7 votes, average: 4.86 out of 57 votes, average: 4.86 out of 57 votes, average: 4.86 out of 57 votes, average: 4.86 out of 57 votes, average: 4.86 out of 5 (7 votes, average: 4.86 out of 5)
You need to be a registered member to rate this post.

How Does an Author Write a Trade Book? Phase 2.

On and off I have been talking about the process I take for writing a book, and will continue that conversation here in this post, to explain where I am just now – a very good place indeed – on my book on the origins of the Christian understandings of the afterlife.

In my previous posts I talked about how I go about doing my reading for a book, and what I said there certainly applies here.  I’ve read hundreds of books and articles on the afterlife, starting with works that I knew would be broad-based and foundational, such as Alan Bernstein, The Invention of Hell; Jan Bremmer, The Rise and Fall of the Afterlife; Alan F. Segal, Life After Death: A history of the Afterlife in the Religions of the West; and, well, lots of others.  From these (and other places) I made lists of primary texts and scholarly works that I needed to master and read all of them, and from them made fuller lists of books and articles to read, and read them, finding yet more things tor ead.  And so it goes.

I took notes on everything I read (just on my word processor), filed in different folders (primary texts organized under “Greek and Roman”; “Jewish”; and “Christian” for example).   I even have a file for books and articles that I’ve read that are “Of No Use” (i.e. irrelevant for what I wanted to achieve in the book – I make a note of everything I”ve looked at so I make sure not to have to look at it again!)

I spent about a year and a half doing all that.  Which brought me to …

The rest of this post is for members only.  If you don’t belong yet, JOIN!  It costs little, gives a lot, and raises money for charity.  No one loses, everyone wins — so why not?

Which brought me to Phase 2 of the process.   I think of the process of writing a book in three major phases (each with sub-phases, that I won’t go into):  Reading, Outlining, Writing.    I’m now in the second phase of outlining, my favorite part.

Once I’ve finished virtually all the reading (I’m always deciding there are other things to read.  But at some point, it’s pretty much done) then I sit back and think, from scratch, what I want the book to look like and what I want to go into it, from everything I’ve read, notated, and thought about.   Of these many thousands of things in my head and already on the page (in my notes) what do I want to write?

One thing that is interesting – you wouldn’t know this without going through the process – is seeing how different your sense is at the end of the reading process is from when you began.

So let me back up.  Most authors can get a publisher to give a contract for a book (to publish it) only when the book is completely finished.  You finish the book, send it to a publisher, and they decide whether or not to publish it.  It’s very hard to do, especially if you are an unknown quantity.  Most of the time publishers won’t even look at the book if you haven’t already published books.  That’s obviously a Catch-22!

The way almost every professional academic gets around it is to publish their dissertation: you write the publisher and say that this is a revised version of the dissertation that you did at such and such a university with such and such an advisor – and they’ll look at the manuscript to see if they want to publish.  If they do, then that’s your first book; then, the next time you write a book, you inform a prospective publisher that this is your *second* book, that the first was published by so and so, etc.

And so scholars normally for their first, second, and later books get a contract for a book only when they either have finished it already or – for a second or third book – when they are far enough along that they have a chapter or two that a potential publisher can read and evaluate before deciding whether to extend the contract.

With trade book publishing it is a different matter.  It is very hard to break into trade book publishing, that is, getting a book published with a publisher that caters to a general audience and that plans to try to get your book into Barnes & Noble and onto a best seller list.  If you haven’t already published a trade book, it’s very hard indeed.  You almost always have to have an agent represent you to promote your book with a publisher.

But it’s very hard to get an agent, since agents make their money by getting a cut of your (eventual) royalties, which means they can only represent books that they are sure are going to make money (or they will be out of a job) which means they have to be very, very selective in choosing who their clients are that they will be spending their time getting published.

How hard is it for someone who has never published to get an agent?  Well, I suppose it’s not impossible, but it’s hard.   My agent gets something like ten requests a week.  But he has time for only – I’m guessing – twenty or thirty or so authors altogether on his list at one time.  He works with each of these for years on each book they write.  So if in the course of a five year period he is working with, say, thirty authors, during that same time he has received 2500 requests by potential authors to work with them.  It ain’t easy to get him to agree to represent you.

Most people that I know from my academic world who have agents are people who already published a scholarly book or three, who have decided to go into trade publishing.   They have a leg up getting an agent – the agent will consider trying to help them publish a book they have already written.

For authors like me who have already written a number of books, the process is completely different.  I get contracts for trade books I haven’t event *started* to write.  Someone at my stage proposes a book to a publisher and the publisher decides whether it is worth taking the risk.  It’s a risk because they give a monetary advance as part of the contract.   If you’re Stephen King its millions.  If you’re not, it’s not.   But it’s still a risk, since if the publisher bets badly, they will go out of business.  They are very choosy.

They decide on the basis of a prospectus the author writes.  These vary in length.  The one I wrote for this afterlife book was fifteen pages.  It described the book as much as I could in that short amount of space, and then gave a chapter by chapter breakdown of what I was imagining the book would look like.  On the basis of that the publisher decided whether to offer a contract for it.

But now that I’ve done the research – reading and annotating – I am in a much, much, much better position to know what the book will actually look like.  And it’s interesting –even a bit amusing – to see how I’ve matured, advanced, and developed in my thinking about the topic by comparing my current thinking with what I was thinking before I started doing the heavy lifting of reading everything relevant.  More on that, as I continue to talk about the post-reading phase of the work, in a later blog post.[/private]

Why I Am Obsessed with Jesus: A Blast from the Past
Taking the Temperature of the Blog: June 2018



  1. Avatar
    rivercrowman  June 14, 2018

    Bart, you’ve been a “known quantity” to me since Sept. 2012. I think it was your book Jesus, Interrupted. That book has a page near the front, “Also by Bart D. Ehrman.” I’ve been bogged down reading your stuff since! … Thank you very much.

  2. Avatar
    fishician  June 14, 2018

    I’m curious if you have any knowledge or experience with self-publishing, either in print or e-books. Seems like with the advent of electronic media all kinds of people are putting stuff out there (and I’m sure mostly not of high quality). If a self-published e-book has some success, would that get a publisher’s attention? From what you’re saying unless you already have some real street cred it’s hard to break in.

    • Bart
      Bart  June 15, 2018

      No experience with it, myself. My sense from the anecdotal evidence I hear is that it almost *never* works, if the goal is to get people to read the book.

    • talmoore
      talmoore  June 15, 2018

      The job of a publisher isn’t to publish your book. Their job is to market your book. Anyone can publish their own book, but without the financial resources necessary to effectively market your book, know one will know you’ve published it.

      • Bart
        Bart  June 17, 2018

        Actually, publishers have a number of jobs, and one of them is indeed marketing. But their main job is to publish. Every publishing house has a division devoted to marketing (and publicity) but it’s not the only division or even the main one.

        • talmoore
          talmoore  June 18, 2018

          What I mean, Dr. Ehrman, is that anyone can write book, convert it to a pdf, and create a link to it. Literally, anybody can do that. But if no one knows that link exists, then good luck getting people to download your book. That’s what a publisher can provide. The funds necessary to adequately market your book.

          I mean, at this point, you yourself don’t even need a publisher. You have enough street cred that if you simply publish it digitally — say, for example, for kindle — you can market it yourself through self-promotion via podcasts, talk shows, conferences, debates, etc. You don’t even need the publisher anymore. That’s the irony of the modern digital age. If someone needs a publisher, it’s hard to get a publisher. But if they don’t need a publisher, it’s easy to get a publisher. The catch-22 of the book publishing world.

    • Altosackbuteer
      Altosackbuteer  June 15, 2018

      I have experience with self-publishing. I have written two books on topics that many people on this blogsite would find interesting.

      I actually have a steady trickle of sales. I’m still losing more money than I’m gaining, but not by much. I hope to turn a profit this year or next.

      You wanna know one problem all of us have? It’s TIME. Nobody has any more time than they’ve ever had before, but people have literally thousands of more and different ways to spend their time than ever before in history. Projects like mine simply get lost in a crowd.

      Gone forever are the days when someone like Tolstoy could get away with writing that MONSTER work of his, War and Peace — when someone holed up somewhere in a cabin on a prairie with nothing else to do would stay up old night for weeks just wading through it. Tolstoy would be impossible today.

  3. Avatar
    forthfading  June 14, 2018

    Dr. Ehrman,

    The fact that you are one of few “actual” New Testament historians that have made the transition into general audience best sellers is amazing!

    Is this the reason so many conservative scholars attack your work because you are actually getting out there to the general public?

    It seems like every conservative scholar can’t write any book without bringing you into it, but what I have learned over the last few years is that you are far from the only scholar to have reached the conclusions you have.


    • Bart
      Bart  June 15, 2018

      Oh yes, if I was just talking to the air, they could blissfully ignore me. The reality is that the general public is hungry to learn what professional scholars have been saying about the Bible, the historical Jesus, and the formative years of Christianity, and very few critical scholars have been willing to tell them. When one does so, the conservatives have to go on the defensive to argue that the consensus position held by most everyone other than their clan can’t be right. They have a theological/religious agenda for doing so, not a purely academic/historical one.

      • Avatar
        prestonp  June 15, 2018

        “The reality is that the general public is hungry to learn what professional scholars have been saying about the Bible…” Bart

        The general public wants what professionals scholars have to say? Maybe some do. Some want to justify why they don’t follow Christ. The fallacies, the misrepresentations and skewed perspectives they find in some scholarly books, provide the kinds of excuses they’ve been dreaming of all their lives.

        “conservatives have to go on the defensive to argue that the consensus position held by most everyone other than their clan can’t be right.” Bart

        In spite of 2 billion who believe in the resurrection?

        “They have a theological/religious agenda for doing so, not a purely academic/historical one.” Bart

        Bart turned away from Christ because he cannot believe in God when there is so much suffering in the world. There was just as much suffering in the world when Bart was a passionate disciple. Does Bart have a secular/anti-religious agenda?

        At times I’m amazed by how even the best and the brightest don’t see what is obvious to others with far less education and training. That’s why Jesus said we must have childlike faith, I believe. Kids often spot truth easily and instantly. Their filters haven’t gotten jammed up with grown up bull.

    • Avatar
      Lilly  June 15, 2018

      For…… ‘ forthfading ‘

      I wanted to take a moment to say that was such a good question ! And probably represents the thoughts of many of us who enjoy learning about ancient Christianity , without the conservative dogma. Your question and Dr, Ehrman’s response were excellent.


  4. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  June 14, 2018

    Egads! What a process! Thanks for sharing this. It sounds like the odds of getting a trade book published or less than the odds of making the PGA Golf tour so I am going to put my book aside and go out and hit some balls.

    I think it does say something really good about you that your book changes significantly as you read stuff. That is much better than having one’s views staying fixed (confirmation bias) as one reads and studies a subject..

  5. Avatar
    godspell  June 14, 2018

    Bit off-topic, but not entirely–seems like Josh Marshall (himself trained as an historian) may have been reading some of your trade books–and others, sadly, have not. Well, we probably don’t want to know what uses they’d put them to if they did.


  6. Avatar
    James Chalmers  June 14, 2018

    Bernstein, Formation of Hell

  7. Altosackbuteer
    Altosackbuteer  June 15, 2018

    The late Colleen McCullough once wrote an amazing 6-volume novelized biography of the life and times of Julius Caesar.

    I once heard her interviewed by Gene Burns on his talk radio show in Boston. He asked her how she went about researching her project.And she gave him an example of the lengths she would go through to Get It Right.

    She mentioned someone named Publius Clodius. Today few people have ever even heard of him, but during Caesar’s rise to the top via the cursus honororum, Clodius was a notorious rabble-rouser.

    To get ready to include him as a character in her story, she made a detour and wrote a 600-page biography of Clodius which, she told Gene Burns, she intended to publish as a stand-alone biography of Publius Clodius, intended for academic markets.

    That’s an EXTRAORDINARY level of dedication.

    • Bart
      Bart  June 15, 2018

      She was flat-out amazing. I read the first two books in the series, and need to go back and read the whole thing. They’re terrific.

  8. Altosackbuteer
    Altosackbuteer  June 15, 2018

    Book agents in effect are the filters for the book publishers. They do the job of vetting books so the publisher doesn’t have to.

    Professor discussed above how difficult it is to find an agent for your scary book proposal, and he’s right, but the flip side of that coin is, once you get an agent, you already have completed most of the road to getting published, because if a publisher trusts your agent, he will assume that the agent has used good judgment, so the publisher has less to worry about, whether the book will make money or not.

    Naturally, since the agent’s reputation is on the line, you can bet he will do his damnedest to find and then represent a GENUINELY good book. The agent can’t afford more than a certain number of duds, or the publishers stop trusting his judgment and he’s out of work.

  9. Avatar
    Lilly  June 15, 2018

    Dr, Ehrman

    Is the process similar, such as finding an agent, etc., when witting books that will be used in college classrooms ( non- trade books ) ?

    And you actually beginning work on a new book already?. Wow, you haven’t slowed down one bit . 🙂 You have a wonderful talent writing books for a general audience, I can only imagine the adjustment when you switch gears and began writing for your peers .

    Thank you sharing your experience on a process that few us know about, but now can began to appreciate more fully.

    • Bart
      Bart  June 15, 2018

      Oh yes, I start thinking about a book *before* the one I’m working on is done. I already have my next two books in mind once this one is done!

      Textbooks: If someone isn’t a scholar in the field, they won’t be able to get a publisher even to look at a textbook proposal. In the case of a textbook a publisher and an author work out an agreement/contract *before* the author starts writing it.

  10. Avatar
    prestonp  June 15, 2018

    forthfading June 14, 2018
    Dr. Ehrman,
    The fact that you are one of few “actual” New Testament historians that have made the transition into general audience best sellers is amazing!
    Is this the reason so many conservative scholars attack your work because you are actually getting out there to the general public?
    It seems like every conservative scholar can’t write any book without bringing you into it, but what I have learned over the last few years is that you are far from the only scholar to have reached the conclusions you have.

    Another reason Bart’s books are attacked is that they come to the wrong conclusions about Jesus Christ. Have you read the books of those who dismantle Bart’s reasoning? He, Bart, is not under attack. His incorrect and exaggerated opinions are. I’ve never read a review of Bart’s work by anyone who didn’t start by writing about Bart’s integrity, his amazing abilities as a writer and a scholar, and his expertise as a text critique.

  11. Telling
    Telling  June 16, 2018


    I appreciate that your research focuses on the history behind Christian belief in the afterlife. But I wonder if today’s scholars and historians will have a developed understanding of both past and present beliefs with typically their own modern scientific understanding. The whole nature of some of our most ancient world religions and of other disciplines such as psychoanalysis (primarily Carl Jung) and modern mystics and spiritualists is a developed understanding that we are deceived by our physical senses into believing a solid physical world of matter exists when it does not.

    The following link explains this further, my article on “nirvana” a Buddhist concept, yet germane to mystic beliefs, and will overlap into the substance of Christian and Pagan myths.


You must be logged in to post a comment.