Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Ten Tips for Getting a Book Contract

A lot of times when people find out that I've had some books published they will mention how they have an idea and would like to write a book. Most people never make it past that elusive wondering about writing a book. Others may toil for years on a manuscript, only to have it collect dust because they can't get a contract.

At any rate, here's my list of ten tips for getting a book contract ...

1. Have a viable idea.

Projects are often turned down because the idea is not viable. There can be a number of reasons for this such as market trends, too many competing books, the fact that perhaps an idea really doesn't have enough material to warrant a book (maybe just an article?), maybe the idea is too broad, and so forth. What is a viable idea? To a publisher, a viable idea is one that will sell and, on some level, be helpful to readers.

2. Turn the viable idea into a viable proposal.

If you're working on a non-fiction book, don't spend a lot of time completing an entire manuscript. That's a lot of work for little or no return if you can't get a contract. Fortunately, for a non-fiction project all that is usually needed is a proposal and a couple of sample chapters. Frankly, after a positive response to a query (see step 6), I usually only prepare a proposal without sample material.

If a publisher is interested, they may offer me a contract without sample material, which has only happened to me once, or they may ask for sample material, which means they are definitely interested in seeing more.

Waiting for a publisher to ask for sample material is sometimes helpful in that you can glean information about what sort of material they are looking for, then tailor your sample to the publisher.

Don't know how to write a book proposal? Check out some books on the topic. The first one I read was How to Write a Book Proposal by Michael Larsen. But proposal formats vary and there is no one standard. You might ask a publisher if they have proposal format preferences. I tend to keep my proposals simple and short. You definitely need some kind of hook or tag line - some way to pitch your idea in just a sentence or two.

3. Make sure you can write.

A lot of people get it into their heads to write a book, but have no real skill in writing. Some people can write well naturally, but even in such cases they've learned to write somehow. Maybe they are well read and good at emulating writing styles. But for most people, writing well is hard work. Read a good book on writing such as On Writing Well by William Zinsser. Read a lot of good writing, both classic and contemporary. It's fine to break writing "rules" sometimes, but make sure you know what you're doing.

If you really can't write well, try and team up with someone who can (and credit them on your project) or hire a professional editor. It's also important to be able to think clearly and have that clarity come across on paper.

4. Narrow down your publishing options.

There are lots of publishers around. Don't make the mistake of submitting a completely inappropriate idea to a publisher. They don't like that and will probably ignore you. Get to know your market. What books do you have that you really like? Who published them? Is your idea similar or would it fit their market? If so, put them on your list.

5. Try to get an "in" with a publisher.

Publishers receive many queries and sometimes entire manuscripts, unsolicited. The fact is, most of these queries and manuscripts are not taken seriously and will end up in the garbage. It's not that publishers hate you, but that they don't have time to look at material that arrives unsolicited. That's why it's helpful to have an "in" with a publisher. Even if you can get a roundabout recommendation, it's better to introduce yourself to a publisher by using this contact, especially if your contact is a published author. Sometimes getting a name or two at a publishing house is all you need to ensure that your idea gets to the right person and they know you've been recommended.

6. Query, query, query.

A query is a generally brief letter asking a publisher if they are interested in your idea and, if so, would they like to see your proposal and sample material. There's an art to doing this and it becomes easier once you've been published. It also can become more informal as you progress in your writing career, especially if you've worked with a publisher or editor before. Books on writing proposals generally contain sections on how to write query letters.

7. Send in the proposal.

Is your proposal ready to go? Then it's time to send it in. Don't make multiple submissions to publishers unless you are up front about letting them know you are doing this. I prefer to send to one publisher at a time, but this can be a long process if you end up having to try several publishers before you get some interest. Multiple submissions will generally move the process along quicker, but publishers usually don't like this because they might invest a lot of time and expense into evaluating a project only to find another publisher has picked it up.

8. Have patience.

Once you have a viable idea and have submitted your proposal to a publisher, you need to have a lot of patience. It could be several months until you hear back.

9. Be prepared for rejection.

You need to have thick skin. Rejection is part of the publishing industry. Don't let it crush you. The first project Dr. Seuss pitched was, as I recall, rejected more than 30 times before he got a deal. Other famously rejected books include The Godfather and Watership Down, both of which became best sellers.

10. No contract yet? Fix proposal issues, if any, and go back to step 6.

I readily admit to putting these tips together fairly quickly, but maybe you'll find them useful.

By the way, this is my 100th blog post. Do I get some sort of Internet Centennial Badge or anything? Nah, we don't need no stinkin' badges.

No comments: