Thinking about writing a book? If so, Ann Douglas has some advice for you.
Douglas, whose many published books include the “Mother of All” parenting series, gave a presentation at the recent Level Up writers’ conference in Toronto. Her talk focused on the process of publishing non-fiction books through traditional publishing avenues. She offered reams of helpful advice gleaned from her own experiences in the publishing world.
Douglas says there are seven stages in the book publishing process, all of which are rife with potential pitfalls.
Stage One: The book idea
Whether you have one burning idea you’ve always wanted to write, or 25 wildly different ideas for a book, your first task is to find a focus. Ask yourself, says Douglas: what is the best project for me, for the reader and for a potential publisher right now? One potential pitfall here, she says, is not taking the time to assess your idea. Will anyone actually want to buy this book?
Her success tip: have a process for evaluating your ideas and look for ways to strengthen those ideas. A major misconception, she says, is that a brilliant book idea will come to you like a bolt from the blue. In reality, it’s not usually that simple
Stage Two: The book proposal
Douglas says once you’ve settled on an idea, you need to write a proposal. The proposal needs to answer three questions: why you, why this book, and why right now? The act of writing a proposal forces you to decide a number of important things – is there an audience, will the book sell, and will your own interest in the project be sustained throughout the writing process?
You also need to include details of your marketing plan – how will you get the word out about your book?
Her success tip: think of your proposal as a business plan for your book. You’re trying to convince a publisher – and yourself – that this is a worthwhile project. Do you love this idea enough to proceed?
Stage Three: Book contract negotiation
Once you’ve got a publisher on board, you’re going to need some professional advice — a lawyer, agent or someone else in the publishing industry to vet your contract. Common pitfalls at this stage are not understanding what you’re signing and not negotiating a better deal. Keep an eye out for contract clauses about copyright, moral rights, payment and royalties, says Douglas.
Her success tip: Compare notes with other authors, find out industry norms, and find out what’s usual from this publisher. She also encourages writers not to make things worse for other authors. When you’re negotiating your contract, she says, think about the next generation of writers who want to try and make a living in this industry. This should be a consideration when you’re deciding what contract terms you’re willing to accept.
Stage Four: Book research process
Research, says Douglas, is not a linear process. Douglas herself sometimes has to trick herself into getting started by telling herself she’s not writing a book, she’s just writing research notes. Researching leads her to fill every surface in her writing space with piles of notes. She clusters notes into themed piles, then into chapter research piles, and then finally she can start writing.
One of the pitfalls at this stage is believing you can seamlessly research and write at the same time. Creative exploring time and structured writing time are very different.
Her success tip: create a writing schedule and timeline. Look at your deadlines and then work backwards to create a schedule.
Stage Five: Book writing
Douglas describes the actual writing stage as a rollercoaster ride: some days you’ll have confidence, other days it will seem like none of your writing is any good at all.
One of the pitfalls at this stage, she says, is allowing yourself to be paralyzed by perfectionism. Give yourself enough time to produce your best work but don’t make it overwhelming.
Her success tip: be kind to yourself, and find whatever motivation you need to keep yourself optimistic and inspired.
Stage Six: Book editing and production
Once you’ve finished the writing stage, Douglas recommends you celebrate… but remember that there’s still a lot of work ahead of you. You’ll have to go through a structural edit, which will mean big picture changes. After that comes copyediting. Even if your copy is reasonably clean, says Douglas, you’ll likely have a lot of questions from your editor to answer. Then comes proofreading.
Finally, says Douglas, you’ll need to decide what to do about indexing. Do you want to create the index yourself, or do you want to hire a professional indexer? In Douglas’s experience, hiring an indexer is well worth the money.
Pitfalls during this stage include taking your editor’s comments too personally — but also not taking them seriously enough. Respond to every comment, answer every question and be thorough in your responses.
Stage Seven: Book publicity and marketing
The final stage of the book writing process, says Douglas, can be impossibly time consuming. There aren’t enough hours in a lifetime to do everything a book demands, she says, so zero in on the highest impact publicity methods and remember that you have limits.
One of the pitfalls here, says Douglas, is underestimating how much time and how many skills are needed for this part of the job.
Douglas also recommends thinking carefully about how you’re going to measure the success of your book. Will you be looking at bestseller lists? Or will you be looking at the impact your book has on people’s lives?
Above all, Douglas says don’t forget to have fun. Writing a book is hard work, she says, but some of the best days of her life have been the ones when copies of her new book arrived in the mail. Seeing the results of the book publishing process never gets old.
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