Category Archives: Nonfiction

What comes after yes (the nonfiction post)

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.

News flash from the day job!

I just got a copy of my latest nonfiction book, Buying a Home: The Missing Manual, which is on its way to bookstores now. Nice cover, huh? Even though there’s no flaming sword.


What does a novelist and former English professor know about buying real estate, you might wonder. Good question! My husband and I are also real estate investors specializing in residential properties. Since we’re both self-employed, we realized a number of years back that we’d need to figure out our own retirement plan. We decided on real estate, and we’ve bought numerous properties that we rent out to tenants. So we’re both very well versed in what it takes to find and evaluate a home, get a good mortgage, and close the deal.

This was a fun book to write, and it offers a lot of practical advice to potential homebuyers. Here’s what had to say about it: “This is one of the best buyer’s markets in quite some time. It’s tempting to buy a house right now. But before you rush off to buy, it might be a good idea to read this great book, Buying a Home: The Missing Manual, by Nancy Conner.” You can read the full review here.

I write all my nonfiction books as Nancy Conner, by the way, for one simple reason: That was my name when I started writing nonfiction. But it’s also nice to keep the fiction and nonfiction sides of my career separate.

Digging Out

Yesterday, I watched snow fall outside my window all day as I worked on author review for a nonfiction project. I love snow. (I know, I know—there are a lot of people who don’t want to hear that at this point in this particular winter, but it’s true.) The nonfiction project was one I’d fallen behind on earlier this year, and we were finally bringing it home.  As I watched the snow pile up outside, I went through page after page of changes, comments, and queries in the nonfiction book.

The editing/revision phase is very different for technical nonfiction than it is for fiction. For fiction, I receive a letter from my editor that outlines aspects of the novel that need work—large-scale changes and small adjustments both. It’s up to me to crack open the manuscript file and figure out how to implement the editor’s suggestions.

In nonfiction, the editor turns on Word’s Track Changes feature and goes to work on the file I sent in. When I get it back, there are lots of changes to the text and lots of comments and questions in the margins. I have to go through, read the changes, respond to the comments, answer the questions. I also have to answer queries from technical reviewers who check the accuracy of my text. I’ve worked with anywhere from one to four tech reviewers on a nonfiction book–this recent project had two. It’s a lot of work to go through each chapter when three different people are responding to it. Everyone is trying to make the book better, but when you’ve got three people searching for problems and issues, it can be hard to keep pushing through and addressing them, one after another after another…

So no wonder by the time I finished yesterday, seven inches of snow had piled up on the ground.

I’d worked ten hours, but I pulled on my boots, grabbed a snow shovel, and got to work clearing off the sidewalk. We live on a corner, which is great for three-quarters of the year,  but a big snowstorm gives me a real workout.  The snow was coming down pretty hard still, and when I finished 45 minutes later, I looked like a snowman and had ice in my hair—and a half-inch of new snow covered the place where I’d started.

When I looked out the back door this morning, it almost looked as though I hadn’t bothered last night. We’d gotten just over a foot (and it was still coming down). Out I went again, snow shovel in hand. This time, it took an hour an a half to do the job, mostly to deal with the mountain ridge of heavy snow that the snowplow had deposited at the end of our driveway. (At least the road was clear!)

It’s been a lot of work, but I’m all dug out. The snow has stopped. The sidewalk is clear. The nonfiction project is finished. It feels like a whole new day. On to whatever’s next!

Coffee with an Author

This morning I spent an hour chatting with Naomi Giroux on I Just Finished’s “Coffee with an Author” on Blog Talk Radio. We talked about Deadtown, finding time to write, and the differences between writing fiction and nonfiction. It was fun, and for me the hour flew by. You can listen in on our conversation here.

Green Living

In the context of this blog, the title of this post is probably making you expect quality-of-life tips for new zombies. I’ll save that for a future post. This one is about my recent nonfiction book Living Green: The Missing Manual.

Living Green: TMM was the focus of an environmental column in the Redding (CA) Record Searchlight. Columnist Debra Atlas writes, “We’ve all wished there was a ‘life manual’ to figure out how to do things more environmentally friendly. Well, I’ve found one.”

Writing a Nonfiction Book Proposal, Part 2

If you’re working on a proposal for a nonfiction book, you need to include  the sections an editor expects to see. I posted about that last time. Once you’ve got the structure of your proposal, think about these tips to polish it up:

Show off your best writing. It can be easy to think of the proposal as being secondary to the book itself. But the proposal is what agents and editors see first, and as everyone knows, first impressions are important. Make your Introduction attention-getting, interesting, and sharp. Also, purge your proposal of typos, grammatical errors, and punctuation problems. If the mechanics of writing aren’t your strong suit, find a grammar maven to help you get the proposal in shape.

Be concise. Keep in mind that the person reading your proposal wants to know, as quickly and as clearly as possible, what your book is about. Don’t ramble, don’t give unnecessary context or background about how you came up with the idea.

Spend extra time on your outline. The outline is the basis for your completed book. The publisher will include it in your contract, and you’ll use it to write the chapters. A good outline at the proposal stage saves you lots of time later, when you’re writing. Be sure the organization makes sense. Look at it from a reader’s point of view. What’s the first thing someone new to your subject needs to know about it? After they’ve learned that, what comes next? And so on. This applies to the overall organization of the chapters and the organization within each chapter. If your outline is well organized, your book will be, too.

Be open to changes. Even though you’ve put a lot of time and effort into your proposal, it’s likely that an editor will want some changes. Don’t reject these out of hand. The editor has experience turning ideas into books, and you should work with your editor to refine and shape the outline. It’s common for an editor to ask for changes before presenting your proposal to the publisher’s editorial board; and the outline may well go back and forth between you and an interested editor several times before it’s ready.

Be realistic. Your book may be your baby, but to the publisher it’s a product. From an editor’s point of view, the whole purpose of a book proposal is to determine whether your project is a good fit and something that will sell. Keep this in mind as you create and submit your proposal.

Writing a Nonfiction Book Proposal, Part 1

A Facebook friend of mine is working on a nonfiction book, and we’ve been discussing how to find a publisher. I’ve published several how-to/reference books (most under the name Nancy Conner), so I told her I’d put together a guide to what goes into a book proposal for this kind of book.

The nice thing about writing how-to and reference is that even brand-new authors can sell a project based on a proposal. The publisher pays an advance, usually broken into three or four milestone payments, so you have some money coming in as you write. For example, the nonfiction publisher I work with most often breaks the advance into four payments, payable at these milestones: first two chapters submitted, 50% of the manuscript submitted, 100% of the manuscript submitted, author review completed. (Author review is going over the changes, queries, and requests made by various editors.)

Before you see any advance money, however, you need to sell the project. And to do that, you need a killer proposal. A nonfiction book proposal usually contains these sections:

Introduction: This section gives a high-level overview of the book.  It answers the Big Question: “What’s your book about?” Start with a hook–something that grabs readers’ attention and makes them want to keep reading. Depending on your project, this could be an anecdote, an interesting fact or statistic, a trend. Be concise; keep this section to a couple of paragraphs.

Audience: Who will buy your book? Be specific here; don’t say “everyone,” for example. You may hope that’s true, but publishers know it won’t happen. Specific numbers for a specific group are helpful, such as “Volunteerism is the fastest-growing segment of the vacation industry, increasing by 50% since 2005. Last year, more than a million people spent their time off working to make the world a better place.” (Note: I made up those statistics for the example.) If you don’t know who’ll buy your book, do some research to find out whether the project is worth your time and the publisher’s investment.

Competition: This section shows how your book will be positioned in the market. Which books are its closest competitors? List them. What makes your book different from those books? For example, maybe you’ll inject humor or focus on real-world case studies. If there are too many competing titles, the publisher may think the field is too crowded. If there are no competing titles, however, that’s not necessarily a good thing. It may suggest that publishers have considered and rejected similar ideas.

Marketing: Publishers want to know what you’ll do to sell the book. List your marketing ideas here. If you have media contacts, a popular blog, frequent public speaking engagements, involvement with professional or other groups that will publicize your book, list them here. No matter how good your idea, books don’t sell themselves, and publishers want to know how you’ll help to get the word out. This section is optional, but it can get a publisher’s attention.

Table of Contents: This section shows your proposed book’s contents at a glance. It’s a list of parts, chapters, and appendices, like the Table of Contents at the front of a published book.

Detailed Outline: Here, show your Table of Contents again,  but go into detail. For each chapter, write a paragraph that gives an overview of what’s in the chapter. Follow that paragraph with a list of section headings and subheadings (A- and B-heads).

Author Bio: Include a paragraph or two telling about yourself. If you’ve published other books, mention those here. If you haven’t, focus on your expertise in the subject you’re writing about and any platform you’ve developed. Platform — your visibility as an expert — is important to publishers. Your platform may be a blog or Web site, membership in professional associations, media appearances, high visibility in a community (online or off) related to the topic. You may have mentioned some of this information in your Marketing section; mention it again here. The Author Bio is where you say what your platform is; the Marketing section is where you detail how you’ll use that platform.

Sample Chapters: If you’ve never published a book before, you need to include one or two sample chapters that show off your writing skills. If you’re already published, you may be able to send clips or chapters from a previously published books. Even so, it’s best to give a taste of your approach to this particular project.

So those are the basics of a book proposal. Next time, I’ll give some tips for making your proposal shine.

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