10 Steps to Maybe Getting Your Nonfiction Book Published

A generation ago we learned that the medium is the message. We segregated ourselves into media categories: TV people or radio people or print people and we perfected our medium with inverted pyramids and driveway moments and close-up, highly emotional footage.

And then, in the late ’90s, Google or Al Gore invented the internet and the media blew up again, mashing together our disciplines and ruining our attention spans. Some of us took to blogging, learned video and audio editing and survived. I dropped out to write a book during the precise two-year period in which “the book,” as we’ve known it for six centuries, ceased to exist.

If the medium is still the message, then this is the message to journalists who want to write books: you are crazy. You are better off getting a massage, as Marshall McLuhan hinted at in his famous 1967 book. But if you are willing to change the image of “the book” that is embedded in your DNA, if you are a media agnostic and know something about ones and zeroes, there is no limit to maybe getting your nonfiction book published if you follow these 10 ridiculously nerve-wracking steps.

  1. Pick a topic now. Find the universal themes in your work: what stories do you like to tell and how are they connected? For me, it was migration. I was fascinated by immigration as a cub reporter in Nampa, through 9/11 and throughout my early career. I eventually found the nugget of my book in a story about an American woman whose Mexican husband got stuck at the border after returning home to visit his sick mother. I wrote the story in 2005, but I knew that I hadn’t done it justice and that I’d come back to it one day. For a few years I knew I’d write an immigration book, then I figured out it would involve bi-national love stories and, boom, I had a topic.
  2. Tell everyone you meet what your book is about. This is counter to our competitive reportorial instincts, but is a key feature of the modern media age. Put it all out on the line. No one is going to steal your book topic and if they do you will do it better. Every conversation you have will increase your number of sources, hone your thesis and establish your expertise and credibility. Watch people’s faces as you tell them about your book. What do your crazy uncle, your best friend, the kid at the cash register, your doctor want to know about your topic? Another benefit of talking about your book all the time is that about 14 months later, all of these people will start asking you when it’s coming out and searching for your name of Amazon and you will be shamed into actually finishing it.
  3. Figure out the social media now. Use your social networks and your blog to connect with people about your book in the same way you are telling everyone around town about it. People are going to be searching for you, so give them something to find. This is your chance to force yourself into the book-writing class by sheer will. You will also need the connections that social media provides because when you write a book, you are utterly alone. You are no longer that guy or gal from the Weekly or the Times. You are not the local media or the national media. You are a lonely intellectual entrepreneur. Own that. Practice putting your name on the cover now by typing it again and again on Facebook and Twitter.
  4. Marry well. I mean this in a few senses. It’s going to cost you to write a book, both emotionally and financially. So it helps if you have a partner—not necessarily a spouse, but someone to support you emotionally and financially through the process and to kick your ass when needed (or at least get all Lysistrata on it). You are going to need to quit your job or take some time off and you are going to need to follow the story wherever it takes you. Get a simple part-time job so you can tell yourself you are helping pay the bills and keep your partner happy.
  5. Forget about grants. If you are good at getting grants, good luck to you. But nobody is going to pay you to write your first book. You may be able to raise some money for specific parts of the project—the Idaho Press Club granted me $500 to travel to Texas on a reporting trip (in exchange for this article). Use crowd-sourced fund raising sites like Kickstarter strategically, but don’t plan on getting paid upfront to write. You are some kind of tenured professor or something. You’re still just a hack.
  6. As soon as you know what the book is about and decide to write it, call all of your friends and their friends who have written books and ask them for advice. There are at dozens of paths to getting a book published and the more people you ask the quicker you will develop your own path. Have your elevator speech ready: what is the book about, why are you qualified to write it and who is going to read it? Don’t take it personally when there are long pauses on the other end of the line but don’t be afraid to ask how they got published and if they can help you in any way?
  7. Ignore all of the advice you get, despite what I wrote in No. 6. Also, ignore all of the laments about the demise of the book, the death of the reader, the end of writing. Those eulogies are not for YOUR book. Don’t join a writing group. You are better off having drinks with your former press colleagues and hearing about their scoops and deadline shenanigans and deep throat sources than hanging out with other people who are trying to write books. You are a journalist, not a novelist. Don’t forget that, even when your crazy uncle asks how your novel is coming along.
  8. Attack publishing from all the angles. Try to get introduced to an agent, preferably through the people you called in No. 6. Put together a non-fiction book proposal because it will force you to organize your ideas, consider your competition and future readership and establish your credentials. Google “self-publishing” once a month or so. Show your draft chapters to people whose opinions you value. But don’t forget to write your book and edit the heck out of it—no one is going to do this for you.
  9. Get organized now. Save your notes and label your notebooks. Archive your own stories so you don’t have to buy them from your old newspaper three years later. Keep track of your sources—that PIO or lawyer or business owner that you call once a week winces every time you write something because he or she knows there is so much more to the story. You are going to tap that when you decide to write the book. When you are on deadline, it’s no big deal to keep the contents of a notebook and 12 scraps of paper in your mind. But it’s going to take you much longer to write this book than you think. You may forget if that interview was from June 8, 2011 or June 8, 2010, so type everything up and keep it organized on your computer and then back it up in multiple places. I use Dropbox to keep all of my notes and drafts, more than 80 separate files at this point, synced between two computers, my iPod and the cloud.
  10. Enjoy the ride. You will bring all of your journalism skills to bear on this project and you will invent new ones. Your relationship with sources, your ideas about writing and deadlines and first-person and objectivity and transparency will all change. The question of what the book of the future looks like is wide open. Really smart, experienced writers and moneyed, old school publishers have no idea what it’s going to be. You will help shape this future with your book. Own it. And don’t get a massage until you are done.

This post originally published in the Summer 2012 Idaho Press Club Communicator.

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