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 If your agent cannot sell your book on the basis of a proposal, it will not be published by a mainstream press.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.)
Unfortunately, there is a fair amount of luck involved in finding an agent. Do you happen to have a friend who already has one? (Call that friend.) The process generally entails sending a query letter and then a proposal to one agent after another until you find one who is willing to represent you. Some agents can afford to be very selective and will not consider taking on a first time author, unless you happen to be already famous. But less established agents will often take the trouble to discover new talent. Remember that you don’t need to find the perfect agent, you just need one who is enthusiastic about your project and eager to earn his or her 15% by selling it to a mainstream press.
4. Refine the proposal: Once you have an agent, you will plow some of his or her publishing wisdom into subsequent drafts of your book proposal. Even if these revisions do nothing but improve your proposal from your agent’s point of view, they are important. Remember, your agent is the one who has to sell this book, at least initially. The first conversations that will be had about your proposal will be between your agent and various editors. You will not be involved. So, while you shouldn’t accept any changes that embarrass you, your goal should be to arrive at a draft that your agent is enthusiastic about, understands, and is happy to sell. If you and your agent fundamentally disagree about the direction your book should take, it will be very difficult for him or her to competently represent it.
5. Go to market: Once you have a final draft of your proposal in hand, your agent will send it to every publisher he or she thinks might be interested in publishing your book. In the best case, many will be interested, and you will have a proper auction on your hands—at the end of which, you will be forced to choose between multiple offers, any one of which will allow you to live without a care in the world for a year or two while you write your book. However, given that this is your first book, this is unlikely to happen. When my proposal for The End of Faith went out to publishers, an initial chorus of enthusiasm quickly faded, and I was left with only one publisher, out of a field of sixteen, who was willing to make an offer. Thus, there was no auction, no competitive bids, and no basis to negotiate a higher advance. I was, after all, an unpublished and unknown graduate student writing on a topic that many people found offensive. I had no “platform,” and there was not yet an obvious market for a book attacking mainstream religion. Hence, it was not surprising that most publishers declined to take a risk on me. Happily, W.W. Norton was an exception.
Hopefully, at least one good publisher will make an offer on your book. If you do not get an offer at this stage, however, I do not know what you should do, beyond asking your agent what you should do. Self-publishing is, increasingly, a viable option for any author—and some authors will now tell you to go this route directly, without ever worrying about finding an agent or a mainstream publisher. While there are certain cases in which it might make economic sense to do this, for a first book, a mainstream publisher will give you credibility (whether warranted or not) that you will not get if you publish your book yourself.
6. Accept your best offer: Your best offer will generally be the one that includes the largest advance. If you only received one offer, this one is obviously your best, and you should take it—unless you awaken in the middle of the night realizing (1) what a brilliant idea it is to self-publish your first book, or (2) what a terrible idea it is to write a book in the first place. Otherwise, accept this offer knowing that the insultingly small advance you will receive, in four installments, is just that—an advance against future royalties. There is nothing preventing you from becoming the next Malcolm Gladwell and making millions on this book—except for the long odds against anyone becoming the next Malcolm Gladwell.
This is not to say, however, that an advance is meaningless from a publishing point of view. The size of an advance surely bears some relationship to a publisher’s enthusiasm for your project. So, while you might opt to accept a slightly smaller advance from a publisher/editor you especially admire, the highest advance generally wins the auction, and should win, as it is the only tangible evidence you have of a publisher’s commitment to your book.
After that, you are on your own, and I wish you the best of luck.
Related article: The Future of the Book