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Publications > Dateline Houston > December 2003 > Feature Article


Volume 43, Issue 3

December 2003

"Hey, Kids! Become an Author at Home in Your Spare Time and Earn Big Bucks!"

Part 1

by John Hedtke, Principal, JVH Communications, and STC Associate Fellow

Even if you can't write the Great American Novel, you may be able to write the Great American Manual. There is a huge market for nonfiction—books about software and computers, fixing cars, photography, mountain-climbing, or cooking. This article is for anyone who wants to write a book and get it published. It's not hard. In fact, it can be a lot of fun.

Getting Started

The first step in writing a technical book is to decide what you want to write about. It's not necessary for you to write about a topic that's never been written about before. Look at how many different books there are about almost any topic. Most of them sell, though they all cover roughly the same material. What makes each of these worth considering is that they are approaching the same material in a different way.

However, you might decide to write a book because you discover that there's no book on the market that addresses the topic you're interested in. For example, I wrote one of my first books—Using Computer Bulletin Boards—because it was the book I wish I could have read five years earlier when I was starting to use bulletin boards and online services. Or you might have a new angle on an old topic that makes it worthwhile: for example, A Field Guide to Windows Icons and Internet for Cats are fun but helpful guides that have a novel and humorous spin.

Building a Basic Proposal

When you have your idea, you'll need to create a proposal. A proposal should contain the working title, the scope and purpose of the book, a description of the intended audience, what the reader should know at the beginning and at the end of the book, and a table of contents or outline.

Your proposal should also include any salient marketing information; for example, whether this book is the first of its kind or whether several other books address the subject but this one takes a new slant. Also tell the publisher what you can do to help market the book. Most publishers are very receptive to having an author work with them on the marketing.

Tip: Many publishers have proposal guidelines on their web sites. All of them will require the basic information described above, but many have additional preferences for proposal information. Once you've drafted your proposal and have chosen a publisher, check for the publisher's proposal guidelines to expand and tailor your proposal to the publisher's preferred style. As you do so, you'll find that you'll develop a proposal format that you like to use and that's acceptable to almost everyone.

In addition to information about the book, you also need to sell yourself. Sell your understanding of the topic and your ability to plan and write 300 to 600 pages in the allotted time, which is never as much as you'd like. Demonstrate that you can write, organize, research, meet deadlines, and stick with the project through completion. (Acquisitions editors live for people who never miss deadlines.)

What if you don't have a specific idea in mind? You may still have general topics that you'd like to write about. One of the best ways to identify potential topics is to identify your own strengths and preferences. For example, I don't care to write books about software development, but I enjoy writing books on computer and software basics. If you're already writing manuals or articles, look at what you've been writing about professionally. Don't forget to note whether you have other skills that you can add to this list: for example, you may be a whiz at setting up computers, at cooking, or at helping your clients analyze their interior design needs. All of these add depth to your writing and increase the potential for a variety of nonfiction books. Good topic knowledge combined with writing ability is enough to sell most publishers on you as a potential author. So, even if you don't have a specific book idea to propose, a general list of topics might well be enough to start with. You can focus your ideas later to fit the publisher's needs.

Choosing a Publisher

With your proposal or topic list in hand, you're ready to choose a publisher. Like other kinds of freelance work, you should ask people in the business for referrals. One source of contacts is local writing groups. Most of these are aimed at the fiction writer, but you might be able to contact other authors by talking to the local chapter of the Society for Technical Communication (at www.stc.org) or the International Association of Business Communicators (at www.iabc.com). Another organization to check into is the National Writers Union (www.igc.apc.org/nwu), which is the trade union for freelance writers of all genres. They have a number of resources, including model contracts. Other sources to check out are the Studio B web site (www.studiob.com) and the Computer Book Authors' list. You can also make some contacts through the www.raycomm.com/techwhirl newsgroup, a moderated newsgroup for technical communicators.

As part of your research, you should go to a large bookstore and look at other books on the same or similar topics. You'll rapidly notice that each publisher has a certain look and feel to its books, which are designed to appeal to a specific audience. Write down the names and addresses of the publishers whose books you would most like to have your name associated with. Ask your contacts if they know anything about these publishers, or check the current Writer's Market (a guide available at all large bookstores) for more information about each publisher.

Tip: It's a good idea to find out whether the publisher already has a book about the topic you want to write about. You can check www.amazon.com and do a topic, title, or keyword search for all the books on this subject. Don't be alarmed if you find 30 titles on the subject. Many of these books may be out of print, dated (books on software and technology can go out of date overnight), or focused on a different aspect than the one that you want to write about. Make careful notes on what's already out there in the market—it can help your case and impress the publisher if you know who you're competing with—øand be ready to show why your book is different from the others. This distinction will go into the marketing section of your proposal.

Phone the publishers on your list and ask to speak to an acquisitions editor. The acquisitions editor looks for authors, solicits and reviews book proposals, and is the project manager for a book. If you already have an idea for a book, you can present it to the acquisitions editor for consideration and see if she likes it. If so, send her the proposal you've drafted. (Be prepared to send a resume and a few writing samples, too.) If you don't have a specific idea but are willing to write on a range of subjects, approach the acquisitions editor as you would approach any other employer. Acquisitions editors frequently have projects that need good writers, and the two of you are likely to find a project that complements your skills and interests, in which case, she may ask you to write a proposal for a specific topic on her desk. By the way, many publishers prefer to consider new authors exclusively by mail. Be prepared in such cases to get just the acquisitions editor's name, address, and instructions for submissions; then hang up and send her your proposal.

If you don't already have extensive technical writing experience, you might need to prove yourself before the publisher considers you as an author. Ask the acquisitions editors if they need technical reviewers. Technical reviewers check the manuscript for technical accuracy and readability.

This takes from 50 to 100 hours of time, for which you'll get paid $400 to $1200. The money is not great, but the work isn't very hard. Technical reviewing gives you and the publisher a chance to evaluate each other.

Once you submit your proposal, the acquisitions editor will consider it for publication. Large publishers usually have an editorial committee, a meeting in which all the acquisitions editors discuss the proposals they've received and make decisions about which books they want to handle. You'll usually know within a couple of weeks whether the acquisitions editor has accepted or rejected your proposal. One possibility is that the acquisitions editor will come back to you and say "We like the general idea, but we'd like to have you write the book for a different audience (or with a different scope and purpose or in a different style) than you've proposed." This is generally a good sign: it means that the acquisitions editor believes in your ability enough to keep talking and that she thinks elements of your proposal could be profitable.

Tip: Always let the acquisitions editor know that you're willing to consider writing about other topics as well. My first book actually originated because I was trying to sell another book idea. An acquisitions editor at Osborne/McGraw-Hill said, "Well, we don't think that your book will sell well enough for us, but we like the way you present your ideas. How'd you like to write a book on Microsoft Word for DOS?" I prepared a proposal and sent it in. The editorial committee reviewed it, made some changes to my proposed scope and the audience I was writing for, and I had my first book contract a week later.

If you have a great idea for a book and one publisher doesn't bite, try another publisher. A rejection doesn't mean it's a bad idea, simply that they weren't interested or it didn't fit. (Do ask why they didn't want to do it, though; frequently, the information you get about one rejection will give you what you need to refine the proposal so that you can sell it to the next publisher.) Keep sending proposals out. Publishers are always looking for new books and new authors. And you might be able to resubmit a proposal to a publisher, who will then approve it the second time: what the publisher wants right now may change in six months. Don't submit a proposal simultaneously to different publishers (known in the business as "multiple submission") until you have a good understanding of the publishing process.

Avoid publishers who are flaky or have very bad reputations for how they deal with their authors (there are a few of these, sadly). If you don't know and you don't know someone to ask, you might try phoning a few of the authors in a publisher's stable. You can frequently track them down through their biographies on the back of the book. Many authors of computer and other books will add their e-mail or web addresses as part of their acknowledgments or contact information. You can also use Internet-based telephone directories to do simple detective work for tracking down e-mail addresses, phone numbers, or mailing addresses. And as a last resort, you might send a couple of letters to authors via the publisher. Seal the letters, send them to the publisher, and ask the publisher to forward them to the author at her or his home address. It's as good a way to get to them as any, and it stands a fair chance of success.

Advances, Royalties, and Contracts

Suppose the acquisitions editor likes your proposal and offers you a contract. The biggest question to ask is "How much will I get paid and how often?" There are two types of payment: royalties and advances.

First-time nonfiction authors usually get royalties of 10 to 15% of the publisher's net receipts—that is, the income the publisher gets when they sell a copy of your book, which averages out to around half the cover price of the book. Foreign royalty rates will probably be about half of the standard royalty rates, and other types of sales might pay less than the full royalty. Most publishers expect to sell 15,000 to 25,000 copies of a book over several years, so if the book sells well, you can make $25,000 or more in royalties.

An advance is a sum paid to you in advance to subsidize your expenses while you write the book. Advances are levied against your future royalties. Publishers generally pay between a quarter and a half of the advance when you start writing, with the balance spaced out over the writing period for the book. In other words, if you negotiate a $6000 advance, you'll likely see $2000 up front, $2000 at the midpoint, and the remaining $2000 when you are finished. The advance is yours to keep, even if the book doesn't sell well enough to "earn out the advance"that is, to generate enough royalties to pay for the advance you've received.

Publishers aren't required to pay your royalties until 90 days after the end of the royalty period, and they don't. Acquisitions editors may be sympathetic, but they don't write the checks. Advances alone usually aren't enough to live on. Plan on having other sources of income until your royalties start arriving, and always keep some cash in reserve in case they don't arrive. Don't quit your day job right away.

Look out for clauses in the contract that let the publisher pay you a reduced royalty on discounted sales. These clauses usually work out so that the publisher can use your royalty to subsidize discounts to wholesalers. Remember that everything in a contract is negotiable, even if the contract is preprinted on pretty bond paper.

Find out what production costs you are liable for. For example, you may need to pay for an indexer to create the index on your book. Costs like this are levied against future royalties, not against your advance. Make sure there are no unpleasant surprises.

As a first-time author, you won't have a lot of bargaining power. Don't be afraid to ask for what you want, but don't expect to get it. If you can get the publisher to increase your advance or the royalty rate a little and get 15 extra copies of your book, call it a victory.

Publishing contracts are a complex and fascinating subject. Buy a copy of How to Be Your Own Literary Agent by Richard Curtis and read it before signing your contract. If you want outside help in deciphering the contract, consult a lawyer who specializes in publishing, entertainment, or intellectual property law. Some literary agents will review a contract for you for an hourly rate. You probably won't need more than an hour, and you'll learn a lot about what you are agreeing to.

One last piece of advice on contracts: never sign a contract with a publisher (or anyone else, for that matter) whom you don't trust. It doesn't matter how much money you're being offered, how good the deal looks, and how much opportunity the contract may give you; if you don't trust the other party, you'll sleep poorly every time you think of it. Nothing is worth that.

Do You Need an Agent?

Although some nonfiction publishers prefer to work only with authors who have agents, you don't have to have an agent to start with.

There are many things an agent can do for you as a beginning author. An agent is supposed to help you find a publisher and negotiate the contract, for which you will generally part with 15% of your earnings. Agents can provide a valuable entrance to the publishing business, and some of the best will even help manage your career, but you shouldn't sign up with an agent just because you think you need one. As you've seen, finding publishers can be easy and fun. For information on negotiating contracts, How to Be Your Own Literary Agent will tell you most of what you need to know. You might, therefore, be comfortable foregoing an agent entirely if you enjoy researching and contacting publishers and are willing to consider negotiating your own contracts.

The moral of the story is: "Don't get an agent until you know why you need one, then get the best you can find." Stephen King says that if you're a bad writer, your agent gets 15% of nothing; if you're a good writer, agents will come looking for you and you can pick a good one.

Warning: Agents range anywhere from "great" to "terrible." Moreover, an agent who works well with one person may be terrible for another because of personality and style differences. Ask your contacts who they like to work with and why. If you've already written a book or two, ask your acquisitions editor who they like to work with and why. Their preferences in an agent might be 180 degrees from your own goals, but that information will help you make an informed decision.

Recommended Reading List

Editor's note: The second half of this article will appear in the January 2004 issue of Dateline Houston.

This article copyright 1990-2002 by John Hedtke (john@hedtke.com). One-time serial rights granted to STC newsletters to reprint the article in entirety in exchange for advance notification and permission and two copies of the printed final version. All other rights are reserved by the author. To request reprint rights, contact the author at john@hedtke.com.


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