If you’ve ever wondered how to sell your nonfiction book to a traditional publisher, this post if for you.
So if you’ve written a non-fiction manuscript, which could be a memoir, a self-help, a how-to, a business book, and you want to get traditionally published, read on for what to do.
Traditional publishing is a very different business model to Self-Publishing
Traditional publishing means distribution is taken care of, it means being stocked in the most amazing bookstores, it means the best of the best will work on your book, and you will have a professional cover design… All these wonderful things come with being traditionally published, which if you self-publish, you have to pay for yourself.
So, if you want to be traditionally published (ie. you want a traditional publisher to edit, market, sell your book), you need to sell your book to THEM, first!
How do you ‘sell’ your nonfiction book to a traditional publisher?
OK so the three things that I’m going to share with you today are the absolute bare minimum that you need to have in place before you can think of selling your nonfiction book to a publisher or an agent.
And the reason that you need to know these things is if you don’t have all three, or even two of the three, it will take 10+ years or you’ll never get published, you’ll never hear back from agents, you’ll be pitching what I like to call the ‘old way’, which is really disempowering. And for most of you, you simply won’t get published without each of these three things in place.
It’s 2021, traditional publishing is very different to what it was twenty, thirty and even fifty years ago. There’s a lot more opportunities to get a book deal what I like to call the ‘new’ and much more empowering way.
I’ve published two non-fiction books traditionally. I don’t have a giant platform, I’m not a celebrity, you’ve probably never heard of me, and it is totally possible to get a great deal for your nonfiction book if you have none of these things. OK so the first thing you need to do is…
1: DRAFT THE MANUSCRIPT
Okay. So the first thing that you need, and I can’t tell you how many times I get approached by people who say I have this BRILLIANT sure-to-be-bestselling idea, how do I get published? How do I get an offer or a contract before I write it?
(Or even more ridiculous is when people EMAIL me to say they have an amazing idea and how’s about I write it for them and we’ll share the royalties!! Bahahahahaha).
So, back to friends who tell me they have an idea they can’t let go, how do they get a book deal? I tell them that I wrote my first book WITHOUT a contract and they are absolutely shocked and appalled that they have to do some work without a guaranteed giant cheque.
So, whether you have a memoir or a brilliant idea for a non-fiction book, perhaps you’re an expert in your field, maybe you think I’m not going to write it I can just sell the idea as it’s so brilliant and surely everyone will want to steal it, I’m sorry but that just doesn’t happen.
Ideas are a dime a dozen. People who have the where-withal and follow-through and tenacity and commitment to write the manuscript? Far more rare.
The only writers who get book deals without manuscripts are those who’ve been published before, like I did with my second book, because the first book was proof that I could actually pull off a complete manuscript, okay?
So you need the manuscript or at least a draft of your nonfiction manuscript.
It doesn’t need to be amazing. It doesn’t need to be even completely polished, but you need the manuscript of your non-fiction book, okay? So write that manuscript. You don’t need to show it to anyone but just make sure you’ve written it because guess what, as soon as you pitch a book, a traditional publisher is going to want to see a sample!
The other reason you need to write the manuscript is that books change a lot as we start to write them. The things that we start to write about sort of take different shapes and the concept that we were so passionate about in the beginning may change, so you need a manuscript. Before you try to pitch an agent or a publisher, make sure you have a manuscript ready.
The other reason for this is you could be trying to sell your book on proposal only which a lot of people do with non-fiction. But the thing is, to write a really good book proposal, you need a lot of the manuscript. So you need to give very detailed chapter outlines, you need to give sample chapters, and you need to prove that you’ve thought out the whole concept of the book in advance. So, you may as well write the draft!! It’s just as much work to write a proposal as it is to draft the manuscript, okay? And it’s impossible to write a really good proposal without fully fleshing out the whole draft. I know a lot of nonfiction experts sell book proposal programs but in my experience, working on the draft is a far better use of your time. A publisher won’t even request the proposal if your query and synopsis aren’t good enough, anyway. Some don’t ask for a proposal at all, just some sample chapters. Write the manuscript!
2. A STRONG HOOK IS ABSOLUTELY ESSENTIAL TO SELL NONFICTION
The second thing that you need to get a publisher to even read your email, because they’re being pitched so many things at the moment, is you need a strong hook.
The hook to your book is so important, particularly for memoir.
But having a hook or a unique angle is totally relevant for non-fiction for self-help, for business, for every other type of non-fiction that you could be pitching. You need a strong hook.
So what is a hook? A hook is what makes your story relevant right now.
A strong hook for nonfiction makes you the best person to write this story and the hook is what’s going to differentiate your story from thousands of other books that are being pitched on the same topics or themes.
When I ask writers what their hook is, they often tell me their topics or themes instead.
That is not the hook. That’s your topic or theme. So if I ask you what your hook is, and you say, “Well, my book’s about the search for meaning after divorce” for example, that’s not the hook. The hook is the most unique, relevant, timely aspect to your story and the reason that you need to be the one to write this.
A strong and clear hook is going to make the publisher or the agent open up and think: “This story is really important, and this person has a really interesting take or angle on this. And she or he is the best person to write this book.”
This is key because they are getting pitched dozens of books on the same topics or themes every week.
3. THE VERY LAST THING YOU NEED IN 2021 TO SELL YOUR NONFICTION TO A TRADITIONAL PUBLISHER
So you need a book [manuscript], you need a hook, and the last thing you need, which you didn’t need 20 or 30 years ago, is some kind of digital presence. Now – this is NOT a giant platform. Remember how I’ve sold two books to traditional publishers? I have about 700 followers on Facebook, and i didn’t even have any of that when I pitched my first book (in 2009) which sold without a proposal. But I DID have a digital presence – I had a basic website, with a few very basic examples of my writing and a clear photo of myself. That is all!
So what I mean by digital presence is you could have a blog, you could have even the most basic website, or one piece of published work, or a substack newsletter that you send. You do not need to have like a million followers on Twitter, you do not need to have a million followers on Facebook, you don’t need to be a celebrity, you don’t need to even pay someone to make you an amazing, beautifully designed website. Digital media is free and easy now and the QUICKEST way to empower yourself as a writer pitching to traditional publishers.
The reason you need a digital presence, and by that I mean an example of your writing online, is the absolute first thing that anyone’s going to do when you pitch them your book is to Google you. And you’d be amazed how many people just don’t have any kind of digital footprint. Probably because they’ve been in the cave working on the number 1 step in this list which is great! But as soon as you have that draft, you need to start getting some work online. Publishing no longer works the way it once did, where you pitched your manuscript cold, and it was all about the quality of the manuscript alone. Publishers are in sales and marketing. And when your book comes out, with a traditional publisher, I’m sorry to burst the bubble, but you’re going to have to make an effort to meet them halfway with the marketing and the publicity.
So, this is why the first thing that a publisher and agent does is to Google you, to see some other examples of your writing. To see proof that you have been writing longer than this one book. It helps them to get to know you a little bit better, and it can actually provide that proof of both validity to your story and also show that you know how to write for an audience, and you know where your audience is.
There’s so many other reasons, but you need a digital presence. You need a website or a blog or you might put your stories on Instagram, so you might take really beautiful photos and write stories that go along with your photos. That’s a digital presence. So if someone Googles your name, they will bring up your Instagram account and be able to see some examples of your storytelling.
If you’re, let’s say, you’re a doctor and you’re pitching a book on your unique take on a particular disease or a disease or healing modality, then a blog about that or some published pieces about that would be sufficient or even a Twitter account where you regularly interact with your audience. So, that is super, super key. And I think so many writers think it’s about the craft of the storytelling and the craft of the book and the manuscript.
Without a manuscript (even a semi-finished one), you have nothing to ‘sell’. And without the hook and a digital presence, you will be on the slow boat to China, pitching your book cold for years and years and years wondering why agents and editors ignore your emails.
So, you need these 3 things:
1: You need the manuscript, even if it’s a crappy first draft, you need to have put in the effort to at least follow this story idea down to the finish line because so much changes in the actual writing of the manuscript process.
2: You need a hook. So, the hook is the most relevant or timely or interesting angle to your story and that applies regardless of what sort of non-fiction it is, whether it’s a memoir, whether it’s a self-help or business book, or even a cookbook, it needs a hook or an angle.
3: And the last thing you need is some kind of digital presence. This is 2021.
What you DON’T need to get traditionally published:
- A million followers
- Celebrity status
- Literary ‘connections’ when you start
- An MFA
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