Pitch your book

You have a great idea for a book, you’ve begun writing it, you’re sure your readers will appreciate it. You only have to convince a publisher.

Where on earth do you start?

I’m going to talk about non-fiction here, particularly about creative non-fiction. That means bringing ideas out of academia to a wider readership. I’ll mention fiction and the US, but focus on the UK, where I grew up, and Finland, where I live. That narrows it down a lot, but a big part of convincing a publisher to take your book is just that – narrowing things down.

Narrow it down

Big UK academic publishers get so many requests that they have a standard form to fill in. (here are the book proposal guidelines for Routledge, Palgrave, and Brill). They ask questions that will help you focus your book proposal. In a nutshell:

Who is writing it, and who is going to read it?

Where are the writer(s) and the readers?

When will you finish your manuscript?

How does your book fit with others?

Why do we need this book at all?

What is it about?

Recently one of those big publishers accepted our book proposal. With two co-editors we have our contract signed. Several authors have chapters drafted, and we have a realistic schedule. Now all we have to do is finish writing the book! I’ve edited and translated several proposals – and books – written by others, so I knew about that stage. But before going through it myself, I did not know how to contact a publisher, get them to consider your proposal, and negotiate a contract. It’s a lot more work than you think.

We were negotiating our contract when I attended two very different sessions on how to pitch a book. One was with academic author and editor Laura Portwood-Stacer in the US – if you don’t get her Manuscript Works newsletter already, you should! The other was a two-parter with the PhD network in Finland, Tohtoriverkosto. First we met a successful author, Tiina Raevaara, and then Ville Rauvola from a big publisher, Atena. At these events, I realized how much I know already about getting published – and how much more there is to learn.

Find where you fit in

One of the first things you need to do is see what’s out there already, and where you fit in. Read a lot, and well beyond your comfort zone. Read in other languages too, Rauvola suggests – you might get a great idea that would work in your first language. Go to book fairs. Seeing all those books and their authors in one place is exciting. Behind the scenes, there’s a lot of hard bargaining. You need to explain how your book stands out from all the others, to some very busy people – that elevator pitch.

The Helsinki Book Fair, where I’ve been twice with the FILI programme for translators, opened my eyes to how people buy and sell books. We had meetings with literary agents who handle the rights. This made me see the commercial side of publishing. Who is going to pay for your book? How are they going to market it to readers? I translate samples for literary agents I’ve met through FILI, and write readers’ reports for New Books in German. NBG’s advice on how to write a good readers’ report tells you what publishers are looking for.

Book fairs are where publishers literally set out their stalls, so you can get a good feel for what they like. The Finnish Publishers Association lists its members online. The UK Publishers Association has a searchable directory. Of course in a specialist niche, whoever publishes your literature might publish you.

Approach a publisher

In Finland things are much less formalized than in the UK. People tend to know of each other, at least. Rather than six degrees of separation, it’s more like two or three. But in the US, Portwood-Stacer also says to start with informal chats and use your connections if you have them. You need to check out the publishers too before you make a formal submission. Not everyone can fire off a two-line email saying “I’ve had an idea for another book, what do you think?” Raevaara does this for her narrative non-fiction books, but she’s a respected scientist and creative writer.

If you don’t have quite that star status yet, you might need to say a little more. To get a publisher interested you need to know your likely readership. The consensus seems to be that email is best, but only to the right person. This can mean digging round publisher websites to find out who handles that genre and field. You don’t need to send the whole manuscript – you should contact them long before it’s ready. A page (no more than two) answering those wh- questions will narrow down why they should care about your book now.

Smaller publishers have a more personal touch and may respond faster. Even if they like your idea, an academic book proposal will go through peer review, so it can take a while.

Make your proposal

Different parts of your book proposal are important for different people, says Portwood-Stacer. The working title shows the editor the key point you want to make. The project description shows how you write. The intended audiences and comparable books are important for sales and marketing staff. The synopsis and chapter summaries are important for peer reviewers. Both these groups want to know who the authors are so they can place you. The specifications (length, images, etc.) are important for production planning.

Get beta readers to offer you constructive feedback. If you’re popularizing a thesis, you need to explain concepts in language that more general readers can follow. Revise is the book to help you do that. Raevaara herself is fantastic at turning hard science into thrillers. With Urpu Strellman, she’s written the Tietokirjailijan kirja, the book for non-fiction writers in Finnish. She cited Johanna Laitinen from another big publisher, Gummerus: “I always want a book proposal to surprise me.”

Publishers like to see that you are active on social media and can promote your work. You can do this in different ways, to suit you (it doesn’t have to be Twitter!), but they will want to know how you share your ideas.

Negotiate a contract

Getting a contract is fantastic – but scrutinize it before you sign. Authors’ associations can help you make sure that the terms are fair. In the UK, the Society of Authors offers a fantastic contract vetting service. They were extremely helpful for our book, identifying in every clause what was usual, realistic, and acceptable (not the same thing!). The US Authors’ Guild offers an excellent model contract for literary translation. The Finnish Union of Writers and the non-fiction writers’ association publish model contracts. In Finland, Sanasto makes sure your get your royalties and defends your copyright. In the UK, ACLS does the same.

Get it written

When our book proposal became a book contract, the first thing we did was pencil in writing retreats. This could be informal cowriting hours online with a couple of colleagues, or days offline, away from everything else. If you want to stick to your schedule, write little and often.

new retreat dates – seuraavat retriitit

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