kyle cassidy (kylecassidy) wrote,
kyle cassidy

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How to publish a book

A reader writes:

Hi there!
I'm sure you get bugged about this sort of thing all the time, so I'll understand if you tell me to shoo :D

I write for a community on LJ called [redacted], and there are many of us interested in having the community work published in a book. However, we don't have any idea which publishers to approach. I was wondering if perhaps you knew a few that we could contact.

(snip snip)

Have a great day!

I'm not sure what the most frequently asked question I get is, but this one is in the top ten -- how do I publish a book? The answer is, like most other things, based on three elements: luck, hard work,and talent. There's no magic mixture of them. You could be Kato Kalin, for example and get to write a book because you were (un)lucky enough to be staying in OJ Simpsons garage at the right time, or you could be John Kennedy O'Toole and have incredible talent but lousy luck and only get your book published posthumously. But rather than waiting for someone to get killed, you can really improve your chances by working hard.

Here's how it goes:

The way that you go about publishing a book isn't a secret. My experience has been that everything I've read, or heard an author say about publishing is true and the path from blank paper to bookstore shelf is pretty much written in stone. Occasionally you'll find someone who says "I just wrote the darn thing and a burglar broke into my house and stole the manuscript and when the cops were chasing him he dropped it on Stephen King's lawn and I got a call from his agent the next day and by Friday I was living in a solid gold house." (In fact, my book on network security came about when an editor from Macmillan/Que called me out of the blue after reading an article I'd written for Windows NT Systems magazine. But that's rare, as a rule you have to work for it. A lot.)

The way it works is this:

1) You get an idea.
2) You write a proposal.
3) You send this proposal to an acquisitions editor at a publishing house.
4) They reject it.

You rattle around steps three and four for a while and eventually

5) The acquisitions editor likes it!
6) The acquisitions editor has to sell the idea of your book to their editorial board, so s/he'll work with you to spruce up your proposal if necessary.
7) The acquisitions editor pitches your book to the ed board.
8) They reject it.

You spend some time again bouncing around between steps five and seven with various publishers before

9) The ed board accepts your book.
10) They publish your book.
11) You go on Fresh Air with Terry Gross, become a millionaire, buy a rocket car and a Roombah.

That's the short end of it and Writers Digest sells lots and lots of books and magazines with very detailed instructions and helpful advice. I got one years ago called "Manuscript Submission" which was really awesome.

Some things to keep in mind:

1) When you send your proposal to a publisher, you're basically asking them to spend a hundred thousand dollars on your idea. Make sure you've spent an appropriate amount of time on your proposal. You spell the editors name wrong and it's going in the trash un-opened.

2) Every editors desk has a stack of unsolicited manuscripts (called "slush") about three feet high on it. If you haven't wowed them on the first page, it's going in the trash.

3) The more work YOU do the less work the editor has to do and the more interested they'll be. They'll want to see a list of every book that's like your book, why your book is different, why your book is better, who the audience is, what the sales were for these other books. There's lots of good advice from Writers Digest on this. The proposal for Armed America was about fifteen pages. The proposal for Where I Write, which has had generous input from my agent, is about thirty, so it's a pretty substantial undertaking.

4) Publishers like to see that you have a large footprint -- so if you have a blog read by 600,000 people every day, that's a Very Good Thing and you should mention it. They also like things that have a built in audience, like iPod owners or baseball fans or something. An example that comes to mind is Renee and Zabet who run the Anticrafters website -- they've got a blog read by however many zillion people, and built in audience, the book was inevitable.

Figuring out who to send stuff to:

Go to the bookstore, pull out books that are like yours, see who published them and then find out who the editor was. Address your letter to that editor specifically. An editor's going to pay more attention to a proposal that starts out "Dear Ms. Jones, I loved what you did with Roswell's Grand Adventure which is truely one of the great books about tuxedo cats published in our lifetime." than they will to one that starts out "To Whom it May Concern".

This will take you a lot of time, but it is time well spent.

If you can, don't send your manuscript in right after NaNoWrMo because, according to my agent anyway, their mailboxes get stuffed then and they're feeling persecuted and in a very throw-outie kind of mood around that time.

Self Publishing:

Self publishing isn't always the same as vanity publishing, but most often it is. There are, however, times when taking matters into your own hand can work for you, particularly if you have a strangle hold over the audience. If you live in a small town in Iowa and write a history of the town, or a book of scenic bicycle tours, or you own a museum and want to make a souvenir publication of your exhibits for the gift shop, the market for your book is very direct and Random House isn't going to be able to sell more copies of it than you will on your own. But in order to make any money from it, you'll need to print a LOT. Printing discounts don't really kick in until you get in the 5,000 units range.

One-off printers:

Since we live in magical times, you can get books printed "on demand" with companies like or This is useful if a) your market is very small and b) you just want something with your name on the spine. You can get books printed in quantities as small as one and not have to hassle with an editor or rejection slips. The downsides of doing this are twofold, first the overhead is INCREDIBLE, a 90 page hard bound photo book might cost $100 or more a copy. Single color paperbacks can be more affordable, but unless you're Wil Wheaton or Piers Anthony you're never going to sell enough copies to pay the rent. Secondly, if you mention that you've written a book to people published in the traditional (difficult) way and it turns out to be from a vanity press they might not laugh you out of the room, but they'll definitely make a face like someone's rubbed vinegar soaked roadkill on them.

My camera club does a book at the end of every year and it's nice to see everyone's photos together and see what people are up to, which is a pretty good use for it because nobody outside of the club is liable to be much interested, but people in the club are very much so and I'm always overjoyed to see my photo in it with everybody elses.

*** EDIT ***

Sadly, there are lots and lots of people out there who want to take advantage of you. They'll say they want to publish your poem in an anthology, or represent your manuscript but inevitably the only thing they're after is your money. A legitimate literary agency or publisher will never ask you for a dime. Your agent will take a nice big cut of your royalty check when it comes in, but if they don't sell your work, they don't get anything. And they buy you lunch too. If you get a note from a literary agency or publisher check it with Writer Beware and make sure they're not villans.

Getting an agent to do most of the above is the best and easiest way. Agents know publishers, they have lunch with them all the time, they know what publishing houses are looking for and they make all of this SO MUCH EASIER. I have two agents, they each contacted me after some project or other of mine went viral, so I don't have any special advice on how to get an agent, but I know they make things awesome. They also take part of your advance, but they'll factor that in when they're getting you the $$$$.

That's my advice. Now go publish a book.

All you authors and editors who read this, feel free to RT, add your own comments/criticisms/advice/clarifications/experiences.

Add me as a friend on LiveJournal, Add me on Facebook, Follow me on Twitter.

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  • We're making a movie!

    trillian_stars and I are making a movie. We wrote an original adaptation of Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House set to take place in 2020…

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    For, geez, twenty one years now I've been taking a 2 second exposure that begins in the last second of one year and ends in the first second of the…

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