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The Fast-Track Course on How to Write a Nonfiction Book Proposal

The Fast-Track Course on How to Write a Nonfiction Book Proposal

by Stephen Blake Mettee

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A step-by-step guide through the process of proposing a book to a publisher, this straightforward and accessible work helps aspiring authors get their nonfiction work published quickly. Packed with specific examples of proposals, query letters, publishing contracts, and more, this reference addresses the many questions authors have in this digital age. Written by a


A step-by-step guide through the process of proposing a book to a publisher, this straightforward and accessible work helps aspiring authors get their nonfiction work published quickly. Packed with specific examples of proposals, query letters, publishing contracts, and more, this reference addresses the many questions authors have in this digital age. Written by a seasoned editor and used in publishing classes at numerous universities, the book is a proven tool for nonfiction book authors. A glossary of key terms, a list of selected books for further reading, and a book proposal checklist are also included.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"First-rate. . . . Mettee's knowledge and expertise is visible in every page. If you'd like to try writing a book but don't know how to start the process, you will need no other book than this." —"Technical Communication magazine "(March 2013)
A solid, sound, well-organized guide.

Product Details

Linden Publishing
Publication date:
Great Books for Writers Series
Edition description:
2nd Edition
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
6.00(w) x 8.80(h) x 0.40(d)

Read an Excerpt

First Things

Tens of thousands of ordinary people, people just like you and me, will have their nonfiction books published this year. For many of them, this will be their first time to be published. Hundreds of these men and women will write their books with lofty dreams of fame and fortune, expecting, or at least hoping, their books will become international best-sellers—don't laugh, it does happen. Yet most of us write with more modest goals in mind:

• Many write to further their careers—published authors stand out as leaders in their respective fields.
• Some write to tell their life stories—well-written memoirs have been a hot genre since Mary Karr's best-selling The Liars' Club was published in 1995.
• Some write to further a cause—Roman Catholic nun Helen Prejean wrote Dead Man Walking to call attention to the cruelties of the death penalty.
• Others want to record local history before it is forgotten—Catherine Morison Rehart has attracted national attention due to the success of her series of regional (Central California) history books, The Valley's Legends & Legacies.
• Others write because they have a bit of esoteric knowledge they want to share—Been There, Should've Done That: 505 Tips for Making the Most of College, by Suzette Tyler, has sold 60,000-plus copies to date.
• Some write to entertain—Tim Nyberg and Jim Berg combined to write the highly successful The Duct Tape Book, a humorous look at an everyday item.
• Some write to instruct—Nasty People: How to Stop Being Hurt by Them Without Becoming One of Them, by Jay Carter, has enjoyed sales of 250,000-plus copies.
• Some simply have a passion for their subject—Chili Madness, by Jane Butel, has sold 312,000 copies.
• Still others write just to fulfill a need their inner muse causes to rise up in them.

Whatever your motivation, if you have the desire, the tenacity, and a modicum of writing skills, you too can join the ranks of published nonfiction book authors.
Your first step is to choose a topic.
Your second is to write a book proposal.

Sell your book to a publisher before you write it
Most nonfiction books are sold to a publishing house on the basis of a book proposal, usually before the book has been completely written—including books from first time authors. This means you don't even have to write the book until you have in hand a contract and, in most cases, an advance against royalties.

A word about editors and agents
“Editor” is a title given to many people with various duties at a publishing house. The “managing editor's” duties, for instance, may have more to do with the day-to-day running of the business than reading and editing manuscripts. The editor in charge of acquiring manuscripts to publish, often bears the title “acquisitions editor.” In many houses the lines between editorial duties are somewhat blurred with editors sharing duties to one extent or another. Literary agents function as the go-between for author and publisher. Two of the main functions of an agent are to sell a publisher on the idea of publishing an author's manuscript and to negotiate the best deal for the author. (You approach a literary agent exactly the same way you approach an editor. As such, in order to make this book more readable, instead of writing “agent or editor” in each reference, I have simply used the term “editor.” For this same reason I have dispensed with dual pronoun usages such as “his or hers.”)

What is a book proposal?

A book proposal is a ten- to fifty-page document designed to give an acquisitions editor enough information about your book and enough confidence in you as a writer that he will offer to publish it. The proposal must convince him that the book will sell enough copies to make a profit in addition to returning the expense in time and money his publishing house will need to invest. Factors an editor will consider are the book's topic and the public's interest in this topic, your qualifications to write this book, existing competition in the form of other similar books, and a host of elements that define his company's publishing program.

Since your book proposal stands the chance of being the last thing of yours an editor will read, it must be an example of your best writing.

I've already written my whole book, so I don't need a book proposal, right?

Wrong, for two reasons: Editors don't have the time to read whole manuscripts to find out if they are interested in a book, and a book proposal has information in it about market potential, competition, your qualifications, and other things that an editor needs to know in order to make a decision.

But stress not, writing a book proposal is a good drill to help you impartially evaluate your book. When you're done with the book proposal, you may find yourself going back and reworking parts of your book.

Writing a book proposal sounds like a lot of work. Won't the editor just see the brilliance of my idea and jump at it?

Books are sold to editors in many different ways, and a formal book proposal isn't always necessary—Dean Koontz could get a contract for a book on how to write scary stories with a phone call (Dean, if you're reading this, give me a call.) as could O.J. Simpson for his memoirs—if he decided to confess.

Sometimes an author meets an editor socially, and a deal for a book ensues. Experts or other high-profile people are occasionally contacted by an editor in need of a book on a specific subject and a contract is signed without a formal book proposal being produced.

But, for those of us with average fame and average luck, the chances of selling an editor on a book project are increased immensely with a professional, well-thought-out and well-organized book proposal.

How long should a book proposal be?

As the old saw about a woman's skirt goes, your proposal should be short enough to be interesting, but long enough to cover the subject. In most instances, a well-written proposal will run between ten and fifty pages.

Unlike with your high school English teacher, longer isn't better. You won't get extra points with an editor if you make him wade through five thousand unessential words. Be sure you include all necessary material, but, as is best in any writing, search out and expunge the superfluous.

Publishers as specialists

The large, primarily New York-based, publishers often publish across a spectrum of genres. But, like doctors or attorneys who specialize in one area of medicine or law, most publishers are specialists. A publisher might publish only spiritual titles, another, only large-sized art books destined for coffee tables. Still another may only publish books on California. Independent publishers often concentrate on a tightly focused niche market, perhaps books for firefighters or books dealing with Miami-Dade County history.

Many agents also specialize, developing contacts and working only with editors interested in certain types of books.

A word of caution

What looks like a publisher, acts like a publisher, and sounds like a publisher, but isn't a publisher? A vanity press.

Some businesses masquerade as publishers in an effort to fool authors into paying to have their books “published.” These businesses make their money off the payment the author gives them and, contrary to what their sales pitches may say, do little or no actual marketing of your book. These businesses—called vanity presses—charge you to typeset and print a number of copies of your book and either store them for you or ship them to you.

A handful of vanity presses have now appeared on the Internet utilizing new technologies that allow them to set up your book to be printed one copy at a time (or downloaded for reading on an e-book device or for printing on a home computer).

Few, if any, copies originating from a vanity press actually find their way onto bookstore or other retailer's shelves and, while some of these books do become available through online bookstores such as Amazon.com, without distribution and a realistic marketing program behind each title, sales are likely to be feeble.

If you are writing a check to a business that claims to be a publisher or calls itself a “subsidy publisher” understand that you are probably dealing with a vanity press.

Conventional publishers

A conventional publisher will contract with you for certain rights to your work and pay you for these rights. These rights may include the right to publish your book in hardcover, paperback, mass-market paperback, electronic versions, or any combination thereof. If yours is a book that has movie potential, dramatic rights may be included in the agreement. The publisher also may wish to obtain the right to license spin-off products such as imprinted coffee mugs or calendars or to publish, or to license others to publish, the book in a foreign language. Any or all these rights may be limited geographically, say North American rights or British Commonwealth rights. (See “The Author's Bundle of Rights” page 102 for a more complete explanation of rights.)

For the most part, conventional publishers are the only publishers that have open lines of distribution to the bookstores and other retailers and are the only publishers that will market your book.

Agents will only approach conventional publishers.

Large corporation-owned publishers vs. smaller independent publishers

Inevitably, when I speak at writer's conferences, an author comes up and asks me if it would be better for her to look for a large publisher or a small independent.

I tell these authors I have no absolute answer to this question because each type of house has its strengths and weaknesses, as does each author and each book, and, besides, it's only with 20-20 hindsight that we will know for certain if the author chose correctly. Authors don't seem to find my reply very satisfying. Since you probably don't either, here are some things to consider:

Large publishers
• Large publishers often offer bigger advances. This is important if your book doesn't sell well because it will be the only money you'll receive.
• Large publishers usually command better distribution into the bookstores than an independent. This often translates into bigger sales. It also means your Aunt Ida has a better chance of finding it in the Borders Books and Music in Trenton.
• Large publishers expect an author to do much of the book's marketing and promotion.
• Large publishers are usually part of an even larger corporate conglomerate and as such have a reputation as impersonal and bureaucratic.
• Large publishers usually have a bigger promotion budget. If any publisher is going to pay for an enormous pile of your books to be at the front door of every Barnes and Noble superstore (You didn't think each store manager just picked which books to stack out there, did you?), it'll be a large publisher.
• Large houses are notorious for dropping all promotion for a title that is slow coming out of the gate.
• Being published by a large, well-known publisher affords the author greater bragging rights at cocktail parties. Independent publishers
• Independents tend to be more successful with niche books than large publishers. This is because independents often focus on a single field, and their editors and marketing people become experts in this field. Niche magazines recognize these publishers and are anxious to review their books. Consumer begin to trust them and often loyally purchase their new titles.
• Independents have a reputation for keeping books in print longer. This gives the book a chance to find its audience. Some books don't take off until the second year or later. That a book stays in print is particularly important to an author who plans to make back-of-the-room sales of her book at seminars or other presentations over a number of years.
• Independent publishers expect an author to do much of the book's marketing and promotion.
• Barnes and Noble reports that they get most of their titles—if not most of their sales—from independents.
• Libraries, which constitute a large market for nonfiction books, are as willing to buy books published by independents as they are from the large publishers.
• Independent publishers are thought of as being more personal and caring. You often can call and talk to the owner of an independent if you have a problem. As an author, you'll probably mean more to an independent. (Of course this relative closeness can backfire for a publisher. I have one or two authors who think nothing of calling me at home on a Sunday to discuss something as urgent as the proper placement of a comma.)
• Independents often focus more heavily on nontraditional outlets for their books, such as gift shops, museums, and tourist attractions. Since these outlets tend to have a smaller, more focused selection of titles, a single title often enjoys larger sales than it would in a traditional bookstore. Another bonus is that these outlets often buy on a nonreturnable basis, whereas books sold into the traditional book market generally are sold on terms that allows their return to the publisher if the retailer doesn't sell them. (This affects the author because publishers don't pay royalties on returned books.)
• Independents will often continue to market a title that starts off with slow sales.
• Independent publishers often offer the same royalties as larger houses. This helps to counter receipt of a smaller advance, particularly if an independent keeps a book in print longer than a large publisher would have.

So what's the bottom line? At least on your first book, you are probably not going to get a choice of publishers. When an offer comes, check to be certain that the publisher is reputable and that the contract is fair, and then take a leap of faith.

Will I need an agent?

With most independent publishing companies and some of the bigger houses, you won't require the services of a literary agent in submitting your proposal. However, a good agent will not only have her submissions moved to the top of the editor's slush pile, she will act as your business advisor and career counselor, easily earning her 15 percent commission.

One of the valuable things an agent may do is review your book proposal with an eye to having you make it stronger before it is sent to a publisher. This alone may be worth the agent's commission, since a weak proposal is less likely to make the sale to the editor.

Agents are often reluctant to spend time submitting to independent publishers because these smaller houses share a reputation for offering modest advances and paying less in royalties. However, with the large houses paying less today, and some of the smaller ones paying more, this distinction is becoming somewhat diminished.

If you decide to use an agent, your agreement might state that she has a certain number of months to present your proposal to the larger houses, and if something isn't brewing by the end of this time period, you are free to begin submitting the proposal to the independents without incurring any obligation to the agent if you are successful.

If your genre of book is only published by independents—some topics are too esoteric to attract a large house—you might arrange for an agent to review both your book proposal and any resulting contract offers on a set fee basis.

Remember, you use the same proposal and submission process to attract an agent's interest as you do an editor's. As mentioned above, the advice in this book for approaching and working with an editor applies equally to agents.

How do I find the right publisher or agent to submit to?

Since it is a waste of time to submit to publishing houses or literary agencies that would not be interested in the type of book you're writing, it is important to learn what type of material an agent or a publisher would like to see before submitting.

There are a number of good guides to publishers and agents on the market. Most can be found at a decent public library. Writer's Market is quite good and probably the best known. Literary Market Place supplies information on publishers as well as a host of other industry entities. LMP is a big, multivolume work that may be found in most public libraries. The International Directory of Little Magazines and Small Presses has the most comprehensive listing of smaller, independent presses, which are often overlooked by authors (Read: aren't inundated each year by hundreds of book proposals).

The best of guides to publishers and agents give the name of the publisher or agent and delineate what types of material each publishes or is interested in seeing. They also give the name of the person you should submit to, how to contact this person—e-mail, snail mail, with query only, or full proposal—and if he or she wishes to see multiple submissions, that is, submissions sent to more than one agent or editor at a time.

In The American Directory of Writer's Guidelines, you'll find the actual guidelines written by the editors of the publishers listed. These guidelines will help you mold your proposal to meet their specific needs.

Another way to find a publisher is to visit a large bookstore and look for books similar to the one you want to write. Publishers of similar books are good candidates to approach with your book idea. Look these publishers up in the guides mentioned above to obtain editors' names and addresses.


Because of the volume of submissions editors receive each year, it is customary for an author to include with a query letter or a proposal a self-addressed, stamped envelope for the editor to use when responding. Undoubtedly, an editor who is interested in your book project will contact you whether you have included an SASE or not. Thus, an SASE's primary purpose is so you'll hear from the editor if he isn't interested.

The SASE that you send with your proposal can be a #10 business envelope (in which case, the editor will trash or recycle the material you sent), but I suggest you include a large envelope with enough postage to get back everything you send. Editors have been known to make notations on rejected proposals that may prove helpful to you.

Do not send money, a check, or loose stamps in the place of an SASE.

Multiple submissions: smart or taboo?

Some agents and editors ask that you don't submit your proposal to anyone else until they have had a chance to respond. They do this because they don't want to take the time to consider your proposal and then find out it is no longer available because another agency or publishing house has picked it up.

It's a fact of life that editors usually take one to three months—and sometimes longer—to respond to an unsolicited book proposal or query letter. It is also a fact of life that book proposals must often be presented to dozens of publishers before finding a home. You do the math. Can an author afford single submissions? Perhaps...if she hasn't reached her seventh birthday yet. Do you notify the editor that yours is a multiple submission? You can; it's polite. Many authors indicate this by placing “simultaneous submission” at the bottom of the last page of the query. Some even feel this is subtle pressure to get the editor to hurry and make a decision. Just remember, the easiest and quickest decision an editor can make is to say “No.” Do you really want to rush him?

If you decide to multiple submit, should you submit to an editor whose listings in the guides say “No multiple submissions accepted”? Sure. In some instances the editor receiving the proposal doesn't even know the listings say that, and, of course, if it's a work he would like to publish, he's not going to decline to consider it because of a technicality.

What's a query letter?

A query letter is a letter you send to an agent or an editor asking if he would like to see a full proposal on your book idea. Rarely should a query letter be longer than six to eight paragraphs. See page 25 for more information about query letters.

Mettee's secret

Shhhssh! Don't tell anyone. It's a secret I reveal only at writer's conferences—it helps draw a crowd to my workshops if a rumor gets out I'm telling secrets—and even then I make the participants swear a blood oath to never tell another soul. But, since you bought this book, I'll share it with you. It's this:

Always send your full book proposal with your query letter—even if the publisher's listing in the guides says “Query first only.”

Pretty heady stuff, huh? Okay, well, I didn't say it was an earth-shattering secret. But if you adhere to it, you'll sell more books.

Why? Let's take a look at the options an editor has when he gets a query. First, if he hates the idea, he'll reject it immediately. On the other hand, if he loves the idea, he'll immediately request to see the full proposal.

But what if he's a fence-sitter? What if he's thinking “Well, this is a pretty good idea. Maybe I should ask for the whole proposal...but...”? The next thing that goes through his mind is, he's really busy and if he asks to see a proposal, he's morally obligated to remember he asked for it and to bring it to the top of the slush pile and to read it, and if he doesn't like it, to respond with more than a form rejection letter, and the author might actually call to talk about it, and does he have time for all this for a book he's not really excited about?

Or the marketing department might call looking for those prepublication blurbs he'd promised them, or his boss might come in for a short chat or to drop off those new budget figures the editor's supposed to go over—by tomorrow morning. In these instances, he's too likely to do the easy thing, to pull out that little slip of paper that begins “Thank you for letting us see this....” But, if the sheet right beneath your query is the first page of your proposal, you have a second chance to hook him. And, do you think for a minute, if he likes it, he'll reject the proposal because you broke the rules and included it with the query? Naw. Won't happen. Not on this green earth.

But remember, it's our little secret. Don't tell anyone. Promise?

How long should I wait to hear from an editor?

It must have been different in the years before World War II. The famous Scribner and Son's editor Max Perkins apparently dropped whatever his plans were on days new material arrived from then relatively unknown authors such as Hemingway and Fitzgerald. Unfortunately, today's acquisition editors support the leaden burden of workloads that extend well beyond reading the incoming mail.

They attend marketing meetings, budget meetings, title selection meetings, work with authors already on contract, analyze data, write reports, and, even occasionally, do some editing. An editor may not get to your proposal for six to eight weeks—or longer. And, while the majority of editors are sensitive to an author's wish for a quick response, most do not relish calls from authors checking up on a proposal's status.

Here's what you should do:
• Figure no news is good news. When the editor opens your proposal, he has two choices: return it immediately with the dreaded “...does not fit into our publishing program at this time” or set it aside while he thinks about it. In larger houses, even if he loves your project, it still has to pass the editorial committee, which may only meet once a month. Be patient.
• After sixty days, you might send a self-addressed, stamped postcard with a note inquiring about the proposal's progress. On the message side of the postcard, list the following with places the editor can make a check mark:

_____ We have no record of receiving your proposal. Please resubmit.
_____ It's in the slush pile working its way to the top. We'll get to it as soon as we can.
_____ Thanks, but it didn't work for us, so we returned it. You should get it any day now.
_____ It has been read and is under consideration.

But I get antsy checking an empty mailbox everyday.

We all have this kid-on-Christmas-Eve syndrome to one degree or another, and, like with a kid at Christmastime, this anticipation can be part of the fun.

It is important, when dwelling on the fate of your submission, that you don't conjure up evil characteristics for the editors who, in reality, haven't singled you out to ignore and frustrate. Thoughts such as these are guaranteed to lead to hard feelings, despair, and discouragement. A better strategy is to be working on another writing project in the meantime. Use the research you did to write your proposal to write an article and submit it to an appropriate magazine, or develop another, completely different book idea and begin work on the proposal for that one. You'd be surprised how having a second iron in the fire reduces the anxiety about the first.

How are royalties figured?

Royalties, the money a publisher pays an author for the right to publish her book, are figured on the number of copies sold by the publisher, less any copies returned to the publisher. Often a contract will call for royalties to be paid as a percentage of the book's cover price. Another way royalties may be figured is as a percentage of the net amount a publisher receives for its sales of a book. In the book trade, a publisher sells to various wholesale and retail accounts at discounted prices to allow these accounts to resell the book at a profit.

A publisher might give a wholesaler a 55 percent discount. Or, to put it another way, the publisher would charge the wholesaler 45 percent of the cover price. In this case, on a $20 book, a 10 percent royalty paid on the net amount received by a publisher would earn an author $.90 per book [$20 x .45 = $9.00 x .10 = $.90]. This works out to be 4½ percent of the cover price. With a contract that calls for royalties to be figured as 10 percent of the cover price, the author would earn $2.00 per book. Be sure you understand how, according to the contract you sign, your publisher will figure royalties.

So what's fair? The National Writer's Union publishes the following figures to be used as guidelines for nonfiction books. Sans extraordinary circumstances, the royalties you contract for with a large publisher should fall somewhere near these figures. Economics often force smaller publishing houses to offer somewhat less for the first 5,000 to 10,000 copies sold. The royalty rates below are shown as a percentage of the cover price. To be comparable, royalty percents figured on the net amount received by the publisher would need to be approximately twice those listed.

Hardcover Nonfiction
First 5,000: 5-10%
Next 5,000: 10-15%
Thereafter: 10-15%

Trade Paperback Nonfiction
First 10,000: 5-10%
Thereafter: 8-15%

Figures for mass-market editions are not listed here because, unlike genre novels, it is exceedingly rare for a nonfiction book to be published in a mass-market format before being released in a hardcover or trade paperback edition.

Royalties also include the author's share of the monies a publisher receives when it licenses subsidiary rights, such as the right to publish the book in a foreign language, to a third party.

What is an advance?

An advance is an amount paid to an author against future royalty earnings. It is customary for an advance to be paid one-half upon the signing of a contract and one-half upon receipt by the publisher of an acceptable manuscript, although any formula a publisher and an author agree upon can be used.

An advance is deducted from the royalties a book earns before any further payment is made to the author. If sales of a book are sufficient that the royalties earned equal or exceed the amount of the advance, the book is said to have “earned out its advance.” Under most circumstances, if the author delivers to the publisher an acceptable manuscript, the advance is not refundable to the publisher, and, on books that don't sell well, the advance becomes the only money an author receives.

Both publishers and authors like to see an advance earned out: the author because she now begins to find regular royalty checks in her mail box, checks that will continue to arrive until the book stops selling, and the publisher because its sales projections at the beginning of the project have proven to be correct.

Normally, it is only after an advance has been earned out that publisher and author alike begin to make significant money on a book.

What kind of an advance should I expect?

There's no absolute answer to this question. Some say it should be equal to the royalties that would be earned if the publisher's initial press run sold out. Thus, if a publisher planned a first printing of 5,000 copies and your contract called for a $2.00 per book royalty, your advance would be $10,000. But other factors often come into play.

Foremost among these factors is the author's publishing history. John Gray, author of Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus, a book that spent scores of weeks on The New York Times best-seller list, is in an excellent position to command a large advance. A first time author is not. Traditionally, part of the advance is intended to cover expenses an author may incur because she is writing the book. If extensive travel is involved or funds are needed to acquire permissions to use copyrighted material, the advance may need to be adjusted accordingly.

Today, there's a tendency for large publishers to give celebrities giant advances, which works out well if you happen to be the celebrity, but limits the amount these publishers can pay to other authors.

Independent publishers and university publishers may offer no advance or only a token one. The following figures, from a survey of authors' advances conducted by the National Writer's Union, illustrates the large variances one encounters when trying to tie down how much an advance should be:

Nonfiction Hardcover: $5,000 to $150,000
Nonfiction Softcover: $1,000 to $100,000

In the end, it comes down to what the publisher feels it can afford and what the author is willing to accept. I have had authors tell me they would need enough money to live on for the year or so it would take them to write their book. Since none of these authors resided in a cave, I was forced to decline.

When I get a sale, should I have an attorney look at the contract?

It is always safest to have a professional go over any contract before you sign it. Reputable publishers will not object to this. If you choose to have an attorney take a look at a publishing contract, be certain you have selected an attorney specializing in intellectual property law. If you have an agent, an essential part of her job is to make sure your contract is up to snuff. For a set fee, many agents will read a contract and advise an author whom they are not formally representing.

Kirsch's Handbook of Publishing Law, by Jonathan Kirsch, is an excellent resource for authors who want to better understand their own contracts and the process of contracting.

The dreaded rejection slip

No writer worth her thesaurus hasn't collected a stack of rejection letters. Don't become discouraged until you have exhausted the list of potential publishers for books like yours. It isn't rare for a proposal to go out fifty to sixty times before being picked up by a publisher. I once bought a book—The New Baby Owner's Manual: The Care and Fine-Tuning of Your New Baby by Horst D. Weinberg, M.D.— that had been turned down by forty-six publishers. The forty-eighth publisher (the good doctor was a believer in multiple submissions) also made an offer for it. Eventually, we translated it into Spanish for the North American Hispanic market and later sold Mexican and South American rights to a Mexican publisher, Selector Publishing. A year later, we signed a contract with Shanghai Popular Science Press in the People's Republic of China, which will be publishing a Chinese language edition to be marketed in much of Asia. Soon The New Baby Owner's Manual will be available to billions of people on three continents. What if Dr. Weinberg had become discouraged after receiving ten, twenty, thirty, or forty rejections?

After you have fine-tuned your proposal and had a professional free-lance editor go over it for content as well as grammar and spelling—you can find these people in ads in the back of writing magazines, by networking with a local writer's group, or by calling your city newspaper and asking for a referral from someone at the editorial desk—put it out to twenty to thirty agents or publishers and see if it floats. Make changes to your proposal only if you find you are getting the same negative feedback from more than one trusted source. (By the way, I understand the catch-22 inherent here. Since most editors don't give you a substantial reason when rejecting your idea, how are you to collect enough feedback to decide if you need to adjust your proposal? One good way is to attend a writer's conference—you can find one in your area by checking http://writing.shawguides.com/ on the Internet. Most conferences allow attendees to meet and discuss their book ideas face-to-face with agents and editors.)


Authors are often both concerned and confused about copyright laws. Here are some of the basics:

• While some additional benefits are gained when the copyright mark (©) and the copyright owner's name and the date of copyright are placed on the material, as well as when it is registered with the Copyright Office (For instance, if the work is registered within three months of publication, the copyright owner maintains the right to collect attorney's fees and certain statutory damage amounts from infringers without having to prove monetary harm.), you don't have to register your work with the federal government to obtain copyright protection. Copyright begins automatically as soon as a work is “fixed in a tangible medium of expression.” For a writer, this means as soon as what you write is put on paper, audiotape, or other reproducible form.
• It is common practice for a publisher to obtain copyright registration in the author's name after the book is published.
• As a practical matter, agents, editors, and others in the publishing industry rarely steal written material.
• Ideas themselves are not copyrightable, only original, expressive work is copyrightable.

One of the concerns authors have is how much of another's work they can use without infringing on that person's copyright. This is truly a gray area. Under the “fair use” doctrine of the Copyright Act, use of “a copyrighted work...for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, or research is not an infringement of copyright.” Since this wording is less than precise, the courts have historically looked at four factors in making their determination:

• the purpose of the use
• the nature of the copyrighted work
• the portion of the work used
• the effect of this use upon the market for the copyrighted work.

To get a feeling for what falls under the fair use doctrine, watch for quoted material in books that you read and check the “acknowledgments” or “permissions” page to see if permission to use the material is listed.

When in doubt about what constitutes fair use of copyrighted material, obtain permission. For a more complete, yet concise, summary of copyrights, read the chapter “Copyright: What Every Author Should Know,” by John D. Zelezny, in The Portable Writers' Conference, edited by yours truly.

Author Biography: Stephen Blake Mettee is president and publisher, Quill Driver Books/Word Dancer Press, Inc., a California-based publisher of nonfiction books. Mettee is the editor of The Portable Writers' Conference: Your Guide to Getting and Staying Published, a Writer's Digest Book Club selection, and has published scads of nonfiction articles on subjects ranging from parenting to business. He is currently working on a book on nonprofit fund-raising for the amateur.

Mettee serves on the board of directors of Writer's International Network-Writer's Inter-age Network. He was director of WIN-WIN's annual William Saroyan Writer's Conference from 1992 to 1997 and continues as chair of the conference.

Mettee has taught classes on writing and publishing in a number of venues including the University of California, Davis extension program, the California Library Association's annual conference and the San Francisco Bay Area Book Festival. He was evaluated as a “highest rating” presenter at the California Writer's Club Asilomar conference.

QDB/WDP is recognized by industry periodical Book Marketing Update as one of the “Top 101 Independent Book Publishers” in the United States. Writer's Digest magazine identifies QDB/WDP as one of the “100 Best Book Markets for New Writers.”

Mettee is always in the market for nonfiction books, particularly California regional titles; writing titles; practical, upbeat encouraging works that enhance the lives of people over 50, for QDB/WDP's trademarked Best Half of Life series; and concise, clear, how-to books for QDB/WDP's Fast-Track Course series.

What People are Saying About This

John Kremer
If you follow Steve Mettee's advice in this book, you're soon going to need a copy of my book.
—John Kremer, author of 1001 Ways to Market Your Book
Andrea Brown
A solid, sound, well-organized guide.
— Andrea Brown, owner Andrea Brown Literary Agency

Meet the Author

Stephen Blake Mettee is the editor of "The American Directory of Writer's Guidelines" and "The Portable Writers' Conference: Your Guide to Getting and Staying Published." He is the founder of Quill Driver Books and theWriteThought.com. He lives in Sanger, California.

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