I am celebrating the tenth year anniversary of the blog, this past April 18, with previous year’s April 18 blog posts. Here’s the one from 2016 — highly relevant to prospective authors. How can you publish a book you’ve written?
I regularly get emails from people who want to break into publishing for the first time, who ask me “How can I get my book published?” As I indicated in my previous posts, almost always what they have in mind is not a work of scholarship for scholars but a trade book for a general audience. And so here is a weird fact about me: even though I have been publishing trade books for eighteen years, I’m not completely sure of the answer. But I know some things, and in this post I’ll indicate what those things are.
I absolutely know how one gets his or her first scholarly book published. I help my graduate students, and other scholars just starting their careers, do that all the time. There I’m an expert. But a first trade book? That’s a trickier proposition. The reason is one I’ve intimated before. Most scholars who publish a trade book do so after they have already published serious scholarship and so are to some extent a “known quantity.” In my case, when I published Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium (my first trade book) I had already written and published three scholarly books, edited a fourth, and published a textbook and two anthologies of ancient texts. The publisher who asked me to write the trade book (Oxford) already had a pretty good idea of what they were getting.
It often happens that a publisher will ask a scholar to write a trade book. And often it is on a particular topic. So the publisher has an idea of a book and they approach someone to see if they want to write it. The other scenario that happens a lot is that a scholar who has already produced a scholarly book or two asks a publisher if they would be interested in a particular trade book. When *that* happens, the publisher typically will ask for a written prospectus – say 20-25 pages – explaining what the book is to be about, how the author will approach the topic, why it is the sort of thing that a general audience would want to read about, and so on. On the basis of that prospectus they decide whether they want to publish it or not.
In both cases, the publisher offers the author a contract. The contract can be many (many) pages long, covering all sorts of things, including topic of the book, prospective title, required length, delivery date, royalty structure (percentages of sales that will come to the author – e.g., 10% of all books up to 5000 sold, 12.5% of additional copies sold up to 10,000; 15% after that; with different scales for hard back, paperback, electronic, and so on; it gets complicated); foreign (translation) rights, film rights (really!); and most important for many authors, an “advance” against royalties. This is the amount of money the publisher pays the author up front, to be taken out of royalties.
And depending on the author and the prospects of whether the book will sell massively or, not so much, it can be a relatively small amount – say, $1000 – or a huge amount – say $500,000 (you sometimes hear of a famous author getting a million dollar “advance.” That’s what this is referring to). That advance, then, is not in *addition* to the later royalties; it is a calculation of the publisher of the amount that they expect the book will bring in for the author’s share of sales (royalties) during, say, the first year of sales (when almost all the sales happen anyway). So if the publisher calculates that the book will sell, say, 50,000 copies in the first year, and it is priced at, say $20, then they think the gross sales will be $1,000,000. If the author were to get 15% of that, then that would be $150,000. And something like that would be the advance. (I’m simplifying here.) Usually the advance is divided into three payments or so – say 1/3 when the contract is signed; 1/3 when the manuscript is fully completed and sent to the publisher; and 1/3 when the book is then published.
Obviously if you can write a book that sells that many copies, we’re talking serious money here. No wonder people want to know how they can get their trade book published! But if they are not someone with a track record of publication *already*, now can they make it happen?
Well, it’s difficult. Very difficult. Almost impossible. The reason should be obvious. Publishers put a HUGE amount of effort and VAST amounts of resources into getting a book published. There are thousands of people who would *like* for a publisher to publish their book. The publisher has to choose very carefully, or their business will go bust faster than a burst balloon. And so their attitude is highly intense reluctance.
For someone who is not already a known author, about the only way to get a publisher even to take a look at a book proposal is to hire a literary agent who will push the book idea with a publisher. Agents are a kind of go-between for authors and publishers; they help authors devise an idea, craft the book, shape the book, write the book, and publish the book. An agent can represent a book to publishers to get them to agree to publish it. There are some publishers who will not even *look* at a book prospectus unless it is represented to them by an agent. And so for most first-time authors, it is necessary to get an agent.
But getting an agent at all – let alone getting one with any track record of success – is itself a daunting challenge for an author who is a completely unknown quantity. Again, almost impossible it seems. Agents make their living off of author royalties (normally an agent gets about 15%). They too do not have time to waste on projects that are going to make no money. They much prefer to work with authors who are certainly going to get books published, hopefully with serious advances. And so they too do not spend a lot of time with potential authors whom no one has ever heard of before.
About the only way to break into publishing as an unknown quantity, therefore (as far as I know – and as I said at the beginning, this is not an area I’m intimately familiar with), is to write such a bang-up prospectus for a book, and, say, have a chapter to accompany it, to send to an agent to convince him or her to represent the book. The book would have to be completed before a publisher would look at it. It would have to be drop-dead amazing before it would even get a look. An agent would have to represent it and would have to convince a publisher to take a chance. It very rarely happens.
So all of this is highly daunting, obviously. But it’s simply the reality of the situation. Getting published for the first time is extremely hard if you’re a budding scholar just off your PhD; it is even harder for someone who is not, who simply wants to get a book published with a reputable press. That’s the way it is, for obvious, economic, reasons.
On the other side of things, though, there is always the Internet!