How Do You Write and Publish a Nonfiction Book?
Many scholars consider writing a book, but don't know how to go about actually writing and publishing one. Do you self-publish or sign with a traditional publisher? Do you need an agent? Do you make money from your book?
Earlier this month, five scholars from the Ronin Institute (including me!) held a panel on book publishing in which we elucidated the process.
Thank you to my fellow panelists:
- Alex Lancaster & Gordon Webster (Python for the Life Sciences, Apress 2019, originally self-published on Leanpub in 2016).
- Bryan Quoc Le (150 Food Science Questions Answered, Rockridge Press, 2020).
- Emily Monosson (Blight: Fungi and the Coming Pandemic, Norton, 2023).
- Jen Barr (To Clean Mother India: Sanitation, Caste, and NGOs during the Clean India Mission).
We began with short introductions from everyone about their book(s) and how they published them. This was followed by a generous discussion and Q&A. Below, you'll find my introduction—which explains the process I went through in developing my book idea, creating a book proposal, finding an agent, and finding a publisher. Then, I've listed some of the questions that arose during the Ronin panel with elaborations on my answers.
How did I publish my book?
My book is tentatively titled #PhDone: How To Get Through Grad School and Thrive—Personally and Professionally, forthcoming from Columbia University Press. Here's my announcement, an update, and another update on where the book's at. The book is one I wish I'd been able to read when I started grad school. It's aimed at current and future grad students.
I formed the idea during my final year or so of my PhD. I began reading online about the process of nonfiction book publishing and learned that the first thing I needed was a book proposal.
Most nonfiction is sold on proposal. A book proposal is a detailed summary of your book idea, a table of contents (often with details about what goes in each proposed chapter), an analysis of where your book might fit in the market, and one or more sample chapters. Publishers use this proposal to decide whether they want to publish your book or not. There are lots of example proposals and templates online and I probably looked at a dozen of them.
I spent a few months crafting a book proposal and writing sample chapters. Then I needed a publisher.
But I didn't go straight to a publisher. I submitted my proposal to agents first. Literary agents represent authors and help them deal with publishers. If you want to sell your book to a big trade publisher, you almost always need an agent. Academic presses often work directly with authors, but I thought my book could maybe go to a trade publisher. Plus, I knew authors usually got a better deal when they had representation.
I submitted to agents, and I revised my query letter, and I submitted to more agents. It can take a long time to find the right fit. Fit matters!If you want to be represented by an agent, you want to find someone who will champion your book. You want someone as excited about it as you are. After nearly a year of submitting to dozens of agents and interviewing a couple, I found the right fit.
My agent helped me revise the book proposal, including adding an additional sample book chapter. Then he submitted the proposal to publishers—both trade publishers and university presses. Again, I was back to waiting—for nearly a year. We had interest from a couple of presses, including one trade press. Eventually, I signed a contract with Columbia University Press (CUP).
Once I had a contract, I had to actually write the book! So I did that. I submitted my manuscript to my editor at CUP. She's working on her feedback. Also, because CUP is an academic press, they send all their books out for peer review before publication—so I'm also waiting on peer review. Once I have my reviews, I revise, then we get on with the publishing!
Why is traditional publishing so slow?
Traditional publishing involves a large team of people. The more people involved, the slower it often is. The industry is overburdened; far more manuscripts and proposals are submitted than are ever published as books.
I think my experience has been slower than many—a lot of books make it to print with 1-2 years! But I happened to be querying and submitting during the first COVID years, when everything was moving slower. I happened to be writing a niche book, which meant finding the right fit took longer.
I knew up front that traditional publishing would be a long process. But I don't want to be a publisher; I want to write, and have a team of people help me with the rest of it!
Why not self-publish?
Many people choose to self-publish! On the panel, we fielded a lot of questions about self-publishing. Sometimes it's the right choice for the book. It depends on what you, as an author, want to focus on; it depends on your topic and your audience; it depends on the market. There are lots of pros and cons each way. Some people think you get a higher quality physical product with traditional publishers, since they do the cover design, typesetting, etc. You get the "real publisher" name on your book.
I chose to pursue traditional publishing with my book because I thought the book would be better as a result. Many people choose otherwise.
How much do authors earn from their books?
It varies widely. In the panel discussion, we had reports of advances from $2000 up to $20,000. (An advance is royalties you get from the sale of the book paid out in advance of actually selling those books. You have to "earn out" the advance before you see any royalty checks.) The lower end of that range is fairly typical for academic nonfiction, while the middle and higher end is not uncommon for trade nonfiction.
Royalties in traditional publishing are typically around 10-15% for hardcover books and 7.5-10% for trade paperbacks. If you self-publish, you often get a higher percentage of the book sale price, often upwards of 50%. But in self-publishing, you pay more of the publishing costs out of pocket, too.
(Read my review of Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott)
Are e-books more popular than print books now?
Some people prefer to buy and read e-books and some people prefer to buy and read print books. Ebooks are cheaper and easier to produce than print books and will often net you higher royalties or greater profit.
Where do you find funding to write a book?
Personally, I'm funded by my husband's full-time software engineering career ;)
The advance you get from a traditional publisher is supposed to help defray the costs of writing the book. Usually, it's not enough to cover costs (since advances are low and living expenses are high). You may be able to apply for grants from various foundations, organizations, state arts commissions, or other groups. There are lots of writer-in-residency programs, though few that are useful for people with young kids. Search online; lists abound.
What do you write about? How do you know what your audience wants and how to please them?
Choose a topic you're interested in and would be happy spending several years thinking about. I got advice once that you don't actually have to be an expert on a topic to write a book on it, because you can interview experts. You do have to be passionate enough about the topic to spend several years of your life on it; you do have to be able to craft a story and write well; you don't have to know everything about the topic up front.
When you develop your idea, you should consider who your audience is (e.g., grad students who want more balanced lives). No book is for everyone. What does your specific audience want to learn? What are they curious about? How can your book help them? Answering these questions can help you determine what goes in the book.
(Read my review of Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction by Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd)
How much research do you do about books on the same topic before writing a book?
Most nonfiction book proposals require a section about competitive books, i.e., other books that are similar to yours in topic and audience. Search online for books with similar keywords to yours; browse the library on the shelves where your book might sit; see what you find. You want similar books to exist, because that means there's an audience.
Then, for each competitive book, write a couple sentences detailing what’s different about your book idea. Do you cover different information? Do you have a different angle? What makes your idea publishable? This exercise will help flesh out your idea and what's different about it. If you have an agent, they may help you find additional competitive books, as may the publisher.
What's the difference between academic books/monographs and more commercial books?
Nonfiction books for more general readership need a narrative arc or strong argument. They are often more accessible, with greater synthesis across topics or areas, while academic books and monographs are generally narrower, less narrative, and more technical. That said, there's a market, especially in classrooms, for academic books that are both academically rigorous and compellingly written, readable, and not too technical.
One panelist said it was more fun to write for the general public! Another panelist recommended this guide to turning a dissertation into a book.
How do you market your book? How do you get reviews and write-ups?
Caveat for this answer: I haven't marketed my book yet. But I do have a draft of a marketing plan, and the other panelists shared their experiences.
You do most marketing yourself. In self-publishing, you do all of it. With a traditional publisher, you may have help. How much help depends on the publisher and how well they think your book will do; they spend more marketing money on potential bestsellers.
Marketing activities can include:
- Asking people to write testimonials or reviews for you
- Social media posts about your book or related information
- Guest appearances or interviews on podcasts
- A "blog tour" with guest posts on relevant blogs or websites
- Hosting webinars related to your book
- Promoting your book when running relevant training sessions or classes
That's all the questions for now! I'll write a followup soon with more detail on the proposal and querying process. In addition, several panelists and I are working on a writeup for the Ronin Institute blog, which will cover additional topics (like our long discussion of self-publishing). I'll add a link here when that post is up!