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FAQs

1. Do I need an agent to sell my book to a publisher?

Probably, but not necessarily.

Some books are still found and bought out of what publishers called the “slush pile” (or manuscripts that sometimes are known more politely as having come in “over the transom,” though rare is the transom in a publisher’s office these days).  And those that do get bought this way tend to be the more modest purchases.

The other option is to self-publish in e-book format. Click here for an article about e-publishing.

2. How do I find the right agent or editor?

Smart research — the same way you do anything else in life.

Literary Marketplace is the Yellow Pages of the book business. Your local library should have a copy in their reference section, and some bookstores carry it as well (with a price tag of about $150). The publisher section lists complete addresses and names of editors; the agent section lists agencies’ specialties, and all of their appropriate manuscript submission requirements.

The best way to zero in on the right people is by comparing your book to other published works. Odds are good that the editor and agent of someone else’s gardening book might be interested in yours as well. The closer a comparison you can make — either in subject, or sensibility, or style of presentation — while knowing, of course, that your book is unique and unlike anything else ever written, the better the odds that you will hook up with the right people.

Look at the copyright page to see if the editor is credited; the next best place to look is the Acknowledgments page, where grateful authors will often thank their editor and agent. If this search doesn’t work, you can always call up the publishing house . The editorial department should be able to tell you the editor’s name, and the sub-rights or publicity departments will usually know who agented the book.

When you write to these people, make it very clear why you zeroed in on them as likely candidates. Editors and agents like dealing with educated authors who know their market, and everyone always enjoys meeting a customer.

3. Can you copyright a book idea, or a title?

No.

Copyright protection applies to an entire work; their is no way to protect an idea. The same applies generally to titles. Occasionally, series titles will enjoy some trademark protection, but even that is rare. It’s often quite likely that more than one person will have the same idea at the same time — like calculus, for instance.

4. So how do I keep my idea from getting stolen?

The best protection is to execute your idea as well as possible.

When a publisher evaluates your proposal, they look at the idea to see if they like it, and they look at the author and his or her sample materials to see if they think the execution can live up to the promise of the idea. One without the other is completely useless.

No reputable publisher is in the business of stealing ideas from people. To the contrary, publishers love authors and good idea people, and they want to encourage an environment in which good ideas are submitted to them freely.

More practically, stealing an idea is usually just plain too much work. Publishers look for writers to create books for them; so why wouldn’t they want to deal with the writer who brings the idea to them?

Additionally, mainstream publishing is still a pretty small, close-knit, and honorable community. People change jobs — and sides of the table — often, and a person’s reputation is important. People go into publishing because they love ideas and writing and working with writers, and they take pride in the originality of their work. That mentality just doesn’t match up with taking other people’s ideas.

5. I’ve heard that you are supposed to get an editor’s name before submitting a proposal? Is that true, and if so, how do you find the right person?

This is the standard advice of most “getting published” manuals. It is true that sending a proposal just to the Editorial Department is often a dead end. But often, sending something to an editor who does not know you is just as futile. When you send a proposal to an individual, you need to be clear about why you sought him or her out (e.g. by referring to other books that you know that person edited that are similar in some fashion to your book).

6. How do I find the right publisher for my book?

The same way that you find an editor or agent — by research.

Ideally, you want to find not just a publisher, but the best publisher, who will not only put your book in print but will make your book a success. In addition to the tips provided earlier, you should draw further on the resources available to you.

The bookstore is a great place for research. Look closely at the category in which your book would be sold. Try to see if any one or two publishers “dominate” the category. Which publisher’s books are facing out on the shelf, or there in large quantities (ten copies or more)? You can also look at individual books to see how successful they have been; check the copyright page, and look for a small sequence of numbers at the bottom of the page (e.g.: 10 9 8 7 6 5 4). This tells you what printing the copy of the book comes from. The more printings, the more successful the book.

More simply, talk to your local bookseller. Booksellers are always supportive of writers, and are often happy to share their thoughts on which publishers are doing the best job in your field. Similarly, your library may have a very good opinion on the same subject.

Make sure that you aren’t just looking at the big-name publishers that are immediately familiar to you and your friends. Some of the country’s most successful publishers — Rodale, Andrews and McMeel, Rutledge Hill, Running Press — are not based in New York and are not household names.

7. What is a standard book deal like?

Though terms vary from house to house, the general parameters tend to fall within an established range. All publishers will offer you some form of non-refundable advance, applied against royalties accrued on all sales. Advances can go all the way from $ 100 to $1 million and up; publishers are advancing you a portion of what they conservatively think you will earn within the first year or two of publication; it doesn’t really have much to do with the work you will expend in writing the book.

Royalties are generally 6 to 8 percent of the retail price on trade paperbacks, 6 to 10 percent of the retail price on mass market paperbacks, and 10 to 15 percent of the retail price on hardcovers. But there is plenty of variation. Coffee-table books and reference books often require more investment and production work upfront, and yield lower advances. Certain publishers invest more editorial and artistic effort, and therefore offer lower royalties. And so on.

8. How do I put together a good proposal?

Be clear, articulate, and to the point. You would be surprised how poorly presented, and poorly written, many proposals are. The same rules apply as with anything else in life: this is your sales presentation. Go all out to capture the buyer’s interest as quickly as possible, and hold it for as long as you can. How your proposal looks, and how professionally it is presented, is critical to shaping the attitude with which your proposal will be viewed. As a general rule, you should include the following:

  • A one-page cover letter.
  • An introduction that sells your idea in two pages or less. Pretend that you are writing the publisher’s catalog copy for them; tell them what the book is about, what makes it unique, what the market is for your book, and how it will be reached. The more concrete you are, the more convincing you will be.
  • A table of contents, annotated if necessary, to give an overall picture of your book.
  • Sample material, enough to convince, and enough to give a sense of what they are buying.
  • Information about the author — what makes you the right person to do this book.
  • Marketing information and plans. How you can help sell this book, what special places and ways it can be sold, and what special ways it can be promoted.