(Bibliotheque nationale, Paris, by Gilzee)
The process of getting a nonfiction book published by a mainstream publisher—as distinct from an academic press, or a smaller, independent publisher—is quite straightforward. This is not to say that most people understand this process, or that success is likely, but there is very little uncertainty about how an aspiring author must engage the machinery of publishing. Here is the process in 6 steps:
1. Don’t write the book: Many people who ask me for publishing advice have already invested considerable time and energy in writing their book. This is almost always a mistake. There is no reason to start writing a nonfiction manuscript in earnest before you have written a book proposal. Why? Because no publisher will read your manuscript without first reading a book proposal sent to them by an agent. And no agent will read your manuscript without first reading a book proposal. So, the first step in publishing any work of nonfiction is to write a book proposal. (Note: this iron law does not apply to fiction. For fiction, the opposite iron law applies: if you want to publish a novel, you must sit down and write a novel.)
If you intend to publish a work of nonfiction with a mainstream press—like Viking, Little Brown, Knopf, Simon and Schuster, etc.—please take the following sentences to heart: If you cannot interest an agent in your book on the basis of a proposal, you will not get an agent. If your agent cannot sell your book on the basis of a proposal, it will not be published by a mainstream press. Thus, a book proposal is what you need to write, whether or not you have already spent ten years polishing your manuscript. And if you haven’t started writing the book—don’t.
2. Write a book proposal: A book proposal has a standard format that every agent and publisher expects to see executed without any surprising flourishes. You win no points for creativity in how you structure this document. Learn the format and follow it. Needless to say, there are books about how to write a nonfiction book proposal. I can’t remember which one I read before writing my proposal for The End of Faith, but any book on this subject will probably serve you well.
3. Get an agent: This could be easy, or next to impossible, depending on who you are and the nature of your project—but you must do it in any case. To my knowledge, no mainstream press will look at an unagented proposal. If you want to write an academic book for MIT Press—or Princeton, Oxford, etc.,—you don’t need an agent and can approach these publishers directly. (You will, however, need the relevant academic credentials.)