UPDATE: Check the follow-up post “So How Much Money Will You Make From Writing a Book?”
I’m currently knee-deep in writing the manuscript for Think Like a Rock Star (should be 40% done by the end of the week!), and I’ve had a few people and friends that are considering writing a book ask me about the experience. I’m not gonna comment too much on the actual writing process, since I’m still going through that, but I wanted to talk to y’all about the steps you’ll need to take to get your book published (and we are assuming this is a business/marketing/social media book):
1 – Figure out what you want to write about. This sounds very easy, but it’s not. You need to figure out what book YOU were meant to write. The book that no one else could write. Four years ago I was approached by an editor to write a book on marketing on YouTube. Remember this was 2008, and there were very few social media books at the time. I was really excited at the prospect of having my own book for about 5 mins, till I realized that I wasn’t really interested in writing a book about marketing on YouTube. And I also didn’t want to tour the country speaking on the topic. I was pitched on a couple of other book ideas over the next couple of years, but I finally decided that Think Like a Rockstar was the only book I wanted to write.
2 – Figure out why your book is unique and fills a market need. Once you figure out the topic of your book, you’re then going to realize that your book’s already been written several times. You need to figure out what you bring to the table that hasn’t been discussed before. For me, there’s plenty of books on why companies should connect with brand advocates and evangelists. The ‘Rockstar’ analogy helped me differentiate Think Like a Rockstar, but even that didn’t make the book completely unique, as there’s been a few other books written on what companies can learn about branding and marketing from the music industry. I had to go deeper, and when I release the full outline of the book in a few weeks, you’ll see why Think Like a Rockstar is different. But the point is, you’ll need to figure out what your ‘hook’ is. What are you going to bring to the table that’s unique, but that will still have value for your readers?
3 – Find 3-5 books that you think are similar to your idea. For each book, you need to explain what your book offers that the competing title misses. And try your best to pick newer titles. If you propose that your book idea will be competing against 5 books that were all written in the mid 1990s, that tells the publisher that your idea is dead, otherwise someone would have written about it in the past 15 years!
4 – You need to create an outline and table of contents for your book. This is where it starts to get serious, and we find out if you really want to write a book, or if you are just toying with the idea. This will be a lot of work, but you’ll have to show this to a potential publisher, plus it will make the writing process much easier once you have a gameplan to follow.
5 – Write the first 1-3 chapters. This is another good test to prepare you for the process. If you can hand a publisher a solid proposal for the book that includes 1-3 solidly-written chapters, you’re making an excellent case for why your book needs to be published. And writing those chapters will give you a great idea of how long it will take you to write the entire book. For example, if it takes you 3 months to write the first chapter, that could be a big red flag.
6 – Create a proposal for the book. Thankfully, you’ve already done a lot of this by simply completing the first 5 steps. You’ll need to tell publishers who the market is for this book, why YOU are the person to write it, what it’s about, competing titles, etc. You’ll also need to include the table of contents and any of the chapters you have written. Also, you’ll need to explain to the publisher how you will market the book. This is where you want to mention any speaking you will be doing on this topic over the next year, as well as your online profile, your following.
7 – Having a killer idea trumps your online presence every single time. When I started talking to publishers about writing Think Like a Rockstar, I assumed that my ‘online footprint’ would be a big plus for me. It wasn’t. Most of the publishers I and my agent talked to had no idea who I was, in fact most of the rejection letters we got started ‘We think Mark has a great idea, but…’ If your idea is great and publishers think it will sell, that’s far more important than how many Twitter followers you have, so don’t think you need X number of followers/friends before you can talk to a publisher.
8 – Figure out if you need a literary agent, or want to go it alone. I’ve been talking to publishers about Think Like a Rockstar since 2010. For the first year, I didn’t have an agent, then I realized that I was spinning my wheels and needed to get one. There’s only a few publishers whose editors are actively trying to connect with potential writers in this space. If you can get a suitable deal with one of them, fine. I could not, and decided to go with an agent.
There’s a couple of obvious differences in going with an agent. First, you’ll have to pay an agent, typically a cut of any money you get from the book, including your advance, royalties, etc. The huge immediate benefit is that you get access to several dozen publishers and these are publishers that the agent works with regularly. The agent can also look over any contract you are offered, and help you with the terms. As you might can guess, I’m pretty happy with my agent (Linda Langton), and you can learn more about her here.
9 – If you go with an agent, you will likely get a LOT more rejection letters. This makes sense, if your proposal is going out to 30 publishers, expect to hear ‘No’ a lot. For me, while a bit disappointing, this was also a big help. Because most of the publishers would explain WHY they turned down the book. Maybe they didn’t think the book covered something that it actually did, or maybe they didn’t understand the actual focus of your book. As long as they explain WHY they are saying no, that gives you something to work with when you send it off to the next publisher.
10 – Don’t expect to get rich from writing a book. You’ll likely get an advance of $5,000-$10,000 if a publisher accepts your book. Remember this is an ADVANCE, which means you’ll have to pay this money back to the publisher.
EDIT: I should have been more clear here, your advance is against the money you will make from royalties on the book. So if your publisher gives you a $5,000 advance, you have to pay that back first from your royalties. Which means you won’t get any royalty payments until you’ve covered your $5,000 advance. If you never sell enough to cover your advance, then you don’t get any royalty payments. But either way, you keep the $5,000 advance. Thanks to Andrew and Don for the clarifications.
So in closing, if you are serious about writing a book and getting a publisher’s attention, absolutely kill the first 6 steps. If you can hand a publisher a well-organized and written proposal detailing what the book is, who will buy it, and with 1-3 well-written chapters, you’re in great shape.