I know there are a lot of writers who read this blog, so I thought I would take a short diversion to discuss the rather stark differences between the process of getting a book published in fiction versus nonfiction.
When I was fresh out of graduate school, I impulsively decided to write a book. I had a terrific idea about a timely topic, and as a brand new librarian, I researched the process of putting a book proposal together, wrote it up, and submitted it to eight different publishers. To my delight, I had offers of publication from three of them. I took the offer from the publisher with the best reputation, and ten months later I submitted my first draft of the manuscript. A year after that the book was on the shelves.
The above example is true, and illustrates the huge difference between publishing in Fiction and Nonfiction. Let me count the ways:
1) When writing nonfiction, you always write a proposal before you get a contract. The proposal should be fairly detailed, with a comprehensive outline of the book’s scope, one or two sample chapters, an analysis of competing titles, likely markets, and projected sales. These proposals typically range from 40-80 pages.
2) Because you are only submitting a proposal, rather than a 400 page manuscript, it is acceptable to submit to multiple publishers simultaneously. Simply state in your cover letter that it is a multiple submission.
3) An agent is not essential in nonfiction. In academic publishing, an agent is almost unheard of. I have written four nonfiction books for the academic market and never had an agent until I began writing fiction. In fiction, there are very few publishers who will allow submissions from un-agented writers.
4) For a writer, delving into fiction is a much bigger risk than nonfiction. A book proposal can take a couple of months to research and put together, but you will not sink two years of your life creating characters you come to love, a plot that you are profoundly committed to, and a manuscript which may never see the light of day. I’ve had nonfiction book proposals flop and it is a disappointment, but nothing compared to the grinding wall of misery that comes along with getting a novel rejected.
Because of the relative ease I had breaking into the nonfiction market, I thought I would be able to waltz blithely into writing fiction. Not so! It took me about five years of writing, learning, and pushing through the misery of rejection before I got my first novel published. I think that is why I feel much more proud of The Lady of Bolton Hill than my other books (all published under my maiden name.)
I also hope I have not given the impression that writing nonfiction is a walk in the park. You must have credentials, a good idea that hits an untapped market, and a professional approach to the business. I loved writing academic books, but am ready to move on. My heart is now in fiction. Writing for the academic market was work, writing novels is something I do for sheer, boundless, and irrational love.
Photo courtesy of Karen Cox