I recently received a question from someone whose nonfiction proposal resulted in an offer from a publisher. (If you’re interested in writing a nonfiction book, see my posts on writing a proposal here and here.) The questioner wants to know what happens after you get an offer. I’ve been around that block a few times; based on my own experience, here’s what you might expect as you move from proposing a nonfiction proposal to writing your book:
Celebration. Go ahead and pop open that bottle of champagne or have a celebratory dinner out. You’ve found a publisher who wants to buy, produce, and distribute your book. That’s a significant accomplishment!
Negotiations. The publisher may ask for some tweaks to the outline you submitted. And this is when you’ll work out a schedule. Prescriptive nonfiction (the kind I write) gets submitted in batches. Here’s a typical way to divide up a manuscript for submission:
- First two chapters. Publishers often make the first couple of chapters a milestone because they want to make sure that your writing fits what they’re looking for. If you’re writing for a series, for example, such as Wiley’s For Dummies books or O’Reilly’s Missing Manuals series, they want to see that your chapters conform to the series’ style. If you submitted a couple of chapters with your proposal, this milestone is easy to meet. Just polish ’em up and make sure they fit the publisher’s style. (More on style guidelines below.)
- Fifty percent of the book. Publishers count each element of the book when determining what equals 50%. That includes the introduction, front matter (dedication, acknowledgments, etc.), and any appendices. Length doesn’t matter. So if you’ve got ten 20-page chapters, a 5-page intro, and three short appendices, you hit the 50% mark not when you’ve handed in 100 pages but when you’ve submitted seven of those elements: it might be seven chapters; five chapters and two appendices; the intro, five chapters, and one appendix; and so on.
- Completed manuscript. When you’re figuring out the schedule, make sure you give yourself adequate time to complete the second half of the book. The first half often goes quickly because you submitted a couple of chapters with your proposal. If you’re writing later chapters entirely from scratch, allow yourself the time you need to write them.
- Author review. During this phase, you review the edits various editors have made. For the kind of nonfiction I write, I’m usually dealing with a developmental editor, one or more technical reviewers, and a copyeditor—all at once. The date attached to author review is the date by which you agree to have all chapters revised according to these edits. The nonfiction publishers I work with usually allow a week or two for this phase, and that week can be pretty intense.
Each milestone in the schedule is associated with the release of a percentage of your advance. For the sample schedule above, I get 25% of my advance money as I clear each milestone.
There are other schedule/payment models, of course. Some nonfiction publishers pay a percentage on signing the contract (that’s always nice!) and break up the milestones differently: perhaps at 50%, 100%, and author review. Another publisher I work with pays 30% when half the manuscript is submitted, 30% when the complete manuscript is in, and 40% after author review. However they break it down, you’ll probably find that the publisher has a particular schedule for paying out advances that you’ll have to work with. Where you get some flexibility is in determining the due dates.
Whatever schedule you work out, it takes publishers about a month to cut a check after you’ve met a milestone. If you have an agent, that check goes to your agent, who deducts 15% and sends you the rest.
Contract review. When you’ve agreed on terms (advance and schedule), the publisher sends a contract. The contract includes the schedule you’ve agreed on, along with associated advance payments. It specifies what rights you’re selling and spells out your royalty rate and how many free author’s copies you’ll receive. It specifies what happens if you fail to make your deadlines or if you deliver a manuscript that the publisher deems unacceptable. If you have an agent, there’s an agency clause that authorizes the agent to act on your behalf.
Ask your agent to look over the contract carefully and explain it to you. If you don’t have an agent, consider having a lawyer who’s experienced with publishing look it over for you.
If you plan to write more than one book with this publisher, look out for joint accounting, which lets the publisher apply royalties you earn from one book toward earning out the advance of any other books you’ve written for that publisher. (You don’t want this.)
Author guidelines. Your new editor will send you a document that spells out the publisher’s preferences for the book. The guidelines typically include formatting (such as how to format lists or how many levels of headings and subheadings you can use), elements (whether you’re expected to include sidebars, notes, tips, warnings, and so on), figures, and style (such as avoiding jargon and passive voice), and general writing tips.
Some publishers put their author guidelines on their websites. If you want to take a peek at O’Reilly’s guidelines for writing a Missing Manual, for example, you can download them from this page.
Writing. After all that, you can plunge into the writing. Your editor may respond to the first couple of chapters with a developmental edit, asking you to tweak the organization, explain concepts more clearly, add more humor (or take it out), and so on. Or you may hear nothing besides “Thanks for the new batch of chapters” until it’s time for author review.
Galley review. And after your manuscript has been written, edited, and revised, you’re still not quite done. Once the book has been laid out, you’ll have one or two rounds of galley reviews to do. These days, you’ll usually get a huge PDF file that shows the laid-out book. Your job is to read through and check for errors. (There should be an editor or proofreader doing this, as well, but it’s your book and you want to make sure it’s as error-free as possible.) At this stage, problems often crop up with figures, awkward page or line breaks, and typos that went unnoticed earlier.
Nonfiction publishing tends to move much faster than fiction publishing. For example, I signed a contract in March for a nonfiction book that hit the stores at the end of July. In contrast, I signed a two-book contract for my Deadtown urban fantasy series in November 2008—the first novel came out in December 2009 and the second will be out in December of this year. If you’re interested in seeing how a novel goes from manuscript to book, check out this post about what happened during the year after I received an offer for Deadtown.