This blog entry is going to focus on trade book publishing, which is the term the publishing industry uses for commercial titles. A lot of historians look down at “popularizers,” but there are a lot of sound reasons for academics to go this route, but as I write this essay (2009), now is not the time to do it.
Going the trade route has a lot to offer. You will make real money, you will have a big audience, and your ideas will get out into the intellectual marketplace far more readily than if you go the academic route.
The very first thing you need to do is to get yourself a literary agent. Why? Most editors at major publishing houses use agents as a gate keeping mechanism. If someone is willing to stake their professional reputation to this writer, then taking a look at the manuscript might be a sound investment of their time and energy. If you do not have an agent, then there is a real good chance you are one of the thousands of people out there that think they can write, but cannot. Agents also have relationships with publishers that can be useful to you. Many have worked at publishing houses earlier in their careers. They understand trends in the industry, know what editors want, and can negotiate better deals for you than you can for yourself.
How do you get a literary agent? Well, there are any number of ways. Most agents specialize the same way authors do. For example, there are agents that primarily represent romance authors, or science-fiction novelists, or those that do certain types of non-fiction. So, you want to do some research before contacting one. Contacting an agent who reprepsents mystery novelists about a presidential biography is a waste of your time and their's. There are many ways to get info on agents: you can buy books in the self-help sections of bookstores listing literary agents with their addresses. There are also specialized writing magazines available in bookstores that often discuss the process of finding representation or profile individual agents. The thing to remember: literary agents get dozens of unsolicited proposals on a daily basis. It is far better to go to one of the many writing conferences that are held around the country, which agents attend. A good one is the agents conference that the Writers’ League of Texas sponsors. This meeting is held in June. (For more information visit the League’s web site: http://writersleague.org/). You do not have to be a member to attend this meeting. There are a lot of meetings of this nature held around the country. At most of these gatherings, participants can usually schedule formal meetings with agents, where they can pitch their book ideas.
Getting a literary agent, though, is easier said than done. A good agent probably gets between 30 and 100 book proposals a week. As a result, they are looking for reasons to turn down good proposals, much less bad ones. Agents are in the business of making money and need clients who will bring in reasonably large advances. A $30,000 advance might sound big to you, but an agent gets only 10 percent and $3,000 is a good salary for a week, but what if you write one book every two years. My point—agents are looking for authors that can offer them the biggest return on their investment of time.
If an agent is interested in your book or book idea, they will ask to see a proposal. Remember this document is a marketing tool. The proposal should include a short synopsis of the book, its focus and argument. There should be another section which describes your professional credentials to write this study. Another section should describe the competition for the book, and another should describe the market of this title and ways that it can be marketed. The self-help sections of any decent book stores should have several titles that describe this process at greater length. One of best out there is Susan Rabiner’s Thinking Like Your Editor: How to Write Great Serious Nonfiction—and Get it Published.
One of the most important things about the proposal is the writing sample. Literary agents need to sell two things to publishers: (1) your book, and (2) you. Your ability to write well is the most important part of that effort. Having an innovative new argument is far less important than it would be for an academic publisher. If you are an academic trying to go the trade route there is a general bias in the trade publishing industry that you should be aware of. Most publishers and literary agents assume that scholars cannot write well. Having spent a lot of time reading academic monographs, I can tell you that eighty percent of the time this is a safe assumption. Before going the trade route, you need to make sure you are in that twenty percent and even then, you better be ready for a lot of rejection from people that just assume that you are in the bottom eighty.
What advantages are there to going the trade route? You will get paid a decent amount of money for your efforts. Most academic publishers give no advance, while almost all commercial publishers do. (You need to note that an advance is basically your percentage of expected sales in advance of those actual transactions. It is possible that the book will sell better expected and you will get more, but that often does not happen and the advance is all you will get financially.) Trade publishers have bigger advertising and marketing budgets than most academic presses. The result is that your book will get promoted and sold to a large audience. There is an awfully big community of readers among the general public that enjoys reading history. It is often willing to appreciate a serious intellectual effort, but it generally expects quality in the prose. If you have a new argument, it will get noticed within the appropriate academic journals. In fact, it will probably will get reviewed more than would be the case were it published as an academic monograph because the marketing effort will be extensive enough to get the attention of these smaller, professional communities.
There are certain downsides to going this route. Trade publishers have well defined ideas on how well a book will sell. There approach is a lot like the thinking by analogy approach used in Hollywood: “This book is Barbara Tuchman’s Guns of August meets David McCullough’s Truman.” This approach does not always lead to the best of analysis. If they think the book will sell 10,000 copies, they will give the author an appropriate advance and then make efforts to sell that book. Now, what happens if they sell 10,000 copies in the first week. You might be thinking, “Wow, that’s great! Keep going!” But a publisher might think, “Well, this book has 10,000 sales in it and we did that in the first week. The bet paid off. We made our money. Why throw good money away with any more effort. There are no more sales left in this book. We are done.” As a result, the book might be out of print within a year or two of its publication. As a result, it will be difficult for libraries to buy it after its initial publication and for it be an assigned reading in various courses. Even if the book stays in print, the publishing house will make very little effort after its initial push to sell the book.
These are the issues you have to weigh in making a decision on how you will publish your material. With all these points being made, right now (2009) is not a good time to go the commercial route. The current economic crisis has hit publishing hard. Sales at bookstores are falling. Publishers are cutting their staffs and few are interested in acquiring new titles from unproven writers. Even established writers—fiction and non-fiction, it does not matter—are having a difficult time getting reviewed because most magazines and newspapers are reducing or even eliminating their book review sections, which was a major element in the marketing/promotion effort of the major publishing houses. Many of these publishers are finding that their economic model is coming apart and are not sure how to replace it. The trade presses are in a lot of turmoil and this is not the best time to try to break into that world.