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You Are Here:  Home  >  FAQ  >  Blogs  >  Writing a Book: If, When, and How

Writing a Book: If, When, and How

Thursday, January 04, 2007

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Every time I write a new book, I get a flurry of emails from people asking for advice on how to get a book publishing contract. So, I figured I'd preempt a lot of those questions with this article.

The two most common (and naive) assumptions are 1) that books make a lot of money, and 2) that they help you become well-known. Neither of these are true, and in fact, can do you more harm than good if not managed properly. That's not to say that publishing a book can't be helpful or profitable. It's understanding how that happens that isn't so obvious.

Before I get into all that, let's step back and talk more about the publishing business. The first thing people assume is that I have an agent who does all this for me, so they want to know who my agent is, and if I can somehow get them an "in."

I don't have an agent, and it's rare for anyone to have one unless they are already well-established in the book-publishing industry. Agents are best used to negotiate better contracts with prospective publishers than what the author could do on his own. If the author is unknown, an agent isn't going to be much help because few publishers are doing to be flexible in the terms of the contract, let alone to offer one in the first place. As such, agents will almost never take an author (or photographers) who've never been published. Agents get paid as a percentage of the contracts they negotiate, and the likelihood of a new author getting published is too small to invest that kind of time and work. And even if they are taken, the financial terms are usually too small to make the agent's cut worthwhile. (Compensation is based on the value of the deal, which is based on the number of books sold, which is often very small for a first-time author.) Even my own books, which sell very well in the photography sector, hardly pay enough to have made it worthwhile to share it with an agent.

Perhaps more importantly, agents reputations are closely tied to how successful the authors are. Agents willing to take on unknown authors are probably themselves not very successful or credible either.

So, for the masses of us who are not the top-tier, high-paying authors, the reason to publish a book is not to make money. I realize you may already know that, but from a career perspective, the best (and only) reason is to publish a book is for marketing purposes: books help bolster a flowering reputation. Mind you, it's not a career-starter, nor should it be your primary marketing tool. It also won't take you to the next level of your career, nor will it open new doors for you. You still have to assert your marketing prowess for all that. The book is merely another asset you use to help legitimize who you are. It's your quiet wing-man standing in the back of the room that the client knows is there, and subliminally causes them to soften up a little when you quote the price you want for your services.

Conversely, without the proper background, it may actually unimpress many people if they see that you have a book, but no other solid stream of sales or business experience to justify it. This could illustrate your lack of business savvy.

I know what you're thinking: many people may hear of you because of your book (if you were to have one). After all, many people first heard of me through my books as well. But the catch-22 is that your book wouldn't exist if it weren't for your pre-established name, even if it were on a smaller scale. And that establishment comes as the result of your wisdom being put to the test before the book were to exist. So, you need to achieve some level of notoriety first, and then the book comes, and then more people hear of you. It's another step in the career staircase.

The question then becomes, how do you know when it's the right time to attempt a book? When should you approach publishers? Or should you self-publish? I'll answer the self-publishing question by way of addressing the first question.

In the case of seeking publishers, it feels simplistic to say it, but there's truth to the notion that you should wait for them to approach you. Publishers don't just sit in their ivory towers, sifting through all the millions of manuscripts and proposals sent to them by eager new authors. In fact, the number of such unsolicited proposals that are actually accepted is extremely minimal. Instead, most publishers actively go out and seek authors. They read blogs, visit websites, read industry trade magazines, follow publications from educational and research institutions, and so on. If someone appears to have a consistent track record of writing interesting articles in any of these mediums, it gets the attention of publishers. Best of all would be due to the prolific exposure of your work (perhaps photography) in the same market they're in.

By the time you have a discussion with a publisher about a book, it'll likely be on terms that began much more favorable to you from the outset. Publishers like this best for so many obvious reasons, but the foremost being that you're a lower-risk investment. There's "some" risk simply because you haven't published a book before, but this is less risky than dealing with someone who sent them an unsolicited proposal. And though most publishers never accept any cold-calls from authors/photographers, many vehemently deny this. (They have to claim they always entertain submitted material if for no other reason than to avoid the PR stigma if it were to be known otherwise.)

All this leaves unanswered the question on everyone's mind: if you know you're ready, but the publisher doesn't, how do you overcome this? This is very frustrating, and you are likely right in this regard. Most publishers overlook "ripe" opportunities more than they like to admit. But being right doesn't get you published. I'll come back to this, I promise. But first:

Should you self-publish? Usually, no. Most people who self-publish do so with the wrong goal in mind. They think they can either make money, or they think that it will boost their visibility (in greater proportion than reality would dictate). What almost always happens is that the author loses a great deal of time and money, and they end up with a lot of unsold books in the garage. This, even with "print-on-demand" publishing.

So, how do make money self-publishing? This all fits into the business model associated with a phenomenon talked about in internet-business circles these days: the long tail. Using the internet as a pairing mechanism between buyers and sellers, there's still money to be paid for even the most obscure topics that lie on that "long tail" because there are probably enough buyers of "any" subject to justify some number of internet-oriented purchases. The real financial opportunity is when you are the only supplier of that product, or at least, the best of what exists.

This is where self-publishing comes in. I've known photographers who write very specific how-to books for very narrow market segments, where it doesn't make sense for a publisher because their rate of return is too small... but this same return is perfectly worthwhile for an individual. Books like how to use a very specific camera model, or how to do a very narrow and particular kind of photo technique can potentially sell quite well. Where it doesn't make sense is trying to self-publish a basic photography book, simply because the market's flooded with similar products. You can't go head to head with well-known authors and publishers because you can't get noticed in such a huge market place.

There is, however, another reason to consider self-publishing: it's not to make money (though selling on your website sure wouldn't hurt), and not even to necessarily use it as a marketing tool in the classic sense, but more as promotional tool. It could be used as a give-away at events or other activities where you want people to remember you. If done well, it could have a much stronger impact than a traditional photo portfolio. Along that line is to present it as a more compelling finished product to a publisher, who would have otherwise overlooked you. (See? I told you I'd come back to this!) There's nothing like a good-looking book that you can claim is already selling. If nothing else, it shows you have the wherewithal to go through the book-writing process, one that is far more difficult than most people think. It also shows you can work with an editor, which is probably harder than writing the book in the first place. Here, you're transforming a typical pitch from a "book proposal," to that of their taking over the sales of an existing, finished product.

Of course, most publishers wouldn't want assume the sales of an existing book; they'd want to reformat it to fit their style guides, design, layout or even some content. But no matter, you're still going to be taken more seriously than if you'd submitted a traditional book proposal. This should never be regarded as a stand-alone reason to self-publish, or your only objective for doing it. After all, it's a huge investment to hang onto one stroke of luck. Yes, it's good to have it, but you need to weigh the pros and cons before committing to it.

Before you even go down this road, my recommendation to anyone even considering a book is to write a lot on a blog or your own website, and contribute these ideas in public discussion forums to get feedback. Writing is a difficult and time-consuming task, not to be taken lightly. The only thing harder than writing is editing what you wrote. Oh, there is one thing that's even worse than that: seeing other people's edits of your writing. This is not for the faint of heart.

Still, those who write well get noticed, which is the ultimate test of your worth to a publisher, and to a greater degree, the credibility of your ideas in general. Sure, you will get push-back from hecklers and other trolls, but this is all part of what tests your character in an open environment, and which will also bolster your writing (and other professional skills). This, in turn, will directly affect your career. If your ideas are sound and people listen, your reputation will grow. If not, you'll know it by the reception you receive. And let's be honest: not everyone can do this, including, perhaps, you.

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