Finding the Appropriate Publisher for Your Work

By Jodi Brandon

With tens of thousands of books published annually and hundreds of thousands of magazine articles published annually, it’s easy to see how you (and your work) can get lost in the shuffle. If you’ve chosen the right outlets for your writing — and by “right,” I mean the most appropriate — that won’t happen.

The process is tricky because writers want to be published. We want the by-line or the book deal so badly that we sometimes lose sight of the long-term and instead choose the short-term gratification of having our work accepted and published. Choosing to work with any ol’ publisher or publication instead of waiting for the right one, though, can come back to haunt us. So how can we prevent that from happening?

The short answer is the one we all learned in Writing 101: Make a list of potential markets (by way of our old friend, Writer’s Market), study them, narrow down the list, study some more, and choose the best — most appropriate — fit.

What do I mean by appropriate? There are two aspects that need to be considered: topic and size of the publisher or publication. Let’s start with topic-appropriateness.


Let’s say you’re working on a nonfiction book proposal. Your first step is to weed out fiction-only publishers. You’re left with a huge list of publishers of nonfiction books of all kinds. To narrow down that list, be as specific as possible about your proposal. What kind of nonfiction book are you writing? Let’s say it’s a book about the crisis in the Catholic church. Now you can search for publishers of religion and current events books. This list would include American Catholic Press, Four Faces Press, and Regnery Publishing. This step will be even easier once you identify your approach. Are you tacking the subject from a religious perspective or a current events perspective? There — you’ve narrowed down your potential publishers list still further. You’ll find out what to do with that working list when I discuss finding a size-appropriate publisher later in this article.

Sticking with topic-appropriateness, let’s say it’s an article on the crisis in the Catholic church, not a book. To perfect your query, you need to focus that idea. Will your article be a commentary on the legal aspects of the situation? Will it be a commentary on the state of the church today? Or perhaps it will be a profile of several victims? The focus of your article will guide you to the appropriate market. Perhaps your list includes Christianity Today, Church & State, and Spiritual Life.

Writer Julie Hood, freelance writer and moderator of The Organized Writer recommends that writers do more than just read Writer’s Market to find the best fit for their work. Julie says, “They need to check the advertisements and ask themselves, ‘Would a reader buying X want to read my article?’” In her e-book, The Organized Writer, Julie recommends using a fill-in-the-blank form called a “Publication Analyzer” to study a market. The form has sections on demographics, article topics, and advertisers to help writers find the most appropriate publication.

Where Do Agents Fit In?

For book writers, often the path to the appropriate publisher is via the appropriate literary agent, particularly if you want to work with a large publishing house. Most of these houses don’t accept unagented material. You can find literary agents who specialize in your subject matter in the Literary Marketplace. Another option is to go to a bookstore or library, find the section that will host your book, pick up a few titles, and scan the acknowledgments for agents’ names. Some authors mention their agents; others don’t. Once you have a couple names jotted down, you’ve got a starting point: a list of agents who you know have worked with your genre, perhaps even your specific subject area or topic. These people will know which publishers to contact — and, better still, which editors at which publishing houses.


Once your topic is focused — and this applies whether you’re writing a book or an article — you should be looking at a handful of appropriate publishers. So which of these appropriate publishers is the most appropriate? Let’s look at the pros and cons of large versus small and mid-sized publishing houses as well as national, large-scale magazines versus smaller and regional publications.

Money is the name of the game in book publishing. The equation is simple: Generally speaking, the larger the publishing house, the larger the authors’ advances and marketing budgets. That’s a bit misleading, though, because if a publisher’s marketing budget is, say, $100,000, and that publisher has 100 authors, that doesn’t mean that each author gets $1,000. Big-name authors will get the bulk of the advance money and be sent on national author tours with book signings, TV appearances, and so forth. The majority of writers, unfortunately, get lost in the mix.

If you’re willing — and able, financially — to take on the bulk of marketing and publicity duties on your own, and the cache of a large publishing company appeals to you, then go for it. The publicity department will love you, in fact, because you’re doing its job: Promoting a book for as little money as possible — in this case, nothing out of the publisher’s pocket. You’ll be the one creating postcards and/or bookmarks, sending out press releases, setting up book signings, paying for expenses, scheduling interviews with media, and so on.

There’s less money to go around for all writers at smaller publishing houses, but as long as that money is spent wisely, you’ll be in good shape. Maybe you won’t go on a national book tour, and maybe you won’t make it onto Good Morning America, but maybe you’ll get a regional book tour and a national radio tour, in which you conduct phone interviews from home with radio stations across the country. As Massachusetts-based writer April Prince points out, “Especially if your work is aimed at a niche market, specialized publishers are a terrific avenue for getting your message out.” The reason for this is specific familiarity with a certain subject matter.

This familiarity translates into every aspect of the publishing process. Your editor knows the right questions to ask, the sub rights department knows which magazines to contact about serial rights, and so forth. Laurie Kelly, Sales Representative at The Career Press, Inc./New Page Books, notes that an appropriate publisher is critical to the sales process: “Publishing with a company with existing relationships in the marketplace in your subject is essential. It means I know which buyer to contact at bookstore chains, which mailing lists to use to target special sales, and so forth. Otherwise, we’re starting from square one.”

If you’re writing an article, certainly a publicity budget doesn’t apply, but the same principle does. A national magazine gives you national exposure with mountains of readers (and probably a higher per-word pay rate), whereas smaller, trade, and regional magazines have a more limited, and sometimes specialized, readership. Are you trying to establish yourself as an expert on a particular topic? If so, a subject-specific publication (as opposed to a general-interest publication) could be the way to go. The smaller per-word pay could be worth it in the long run if your clip gets into the right hands and puts you on your way to being the expert in a particular field.

Sure, it takes a bit of work, but finding the most appropriate home for your work is worth it in the long run.

In her role as president of JBedit, Jodi Brandon has edited and/or contributed to a number of high-profile book projects, including The Barnes & Noble Guide to Children’s Books (3rd Edition), The Buzz on Beer anthology, the Frommer’s Irreverent Guide travel series, The 50 Best (and Worst) Business Deals of All Time, and Copyright Plain & Simple. In addition to her editing responsibilities, she has also completed a number of writing projects on behalf of national and regional clients. You can learn more about Jodie Brandon on her website.

The Accidental Publisher

By Elisabeth Keely Wilson

Ostensibly, it was your basic itch just begging to be scratched. You know—the kind of itch that can’t quite be reached, so it keeps twitching and itching, demanding your attention. Finally, in order to appease the little beast, you have to twist and turn your body into various odd positions, until at last, you find just the right spot and “ah, relief!” This itch of mine, however, proved to be even bolder than your ordinary, garden variety. The little pest seemed to have a mind of its own and was clearly intent on attaining its complete and total satisfaction—no matter how long the wait might be. Even after a few years of my attempting to ignore the vexing sensation followed by a year or two of diverting its attention with creative endeavors, it persisted. In the end, completely exasperated by its relentless pursuit, I succumbed to the demand of that irrepressible itch—I will write a book!

Although I was aware that the contents of a full-length manuscript were contained in the piles of artwork and copious notes written to myself, I still couldn’t visualize how the various elements might be transformed into a cohesive whole. However, a few nights after agreeing to pursue the itch’s wishes, my unconscious mind rewarded my new-found willingness with a dream in which the book’s framework was clearly presented and the interlocking pieces seemed to fall naturally into place. Fortunately, my conscious mind retained many of the details of the previous night’s journey into dreamland and so, the following day, the writing began in earnest. Three months later, my itch was living in a state of bliss, prompting me to realize that the next phase of the process was about to begin. It was time for a publisher . . .

Now, I acknowledge there are still times when I long for that fairy tale existence where good things inevitably happen to good people; however, this wasn’t one of those times. Upon a thorough investigation of the publishing industry, it became apparent that the probability of my manuscript connecting with just the right publisher was, indeed, slim, and would be increased only with a sizeable investment of time and effort on my part and more than a bit of cooperation from the powers that be.

During one of my moments of doubt, I was struck by the realization that there were two potential obstacles that could prevent me from ever finding a publisher. Not only was I a first-time author (having previously written for magazines only), but my book, as proposed, would require the four-color process to be printed throughout. Taking these two points into consideration along with the magnitude of articles describing others’ difficulties, I chose to forego the publisher route, and instead, focused my concentration on the objective of securing an agent. At least this way, my logical mind reasoned, the agent would be responsible for producing that essential publisher.

The very first agent I approached actually offered a forewarning of what was to come. Her response to my book proposal was a handwritten note: “This is all quite lovely but would be difficult to sell to a publisher. You might want to consider self-publishing.” Pshaw! At the time, I was unaware of the significance of receiving a handwritten note from a literary agent rather than your basic form letter and I simply didn’t want to accept that this agent was being quite forthright with regard to my situation. Rather, my hope sprang eternal as it so often does, and I turned my attention to the numerous letters mailed to other agencies, anticipating that one of them would respond favorably.

Needless to say, over the next few months, innumerable dry responses signed with the agent’s stamp were sent my direction, basically informing me of the unsuitability of my proposal to that particular agent’s needs or desires. Luckily, or maybe unluckily, I was not one to give up until all viable options had been explored. So another batch of letters would simply be dispatched, along with my heartfelt gratitude that at least there wasn’t a shortage of literary agents.

Just as my patience and persistence were beginning to wear thin, I happened to attend a women’s writing conference, and lo and behold, seated directly behind me was an attendee who was the owner of a publishing company. Oh, the beauty of serendipity! This publisher agreed to review my book over the weekend (a copy of which was my usual appendage), reportedly liked what she read, and I liked that she liked it. Over the next few weeks, we conversed frequently, negotiated the terms of a contract, and came to an agreement. It was with a humungous sigh of relief that I signed the final contract. Hallelujah! I had a publisher!

The next few months flew by as the manuscript was checked and rechecked, the finishing touches were added to the artwork and the cover design, and the entire package was submitted to a professional editor designated by the publisher for the book’s final reading. Upon completing the suggested editorial changes, the book was formatted, chapter by chapter, so that the negative film needed for the printing process could be created directly from disk. During this period, a common question posed to me by various family members was, “Who are you going to be today—Elisabeth, Betty, Elsbeth, Lily, Lisa, or Ellie?” Now, this isn’t quite as strange as it sounds once you take into account that I was not only the author, but also the copy editor, the artist, the graphic designer, the cover designer, and last but certainly not least, the computer technician. Whoops, and I almost forgot—I was and still am somebody’s wife and mother.

Well, as the bumper sticker so succinctly says… life happens. Just two days before the complete and unabridged version of the book was to be delivered to the printer, Chicken Little was proven to be right—indeed, it was the day that the sky fell. Quite possibly, the sky didn’t come crashing down on you and your world but it certainly did on mine. That morning’s mail had brought a letter from my publisher informing me that “unfortunately the company’s doors [were] closing as a prerequisite to the immediate need to file for bankruptcy.” The intent of the letter was to state that our contract was, in three words, null and void. So I did what Chicken Little always did—I looked to the sky for answers.

I was utterly confused—perplexed and befuddled—by this unexpected turn of events. What I truly longed for in that moment was a meticulously detailed set of instructions for this experience called life. Then I would know what to think and do! Instead, I was offered the suggestion that I just go with the flow and see where the flow took me. Now, while I am more adept today at going with the flow than I once was, it doesn’t necessarily mean I do it easily or with great panache but I did agree to try. Amazingly enough, I still had the willingness to persist (that itch had taught me well) in spite of not knowing where I was going or in which direction. I simply resolved to pay attention to anything and everything that came my way and let whatever happened happen. In essence, happenstance would lead the way. In other words, I was an accident just waiting to happen.

Somewhere during one of my sojourns along the information speedway (a fancy name for the Internet), I found myself at a website designed by independent publishers, for independent publishers. After perusing the site for just a few moments, I joined the association simply because I recognized its obvious value if I were to ever self-publish. At this point, I still wasn’t too excited about the idea of self-publishing, but I had begun to tentatively consider it as a slight possibility.

Actually, there was a valid basis for my hesitation. Having owned a graphic design business for many years, I was keenly aware of the amount of time, energy, and money that would be required to promote and market a book, particularly after the book’s publication. In addition, I recalled from past experience that the reality, in terms of time and effort expended on any one project, was usually double that of one’s initial expectation. However, I was attempting to remain open to the possibilities and let life’s current guide my way. So with every twist and turn, I simply whispered a little prayer that it wasn’t toward the falls.

My meanderings on the Internet also led me to a virtual storehouse of information involving various legalities within the publishing industry. Pertinent topics for the self-publisher included applying for a fictitious business name, obtaining a seller’s permit, registering for a copyright, acquiring a UPC symbol, and cataloging one’s book according to Library of Congress guidelines. Realizing that it might be wise to have all my ducks in a row—just in case—I began the process of filling out the various forms and applications required, eventually sending them on to their respective homes.

In the meantime, it had come to my attention that many of the newly released art books and children’s books featuring color illustrations had, in actuality, been printed overseas rather than in the United States. Intending to do just a bit of research on the various printing options, I subsequently found the publishing association’s website offered an abundance of information and contacts. Armed with a written bid from a large American printer (a benefit of my relationship with the now defunct publisher), my goal was to obtain competitive bids from printers elsewhere around the globe. I quickly discovered that many of the overseas printing companies had representatives located in the U.S. in order to facilitate the bidding of jobs. Eventually narrowing the field down, I finally met with one international printer to personally review several book samples that had been produced at his printing operation in Asia over the last few years. In spite of my doubts concerning the possible roadblocks with overseas printing, his extensive knowledge of the printing industry and his very competitive bid and printing schedule were quite reassuring.

Simultaneously, the quest for a publisher was underway, with my recent abandonment furnishing the key to open the door. After successfully arranging an interview with the president of a publishing company whose current list seemed to be the perfect match for my book, my hopes were high. Within the first few minutes of our meeting, however, came the revelation that his company didn’t, in his words, “do color.” So that was that! Our brief exchange concluded with a repetition of the handwritten message received so many months before. “This is all quite lovely but would be difficult to sell to a publisher. You would be better off self-publishing.” Consequently, I was offered the names of two distributors who could skillfully represent my work and who would be apt to accept me as a publisher in my own right.

Having been tossed a bunch of lemons, I knew the scenario—it was time to make lemonade. I figured I might as well take one more step into unknown territory, reasoning that if it didn’t work out, then I would absolutely, positively know which direction to proceed. I applied for a business loan requesting an amount that would more than cover the actual printing costs if I did, in fact, self-publish. Much to my consternation as well as to my surprise, the loan was approved by the end of the following day. Yikes! I was, literally and figuratively, at a point of no return. Standing on the edge of the precipice, my mind was a muddle.

Still clinging to the notion of myself as the emerging author, being represented by a strong, stalwart publisher, I was aware that the image was beginning to look suspiciously like a dream. Or possibly a favorite fairy tale? The reality was that I had a book ready to go to print a dependable printer prepared to respond to my every need, and the necessary funds safely ensconced in the bank. If I let myself fall into the world of self-publishing, I wondered, would I crash and burn? Or would I find my wings with which to fly? A flash of clarity brought the realization that the answers to my pondering would be found only with my acceptance of the challenge, come whatever may.

A color dummy of the book was packaged along with thirteen zip disks and sent to Korea, with the hope that, at least in this case, the number thirteen would be lucky. After three weeks, I received a slightly damaged box (Korea is a long way from San Francisco) containing a professionally prepared color proof of the entire book. So far, so good. After indicating a few minor changes, the proofs were immediately returned to Korea, as I didn’t want to create any hang-ups in the printing process. The next several weeks crawled at a snail’s pace while my emotions ran rampant, catapulting from intense excitement to paralyzing fear and back again. Finally, after what felt like five months instead of just five weeks, I received the much-anticipated call—a shipment for Brookside Press was docked at the Oakland harbor, would I accept delivery?

Barely a year after surrendering to that infernal itch, I became the publisher/owner of five thousand books. Today, upon opening my garage door, my eyes are immediately drawn to the space that is covered high with sturdy cardboard boxes, each one boldly proclaiming the scope of its journey:

Brookside Press
Danville, CA
Printed in Korea

In all honesty, the actual presence of one hundred twenty-five boxes can be somewhat intimidating, particularly if you have the propensity to view each and every book as a reminder of the work still to come. Yet at the same time, I stand in awe of what I have accomplished thus far, seemingly in spite of myself. It is with a sense of ownership and pride that I reflect on the tower of boxes upon boxes leading upward toward the sky and I am suddenly filled with gratitude that I didn’t crash and burn—at least not yet. In retrospect, to classify my experience as pure happenstance or a simple quirk of fate seems, at least to my way of thinking, to be an oversimplification of the events. Indeed, the more plausible explanation for my foray into the publishing world is that it was an opportunity in disguise, just begging to be scratched.

You can find more of Elizabeth Keely Wilson’s writing as well as her art at

Writing Family Stories

By Dr. Marlene Caroselli

“As you are, I once was; As I am, you will be.”

Why revisit the past? Why record family stories? Nestled in the gently undulating hills above Celano, Italy, lies a cemetery. The brittle, silvery leaves of olive trees whisper to the tombstones there, creating the smallest disturbances in the buttery scene. The Abruzzi sun bleaches the air and the marble and the earth to stillness, as it has done for centuries.

In this cemetery, in these hills, one gravestone in particular offers a prophetic insight into the future. When we were children, my father reminded us of those gravestone words whenever we scoffed at the caution learned by those older than we. He tried to change our youthful irreverence, an irreverence marked by brilliant, insouciant optimism. He tried to convert it to awareness — awareness of time and its inexorable progress toward old age. Convinced we would never succumb to toothlessness, hair loss, or arthritic knees, the words barely penetrated our thin shell of experience. The words come back now, though: “As you are, I once was. As I am, you will be.”

The stories that were an insignificant part of my childhood have been transformed, in my own adulthood, into a tribute to my father and the undeniable spirit that led him across the Atlantic Ocean. Newly revisited, that spirit has led me to the tiny graveyard once again, in the corner of my mind in which “useless” information has been piled.

My father’s story is an insight into childhood in a faraway time, a distant land, a time and place so removed that it bears little relevance to children today. On the other hand, perhaps it bears all the relevance in the world. You, too can travel to those times and places. They lie in the heart of every elderly person you know. The only passport you need to enter is the willingness to listen. Visit there often. You’ll learn, as I did in dewy morning conversations with my father, about the past and how it can shape your future. Scan the verses of an elderly person. Learn the meter of their days. Delight in their stanzas before death denies their words a place on blank pages. You can meet your own future by returning to your past.

How to pull the stories out of mental storage

When my father slipped into his 90th year, he continued to deny death, continued to defy life. His voice cracked then but it once roared. As he aged, he shuffled back and forth because his back was “wobbly.” But he used to stride. He used to march, in fact, through the streets of our childhood — his back erect, his head held high. He planted seeds every summer and shoveled snow every winter, but that was before congestive heart failure became his master.

He was a man whose mosaic I will never grasp full sight of. But I have pieces. I have pieces. He yielded them to me in the early morning hours. As I massaged his back to clear his lungs, the way nurses taught me, I asked questions about his early life in a place, in a time I will never know. He unlocked those memories grudgingly at first, and then with greater detail. My father’s story, which is now in print, started the moment he grasped life in the small town of Celano, Italy, and ended — in the memoir at least — the day he left for the land of opportunity.

Drumrolling my hands across his back, I listened as he brushed the dust off old memories. I discovered what sins could be committed in the name of religion. I listened and I came to understand that the violence of the body is nothing compared to the violence of words that can rip the heart and sear the spirit. I realized that the declaration of death may be the very beginning of life and that cruelty can be inadvertent. I found, by reliving his past with him, that small gestures could cause large fissures in the heart. And that there is poetry in the most prosaic of lives.

Find that poetry by:

  • Asking open-ended questions. “Dad, what was school like for you in the old days?”

  • Listening without interruption. Keep paper and pencil nearby so you can write down what you wanted to ask and not worry about forgetting it.

  • Recording what is told to you. In my case, the book was a gift to my father, one he did not realize he would be receiving. And so, after our morning interviews, I would rush to my computer and list all the details from the outline I had recorded as I listened. If a tape recorder is not intrusive in your circumstances, so much the better.

  • Taking time and giving time. Don’t rush the raconteur. Be patient with his or her pauses. Yes, you can prompt but don’t take over. It’s not your story, after all.

  • Using simple, single words. “Dad, when I say ‘apple,’ what memories does it bring to mind from your childhood?”

By spending time with your family treasure, by validating the life he or she has lived, you will be doing more than gathering material for writing. You will be passing along to future generations your family’s legacy. What writing is more important than that?

Dr. Marlene Caroselli is the author of 55 business books and a fictionalized memoir, The Boy Who Braved the Mountains.

Creative Nonfiction

By Phyllis Hanlon

At the mention of “nonfiction” you may cringe and think of wordy, boring essays by long-winded speech writers, technical manuals bursting with legalese that no one except the creators can understand, or dry newspaper stories. Well, let’s place the word “creative” before nonfiction and see what a difference it makes. A new picture comes to mind, one that is colorful and engaging, sure to grab and hold your attention.

The proliferation of nonfiction writing is evident by the numbers of nonfiction articles being published in some major magazines such as The New Yorker, Harper’s, and Atlantic Monthly. Years ago fiction filled the pages of these publications. Many of the magazines and journals on the newsstand today, due to changing times and technology, provide their readership with more nonfiction articles than fiction.

In the early 1920s American readers generally sought fiction in their magazines, but after World War II the climate of the world changed. Instead of looking for escape, readers were now interested in real-life issues told in an interesting manner. The New Yorker is a case in point. Glance through the index and you will find just a few fiction pieces; nonfiction articles predominate. Harper’s and The Atlantic Monthly follow the same format, printing principally nonfiction pieces.

The nonfiction that is found in these major publications is so well-written that even a subject that you might never have considered reading about will hold your interest. Obviously the writer must show a keen fascination for the topic, do extensive research, and finally choose his or her words carefully to craft an exciting tale. Otherwise, the reader may never get past the first sentence.

“CoverAccording to William Zinsser in the fifth edition of his popular book On Writing Well (HarperCollins, 1994), many writers began their careers as journalists. H.L. Mencken, E.B. White, Lewis Thomas, Ring Lardner, Ellen Goodman and many other major writers were working journalists before publishing literary works. These writers concentrated on subjects that they were familiar with and wrote ”for themselves,” never worrying about slanting a story to meet requirements for a certain audience. In this way they were able to produce works that were successful. Most readers enjoy a story that is well written and displays obvious interest and enthusiasm on the part of the writer.

Journalism per se tends to be very factual and straightforward. The adage “The facts, just the facts,” rules most journalistic writing. However, there are many columnists nowadays who write interesting articles about common occurrences in daily life. Jacqueline Mitchard, Kathleen Parker, Maureen Dowd, Bob Greene, and Sid McKean are just a few names that spring to mind. These writers have a knack for taking the ordinary and injecting just the right touch of humor, outrage, empathy, or sarcasm to keep their readers interested. Of course, reporting straight news stories does require “just the facts” without emotion or commentary. However, the types of articles that these writers produce are personal opinion, responses to events both national and local, and criticisms or explications of an issue.

The above-mentioned authors have tackled a variety of subjects — children in their various stages of growth and development, spouses, teenage pregnancy, politics, touch tone telephones, feminism, sports, gun control, current news stories, personal anecdotes and a litany of other issues ranging from the serious to the silly. Some of these topics may seem inconsequential at first glance, but by writing from the heart they breathe life into the content, whatever the theme.

To cite Zinsser once again: “Beginning with nonfiction is the first step on the path to all writing.” After all, what writing teacher hasn’t told the class to “write what you know”? A nonfiction article is the perfect vehicle for doing just that. Take a subject you know and run with it. Your personal knowledge of the topic as well as your enthusiasm and interest will help to mold a well-written, well-rounded story.

Writing creative nonfiction gives the author license to express emotions and reactions to a situation as well. In addition to stating the facts, the heartache, joy, or anger that resulted can be recorded. In a prize-winning story that I wrote, my subject was the demise of my iron.  Sounds silly, right? The judges must have found my humor and honesty endearing, for the story won third place.  I took an incident that had just occurred and profoundly affected me in a negative way and then expounded on my distress at the loss of this “friend.” I am sure that there are occasions in your life when a trivial problem or event, either good or bad, can trigger feelings worthy of note. What has recently made you upset or nervous or angry or scared? You get the idea.

Each year Houghton Mifflin publishes The Best American Essays, a collection of nonfiction pieces written by well-known authors. A different guest editor, who also happens to be a published author, edits the book every year. Tracy Kidder, editor of the 1994 edition, explains that the traditional definition of the essay is personal reflection, sometimes referred to as literary journalism. Kidder looks for articles that “catch the reflection of human character on the page — [The authors] deal with the big themes, and sculpt the reader’s ruminations.” These tomes cover a broad scope of subjects, just at the journalists listed above do, ranging from airplane flight, orangutans, the plight of Salman Rushdie, and the history of punctuation, to a variety of others.

Following the guidelines that Kidder sets down, concentrate on a topic that offers you the chance to ponder the “big picture” of an issue. Once your subject matter is decided, contemplate these words of William Zinsser:

Sell yourself, and your subject will exert its own appeal. Believe in your own identity and your own opinions. Proceed with confidence, generating it by willpower. Writing is an act of ego, and you might as well admit it. Use its energy to keep yourself going.

The emotion and passion that you feel toward your subject will help carry the story from your head to the paper. Nothing is stopping you from retelling an event in a creative and exciting manner. Follow the example of the contributors to the literary magazines and the commentary pages of national newspapers. Your life is every bit as exciting and eventful as theirs; use those prosaic episodes to spawn your best creative nonfiction masterpiece.

Freelancer Phyllis Hanlon has had hundreds of articles published in nearly 40 magazines and newspapers. She beats burnout by hitting the gym as often as possible. 

Five Do-able Tips for Remembering and Writing Great Lifestories

By Denis Ledoux
Is your family one of the many whose history is lost to future generations because no one has written it down?

Writing your stories—even just a few—is a great way to memorialize your family and to prevent the experience of your life and theirs being forgotten. The details you take for granted or consider obvious may be lost to the next generation unless you make the effort to record them in writing.

Writing down a memory and sharing it with others is a way to celebrate your life and your family. It is not as hard as some people think. Anyone who is willing to follow the few simple steps I will outline below can succeed at writing their autobiography or family history. More and more people—in fact, many who at first think they can’t—are successfully exploring and honoring their pasts in this way.

Follow these five tips for remembering and writing a pleasing and meaningful lifestory that will honor both your family and yourself and create a legacy for your children.

These five suggestions are among the most powerful– and easiest– to implement in your personal and family history writing.

And remember: practice makes perfect. If you want to preserve your personal and family history, you must write, write, write. Set yourself a time to write and honor your commitment. Your great grandchildren will be so glad you did.

Good luck!

  1. Make a memory list. This is a list of everything you can remember about the people, places, and actions of a particular memory, era, or “character” in your life. Anything you recall is important enough to include. Jot down 3-5 words for each item on your list (“royal blue suit” “scent of eucalyptus”). Your list will eventually be hundreds of items long. Creating this list will stimulate you to remember more than you can now think possible. It will provide you with the details to make your story full and memorable. Once you have a memory list, you just pick an item and begin to write!
  2. Show your story; don’t tell it. Good stories engage us actively. Do this by recording action like a movie camera: show your “characters” (your family and friends) moving, talking and interacting rather than simply describing them. Write “She paced back and forth to the window, looking up and down the street for Jason,” rather than “she was impatient for Jason to get back.” Now really, which do you find more interesting to read!
  3. Use all five senses. Instead of writing that the room was “lovely,” give the reader details: color, style of furniture and curtains, lighting and decorations. Now, they can “see” the details for themselves. Use the other senses, too: smell, sound, taste and touch.
  4. Use dialogue. When you express thoughts and feelings in the “character’s” own voices, you make them jump right off the page. It’s okay to approximate or recreate a conversation especially if you take the time to remember unique phrases or pronunciations. Keep it short (it will be more believable and easier to write). Do not, however, make us read long dialogue. It will sound like you’ve put words in other’s mouths.
  5. Many adjectives are imprecise and simply do not convey the same meaning to one reader as they do to another. Use dialog, action, and setting to show what you mean.You’ll gain vividness and immediacy as a result. Change “she was protective” to dialogue: “she said ‘Don’t you ever, ever say that to my son again’.” Turn “she was angry” into an action: “she grabbed the plate and flung it against the wall.” Replace “we were poor” with details of setting: “The torn green and black linoleum barely covered the center of the room.”

The idea of remembering, reviewing and recording definitive versions of our family histories and our own lifestories, like many tasks we undertake in life, can be overwhelming. Reflect on parenting as an example.

Parenting is a creative project that would have daunted a lot of us if it had to be done all at once. Think of all those dirty diapers and sleepless nights, teacher conferences, recitals, ball games, dental appointments, and insurance payments— if they came all together, who could approach parenting at all let alone with eager delight? Thankfully, as parents, we only had to meet each day’s challenges as they come.

Approach lifewriting in the same way: write each memory or family story, each character or event one step at a time.

You’ll find the rewards are there waiting for you and your family—understanding and appreciation of who you are and where you’ve come from, affirmation and celebration of what you’ve achieved and where you’re headed—rewards that take you far beyond the names and dates.

Web Site for Memoir Writers & Teachers

Denis Ledoux is the Founder and Editor of, which offers information, inspiration, exercises to jazz up your lifewriting project plus support for lifewriters and teachers through workshops, teleclasses, books, materials.

How to Give an Awesome Author Interviews

By Patricia L. Fry

When you become the author of a nonfiction book, you are also considered an expert in your field. People want to read what you write and hear what you have to say. You want to promote your book and get personal exposure by writing articles and speaking publicly. Author interviews are an important part of your publicity program.

Why not add to your professional credibility by seeking interview opportunities through websites, podcasts, radio talk shows, and publications related to the topic of your book?

Add to your professional credibility by seeking interview opportunities through websites, podcasts, radio talk shows, and publications related to the topic of your book?  

Interviews and interviewers come in all shapes and flavors. Some interviewers want you to respond to questions via e-mail and they post your interview as is at their site or publish it in their magazine. Others prefer to conduct a telephone interview which they will paraphrase in their publication. But the most popular interview processes today are the real time podcast and the online radio show.

Not everyone is comfortable being interviewed. Yet, if you expect your book to reach a high level of popularity—if you hope to sell thousands of copies of your book—you really must learn to handle author interviews.

I have been interviewed numerous times in a variety of ways. Personally, I love the e-mail interview where I just respond at my leisure by typing my answers. I like having the time to think about my responses and to reread them before submitting. My worst interview experience occurred when the interviewer, in a real-time interview, began challenging my responses—playing the devil’s advocate. I’m not a debater and I don’t do well under that kind of pressure. I had to work hard so as not to come off sounding defensive. I hope I was able to carry that off. Book sales after that interview were up and that’s always a good indication of a good interview.

You truly never know what to expect from author interviews and maybe that’s one reason why the fear of the interview is so prevalent among authors. Recently, I was asked to participate in a podcast interview. I guess I misunderstood the original instructions because I was prepared to have the host ask me some questions. That’s generally what happens when someone interviews you. Just minutes before the show aired, I learned that I was supposed to speak for twenty minutes on my topic, “The Right Way to Write, Publish, and Sell Your Book.” There would be no questions. No one else would speak. I was expected to take charge of the airtime all by myself for the first twenty minutes of the show.

I quickly revised an hour-long speech I’d given recently on the subject and printed it out as a crutch. There’s nothing worse in radio than dead air, I’m told. And I did not want to be at a loss for words. I think it went well. Even though I was simply speaking over the telephone, I imagined myself looking out over the airwaves into the faces of a large audience eager for the information I was imparting. At the end of the 20 minutes, the host stepped in and asked me a few questions before the show ended. Again, book sales were up for a few days after that.

If you would like to be interviewed on the topic of your book, here are some tips and techniques that could help:

Author Interviews: Tips and Techniques

Locate interview opportunities through websites and publications related to your topic as well as those that feature general author interviews. If you spend some time exploring the site, you will soon discover whether or not they conduct interviews. If you see no indication of interview opportunities, post an e-mail asking for the opportunity.

Do a Google search to locate directories of websites and publications with general interview opportunities or those related to your expertise.

Check Radio-TV Interview Report for possible interview spots.

Create a succinct, but impressive bio to include with your inquiry. A potential interviewer will want to know that you are articulate (which should show through, at least to some degree, in your writing style), qualified, credible, knowledgeable, and interesting. A bio can help to portray this. A good interviewer who conducts live interviews will also want to hear your voice. So give your phone number, as well.
Handle yourself as a professional during any interview. Here are some tips:

Think like your target audience. What do they want/need to know about your subject? Even if your interviewer gets off track with his line of questions, you can bring the discussion back to the issue at hand. Always keep in mind “What information and resources can I offer my audience?

Don’t be afraid to give. It’s highly unlikely that you could ever give away too much during a 30 or 60 minute interview. Besides, the more you give, the more the listener will want. And it’s that yearning for more that will sell copies of your book.

Keep it simple. Remember that your time is limited—there’s no room during author interviews to teach or share what took you several months to write. Concentrate on a few key points and, no matter what the interviewer asks you, try to bring it all back to the original points. My book, The Right Way to Write, Publish and Sell Your Book, covers writing and publishing a book from start to finish and beyond (including distribution, promotion and so forth). During an interview, however, I may focus on the importance of writing a book proposal or the process of self-publishing or some aspect of book promotion. Your book on baking healthy muffins from scratch would be aptly represented by revealing a few of the recipes and describing the health benefits of the ingredients. If your listeners like what you gave them, they’re going to want more.

Read and listen to other author interviews to get an idea of what works and what doesn’t. Of course, you want to keep your own style of speaking, but there are definite faux pas that you want to avoid. Eliminate filler words such as “ah,” “um,” “er,” and so forth. Banish habitual phrases from your vocabulary. This might include “Ya know what I mean?” and “Right on,”” and “You bet.”

Practice speaking off the cuff. You will definitely need this skill when doing a live interview.

Join a Toastmasters Club near you and participate often in order to improve your public speaking skills.

As an authority on the subject of your nonfiction book, you will be sought after as a speaker, writer, and interviewee. You’ll also want to seek out interview and speaking opportunities. Prepare yourself now for the challenges ahead.

Patricia Fry is a full-time freelance writer and the author of 25 books including The Right Way to Write, Publish and Sell Your Book. She is also the president of SPAWN (Small Publishers, Artists and Writers Network). Learn more about her line of books at Patricia Fry writes a publishing blog. Patricia Fry has a website, and is the author of Promote Your Book: Over 250 Proven, Low-Cost Tips and Techniques for the Enterprising Author.

12 Ways to Keep Your Nonfiction Book in the News

By Sandra Beckwith
Publishers are willing to publicize nonfiction books when they’re released, but they rarely do much after the launch to keep books in the news, even though most deserve ongoing media exposure. Here are some easy things you can do to generate continuing publicity for your title. Use a mix of these ideas to develop a 12-month publicity plan that will provide the support your book needs.

Turn the advice in your chapters into a series of monthly tip sheets. A tip sheet is a press release that offers tips or advice in a bulleted or numbered format. Start your tip sheet with an introductory paragraph that explains why the tips you’re offering are important, list your bulleted advice, then tie it all together at the end with a concluding paragraph. Send it to appropriate media outlets; the distribution list will depend on your topic.

Contact the press immediately when your topic is making headlines to offer your expert perspective. This is a sure thing with most local media outlets when it’s a national news story because you’re giving them a local angle. Fax or e-mail (no attachments) your bio and a cover letter explaining your position on the breaking news to the appropriate media contact. If you’ve done enough interviews to prepare for the big time, pitch the national news outlets, too.

Add the media to your newsletter distribution list. The same useful advice or information you offer subscribers in your print or electronic newsletter could be of interest to reporters covering that topic, too. I got a book contract several years ago from the publicity that resulted from adding the media to the distribution list of a newsletter I publish.

Repackage your book content into bylined trade magazine articles. Depending on the terms of your publishing contract, you might need to do some rewriting so it’s “new” material. Make sure the author credit at the end of the article includes your book title.

Capitalize on holidays and special months, weeks, and days by distributing a press release with useful, newsworthy information related to the topic, or by contacting the press to offer yourself as an expert information source. For example, many daily newspapers run articles in December about how the holidays are especially difficult for people who are grieving the recent loss of a loved one or facing the anniversary of a loss. This presents many coast-to-coast interview opportunities fosr the author of a book on grief and loss— but only if the author reaches out to the press. And November 15 is “National Clean Out Your Refrigerator Day”—surely there’s an ASJA (American Society of Journalists and Authors) member who can capitalize on that occasion!

Contact the public relations department of your industry’s trade association to offer yourself for media interviews. Association public relations people are often contacted by writers like us looking for members with a particular expertise to interview. Make sure your association knows about your qualifications and the topics you can comment on, and you’ll get referral calls.

Conduct a newsworthy and relevant survey on your topic and announce the interesting results in a press release. The author of a cookbook designed to make cooking simple and easy can survey people about why they don’t cook more, and release the findings in a press release sent to newspaper food editors and cooking magazines. The release should include information about your book’s connection to the survey topic.

Sponsor an attention-getting contest and announce the results in a press release. To promote my humor book about men, I conducted a “Worst Gift from a Man Contest.” The resulting press release led to nationwide media attention, including a holiday appearance on a national cable TV talk show.

Push your publisher’s publicist to monitor ProfNet for reporter queries related to your topic all year. Alternatively, subscribe to ProfNet via its PR Leads reseller and respond to appropriate queries. A $99 per month subscription via is more affordable than a ProfNet subscription.

Monitor ASJA forums for source requests . ASJA members frequently post requests on the magazines and newspapers forum for interview sources.

Tell the media when you’re visiting their market. Reporters love to interview experts who aren’t local, so if you’re in another city for any reason, contact the appropriate media people two weeks before your trip to offer ideas for articles they can write based on an in-person interview with you. If you’re in town to speak, send an announcement press release several weeks in advance and offer to do a pre-event telephone interview.

Repurpose your best tips into a free booklet. Write and distribute a press release that describes the booklet and how people can get a free copy; make sure both the booklet and the release include information about your book, too.

Generating ongoing publicity is work, but it’s not rocket science. Invest the time so you boost sales while contributing to your author platform. You’ll see the rewards at the end of the year.

Sandra Beckwith, the author of Streetwise Complete Publicity Plans: How to Create Publicity That Will Spark Media Exposure and Excitement, teaches the online “Book Buzz” class for Freelance Success. Learn more at

Interview: Rudy Shur of Square One Publishers

Interview by Jenna Glatzer

Rudy Shur is the publisher of Square One Publishers, and the author of the book How To Publish Your Nonfiction Book, part of the "Square One Writers Guide" series. Rudy has been responsible for the acquisition of more than 1,000 books, many of which have become bestsellers. He has lectured on the topic of nonfiction publishing at numerous universities and colleges across the nation.

How did you gain the experience to become a publisher?

I began my career in publishing as a field representative for a college textbook publisher. Basically, I’d go out to college campuses and try to get college professors to adopt my company’s textbooks for their classes. Having never sold before, it was a great learning experience. My next job was at another college textbook publisher, but this time, in addition to being a representative, I was also an associate editor. That was great training. I would look for professors to write books that I thought would sell based on my own selling experience.

After several years of doing this, I had the silly idea that I could do it better on my own. In 1976, I co-founded Avery Publishing Group. Initially, we produced college textbooks. As time went on, though, we began producing trade books for a more general audience. While I had had some great experience working for other companies, it was essentially a learn-as-you-go experience that provided the core of my publisher’s training.

In 1999, I sold Avery to Penguin Putnam, and two months later, I founded Square One Publishers—and I am still learning.

As you mention in the book, small publishers usually don’t offer the kinds of advances big houses can offer. What are some of the reasons why a writer might prefer to work with a small publisher?

While big houses do offer larger advances, statistically most of their authors never see more money than their initial advance. Part of the reason for this might be that today’s large houses tend to put in minimal editorial and marketing time on the vast majority of the projects they handle.

On the other hand, some well-run smaller publishers put much more emphasis on the editorial process, so that the final manuscript is as good as it can be. Additionally, they often spend much more time promoting a title (in their own way) than do larger houses.

Another benefit that smaller houses offer is longevity for titles. Many of the large companies keep their average book in print for approximately 18 months–only 1 1/2 years. Many smaller publishers keep a book in print for years. In some cases, they treat their backlist (older) titles as though they were front list (new).

However, let me point out that all small publishers are not created equal. Therefore, before signing any publishing agreement, it’s vital to check out the publisher.

Why is so important for a writer to identify the category in which his or her book would fit?

There are many reasons a writer needs to know what his or her book’s category is:

  • Identifying a category allows writers to more accurately target specific markets and audiences.
  • By knowing a book’s category, a writer can better select potential publishers who have experience publishing and selling in that specific area. Without a clear understanding of a book’s category, a writer simply chooses publishers at random.
  • When a book does not fit into any established category, there may not be any commercial publisher equipped to sell the book. Such a situation usually leads to negative responses from publishers.

In writing my book, I found that the chapter which identifies the twelve categories of books was the hardest to write. Once completed, though, I think it became one of the strongest features of my title.

Let’s say my book has been orphaned by a publisher. Is it wise for me to mention this in future proposals, or might this work against me?

The fact that a writer has had a book in print always strengthens the author’s credibility, and should definitely be mentioned in a cover letter. It is the fact that an author’s book was accepted by another publisher that impresses an editor, not that it may now be out-of-print.

I liked that you suggested a touch of humor in the writer’s response postcard. Are there other places writers can interject a bit of “personality”or humor, or is it usually best to “play it straight?”

Many times the nature of the project provides the ground rules for using humor. If a work is serious, humor may not be appropriate. If the topic is somewhat neutral, the use of humor may be fine. I’ve been told that you never know who’s at the receiving end of a query letter, so you may not want to take a chance with humor. While that is a legitimate point of view, if the topic allows, I think a natural infusion of humor can put an editor in a more receptive frame of mind.

You surprised me with a statistic: most books only sell about 5,000 copies. At big houses, a book will typically go out of print quickly if it doesn’t sell well right out of the gates, but at smaller houses, backlist titles may stay in print for years, even if sales are slow. As a writer, what should I hope for? Is it always good for a book to be technically “in print” even if it’s barely selling, or should I hope it goes out of print so I can try to sell it again or self-publish?

This is a complicated question and I probably can’t adequately answer it in a few paragraphs, but what the heck. If writers do their homework correctly, they should have some idea of how many copies a book like theirs will sell in the marketplace. Having a realistic number will provide them with more realistic expectations of success.

Here’s where it gets cockeyed. Sometimes it is best to have a publisher hold onto a book even though its sales are low. Sometimes taking a book back from a publisher is absolutely better. Writers have to ask themselves three things:

  1. Is the market really that big?
  2. Can I do a better job than the publisher?
  3. Do I really want to become-and can I afford to be-a bookseller/publisher?

If the answer is yes, the writer should still think about it before taking the first step.

Why is it a bad idea for an author to say their book is unique?

Unique books are one of a kind. They are different. Editors hate different. Different books have no established markets. If one unique book actually makes it to bestsellerdom, there is a likelihood it is an exception to the rule. Most editors know this and avoid publishing exceptions. Aspiring authors should never say they have a “unique book” unless they enjoy the feeling of rejection.

Once I’ve been offered a contract, do I have time to start looking for a literary agent? Should I bother, if I’m pretty sure the publisher won’t budge on fees?

If your project has the true potential of selling in big numbers, it is wise to consider getting an agent. If your project has a limited market, consider reading my chapter on “The Deal.” It tells you what you can do to negotiate a more favorable contract.

What do you think about the system of bookstores sending unsold copies back to the publisher? Do you think this is likely to change? Would authors make a great deal more money if there were no returns allowed?

The system of taking back returns was started shortly after the stock market crash of 1929. During the Great Depression, it was a way publishers could keep bookstores in business. Before the crash, bookstores kept what they ordered. I personally think that the present system is terrible, but as far as bookstores go, there is little likelihood that things will change soon. If the system did change, I don’t think it would make too much difference regarding the royalty payments. However, it would eliminate the need for publishers to hold back portions of an author’s royalty due to the possibility of returns.

It seems that for better or worse, Pandora’s Box was opened in 1929 and it’s not going to close until technology figures out a better way to produce and sell books.

Let’s say I have the terrific fortune of having two publishers interested in my manuscript. Now I want to start my own private "bidding war." Do I tell Publisher 1 who Publisher 2 is? Do I get into specifics about what the other publisher offered?

As a rule, I would not tell one publisher who the other publisher is. As far as specifics about terms go, let one publisher know what the other is offering, and see if they can match or better them. Do it in a very business-like manner; do not sound as if you are playing a game. My advice is simple: Get the best deal from the best company.

As a publisher, what are your favorite and least favorite parts of your job?

I love publishing. I think I even like the things I don’t like. The hardest part of the job is the amount of work required to do a good job.

Anything else you’d like to add?

Did I mention that my book is available through your website, and that my book is part of an ongoing series called The SquareOne Writers Guides, which includes How to Publish Your Poetry, How to Publish Your Articles, and How to Sell Your Screenplay? Did I also mention that all our other titles can seen by visiting our website at And did I mention that I have numerous employees who need to be fed and sheltered, and that any purchases of our books would be greatly appreciated?

Writing a Memoir: Should You Do It?

By Lisa Silverman

With the tremendous success of such memoirs as Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes, Mary Karr’s The Liar’s Club, and Dave Eggers’s A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, the 1990s and early 2000s saw an explosion in the genre. The boom was seen in the number of memoirs acquired by publishers, the number of titles shelved in the memoir section in bookstores, and, as a result, the number of memoirs unfolding on writers’ computer screens across the country. But the brutal truth is that without a few crucial elements, your memoir will have no chance of finding a literary agent’s representation, never mind becoming a bestseller.

Autobiography vs Memoir

It might help to consider a question that’s always puzzled me: What’s the difference between a memoir and an autobiography? Webster’s defines a memoir as “a narrative composed from personal experience” and an autobiography as “the biography of a person narrated by himself or herself.” (The second definition of “memoir” is “autobiography,” indicating just how blurry the line is.) I think of a biography as a life story—a full life, that is, unofficial “biographies” of Paris Hilton or Justin Timberlake aside. Most memoirs, by contrast, don’t begin at the author’s birth and provide a thorough chronological history of a life now in its twilight years.

Cover of Mary Karr's book about writing memoirs The Art of MemoirMemoirs are, of course, written by authors of all ages, and their narratives can encompass fifty years or one week of experience. The first element necessary to a successful memoir is that experience. Lots of us have led interesting lives, or had unusual experiences. But not all of those interesting lives and unusual experiences are memoir-worthy. At the same time, the life experience you want to write about doesn’t need to be earth-shattering to be the basis of a successful book—if you’re a good enough writer. Whether your memories should jump from your head onto the pages of a memoir is difficult to judge when you’re the one whose life’s literary value is in question. If you didn’t think it was worth writing about, you wouldn’t be thinking about a memoir in the first place. But it’s a judgment you must make honestly and objectively if you don’t want to waste a lot of time writing a manuscript that will never sell.

Think Like A Reader

So how do you know if your idea is a book in the making? Try to gain some distance and look at it as a potential reader. Would you pick such a book up off the shelf if it were about a total stranger with no other claim to fame? Would you read the description on the book’s flap and be intrigued? Or would the words “Oh, it’s another person who . . . ” enter your mind? Jaded and insensitive as it may seem, agents discard query letters all the time uttering the words “another victim of abuse” or “another recovering alcoholic” or “another cancer survivor.”

That’s not to say that if you fall into one of those categories, or another that encompasses a lot of people and has seen a lot of memoirs published, you should abandon yours. But you need to bring something new to the table, whether the experience itself is different from everyone else’s or the way you tell it is. And, unless you’ve led a truly wacky life, more likely it’ll have to be the latter. How to make it different? Well, that’s the hard part. And the part you’re going to have to figure out on your own.

As with any genre in today’s book market, publishers are more likely to acquire a memoir if its author has a platform, i.e., comes with a built-in marketing plan. While writing the book, start a blog discussing the experience or issue about which you’re writing. Become affiliated with any advocacy organizations, etc., who might help promote your book. It’s tough out there if you’re not a celebrity or an author with a track record. For every Dave Eggers, a thousand memoirists can’t even clear the hurdle of finding an agent. This week, publishers bought memoirs by a Washington Post columnist, Cary Grant’s daughter, the former head of a record company and the Air America radio network, and a woman with a New York Times bestseller to her name. But take heed: another author sold a memoir “about a typical divorce transformed by a lyrical yet brutally honest voice and narrative style.” That author figured out how to tell an old story in a new way.

As important as marketing is, the memoir, perhaps more than any other genre, depends for its success on one simple thing: writing skill. Too many people make the mistake of thinking that fascinating experiences make for fascinating reads, no matter who writes about them. If you’ve never written before, take some classes. Work on your book in a workshop or in a writers’ group. And if you look in the mirror and see someone who doesn’t have the writing chops to tell their story right, contract with an experienced ghostwriter or coauthor to help out. After all, everyone has lived a story, but only a select few have both the right tale and the right talent to create a winning book.

Lisa Silverman is a freelance book editor and works in the copyediting department at one of New York’s most prestigious literary publishing houses. She has also worked as a ghostwriter and a literary agent representing both book authors and screenwriters. 

Reprinted with permission

How to Get a Top Literary Agent & Sign That Coveted Six-Figure Deal

By Susan Harrow

Top literary agents get about 400–1,000 unsolicited queries every month from hopeful book authors. Publishing houses sometimes juggle 5,000. Most of my private clients and participants in my seminar “How to Get a Six-Figure Book Advance” ask me, “How is a non-fiction author supposed to get an agent’s attention when there is so much competition?”

First of all, don’t write a non-fiction book—write a non-fiction book proposal. To capture a reputable non-fiction literary agent’s attention, you’ll need to show that you’re a media star, or a star in the making. Good writing can be bought but star power can’t.

Five Tips for Landing a Top Literary Agent

  1. Do your research.Literary agents for non-fiction specialize in very specific interests. For example, my agent loves tearjerkers but won’t take on books that involve children in peril. You want an agent who has represented books similar to yours, who sells books on a regular basis, who is devoted to you, and has the time to give you a little guidance through the publishing labyrinth.

Sometimes a newer, less experienced literary agent who is hungry for business is more dedicated and has more time to spend with you than an established one with a reputable cadre of authors. I recommend two ways to find the literary agent right for you:

  • Look in the acknowledgements of books similar to your topic. A happy author always thanks his literary agent. Once you’ve located your ideal agents, become familiar with their tastes, learn everything you can about their interests, pet peeves, and preferences, and review their websites for submission guidelines. Show that knowledge in your query letter or initial phone conversation.
  • Read Publishers WeeklyPublisher’s Lunch, and Variety to see who sold what and for how much. You will get a sense of an agent’s sensibility and be able to speak knowledgeably about the types of books they prefer when you know what’s happening in the industry in general and in your area of expertise in particular. You’ll know more than most people who submit proposals as you’ll be apprised of books that aren’t even published yet and movie deals in the making. And you’ll get a sense of market trends.
  1. Write a book proposal that reads like a thriller.

After you’ve located the agents you want to approach, the next step is to complete your book proposal. Once interested by your call or query letter, many literary agents move at hyper-speed.

There is a real art to writing a best-selling book proposal that makes the literary agent you’ve chosen say, “I want this person as a client.” To make your book proposal read in one sitting, you’ll want to write in short paragraphs with strong headlines. Be sure to give the chosen agent an immediate impression of how your book will read by writing the proposal in the same style as your book.

Find unusual, quirky, provocative tidbits about your subject that will entice the literary agent to say, “Wow, I never knew this.” Imagine the kind of tips that a terrific magazine article would include. When an editor at a top New York publishing house is reading your book proposal she is thinking, what kind of media exposure will we be able to get for this book? Can we get magazine feature articles, newspaper pieces, radio shows? Will the subject matter and the author interest the producers of Good Morning America, The Today Show,  CNN, or Oprah?

  1. Prove you have a platform.

The one thing that thrills a New York non-fiction publisher the most is your platform. Your platform is simply your reach. How many people are influenced by your ideas worldwide? To simplify this even further, a publisher wants to know one thing and one thing only (once they are interested in the subject matter of your book), and that is . . . how many books are you going to sell and to whom. You’ll need to demonstrate that you’re a great media guest, that you have an audience eager to snap up your books, and that you have a proven track record for selling your books or wares.

  1. Reveal how your past performance predicts future behavior.

Map out each venue and determine how many people are in attendance and how many of those people will buy your book. Include workshops, seminars, fairs, media appearances, book signings, keynotes, teleseminars, webinars, events, newsletter lists, blogs, partnerships, etc. Quantify everything in great detail. Estimate and base potential sales on past sales you’ve completed.

  1. Show you are the one.

Show that there is a clear need for your non-fiction book and that you are the only one who can write it. In other words, what problems are you solving and why are you the undisputed expert? What gap in the market are you filling? One of my clients whose topic was about how to be the very best at what you do and who you are, had a black belt, was a concert violinist, and had given seminars at The White House. She walked her talk, and lived her words. You need to have top-notch skills in order to gain the interest of a high caliber literary agent.

Follow these tips, and you can land a top literary agent and a six-figure deal. I hope to see your name on the New York Times best-seller list!

Media coach & marketing strategist, Susan Harrow has helped speakers, authors and entrepreneurs get 6-figure book advances. Susan Harrow has a Website.

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