resume and a few writing samples, too.) If you don’t have a specific idea but are willing to write on a range of subjects, approach the acquisitions editor as you would approach any other employer. Acquisitions editors frequently have projects that need good writers, and the two of you are likely to find a project that complements your skills and interests, in which case, she may ask you to write a proposal for a specific topic on her desk. By the way, many publishers prefer to consider new authors exclusively by mail. Be prepared in such cases to get just the acquisitions editor’s name, address, and information on submissions, then hang up and send her your proposal.

If you don’t already have extensive technical writing experience, you may need to prove yourself to the publisher before they’ll consider you as an author. Ask the acquisitions editors if they need technical reviewers. Technical reviewers check the manuscript for technical accuracy and readability. This takes from 50 to 100 hours of time, for which you’ll get paid $400-1200 dollars. The money is not great, but the work isn’t very hard. Technical reviewing gives you and the publisher a chance to evaluate each other.

Once you submit your proposal, the acquisitions editor will consider it for publication. Large publishers usually have an editorial committee, a meeting where all the acquisitions editors discuss the proposals they’ve received and make decisions about which books they want to do. You’ll usually know within a couple of weeks if the acquisitions editor has accepted or rejected your proposal. One possibility is that the acquisitions editor will come back to you and say “We like the general idea, but we’d like to have you write the book for a different audience/with a different scope and purpose/in a different style than you’ve proposed.” This is generally a good sign: it means that the acquisitions editor believes in your ability enough to keep talking and that there are elements of your proposal that she thinks could be profitable.

Tip: Always let the acquisitions editor know that you’re willing to consider writing about other topics as well. My first book actually happened because I was trying to sell another book idea. An acquisitions editor at Osborne/McGraw-Hill said, “Well, we don’t think that your book will sell well enough for us but we like the way you present your ideas. How’d you like to write a book on Microsoft Word for DOS?” I prepared a proposal and sent it in. The editorial committee reviewed it, made some changes to my proposed scope and the audience I was writing for, and I had my first book contract a week later.

If you have a great idea for a book and one publisher doesn’t bite, try another publisher. A rejection doesn’t mean it’s a bad idea, simply that they weren’t interested or it didn’t fit. (Do ask why they didn’t want to do it, though; frequently, the information you get about one rejection will give you what you need to refine the proposal so you can sell it to the next publisher.) Keep sending proposals out. Publishers are always looking for new books and new authors. And you might be able to resubmit a proposal to a publisher and have them approve it the second time: what the publisher wants right now may be different from what they’ll want in six months. Don’t submit a proposal simultaneously to different publishers (known in the business as “multiple submission”) until you have a good understanding of the publishing process.

Avoid publishers who are flaky or have very bad reputations for how they deal with their authors (there are a few of these, sadly). If you don’t know and you don’t have someone you can ask, you might try phoning a few of the authors in a publisher’s stable. You can frequently track them down through their biographies on the back of the book. Many authors of computer and other books will add their email or web addresses as part of their acknowledgments or contact information. You can also use Internet-based telephone directories to do simple detective work for tracking down email addresses, phone numbers, or mailing addresses. And as a last resort, you might send a couple of letters to authors via the publisher. Seal the letters, send them to the publisher, and ask the publisher to forward them to the author at her/his home address. It’s as good a way to get to them as any, and it stands a fair chance of success.

Choosing a publisher–Part 1

With your proposal or topic list in hand, you’re ready to choose a publisher. Like other kinds of freelance work, you should ask people in the business for referrals. One source of contacts is local writing groups. Most of these are aimed at the fiction writer, but you might be able to contact other authors by talking to the local chapter of the Society for Technical Communication) or the International Association of Business Communicators. Another organization to check into is the National Writers Union, which is the trade union for freelance writers of all genres. They have a number of resources including model contracts. If you’re doing books about software or high tech, another source to check out is the Studio B website and subscribe to the Computer Book Authors list. You can also make some contacts through the bit.listserv.techwr-l newsgroup, a moderated newsgroup for technical communicators.

As part of your research, you should go to a large bookstore and look at other books on the same or similar topics. You’ll rapidly notice that each publisher has a certain look and feel to their lines of books, designed to appeal to a specific audience. Write down the names and addresses of the publishers whose books you would most like to have your name associated with. Ask your contacts if they know anything about these publishers, or check the current Writer’s Market (a guide available at all large bookstores) for more information about each publisher.

Tip: It’s a good idea to find out if the publisher already has a book on the topic you want to write about. You can check and do a topic, title, or keyword search for all the books on this subject. Don’t be alarmed if you find 30 titles on the subject. Many of these books may be out of print, or dated (books on software and technology can go out of date overnight), or have a different focus than that which you want to do. You can also see if the publishers you want to work with have a book on this subject already in print. Make careful notes on what’s already out there in the market–it can help your case and impress the publisher if you know who you’re competing with–and be ready to show why your book is different from the others. This will go into the marketing section of your proposal.

Getting started: book ideas and proposals

The first step in writing a technical book is to decide what you want to write about. It’s not necessary for you to write about a topic that’s never been written about before. Look at how many different books there are for almost any topic. Most of them sell, though they all cover roughly the same material. What makes each of these worth considering is that they are approaching the same material in a different way.

You may end up identifying the book you want to write by discovering that there’s no book on the market that addresses the topic. For example, I wrote one of my first books (“Using Computer Bulletin Boards“) because it was the book I wanted to have read 5 years earlier when I was getting started using BBSes and online services. Or you may have a new angle on an old topic that makes it worthwhile: for example, “A Field Guide to Windows Icons” and “Internet for Cats” are fun but helpful guides to a topic that have a novel and humorous spin to them.

Building a Basic Proposal

When you have your idea, you’ll need to create a proposal. A proposal should contain the working title, the scope and purpose of the book, a description of the intended audience, what the reader should know at the beginning and at the end of the book, and a table of contents or outline. Your proposal should also include any salient marketing information; for example, if this book is the first of its kind or if there are several other books that address the subject but this one takes a new slant. Also tell the publisher what you can do to help them market the book. Most publishers are very receptive to having an author work with them on the marketing.

Tip: Many publishers have proposal guidelines on their websites. All of them will require the basic information described above, but many have additional preferences for proposal information. Once you’ve drafted your proposal and have chosen a publisher, check for the publisher’s proposal guidelines to expand and tailor your proposal to the publisher’s preferred style. As you do so, you’ll find that you’ll develop a proposal format that you like to use that’s acceptable to almost everyone.

In addition to information about the book, you also need to sell yourself. Sell your understanding of the topic and your ability to plan and write 300-600 pages in the allotted time, which is never as much as you’d like. Demonstrate that you can write, organize, research, meet deadlines, and stick through the project. (Acquisitions editors live for people who never miss deadlines.)

What if you don’t have a specific idea in mind? You may still have general topics that you’d like to write about. One of the best way to identify potential topics is to identify your own strengths and preferences. For example, I don’t care to write books on software development, but I enjoy doing books on computer and software basics. If you’re already writing manuals or articles, look at what you’ve been writing about professionally. Don’t forget to see if you have other skills that you can add to this list: for example, you may be a whiz at setting up computers, at cooking, or at helping your clients analyze their interior design needs. All of these add depth to your writing and increase the potential for a variety of non-fiction books. Good topic knowledge combined with writing ability is enough to sell most publishers on you as a potential author. So, even if you don’t have a specific book idea to propose, a general list of topics may well be enough to start with. You can focus your ideas later to fit the publisher’s needs.

“Hey, kids! Become an author at home in your spare time and earn big bucks!”

This entire blog takes its name from an article I wrote 20 years about the publishing process and how you, yes, you!, can become an author of non-fiction. The article I originally wrote was supposed to sound like something out of the 50s and 60s: partly from old matchbook covers that said “If you can draw this girl, you could become a commercial artist!” but mostly from the ads in the back of DC comic books and Boy’s Life about “Hey, kids! Make $5-$15/week selling Grit, America’s Greatest Family Newspaper!” Becoming an author really is something like that, without quite so much of the tabloid newspaper elements (usually). You can do it and it’s fun.

Let me start by telling you how I got here.

I got into writing books when I was but a wee sprat. I must’ve been a wee sprat because I started writing books 22 years ago and I still feel like I’m 33, so I must’ve been incredibly young when I wrote my first book. (That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.) I’d been a tech writer for a couple years and someone who had a lot more experience in the biz suggested that I should write a book to broaden my horizons. Well, that sounded like a good idea, so I started thinking about it.

I hit on a topic almost immediately, too: computer bulletin boards. This was 1986, after all, and BBSes were on their way up. I’d gotten into BBSes a couple years before–I still have a BBS list from the Telecommunications Users Group that showed all 20 BBSes in the Puget Sound area at that time!–and I really felt like there was a market for a book on BBSes and how to use ’em. I got some advice from some of the non-fiction authors I knew, notably Grant Fjermedal, and wrote a book proposal, and started shopping it around to publishers.

I learned a lot about shopping book proposals (which I’ll tell you later) but finally, Jeff Pepper at Osborne/McGraw-Hill said “We don’t think this book on BBSes will pay well enough, but stick around, kid, we like the way you do things.” They got me a contract for “Microsoft Word Power User’s Guide,” a book about Word 4.0 for DOS, the first good release of Word, and off I went.

And you know, I really liked writing books! There’s something about it I find terrifically satisfying. No other writing task really lets me sink into the creative reverie so much, nothing lets me get as involved with the writing process, and there’s nothing that gives me so much freedom with what I write, either. As soon as I finished my first book, I was hot to do another one!

I found a publisher who wanted to do my BBS book, did that one with him, picked up another book with Osborne/McGraw-Hill, and then there was no stopping me. At this point, since 1988, I’ve published 26 books. My biggest year saw four books come out. Every book has a story about it, too: fastest, biggest, best-selling, first award, most quoted, most fun, and many other things. I’ve co-authored many of them, contributed chapters to a few of them, but it’s a huge pile of writing. And I really like it.

The point of all of this is that all this can be yours!. Even if you can’t write the Great American Novel, you may be able to write the Great American Manual. There is a huge market for non-fiction–books on software and computers, fixing cars, photography, mountain-climbing, cooking. As this series unfolds, I’ll be telling you everything you need to know about how to talk to publishers, how to pitch an idea, the basics of contracts, if you need an agent, the downside of writing, and what writing a book is like before, during, and after. I’ve even got a recommended reading list to share with you.

The whole point is that becoming an author is not impossible, nor do you have to know a secret handshake to get in. You do need to know a few concepts and how to wend your way through the publishing process, but that’s a lot easier than you might think. I’m going to teach you how to do all of this.