How to Navigate the Rough Waters of Nonfiction Publishing

by Sharlene Martin and Anthony Flacco

       Sharlene Martin of Martin Literary Management, and noted author Anthony Flacco, reveal strategies and techniques for navigating the publishing industry, writing attention-getting book proposals, and crafting killer query letters, all in preparation for publication. Meet the challenges like a boss!

       Publish Your Nonfiction Book: Strategies for Learning the Industry, Selling Your Book, and Building a Successful Career goes beyond query letter and proposal basics to give readers a broader insider understanding of what the publishing industry is really like and how to navigate it successfully in order to ensure a long-term career. To this end, the book explores: how to determine if you have the skills, background, and unique 'it' factor necessary to successfully write and sell a nonfiction book; how to identify and target your audience; how to start building your platform (and when to begin); how to decide if you need an agent to get published (why/why not); how an agent sells a nonfiction book; how an editor sells a nonfiction book to his/her publishing house; what a contract encompasses; the author/agent, author/editor, author/agent/editor relationships; what happens after the contract is signed (the writing and development process); how books get on store shelves and what you can do once it does; and, the next book (when to start, etc.).

       This book demystifies the publication process! You'll get an insider's understanding of what the publishing industry is really like, and most importantly how to successfully navigate it in order to ensure a long-term career.




       The path to mainstream publication demands more than a great leap of faith from you. Positive thinking is necessary for motivation, but it alone cannot bring you to success in the publishing industry. Let us repeat that note: 

       It is not enough merely to have faith in yourself. 

       The vital ingredient will be your own determination to see your work in print from a mainstream publisher. No aspiring writer can trust in raw talent alone when it comes to doing competitive work and presenting it in the best way. For one thing, the glut of competition is huge. Consider the vast annual numbers in the publishing world. Bowker, the exclusive United States ISBN agency, and the recipient of the most dependable title and publisher information available, reports that in 2008, there were 275,232 new titles and editions published by some 86,000 publishers, 75 percent of which were nonfiction titles. Additionally, another 285,394 print on demand titles were produced in 2008, making the total number of new or revised book titles in excess of 550,000.

       You can run with that pack and you can push through to the lead. If you do, it will be your refusal to accept failure that sustains your determination until you emerge as a published nonfiction author. 


       Countless prospective book authors have felt the pain of persistent rejection. So if it has happened to you, at least know that you are not alone. It only feels personal; it really is not.  The mega-bestseller Chicken Soup for the Soul by Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen reportedly was rejected 140 times. In case you skimmed over that last sentence, it bears repeating: the authors received 140 rejections before the book found a publisher. 

       A host of other highly successful books have collected piles of rejection letters before they found their place on bookshelves. There is something to be said for drive and perseverance, but this wave of rejection overwhelms many prospective authors, causing them to give up. Writers who experience a series of rejections often lack the knowledge that would have protected them from that discouraging experience. In many cases, they sent in their submissions much too soon because they felt anxious for a positive result. 

       Your preparation will be in place before you ever send out a query or proposal. Knowing the process, knowing the market, and knowing your work, you can make sure that your project is truly ready before it goes out the door. Once your book project enters the marketplace, the quality of your preparation will be tested. No longer safely hidden so only you and your trusted friends can read it, your work will be exposed to the scrutiny of highly critical strangers. These people are charged with the task of making sure their company’s time and money is not wasted on books that are unlikely to sell. However, if your work is genuinely ready, the response will be positive.

       There is a caveat, however: even the smartest and most qualified people make mistakes. This may happen to you. Sometimes an editor and publisher slip and buy a book that fails to find an audience and is derided by reviewers. Sometimes a mistake goes in the opposite direction and causes the publisher to fail to recognize the value of a proposed book. Logically, mistakes can be made by others anywhere in the handling of your material. The mistake may even be that of failing to acknowledge you at all. 

       However––and this is a powerful however––as long as you have properly held up your end of the bargain by the way you handle both your work and your marketing process, then be assured that their reaction is only a subjective response. Nothing else. The sad reality is that when the glut of manuscripts on the desks of agents and editors meets the filter of their individual and professional preferences, the writer’s deck often comes pre-stacked.

       There is real power available to you in that knowledge, however. It changes the way you think about things by depersonalizing inevitable frustrations. Those changes in thinking will help to keep your energy moving in positive and productive directions.


       There is an important bit of psychological preparation that you can do to protect yourself from the blow of rejection. Most industry professionals will be considerate professionals in responding to your work, but every business has its victims, and while the world of books is frequently more civil and considerate than other segments of the business world, there are still those who will make a victim of you if they can.

       It exists on both sides of the intake desk, and you may be certain of that. The same individual who is less than attentive to you is being slighted and ignored by others, since the social disease of disrespect has spread through civilization like a virulent strain of flu. Your job is to stop the circulation of the virus with you. You do not do this by sheer will power and self-control, or else the bottled up resentments and angers that you must humanly feel in reaction to such treatment will turn against you with one or more of the many stress ailments that strike us. 

       Rather, you do it with knowledge and the power that the knowledge imparts to process their behavior toward you through your understanding of the book business in general and your appreciation of the wonderful payoff that comes your way at the end of the path, where you transform those minor obstacles into the steps that you climb to reach your goal. 

       The most dangerous victimizers in the publishing world are not the crooked ones. Such people seldom operate for long before the grapevine gets their number, and the Internet has plenty of websites, discussion forums, and blogs that diligently point them out. Instead, the worst victimizers are the ones who operate on the emotional level, those who burst your bubble and shatter your dreams. The most difficult aspect of this grim little factoid is that many do their damage with no particular ill will toward you at all. 

       Often, agents or editors only have to ignore your carefully written query letter to inflict pain on you. Or worse, they might just send back a snide dismissal of your query, a real snark-in-a-box smack over the head. 

       Or perhaps they might accept the query letter and request your material, but then reject your pages with a form response that leaves you feeling as if your work was never actually read. 

       Or worse yet, they could read your query and then go ahead and request your material, but … never … respond … at … all. (Insert long silence here.) 

       Or far worse than that, they might read the query, request the work, take forever to respond, and then send back a completely anonymous rejection slip that leaves you once again wondering if your pages really were evaluated. 

       Or hey, as long as we’re sliding down the razor blade banister, how about when the query is accepted and the material is read in a timely fashion, but then a cruelly painful critique comes back? This happens, perhaps, when the recipient of your manuscript has just had their worst day in years, or perhaps because they had an unhappy childhood. Whatever the cause, you will hate it, we all hate it, and it is true that only a little of such treatment is enough to set any hopeful writer’s pajamas on fire. 


       But that is not going to happen to you, dear considerate author. Even if many—or most—of your query letters are ignored, you can protect yourself from despairing of your goals with the knowledge that the time it takes to acknowledge you as a writer, especially when an agent passes on your work, is a large and constant task. And yet since agents work on commission, their time is far better spent reading their existing clients’ work and representing it. This is why you have to detach yourself emotionally from the process and play it like the game of strategy that it is. It ain’t you, baby. Patience is a specific chip in this game, and the power it gives you will manifest in the results that you achieve. 

       We cannot obtain patience simply by gritting our teeth and swallowing our concerns, or restraining the panicked phone calls and neurotic emails. Rather, we learn to understand that while it is unfortunate that not all interaction in the literary marketplace can be infused with civility, this says nothing at all about you. Curt or ignored queries are not a comment on your worth as a writer, or a reflection upon you as a person. They are not a statement of anything more than the reality of how agents and editors must allocate their time within this intensely competitive business. 

       You can protect yourself by acknowledging that you, too, would have to budget your time if you worked in that field. This leads to a freeing bit of wisdom, which is that you do not win this one by pacing the floor at night and suffering through a two AM review of your soul. You win by staying busy with the task at hand, which is the continuous attention to your platform (see Chapter Three). Instead of giving in to uncertainty, consume your time with the activities we lay out for you, which will enhance your platform and your writing career. 

       And to any hapless writers (the kind who lack your determination and commitment) who happen to open this book to this section and find themselves shocked by a little hardcore reality, we say: sure—a note to you from the agent or editor would be nice. You, Hapless Writer, have worked hard. Is a little appreciation too much to ask? A sincere letter? A creative comment or two? Perhaps an analysis of the work’s strengths and weaknesses? Suggestions as to which other agents might want to represent this work? The private phone numbers of the top publishers in the biz? A check to compensate you for allowing the agent to read your stuff? 


       Picture this, oh Hapless Writer: an invitation to a fabulous lunch at Tavern on the Green in Central Park, a weekend ensconced at the agent’s guest house in the Hamptons, the use of their Mercedes, the run of the ranch. Plus, after every meal: anything you desire for dessert, whether or not you clean your plate! The agent reconsiders! You are represented! The book sells for megabucks! The New York Times swoons! Oprah is calling!

       Hapless Writer’s phone: Ring, ring! 

       Hapless Writer: “Hello, Oprah?”

       Voice on the phone: “Uh, no. This is not Oprah.” 

       Hapless Writer: “But Oprah is supposed to be calling! It says so right there in the above paragraph! Read it yourself!”

       Voice on the phone: “Yeah, sorry, but this is Reality calling.” 

       Hapless Writer: “Reality? How many times do I have to tell you—stop bothering me! 

       Reality: “Can’t. Not in my job description. Now please drop the pointless fantasy and step to one side of the nearest doorframe. Place both hands on the frame at about chest height. That’s good. Now arch your back. Right, bend it backward, there. Good. Then snap your forehead in a sharp forward motion and into the wood. Ready? Here we go: And one! And two! And three! Now hang up and continue reading.”

       Of course, while such treatment may be necessary to address the naivety of our Hapless Writer, none of that will be necessary with you, because the moral of the story is that empty fantasies are unnecessary when you do it like you mean it. In this instance, doing it like you mean it consists of giving yourself helpful reminders as often as necessary about the nature of the literary business and the impersonal way that it sometimes operates. The affirmations will keep you on course while protecting you from despair and the wasted energy of useless frustration.

       You are likely to find that one of your first psychological hurdles arrives with those disturbing statistics about the number of writers who are trying to secure a mainstream publisher, versus the declining state of reading in our bite-sized, web-surfing era. There is truth in the numbers. Every literary representative receives hundreds of queries each month, or even each week. All of it represents countless thousands of aspiring writers out there, waiting for a reply. 

       And yet, do you recall the famous footage of the Asian tsunami rolling over the beach and swooping in over the town? To an agent sitting down at his or her desk, the flow of incoming queries and manuscript submissions looks a lot like that. 

Hot Tip!

       There is no “tidal wave” of quality efforts. The logjam comes from work that is poorly done and unready for the market, and that fact is your ace in the hole.


       Yes, Virginia, the terrible truth of the literary business is that a large number of the manuscripts and book proposals that clog the acquisition system are not very good. Many of them are half-hearted, half-done efforts from people who are motivated more by reasons of ego or economics than an acceptance of the amount of energy required to write a piece of work that is worthy of a stranger’s time and money. 

       When you put this information to work, part of the benefit comes from reminding you to keep your commitment to do carefully considered work, beginning with your creation of a compelling platform. Your platform is made up of your unique experiences and credentials that, combined, give you national exposure and make you the “only” person who can write and market your book. (More on your platform in chapter three.) This also remains true while you move on to the:

        · Book proposal (see Chapter Five). Yes, even if your manuscript is finished, you should accompany it with an abbreviated book proposal that includes your platform, comparable other works, and marketing plan.

       · Initial query letter (explained in Chapters Seven, Eight and Nine). Success arrives after a sustained commitment to the ongoing process of:

       · Contract negotiations and sale

       · In-house editing

       · Legal vetting of your work, when necessary; and

       · Publicizing the finished book upon its release. This is absolutely necessary if you intend to sell copies beyond your personal circle of family and friends. It is the topic of publicity that brings us to our next area of concern: media skills.


       Is there anyone out there who still needs to be convinced that media skills are essential to every writer? The dilemma for many writers is that many are reticent by nature, often among the last to feel the urge to dance around in a spotlight. Nevertheless, in our media driven society, it is incumbent upon you to regard each of the various forms of media appearances as a part of your working tool kit. You must put in as much private rehearsal time as necessary—preferably with the assistance of an experienced book publicist—to polish your public persona and to become smooth and fluent with your promotional language. This promotional language is what you will use to communicate your book’s ideas in media friendly sound bites. The practice time that you invest at this point is especially important, whether or not you are the life of every party and are comfortable at the center of public attention. It is important because even if you are a naturally gregarious person it still takes time and effort to polish those skills into the best possible billboard for you and for your book.

       Heidi Krupp-Lisiten, CEO and founder of Krupp Kommunications (K2) was the publicist for one of the best-selling books and brands of all time, The South Beach Diet. She credits the willingness of the author, Dr. Arthur Agatston, to polish his skills and follow their lead as a primary reason for the book’s success.

       “Dr. Agatson was a true partner,” she said, “passionate, flexible and always available for media. He had a program that worked and he trusted K2 as his partner to help him get on the airwaves, position his message, as well as manage any and all media inquiries for three years.”

       You will learn much more about gaining great media skills in Chapters Three and Sixteen. For now, stay the course.


       The number of writers who are attempting to garner a book contract is high, while the National Endowment for the Arts reports that in 2008 only 50.2 percent of the population read more than one novel, short story, poem or play in the previous twelve months. Thus it is not only the writing of the book that is important, but the vital process of hooking the readers.

       The good news for you, dear considerate writer, is that so many prospective authors approach the writing of a book with such petulant impatience that they refuse to properly prepare themselves or their work. Stand back and allow your competitors to race for the fire exit. They are only running out because are not prepared to withstand the heat. Your understanding of the processes will keep you focused on those things that you can control while also helping you to recognize the ones you cannot. Bumps in the road are not going to shake your deservedly high expectations of success. The quality of your preparation will entitle you to nothing less.