You’re an expert with knowledge to impart. Or you have a great story to tell. So you’ve decided to write a book. Should you work with a professional writer? Here are the key points to consider. What are my goals?
Think clearly about your intentions. They will determine the choices you make, including whether to work with a collaborator. Ask yourself:
- What's the basic message of my book?
- Who precisely is that message aimed at?
Publishers today want to know what specific groups of people you can reach who are likely to buy a book on your topic. The larger your target audience, the more expertise is required to structure and write the book in a style that will appeal to many people. Can I write it in a style appropriate for my audience?
Some experts just aren’t writers; they have other talents, and they need someone to get their ideas onto the page. Others may be excellent academic or technical writers, but don’t have the skills—or the time—to write a commercial book with its different structure, shorter sentences, nontechnical language, and lighter tone.
How do I want to publish it? Most potential collaborators who contact me have in mind the conventional route of finding a big commercial publisher. To attract such a publisher, you generally need what’s called a “platform”—meaning all the people across the nation (and beyond) who recognize your name and will buy your book because they’re already interested in what you have to say. Do you speak at conferences? Give lectures? Maintain a website or blog that gets lots of hits? Give interviews to newspapers or magazines? That’s a platform. To approach commercial publishers, you need to sign up with an agent and write a proposal—typically 40 pages or more—laying out the contents and structure of the entire book, and including a detailed analysis of its market, as well as a marketing plan. This process often requires a writer who knows how to find an agent and how to pitch an idea in a very competitive arena. If you still need to build your platform, you can choose among a range of other publishing options.
- Small independent publishers focus on specific interests (called niches). They don’t pay much advance money but are expert at selling to their markets and generally keep their books in print for years. The best way to find the right one is to check brick-and-mortar or online booksellers for books on topics in the same subject area as yours and see who published them, then examine the publisher’s website. Here’s a list of independent publishers.
- “Print on demand” (POD) services put printing paper copies of a book within most people’s financial range. You can pay for marketing and distribution or handle it yourself. Here’s a good review of the pros and cons.
- Ebooks are published on the internet as downloadable files in a variety of formats. A great deal of information is available by searching on “ebooks” online; here’s a basic description.
One of my collaborators started out with no platform at all. Commercial publishers wouldn’t look at her, so we chose a small press for our first book. It’s still selling, ten years later. What’s more, it helped establish her credentials as an expert, enabling us to publish our second book with a major commercial house. Can I lay out some funds up front?
Would-be authors still advertise for writers with the promise of splitting the royalties once the book is published. But it takes a minimum of six to nine months to write the average book—time during which the writer needs income to live on. You may get an advance from a publisher large enough to cover the writer’s fee for producing the book. If not, you’ll need to make a financial arrangement that will support the writer.
In most cases, too, the writer is paid up front for writing the proposal. Fees vary widely, depending on the complexity of the work and the writer’s track record. Most often the expert recoups this fee later, either from the advance, if it’s large enough, or from the royalties.
If you choose one of the alternative publishing options above, there probably won’t be an advance (or a sizeable enough advance) to pay for a writer. But you may find that fronting the funds yourself is well worth the cost. For example, if you plan to sell your book at your workshops and seminars, or to people who visit your website, the writer’s fee will be like any business investment that pays off down the road in terms of increased sales, visibility, and enhanced professional profile. Reflecting on the questions above will help you nail down the specifics of your project: a clear vision of what you want to say, and how a book promoting that message will support your overall goals. Then you can make a well-informed decision about the best way to publish it—including whether to work with a writer.
For more information
A great source for learning the basics of getting published is The ASJA Guide to Freelance Writing: A Professional Guide to the Business, for Nonfiction Writers of All Experience Levels, edited by Timothy Harper and published by the American Society of Journalists and Authors (ASJA), the premier professional organization for freelancers. (See the quote from me in the chapter about collaborations, on page 123.) If you have more questions, contact me. I am a mentor for ASJA and also do private consultations.
Causes Stephanie Golden Supports
Insight Meditation Society, Barre, MA
Brooklyn for Peace
New York Insight Meditation Center
Coalition for the Homeless