How to get your book published in 2011

Agents, e-books, promotion, and self-publishing are only a few of the factors faced by prospective authors in the current market

Dear Bob ...

I am helping a friend write a nontechnical self-improvement book. Her challenge (beyond writing it) is to find out how to publish it.

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The last time I looked at publishing a nontechnical book, it seemed very challenging, almost impossible, and I actually gave up. Even self-publishing or methods outside of mainstream channels seem challenging as many just take your money and are essentially scams. My question -- do you have any advice or contacts regarding publishing a book such as this?

- Counseling

Dear Counseling ...

Let's start with what it takes to work through a publisher and what an author gets in return.

First and foremost: Publishers want books that will sell enough copies to make a tidy profit. While this seems too obvious to be worth saying, a lot of authors don't think in these terms.

Which is fine -- the only books worth reading are the ones authors really want to write. That said, an author in search of a publisher has to find a company that works in the category. Your friend should visit a local bookstore or Amazon.com and find a dozen titles that appeal to a similar audience. Whoever published those books are the same ones she should be going after.

Every publisher has a formal submission process, in the same way that every company has a formal recruiting process. In both cases, supplicants follow the procedure and a few are actually chosen.

Most of the books that are published, though, got someone's attention through a personal channel first, just as most of the people who are hired got the hiring manager's attention before submitting a resume to HR. Your friend should do a lot of research to find out who she needs to develop relationships with, so she doesn't end up being just a faceless submitter.

Important: The general rule is that for fiction you need a manuscript, while for a trade book you need an outline and a plan. I don't know the rules for this sort of book, but it's a good conversation starter as your friend starts making contacts inside her target group of publishers.

What she'll get from a publisher: layout and design, copy editing, indexing, manufacturing, distribution, and a smaller percentage of sales. What she won't get: help selling the book. Publishers look to authors to handle promotion. Go figure.

Just to cover the base: It's her first book. Any agent who would be interested is an agent she shouldn't be working with. Agents can help established authors bypass the submissions process and negotiate better deals. First-time authors? No.

I'd say the self-publishing route is the more likely alternative, so long as your friend is either confident of her writing ability or has friends who can and will perform copyediting duties. Thoughts on this:

  • The companies that provide soup-to-nuts services include quite a few that probably are scam artists. Some are legit, though, assuming your friend understands that what they're really going to do is help her manufacture her book, not publish it.
  • She might consider a Kindle-only approach, at least initially. Amazon.com makes this very easy, so long as it's mostly a narrative manuscript that doesn't rely on extensive formatting. By limiting distribution to e-books, she won't have to deal with inventory and fulfillment.
  • If she wants a print edition, she'll also need to think about layout and design.
  • Unless your friend expects to be able to develop her own distribution, she should probably use CreateSpace and sell exclusively through Amazon.com, which simplifies the logistics a lot but means she'll keep less of the revenue. If she wants to develop her own distribution, that means an e-store, which really means starting an entire business. 
  • Self-publishing does entail handling a bunch of annoying little details, like getting all the front matter right, as well as applying for ISBNs, bar codes, and so on.

If she's willing to be her own publisher, the process isn't as daunting, so long as she's a good writer, and after she finishes the manuscript, she's interested in the less creative work required to get an actual book out the door.

- Bob

This story, "How to get your book published in 2011," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Bob Lewis's Advice Line blog on InfoWorld.com.

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