How to sell your first book

Let’s say you’re a physicist, or an economist, or a rancher, and you say to yourself, “Hey! What I do is pretty interesting, and I think I have a good take on it. Even though no one has ever heard of me, I bet I could write a pretty good book.”

Assuming a) You are actually an expert in your field, and b) You’re not already famous, how do you do it? Here’s what worked for us. Your results may vary.

  1. See what’s out there.

    Ours isn’t the first book on modern topics in physics and cosmology. But we thought that we could come up with a tone that was very different from the normal fare. Before being able to say that with confidence, we had to have a clear idea of what we were writing, as well as what was already out there.Look at amazon. Scan your shelves. Visit brick and mortar book stores. One of the first questions an agent or editor will want answered is: What’s already in the market?

  2. Write the outline and a couple of sample chapters.

    Your outline will almost certainly change from the beginning of the process to the end. However, to sell the book you’re going to need chapter headings. You’re also going to need a couple of well-written sample chapters. We had requests for “50 pages”, “2-3 chapters”, and the like from various agents. You should be prepared to comply immediately. These should serve as a good sample of your writing ability and style.For us, we had two chapters at this stage: “Special Relativity” (which ended up being chapter 1), and “Time Travel” (which ended up as Chapter 5). We also wrote an introduction.

  3. Write a pitch/proposal.

    The pitch was a single page, and read like an ad for the book, with bios of the authors. It was light, made casual reference to a few prominent writers and scientists, and hopefully induced agents to request more.The proposal was much longer (about 4 pages) and included:

    1. A synopsis of the book (~ 1 page), including the tone, audience, and topics to be included.
    2. The market and competition. We listed dozens of books that were out there, and how they were similar or different from what we’re proposing. We even put them into categories (e.g. “Physics for Dummies”, “Historical perspectives”, “The Physics of ____”, “Specialized descriptions of a single recent discovery,” and so on. We then explained how ours was different.
    3. Why we were qualified to write this book, as well as some ideas of how we might promote it.
    4. The table of contents.
    5. For us: a sample image from the book.

    Important: Make sure both documents are spell-checked, grammatically correct, and good examples of your writing ability.

  4. Get an agent.

    This is perhaps the hardest part. First, a few points about reputable agents:

    1. The standard going rate is 15% commission.
    2. You should never have to pay any fees up front.

    There are a number of websites dedicated to professional writers. We had good luck with mediabistro, but there are plenty of others. Among other resources, they have lists and descriptions of different agencies (and importantly, reviews), as well as contact info. A couple of key points:

    • Only contact agents who work in your area. If you’re a scientist, look for “nonfiction science” in what they handle. Don’t contact agents who work in poetry.
    • Take a look at their client list. Anyone you’ve heard of?
    • Send what they ask for. If they request a short pitch letter, send your pitch. If they ask for a proposal, send that.
    • If they are interested, they will request sample chapters.

    Finally, a note on persistence and patience. I had queries out to about 3 agents at a time. If I heard nothing from them after a couple of weeks, I gave up and moved on. On the other hand, when I got a nibble: a request for sample chapters, or genuine interest, I sent them the material immediately. If I didn’t hear back, I followed up a week or so later, and depending on the response to that, periodically after that.

    Agents are flooded with requests for new authors, and most only handle ~100 clients or so, which means a) Don’t be offended if they don’t take you on as a client, and b) You’re going to have to write to lots of them before you find someone right for you. The most common concern that we heard was that we didn’t a “platform.” This is just jargon for the fact that we weren’t already famous. That’s life. It means we had to write to more agents before we found someone right for us. We probably wrote to about 20 agents for deciding to work with The Stuart Agency.

    Finally, meet your agent in person before you sign. You’re going to be working closely with him/her, so you should get to know them.

  5. Take your agent’s advice.

    Your agent is going to be the one to sell your book. If you’ve chosen well, the book selling process will go quickly. We had a fortunate combination of a great agent and good luck. Our book sold in about 3 weeks.However, before making the sale, we made substantial revisions to the chapters (and wrote a 3rd sample chapter on the expanding universe) based on his suggestions. Those revisions took about a month, but they were well worth it.

  6. Wait for it… selling the book

    The actual sales process goes like this: your agent sends pitch materials (cover letter, sample chapters, and the proposal) to editors at different publishing houses. If an editor likes the proposal (or, more likely, if his/her assistant editor — the one who actually reads it — does), then the editor will try to sell your book to his/her editorial board. That seems to be the tougher part.For instance, based on feedback from our agent, about 1/3 of the editors he contacted liked our book enough to bring it to their editorial board. You’re going to want to go with a major publisher if you can get it (obviously), but perhaps more importantly, you’re going to want an editor who is a strong advocate for your book. In our case, we found a very good fit with Eric Nelson and Connie Santisteban at Wiley, though I should point out that we got interest from Eric early, and our agent used that to push a hard sell on the other publishers. It was our only concrete offer, but definitely a good one for us.

    A note on advances. Economically, your agent has a vested interest in selling your book, and much like in real estate, he/she wants the sale no matter what. However, unlike in real estate, there is such a huge range in possible advances (which your agent gets 15% of) that it’s not in his/her best interest to accept a lowball bid.

  7. Read your contract

    What are your royalty rates? You only collect these once you’ve paid of your advance, and in hardcover, ours were in the ~20% range, with the exact amount depending on how much we sold.Do you have any fees/expense to pay? You shouldn’t.

    Do you have foreign rights? (Yes), Electronic rights? (No).

    If they retain those rights, what royalty do you get?

    Your agent can negotiate these things for you, but make sure you don’t overplay your hand.

Hope that helps!

-Dave

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One Response to How to sell your first book

  1. caliban says:

    This isn’t really related to your post but is related to your article on SLATE regarding time travel.

    I am not a physicist but one thing has bothered me about time travel. As I understand it, energy can neither be created nor destoyed, it can only be re-arranged (?), for lack of a better term. Therefore, the universe that we reside in is a closed system- a filled cup, if you will- wherein nothing can be added to it and nothing can be taken from it.

    If that is the case, then, logically, time travel would be impossible as you are taking your matter (energy) and ‘adding’ it to a universe that cannot take it. Your energy/matter woudl have to displace (destroy) other matter/energy; and that is not allowed.

    Am I crazy or am I missing soemthing here?

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