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Overcoming the Planning Hurdles When Writing Your First Nonfiction Book

Aug 17, 2007
Once you've covered the basics of determining who your specific audience is, understanding exactly what they want to read, and knowing what other similar books already exist, it's time to begin strategizing the business angles of your book. Beginning nonfiction authors frequently err in judgment when it comes to the practical, business, and fiscal components of creating your book.


In traditional publishing, there are three primary parties involved: the author, the agent, and the publishing company. The author writes the material; the agent acts as the author's representative and sells the material to a publisher; the publisher is the money behind the project and is responsible for placement of the book in brick and mortar stores as well as online distribution channels.

The publisher also sometimes handles certain marketing responsibilities for the book, including its listing in appropriate catalogues and other resources. The scope of the publisher's marketing efforts will depend largely on the author's credentials and renown. If they are already a well-known name with a big following, the publisher will be much more likely to take a risk than they would be for a first-time author with very little name or brand recognition.

In certain cases, the publisher will offer the author an "advance" - money paid to the writer before the book is even completed. This is a gamble, really, on the part of the publisher, because it assumes the book will sell enough copies to both cover the advance and be profitable to the publishing company.

Alternately, when you self-publish, you assume all the risk - financial and otherwise - yourself. The good news is that when you self-publish, you get to do it your way. You select the title. You determine what the cover looks like. And you keep a much greater percentage of the profits. The outlay on your part, however, can be substantial.

Hard costs can involve any or all of the following: ghostwriting, editing, cover design, interior design, proofreading, ISBN, copyright, proofs, printing, binding, shipping, distribution, Web design, e commerce capabilities, marketing, attorneys' fees. To do it properly, the costs can be considerable. Anyone thinking about writing a book who plans to sell more than a couple dozen copies to family and friends must realize that a book is a business.

While there are no hard numbers available for self-published books, a quick perusal of the article archives at writing-world's website confirms that between 5,000 and 10,000 books are printed each year by the major vanity presses (a publisher that publishes a book at the author's complete expense), such as Xlibris, iUniverse, and the like.


As mentioned above, a well-written book that will actually appeal to people and sell more than a handful of copies must be treated as a business. This means incorporating all the steps involved in starting any new business. A budget, a business plan (generally speaking, a well-written book proposal will suffice), a Web site equipped with e-commerce, and a thorough marketing plan are a few of the main components involved in a successful "book business." Our goal here is not to stamp all the enjoyment out of your writing project. Certainly you can and should have fun with your book. But if you have any intent to see it widely read and distributed, you must set out with a realistic attitude about exactly what is involved in taking your idea from conception to publication to dollars in your pocket.

Do not make the mistake of thinking this book will make you rich - the likelihood is that it won't. That's not to say you shouldn't write it, or that your book will not be a financial success for you - but you must be prepared to lay out some serious cash first, particularly for a self-published title. Generally speaking, if you recoup your expenses within the first year, your book has been "successful." With a great concept, proper marketing, and a real business plan to which you are willing to adhere, you can supersede this goal and actually make money from your book, but it will require a substantial time and energy commitment on your part.


One major place where new authors get tripped up is understanding how long the writing/publishing process takes. First, there are the research components mentioned above. Next, there's the actual writing process. Unless you are as disciplined as Gandhi, you have to plan for distractions. This likely means creating a dedicated writing space and/or carving out a specified writing time. If you're not independently wealthy or haven't already sold your book to a publisher for a healthy advance, chances are you will be writing this book around your existing job and amidst life's many demands (job, spouse, kids, parents, social commitments, civic commitments, religious commitments, errands, pets, etc.). Oh my goodness . . . where are you possibly going to find the time to write a book?

This is why you absolutely must create a timeline and find a way to carve out dedicated writing time. Otherwise, your book will never take top priority for you. It will always remain just another great idea, a hobby, or something that hovers somewhere on your "someday" list.

How much time you can dedicate to your writing project will differ for each person. But even if you can afford only two hours a week for dedicated writing time, schedule that time. Write it on your calendar or enter it into your PDA. Make a sign for the door: "Do Not Disturb - Mommy's Wearing Her Author Hat Until 2 p.m." Get up an hour earlier. Stay up an hour later. Write during your lunch hour. Think about getting a digital recorder and "talking" your book; you can always have it transcribed later. Find a coach or an accountability partner . . . someone who checks in with you once a week to see how much progress you've made. Do whatever works for you - but you MUST create a timeline for your writing project and find a way to stick to it.

Once your book is written, though, you're really only halfway there - unless your only dream was to write it, and you couldn't give a flying Fig Newton if you ever sell a copy. Most authors do care about selling their work, though. Even if you are the Bob Ross of nonfiction writing, you still must factor in all the components that come AFTER the writing is complete. These include editing, cover design, layout and interior design, proofreading, and printing, to name a few of the basics.

While it's pretty much guaranteed that your timeline will change, you must have one, if you want to have any idea how all the pieces will dovetail, once the production process gets underway.

Virtually anyone can write a book - it's true. Seeing to the details, though, will make a huge difference in whether your book sinks or swims financially. Decide before you begin whether you will self-publish or seek a traditional publisher. Treat your book as a business, and create a realistic budget for it. And lastly, create a timeline for the entirety of your publishing project. While there is no way to EVER guarantee which book will succeed and which one will fail, these steps will help assure that your book has a fighting chance for success.
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