Book Publishing 101

by Jennifer Lawler

Nonfiction Book Publishing Basics:
What Happens, When, Why and What You Can Do About It

You have a book idea. Maybe you have more than an idea: you have a proposal or some chapters written—maybe the whole book. You need a publisher, but you know there’s a whole process you need to go through to get there. But what exactly?

Essentially, you write a book proposal (even if you’ve already written the whole book). Then you pitch your book idea to agents (more on pitching and on agents a bit later), who read your proposal. If all goes well, an agent will agree to represent you, and will sell your book to an editor at a publishing company and, sometime thereafter, the publisher will publish your book and convince booksellers to stock it, and then, one hopes, readers will buy it and love it.

That’s the short version.

Let’s begin the longer version by spending some time describing what a book author is. Seems obvious, right? It’s a person, generally speaking, who has written a book. But sometimes—as in the case of a celebrity or expert author—the person whose name is on the book didn’t actually write it. Someone gave him or her a hand. This coauthor (if the writer’s name appears on the book) or ghost author (if the writer’s name doesn’t appear on the book) interviews the expert or celebrity, writes the book and gets compensated for his or her work, either with an upfront payment or a share of the royalties (money the book earns) or both. See below for more information about advances and royalties.

People interested in writing books have several opportunities:

• You can be a book author, writing your own books under your own name. For nonfiction, it is helpful to be a recognized expert in your subject area, or at least to have covered the subject extensively as a journalist. Some nonfiction writers, like Malcolm Gladwell, are successful writers even though they are not experts in their own right. These writers do in-depth research on topics of interest to readers and present the information in a compelling and accessible way.
• You can be an expert, writing books with a coauthor about your area of expertise.
• You can be a coauthor or ghost, doing the actual writing based on information you obtain from the expert who will be credited with the book.
• You can be a celebrity author. First you have to become famous in another field of endeavor. Then you decide you want to write books. Most of us choose one of the other three options.

What do you want? Do you want to write your own books and have the chance to chat with Oprah? Or would you rather forego the frustrations of promotion and ghostwrite or co-author books for experts?

1. Are you or could you be an expert in a particular subject that interests you? If so, which subject(s)?

2. Could you work with experts to create a marketable, commercial book? If so, which experts would you be willing to work with?

3. Would you be willing to write a book without your name on the cover?

Answering these questions will help you see the direction you could go as you pursue a book writing career.

Words to know:
Advance: money a publisher pays you before your book is published. Basically, this is money “loaned” to you against what the publisher thinks your book will earn. In general, an editor plans to pay an advance equal to the amount of royalties the book will earn in six months (in some cases, one year). Since figuring out how many copies a certain title will sell requires a bit of guesswork, and agents push editors for larger advances, often a book doesn’t sell enough copies to earn out the advance. That is, you may receive an advance but then never see additional royalties.

Traditionally, half the advance was paid on signing the contract and half on acceptance of the final manuscript, but these days many publishers are breaking the advance into thirds: one-third on signing the contract, one-third on acceptance of the manuscript and one third on publication.

Advances vary widely, depending on the publisher, the book and the author. They can range from zero to well into the six figures. Recently, advances have been declining because of the poor economy and slow book sales.

Note: Some self-publishing and vanity publishing sites claim that you have to pay back the advance if your book doesn’t sell well enough to earn out. This is untrue. The only time you have to pay back the royalty is if you fail to meet contractual obligations, such as not delivering the book by deadline. Even then, most editors will work with you to establish a new deadline.

Royalty: the amount the author receives per book sold, typically a percentage of the cover price of the book. 10% of the cover price is typical for a hardcover, 7 to 7½% for a trade paperback and 5% for a mass market. (Mass market books are the 5×7 paperback books you find at WalMart, the grocery store and the book store. They generally sell for about $8 to $10. Trade paperbacks are of varying sizes and sell for $15 to $20. Hardcovers usually run about $25, although heavily illustrated or very niche books can sell for significantly more.)

Self Publishing vs. Traditional Publishing
Many, if not most, writers want to be published traditionally —that is, they want a publishing company to acquire their book, pay an advance, publish the book at the publishing company’s expense and pay royalties on copies sold. With few exceptions, all of the books you see in bookstores are published and sold this way.

On the other hand, self publishing means you act as the publisher as well as the writer. Because you’re not restricted to a small royalty of 10% or so, you can make more money per book. However, few people earn much money self publishing their books. Only if you promote the book hard and have access to the right audience for it will your self publishing efforts pay off. Non-fiction writers with a narrow niche (that they know how to reach) usually have the greatest success with self publishing.

Because all authors have to promote their books, many writers think that they may as well self publish, because it will give them more control over their work, and if they’re going to have to promote their book themselves anyway, then they might as well reap more of the rewards. This is true as far as it goes, but it fails to account for three major reasons people are more successful when they publish traditionally:

1. Most bookstores will not stock and sell self published books. Distribution is incredibly important in selling books, and even small publishers with an established niche can sell more books into book stores than a self published writer would ever be able to do.

2. Most self published books are poorly edited and poorly produced, and readers are wary of them. As the writer, you’re often too close to your book to be able to see when your doing a bad job of editing and producing it.

3. Most books are sold via book reviews and word of mouth. Most review outlets do not review self published book. They have enough work trying to keep up with traditionally published books.

As a self publisher, you have to spend a certain amount of money out of pocket. While it is fairly straightforward (and free) to use online services such as Amazon’s CreateSpace to produce an ebook, you still have to pay for editing, design and promotion. You can also find print-on-demand services that will produce print versions of your book. Again, even though you generally don’t have to pay out of pocket to set up your book, you will have to do considerable work to get the word out about your book.

If you decide to go the self publishing route, make sure you educate yourself and that you’re willing to do the kind of work involved. One resource for potential self publishers is

Note: Don’t mistake vanity publishing for self publishing. Some companies ask for large amount of money upfront to “publish” your book (they’re really just printing it). Some of these publishers sell “marketing packages” which basically include press releases to media that aren’t interested in your book. If you’re going to self publish, then it’s smartest to control all aspects of the publishing process instead of trying to take the shortcut of using a vanity publisher.

Is traditional or self publishing right for you? Consider the following:
For traditional publishing, the advantages are:
• No out-of-pocket expenses for the author (some publishers will try to make the author pay permissions fees and similar expenses, but this can be negotiated.)
• Time can be spent writing and promoting the book rather than producing it, trying to get it into bookstores, and similar time-consuming challenges.
• Greater likelihood of the author making some money from the book.

Advantages for self-publishing include:

• Total control over design and layout of book, and of the cover.

• Greater income from each book sold.

• Freedom to promote and market the book as your time and energy allows; you decide how many galleys to send to reviewers, you decide where your book tour will take you, you decide when your book will be released.

Don’t forget your writing goals. Will having a self published book help or hinder the process of achieving your goals? If you try but can’t get a traditional publishing contract, can self publishing become a viable option?

The Good, the Bad and the Editors
In traditional book publishing, a few important players hold most of the cards (and none of them are you):

Agent. Agents work as salespeople on behalf of writers. They sell your book to a publishing company and earn a commission from your advance and royalties (the standard commission is 15%). They protect your rights and try to ensure that you get favorable contract terms. They don’t edit your work, although some will help you tweak your proposal before shopping it (sending it out to editors). Agents are necessary to get published by the big New York publishing companies (Simon and Schuster, Random House) but aren’t necessary to sell to smaller houses (Skyhorse, Wish). I’ll go into great detail about agents later.

Editor. Editors proliferate in the publishing industry. They go by different titles at different publishing companies, but basically: Acquisitions editors are the ones who actually offer you (or your agent) the contract for your book. The acquisitions editor may or may not actually edit your book and work with you. You may be handed off to a developmental editor, who helps you shape your manuscript and makes sure it does what it’s supposed to do. This person is what we traditionally think of when we think of an “editor”—a person who makes the work better (or at least monkeys around with it). Copyeditors and proofreaders also help ensure your prose sparkles, but they are not decision-makers and cannot offer to publish a book. Assistant editors work with acquisitions editors and may or may not have decision-making clout. Editorial assistants are the lowliest of the low: they read the slush and make the coffee, but someday hope to run the company (and for all you know, will, so be nice). Production editors make sure that your book is printed correctly and that front matter, back matter and illustrations are in place. You probably won’t deal with the production editor at all. Managing editors, editors in chief and executive editors oversee the entire editing function of the publishing company. They may acquire books but their main role is management. Still, it never hurts to be related to one of these people.

Publisher. This term is used loosely to refer to both the person who has the title of publisher and to the publishing company as a whole. The person who is the publisher is basically the head honcho. He or she is mostly involved in the financial end of the operation—making sure sales are good and revenue is flowing. They usually have the final say on editorial decisions, but they don’t generally acquire books.

If you’re interested in working with smaller publishers (perhaps because you have a niche idea with a small but fervent audience), you can represent yourself and contact editors personally. If you’re interested in working with the bigger houses, you’ll want to start by looking for an agent.

If you’re not sure which applies to you, my recommendation is to contact agents with a solid pitch letter and see what happens. My philosophy is that it’s always better to start at the top. If one hundred agents turn you down and they basically say the same thing (the audience for your book isn’t large enough) then you can start connecting with editors yourself.

In either case, you start by writing a book proposal and a pitch letter, then doing your research to find out how a potential editor or agent likes to be approached (pitch letter only, pitch letter and proposal, etc.) (More on the pitch letter later.)

Representing Yourself
You can represent yourself, especially if you’re approaching smaller publishers with a niche idea. Agents generally don’t take on a project unless they think they can get a decent advance for the project. Many small publishers pay advances of $1,000 to $3,000 and some much less. (The advance is often the only money you’ll earn from your book, which is why it matters so much to writers. And agents.) Even so, a small publisher might be perfect for your book. I placed many of my early niche books with small publishers, and had good experiences with all of them. Some of my earliest books are still in print from these companies and still earning royalties.

To find publishing companies that accept unagented pitches and proposals, check out Writer’s Market (updated annually) or Jeff Hermann’s guide to publishers (also regularly updated). Also, check out the bookstore. Find books like the one you’re writing and look to see who is publishing such books. Often the acknowledgment section will list the editor of the book. If not, the information is readily obtained online or in Writer’s Market. (Do be aware that some information in WM is outdated or plain wrong; it’s just a place to start, not the utmost authority).

Since you’ll be negotiating the contract yourself, you’ll need to understand standard book contracts and what to watch out for. You’ll also need to negotiate the advance and the royalty percentage. While small publishers may not have a lot of money to pay you up front, they may be willing to supply you with additional free copies of the book or may agree to promise certain promotional efforts in writing.

Check out likely candidates at, using the Bewares and Background Checks forum. And remember, Google is your friend.

Even if you have an agent, you need to read your contract and understand what it says.

Contract Pitfalls
Book contracts are tricky instruments. Be sure you understand any contract before you sign it. A book contract will cover the following (this list is NOT all-inclusive). Be sure to seek the advice of someone trained in literary law before signing a book contract:
• What rights you’re selling (see copyright information below). Don’t allow the publishing company to copyright the book in their name. It should be copyrighted in your name.
• What obligations the publishing company has (to pay the advance within a certain time, to publish the book within a certain time.)
• Amount of the advance.
• Deadline for submission of complete manuscript.
• Amount (percentage) of royalties and how they will be paid. 10% of the cover price is standard, but many publishers are starting to pay royalties on the wholesale price – and the wholesale price can be deeply discounted from the cover price. Royalties are usually paid twice a year.
• Amount of reserve against returns. Since books can be returned by the bookstore to the publisher, no book is really sold until a customer walks out the door having paid for it. So publishers hold some percentage of your royalty back in case books are returned during the next royalty period. This amount should be stated.
• Payment for subsidiary rights, such as translations and audio books.
• Reversion of rights. When is the book considered out of print? What happens to the rights when a book is out of print (rights should revert to you). This must be specified in the contract.
• Warranty and indemnification. You agree that the information in the book is true and accurate. Add “to the best of the author’s knowledge” if possible. Be aware that some publishers use this clause to hold you responsible if they get sued over your book, whether or not the plaintiff wins the suit. Be certain you understand what you’re agreeing to here.
• Options clause. This is also known as the right of first refusal. It means the publishing company gets to make an offer on your next book before anyone else does. Try to limit or eliminate the options clause, as it can make it difficult for you to sell your next book to another publisher, which you may want to do.

Even if you do have an agent or lawyer advising you, read over your contract and make sure you understand what it says and what you have to do to fulfill its terms.

Here’s a brief description of the different rights you can license:
• First rights means you’re giving the publisher the right to publish this book for the first time. They may be further specified as World Rights, World English Rights, and so on.
• First serial rights are often granted by the publisher to a magazine that’s excerpting parts of your book.
• Electronic rights means that you’re granting permission for the book or parts of it to be used in an electronic forum, like an online website. Be careful; sometimes a contract will ask for electronic rights in perpetuity, which means forever and ever. A time limit is always a better bet for you.
• Work made for hire means you’re not entitled to sell any rights to the work. You can’t reuse or resell any of the material. Obviously, I don’t think this is a good deal for writers.
• All rights is similar to (although not exactly the same as) work made for hire, and has the same effect. You can’t resell or reuse the material. Again, avoid all rights contracts.

In addition to these rights, you can also license subsidiary rights, such as performance rights, gift rights (for products that tie into your book), audio rights. See for more information.

About Collaborating
Many books are the result of two (sometimes more) people working together to create a great manuscript. Sometimes two authors are experts in the subject matter (Linda Formichelli and Diana Burrell, the authors of The Renegade Writer, are both accomplished magazine writers). Sometimes one partner is a writer and the other is the expert. In either case, it’s important to set your expectations up front and be clear about what each partner is doing and what compensation each will get in return.

If an expert approaches you and wants to collaborate on a book, you need to be compensated fairly for your time. Especially if the expert does not have a publishing contract, you should be paid a certain amount upfront for writing the book proposal and then the book. This will come out of the expert’s pocket, and he or she can be reimbursed from the advance and royalties when the book is published. Don’t assume that you’ll be rewarded once the book is published (it often isn’t) and it zooms to the top of the best seller lists (it usually doesn’t).

Any collaboration should start with a letter of agreement between the partners, which clearly outlines their roles and their compensation. Be sure to include deadlines. Decide what will happen if one partner can no longer continue the project because of illness or death. Think all of this through ahead of time to avoid nasty surprises six months into the project.

If you have a book idea that you care about but not the right credentials to write it, you may be able to convince an editor to publish the book if you collaborate with someone who does have the right credentials. Since the idea is yours, you wouldn’t expect to be paid upfront for the work you do, and you’d want to keep control of the vision through a carefully written collaboration agreement.

Both the National Writers Union and the American Society of Journalists and Authors have model collaboration agreements for you to use, although you have to be a member to access them.

Remember that seeing your book from idea to final book on a shelf is a long process. Thinking through your various options ahead of time can help you deal with obstacles and setbacks as they occur, making it less likely that a handful of rejections will cause you to throw up your hands in despair and give up. Having a plan before you start hearing “no” is a huge help. (And yes, even after all these years I still make a plan for every book before I even send the proposal to my agent.)

Building Your Platform
As a book author, you have to market yourself to several audiences. First, you have to sell your work and yourself as the right person for the book to an agent, who will then help you sell your work and yourself as the right person for the book to an editor. But beyond that, you need to appeal to readers. It’s not enough to get an editor to buy your book—you have to get readers to pick it up, too. Otherwise your career will end before it even gets off the ground.

Successful book authors often position themselves as experts; others as journalists who can go to the experts, get information and present it in an appealing way. (Think Malcolm Gladwell). Some writers coauthor or ghost-write books for experts; for these writers, writing credentials matter but platform building and promotion doesn’t. The expert will be expected to promote the book.

If you’re positioning yourself as the subject matter expert or as the journalist ferreting out the information, you need to be sure to establish your credentials and maintain them by continuing your education, keeping your day job (if it’s related to your area of expertise) and acting as a consultant or coach.

You don’t have to have the same credentials everyone else has, though. For example, many reporters talk to psychologists about work-life balance issues. Does that mean you have to have a Ph.D to be quoted on the subject? No. I’ve been quoted on this topic because I pitch myself as someone who can show how to follow the principles of martial arts to lead a balanced life. So, use your imagination and creativity. Take a step back and look at how you can most favorably present yourself and your life experience.

Having the appropriate credentials to write a book is related to but distinct from the platform you need to establish to promote your book.

For example, my having a black belt is a credential that allows me to claim subject matter expertise. But it doesn’t help me promote my books. However, if I teach martial arts classes, that is a platform I can use to promote my books to my students (who will, one hopes, tell all their friends about both the book and the class).

Once you have a publishing contract, you can work with your publisher’s publicist to develop a plan, but even before you reach that stage, you need to be able to show agents and editors that you have a certain amount of visibility in your field and a way to reach potential readers.

When people in publishing talk about platform building and promotion, they’re talking about strategies that result in getting your name in front of people who will buy your books.

Examples of building your platform before you get your publishing contract:

• Being interviewed in print, online and broadcast media as the expert in your subject matter.
• Giving talks, workshops and seminars on your subject.
• Practicing your subject—be a coach or consultant, or own your own organization related to your subject. For example, if you’re writing a book about mutual funds, it helps if you’re a working financial advisor. Some writers earn these credentials as they establish themselves in a niche.
• Joining organizations related to your subject matter and related to writing/book publishing itself. You can stay on top of developments this way.
• Starting and maintaining relationships with a lot of people, especially those in your subject area and in publishing. Get out there and network! You don’t have to be a smarmy salesperson to do this. You just have to be genuine. It gets easier with experience.

Getting Started
Ask yourself what you have to say, then do some research into who wants to hear it. I describe my work along the lines of, “I show people how to use the principles of martial arts to live happier, more successful lives.” From that statement flow all of my promotional strategies. It helps me avoid mismatches (like pitching an outlet whose audience wouldn’t be interested in my work).

It’s important to move beyond thinking about just your current book and figure out how to promote all aspects of your career. Interlocking pieces support each other: books and articles generate interest in coaching, consulting, classes (and vice versa).

In addition to writing a book about your subject, what else can you do to get your information into the hands of the people who need it? Can you write editorials, articles, make podcasts, keep a blog, host an online radio show? All of these activities can help you build your credentials and your platform and can help you cross-promote.

Name 10 ideas that come to mind:

Online Promotion
Having an online presence is crucial for promoting your book (and yourself). A blog is a great, inexpensive way to start, and many blogs can be tweaked to serve as a website as well as a blog.

An author website is also a useful tool for promotion. Reporters, agents, editors and readers (potential and actual) will visit your site to learn more about you and your work.

Explore using Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter to interact with potential readers and others interested in your subject matter. You can provide content for related websites and online magazines related to your subject matter. Guest blog on related blogs. Join forums, bulletin boards and groups that talk about your subject matter.

Online promotion is more casual, more about story-telling and being present than anything else. The key to making it work is to establish relationships.

• Decide what you want. Do you want people to be able to contact you? Do you want them to be able to buy your book? Do you want to reach readers by contributing articles to online magazines that cover your subject area? Or all of the above?

• Start small. When I decided it was time to have a website of my own, I started with a basic three or four page site. I had a bio, a list of books, some information about my workshops and a link to an online retailer so people could buy my books if they wanted. As my promotional efforts increased, my website grew.

• Don’t pursue ineffective strategies. What works for one person may not work for another. So give your promotional strategies a chance, but be willing to drop what doesn’t work and try another avenue.

• Keep it real. Most of us have no intention of turning into carnival hucksters. We have the opposite problem—we’re too shy and introverted to promote ourselves effectively. If this is you, keep in mind that many subtle ways of promoting yourself exist, including free enewsletters (with content), a website about you, providing content to other websites for a byline and more. But don’t forget that you want to be professional and courteous about your promotions—don’t spam all your Facebook friends with your latest self-promotion, don’t become the king of spam. You don’t have to yell the loudest to be the most effective.

Getting Professional Help
Many writers, not terribly confident about their promotion skills, feel that hiring a publicist (a freelance publicist as distinct from the publicist your publisher will assign to your book) may be an answer to their problem. While it can help, much of the best work you can do to promote yourself and your book has to be done by you (such as posting regularly to a blog, writing articles on your subject matter, etc.)

Since the publisher’s staff publicist may not be able to do a lot for you—she’s probably juggling twenty other books right now—it’s not unreasonable to explore hiring a freelancer. Just be sure you understand that a freelance publicist is mainly selling pitching skills and access to media. A book publicist isn’t going to be that useful in promoting “you” as opposed to your book, which is a limit.

If you choose to work with a freelancer, you need to engage one well ahead of your book’s scheduled publication date. They’re most effective in getting coverage of your book when it first comes out, and that coverage has to be worked out well ahead of time.

Set goals when you first meet with your publicist. What exactly do you want the publicist to do? What does she think she can do? What does she recommend? The more clearly defined your goals are, the more likely you’ll achieve success. In other words, telling her you want her to promote your book isn’t as useful as “I want you to get me on Oprah.” She may not be able to manage that but at least you’ll both be on the same page in terms of what you mean by “help me promote my book.”

Most publicists will expect you to do a lot of legwork—for example, getting mailing lists for associations you’re a member of, filling out forms identifying all the people you know and what they can do to help you promote your book, creating lists of trade magazines and other periodicals and online publications in your subject area, providing all the information needed to craft a bio and a Q&A and so on. Since you’ll be doing all this work anyway, you may be better served by using a publicist simply as a consultant. For example, hire one for a couple of hours to help you craft your pitch to the media, or hire one to review your website.

One final thought: the publicist can’t build a platform for you or get coverage without you. You have to be committed to it—you’re the key to success. The publicist can help you with her professional knowledge, but in the end it comes down to whether you’re willing to do the work or not.

Working with Your Publisher’s Publicist
Publishers respond to authors who promote themselves. As you promote your book, keep your editor and publicist in the loop. Let them know what you’re doing and how they can help. They’ll often respond with time and money if you take the lead. They put their time and money where it will pay off, so you just need to show them that investing in you will benefit them.

The Big Tour
Most book authors dream of doing the grand book promotion tour, where they sign books for crowds of adoring fans thronging venues from L.A. to New York. Of course, most book authors also know this is a ridiculous fantasy but they’re unsure what the reality is.

The reality is that a typical book signing—author sits at table, signs books for people who buy it—sells four books. Yup. All that time, energy and money, and you sell four books. Of course, having a book signing at a store does encourage the management to order copies of your book and they’ll sell more copies of it before and after your appearance, and they’ll put your name in the newsletter, but all in all a plain vanilla book signing is not very effective promotion.

Better promotion is to have an author event, where you actually do something that people would be interested in watching or learning about. For instance, show how to create a recipe from your cookbook. I’ve done martial arts and self defense demonstrations. If you’re inventive and creative, you can think of something fun to do that will attract a crowd for your author event at the local bookstore.

Writers also arrange virtual tours where they “visit” blogs in their subject matter to promote their book through Q&As, guest posts and giveaways. Like a real-world book tour, these can require a lot of time and produce few books sales. You have to focus on where you will get the most attention for your efforts.

Talks, Seminars and Workshops
Giving talks and presenting workshops can become the most effective promotion of all. For example, you can give a talk at your local library. You can give workshops for Chamber of Commerce members. If you write children’s books, you can visit schools and talk about your stories and about what a writer does. Depending on your subject, you can give talks, workshops and seminars to corporations and individuals across the country (even around the world.) You can offer teleseminars, podcasts and webinars.

The advantage of giving talks and workshops is that you can promote your books at them. In many cases, you can charge a fee that covers your time and the cost of your book, so that every attendee gets one. Some writers actually make more money giving talks and workshops than they do writing and selling their books.

While you may not feel that giving a talk at a library meeting with seven people attending will rocket you to fame and glory, remember that the process of promotion is a process of creating relationships with people. So if you do a good job, an audience member will notice and may think of you for a conference she’s organizing. This has happened to me. I’ve been asked to keynote big conferences as a result of speaking at a local event.

However, remember that your efforts should not go unrewarded. If the venue isn’t going to pay you and won’t let you sell your books, you’d be better off spending your time finding a venue that will pay you and will let you sell your books. If you take too many itty-bitty speaking engagements, it may interfere with your ability to get larger speaking engagements. Always be sure to know what you’re getting out of any promotional activity before you agree to do it.

Once you have some experience under your belt, you can put on your own workshops and seminars. That is, instead of waiting for people to invite you to present at their meetings, you can create your own events, from booking the venue to advertising the event to collecting money at the door. Some speakers never get to this stage, being perfectly happy to pull down several thousand dollar speaking fees and letting others worry about the headaches. But some speakers find this an effective way to promote themselves and their work and put some money in their pockets.

I’m sure you have many other questions about the writing and publishing process. Please explore the blog to help you find answers to your questions. And of course I welcome inquiries sent to me at jennifer at jenniferlawler dot com.