How to submit, what to submit and how to get published: what are the key ingredients needed to write and sell non-fiction? In his blog piece, Fergal Tobin, author and Publishing Director of Gill Books, discusses the essential elements of a great non-fiction book.
One obvious way to approach the publishing of non-fiction is to contrast it with fiction. Every novel is a new and separate artefact, born of the author’s imagination. In that sense, therefore, a publisher does not know what s/he is getting. There may be familiar themes or locales, as with Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell novels or the work of Philip Roth or P.G. Wodehouse. But basically, it is new and unknown every time.
Non-fiction is not – or should not be – a surprise. First of all, the subject matter and basic content will be agreed in advance under contract, partly because the publisher wants to know what s/he is being asked to invest in. Even more to the point, most non-fiction is actually commissioned by the publisher, who comes up with the idea and then finds an author. The publisher is supposed to know the market, have some expertise in the subject and be alert to gaps or to changing interpretations or perspectives. In short, in non-fiction the publisher is more often the active agent.
That is one reason why the refusal rate in non-fiction is so high. Many authors write for every reason except market demand. Memoirs, in particular, are often a form of therapy. A publisher cannot be indifferent to the market, since s/he lives or dies by it.
This means that non-fiction lists reflect the knowledge and expertise and interests of the publisher. The person who does history may be useless at biology and vice versa. In turn, these subject preferences will rub off on the marketing and publicity staff, since the means of promoting one book in a given subject area will be similar to another.
A good non-fiction proposal should comprise a detailed table of contents (chapter titles PLUS bullet points), a representative sample chapter written up in full, and an introduction which will serve as an initial prospectus. The actual introduction to the finished book will usually be written last and may be very different from the proposal introduction. Changes occur under the pressure of composition. For some books, where serious research is essential, a list of sources and references may also be required.
When targeting a publisher, authors should try to acquaint themselves with those houses and imprints that have a developed list in the author’s subject area. A trawl of websites, or of reference books such as The Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook, is useful here. Alternatively, if the author can persuade a literary agent to take them on, the agent will know (or should know) what doors to knock on and will take care of contracts and other business matters. There is no point in sending a book on T.S. Eliot’s later poetry to a science publisher.
Don’t tell the publisher what the market is unless asked. If you are offering a textbook for second or third level, you will almost certainly be asked, because the publisher will want to know the total number of people taking your subject in any given academic year. Otherwise, assume that the publisher knows his/her business and can estimate the market with reasonable accuracy. It is irritating to be told that your book is for everyone (it isn’t) or that there are 20, 30 or 40 million people in America of Irish/Jewish/ Italian descent, all of whom will go mad for it (there aren’t and they won’t).
Remember that the dynamic of a publishing house is forward list building to ensure the continuing publication of the sort of books that answer market demand and are appropriate to the skill sets of that house. These books must generate the revenues to produce the profits to keep the show on the road and give a return to the investors who finance the whole thing. Publishers are therefore open for business -- but not for any old business. It’s about horses for courses, so try to run your horse on the right course.
Gill Books welcomes unsolicited proposals from first time and experienced authors alike. Please note that we only accept proposals for works of non-fiction, we do not publish fiction, poetry, short stories or plays. In general we focus on books of Irish interest. Write for us!