Over the years I have received numerous emails asking about the process of writing a book. So many people dream of writing a book, and I was one of those people. The idea of seeing my name on the cover of a book, my words and pictures forever bound in a volume and sent out into the world to live in kitchens/ on bookshelves…well, that was the stuff of my dreams. In fact, I obsessed about it and made it my mission to learn everything I could about the process. It worked…4 years after I began my writing career I landed my first book deal with The Little Bookroom. I’ll never forget the feeling of opening the box that contained copies of my first book, Markets of New England. I was trembling with excitement, and upon seeing all those little books with my name on the cover, my eyes filled instantly with tears. I’ll also never forget driving to Boston to meet with my editor, Jenn, at Roost to pick up the first copy of Little Bites. Now, in just a few short weeks, I’ll be able to hold Icy Creamy Healthy Sweet in my hands! So the question is, how do you move from idea to book? Here I’ll describe the nuts and bolts of the process. Settle in, this is going to be a lengthy post!
1. Fiction vs. Non-fiction: The process of pitching your book differs depending on if you are pitching non-fiction or fiction. For a fiction title, you must have the complete work written before you pitch. For non-fiction work, you must have a book proposal. A book proposal is a document used to interest and ultimately sell an agent and/ or editor on a non-fiction book before the book is actually written.
A book proposal contains the following:
II. Author Profile
III. Comparative Titles
IV. Target Market
VI. Annotated Table of Contents
VII. Sample Material (this is where you’d showcase a handful of recipes, projects, chapter openings and pictures)
The book proposal for Little Bites was roughly 40 pages long, so this isn’t just a quick jotting of notes. Months were spent writing and tweaking that proposal. And let me mention, I have written proposals that have not sold. At the time I was disappointed, to say the least. All that work for nothing! But what I came to realize is that I didn’t have enough to say on the subject and I wasn’t passionate about it- and that came through in the proposal. Here’s something to remember: If you write a book you need to be passionate enough about that subject to be completely wedded to it for at least 2-3 years solid. You will spend 6 months to a year writing the book (here I’m really talking about non-fiction books), and then you will spend 6 months to a year editing the book, and then you will spend 6 months to a year marketing the book, doing interviews and events, and selling it every chance you get. If you write about a subject that is just a passing interest, you will regret it deeply. For example, I live Little Bites every single day; I feed two growing boys three meals a day plus a boatload of snacks EVERY SINGLE DAY! It had been 6 months since Little Bites hit shelves and I still cook from it at least 3-5 times a week. You need that kind of passion and stick-to-itiveness.
2. Agent vs. No Agent: This is a personal choice, but I will say from experience that an agent will move the process along for you. They have relationships with editors at all the publishing houses and this is what you get an agent for…their relationships. They will make sure your proposal lands in the right hands. Certain publishers don’t even accept cold pitches- for those you must use an agent. Agent’s also protect an authors rights, and in the case of a disagreement with the publisher, the agent can play “bad-cop” so that the author can remain on good terms with their editor. This is critical as you will work with your editor for over a year, and sometimes longer, to see a book from start to finish. This is critical to remember: you should NEVER have to pay an agent. Anyone asking for payment is scamming you- the agent only gets paid from the publisher once they sell your book (they usually take 15%).
There are a few ways to find an agent:
- Look at related books that you like and check the acknowledgements. If the author had an agent they will usually be thanked.
- Writer’s Market and Publisher’s Marketplace and Jeff Herman’s guide to Publishers, Editors and Agents to be useful. Writersmarket.com has a pretty good online resource guide to agents and publishers as well, but it is a paid subscription.
- Finally, if you know an author personally, and you have a writing background to back up your request, you might consider asking for an introduction.
3. Query letter: When approaching a publishing house, editor or agent, you need to introduce yourself with a one-page letter, known as a query letter. There is a science to this letter, in fact I teach an entire online class through Squam about perfecting the query letter, Pitch Perfect, which we’re hoping to run again soon. So that’s all I’ll say about that (wink, wink). Seriously though- there are a ton of great books out there that dissect the query letter and offer examples of successful query letters. Don’t be afraid of your public library- it is 100% where I learned everything about pitching my writing. That’s no joke!
4. From Agent to Publisher: Let’s assume you went with an agent, and your work was accepted. Hooray! Now the two of you will sign a contract, which will stipulate the percentage the agent will make (standard 15%) on your book sale. From there, you might work together to edit and massage your proposal (non-fiction) or your manuscript (fiction, poetry, memoir). Once you are at a place where you feel the work is ready, you will come up with a list of publishers that you want to approach, and your agent will begin the work of shopping your work around.
5. Publisher: If more than one publisher is interested, you might have a bidding war (good for you!), but if only one publisher is interested than you begin contract negotiations. This differs greatly for every book, but it will include your advance (how much you get paid in advance of the book selling) and your due date. It may also include the number of pictures included, international rights, and a slew of other legal items. If you are not using an agent, I strongly suggest hiring a lawyer to explain and look over your contract with you. You want to know exactly what you are getting yourself into.
6. Writing: Once the contract is signed, you hand over your manuscript (fiction) or you begin writing your book (non-fiction). For example, I had six months to write Markets of New England, a year to write Little Bites, and six months to write Icy Creamy Healthy Sweet. You will begin forming a marketing plan towards the end of your writing process.
7. Editing: Now for the editing, copy-editing, layout and design- a very intensive process that will eventually render proofs (the pages of your book!) for a final read-through before the book goes to press. This can take 6 months for a photo heavy book.
8. To Press: Off to the press it goes. Now you turn your attention to marketing- sending out press queries, advance copies and setting up book signings so that by the time your book comes out, it is already receiving press and events are already lined up. I wish someone had told me this before I wrote my first book: you will spend equal amounts of time writing your book as you will promoting it. Marketing is a whole other ballgame and to sum up what I’ve learned over the past 6 years I’ll say this: No one, not a publicist, a book store, an event manager, or anyone else will promote your book like you will. The book is your baby and it is your job to get it out into the world.
So there you have it in a nutshell. There are some fabulous resources out there, including a recent blog post by the always inspirational Heidi Swanson of 101cookbooks.com. She wrote about her book proposal process here. Another great post about the money side of things can be found at Dianne Jacob’s site Will Write For Food here. Finally, I though I would share three titles that I found very helpful when I was writing my very first book proposal (which never was bought, by the way!): How to Write a Book Proposal by Michael Larson, Write the Perfect Book Proposal: 10 That Sold and Why by Jeff Herman and The Writer’s Guide to Queries, Pitches, and Proposals by Moira Anderson Allen. Lastly, I’ll add this: If/ when I teach Pitch Perfect again, I’d encourage you to check it out if you are interested in writing a book. Once you can write an outstanding query letter, you can capture the attention of editors and agents. Several of my students have their work regularly featured in magazines, and two of them have made the transition to books, having signed agents and constructed book proposals.
I’d love to open the comment section up to questions, as well as stories from your own publishing journeys. Next week I am going to share more about my writing journey, specifically the process of writing and photographing my latest book, Icy Creamy Healthy Sweet. I’d love to make posts like this one a more regular feature. There are so many aspects of writing that I could cover: where to find inspiration, the actual writing process, magazine writing, interviews with authors about how they got their start and the list goes on. Are there any subjects that are of particular interest to you? Let me know, and I’ll do my best to cover them!