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Non-Fiction Book Publishing 101

By Author Nate Hendley

So, you want to write a book?

If you have a novel in mind, I can’t help you because I don’t write fiction. If you want to publish a true-life story though, I can offer a few words of wisdom.

Some background: My name is Nate Hendley. I live in Toronto and work full-time as a freelance journalist and author. I have written 14 books, primarily in the true-crime genre. I have experienced plenty of ups and downs, disappointments, and triumphs in the publishing world. 

Given this, here’s some advice.

1. Do you have the right attitude?

Before you even start on your non-fiction publishing journey, ask yourself this:

Am I a hard-worker? Do I enjoy reading non-fiction books? Am I willing to work weekends, weeknights and Friday, and Saturday evenings? Do I have thick skin and can take constructive criticism without wilting? Am I willing to follow a book project through to the end, despite multiple rewrites and revisions? 

If you’ve answered ‘no’ to most of these points, you might want to pack up your tent now to avoid disappointment. 

2. Are you aware of the realities of the publishing world?

If your book is good and your publisher offers editing and marketing support, you might make a little bit of cash. Unless you are very lucky, however, you won’t get rich from your book. 

Very, very few authors earn millions of dollars writing non-fiction.

3. Do you have a good idea?

Publishers like fresh takes on well-known topics or books on topics that aren’t well-known. In either case, your idea needs to be catchy and original. 

Good story-telling and “readability” are the key elements for non-fiction aimed at a general readership, as opposed to an academic audience.

Don’t make your topic too broad or dry. Focus on an interesting personality or a fascinating story. 

4 . Do you have a track record?

While there are plenty of good books authored by people with limited writing experience, getting published and seeing your project through to the end will be vastly easier if you have a track record. By a track record, I mean, a collection of published articles. 

5. Do you know who to approach?

It’s not necessary to have an agent to get a non-fiction book published. Some of my fellow non-fiction authors have agents. I don’t. I deal with publishers directly. 

If you don’t use an agent, you will have to land a publishing deal yourself (assuming you are not self-publishing, which is a whole different thing). You need to determine which publishing house would be the most receptive to your idea. If you want to write about a murder case, don’t approach a publisher that specializes in fishing guides.

Almost every publisher has a website that you can check out. Some of these sites feature webpages with information about “How to Submit a Manuscript” or who to contact with a book idea. Failing that, you can phone or email the publisher and ask for the name and contact info of the Acquisitions editor (the person at the publishing house who acquires new books). 

If you are a Canadian writer, your best bet is to approach a Canadian publisher.

I have written books for an American publisher (ABC-CLIO) but they contacted me, after I had written about Al Capone, Dutch Schultz, and other mob bosses for Canadian publishers. ABC-CLIO asked me to do a book about Bonnie and Clyde. I followed this up with other books about U.S. gangsters.

Unless you have a topic that’s suitable for the American marketplace, it’s not likely that a U.S. publisher will be interested in your book, especially if you’re a newbie author.     

6. Turning your book idea into a book proposal

Unlike fiction publishers, non-fiction publishers do not expect you to finish your manuscript before you contact them. Send them your idea first to get them interested.  

Distill your book idea into a one page synopsis. Be succinct and to the point. Make your ‘pitch’ catchy. Once you have your idea down on paper, add in contact information and preferably the URL to a website or blog containing samples of your previous writing.

Want advanced tips for outlining your book? Our expert, author Barbara Radecki, will teach you how in our New Year, New Book program. Apply now!

This is where having a ‘track record’ comes in handy. Publishers like working with writers who a) know how to write and b) are familiar with concepts such as deadlines, sources, and research.

In your pitch letter, explain why you are uniquely qualified to write the book you propose. 

Publishers and agents are busy people. They are inundated with book pitches and are extremely unlikely to get back to you the day after you submit a book idea. Unless you are already famous, DO NOT expect a quick response. You might have to wait weeks or months. 

Also: only use email to contact publishers. Book pitches send via surface mail will usually be tossed into recycling without being opened, because they take up too much space. 

7. The chapter outline

If the publishing house likes your idea, they will probably ask you to write a chapter outline. This is to determine if there is sufficient “meat” to warrant an entire book based on your idea. Keep the outline brief. A few pages summarizing the main points will suffice. Also include notes about how you plan to go about doing research. 

8. The contract

If the publisher likes your chapter outline, they will send you a contract to mull over. The contract will contain information about word count, deadlines, and payment. You might receive advance payments before the book is published.

If your book sells enough copies to “make back your advance,” you will receive royalties. Royalties are based on a percentage of the sales price of paper and electronic copies of your book. Book royalties are usually in the 10 – 12 percent range.  

Read the contract carefully. You might want to get a friend or lawyer to look it over. Don’t sign anything that makes you uncomfortable. NEVER sign a contract that requires you to pay to get your book published.

This is a sign you’re dealing with a vanity press that publishes anything that comes their way and does nothing to promote you. 

9. The actual writing commences

Once your contract is signed you can commence writing your book. After you submit your book, there will be a back-and-forth process as your publisher edits and analyzes your manuscript. If you are lucky, they won’t demand extensive rewrites.

Once again, having a thick skin helps. You might think your book is perfect. It’s unlikely the editors at your publishing house will share this opinion. They will almost certainly want changes. 

10. The book arrives

After much sweat and toil, a box of advance paper copies of your book will arrive on your doorstep, courtesy of your publisher. Or your publisher might send you an electronic copy of your finished book.

Take the time to congratulate yourself: you are now a published non-fiction author!

Want advanced tips for outlining your book? Our expert, author Barbara Radecki, will teach you how in our New Year, New Book program. Apply now!

About The Author

Nate Hendley is a Toronto-based journalist, speaker, and author. His latest book, The Beatle Bandit was released by Dundurn Press. Nate’s website offers more details about his books and background.

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