Sell First, Write Later? Non-Fiction Book Writing Seems Like Fun!

Absolute Blank

By Faith Watson (fmwrites)

Boy, was I jealous of Julie Powell when I saw the movie Julie & Julia. Writer on the side, loves to cook and eat, in the right place at the right time for her first little blog to become a popular blog, then become a book offer, then a bestseller, then a movie deal. Starring the greatest actress of our time.

I’ll take one of those, please. Yes, the one-hit wonder. That’s fine with me. Non-fiction you say? Mmmm. Even better, maybe. There doesn’t seem to be much of a market for my poetry after all, and I do have a couple of great ideas for non-fiction already brewing. One is handbook for Pilates instruction and the other is a self-help guidebook to personal health and wellness.

I also have this article brewing, the first of at least two to go along with the process of me aiming to become a published author of a non-fiction book. Make that a non-fiction book that sells.

Yes, I absolutely want to write a book in order to sell it; that’s my first established goal. I know making money off my book might be a premature idea. It sure was with all my past creative writing projects. I haven’t seen a cent from those pursuits, but I’m done questioning the desire to make money as a writer now. It seems like non-fiction is calling me to this task so I am going for it.

So, how does one go about writing a non-fiction book that sells?

Step 1: Research to learn that answer.

Let me tell you what I did, and where I’m at. First, I thought about non-fiction book markets that I’m familiar with and feel I could sell in. Just gut feelings here. I want it to be somewhat easy to write my book. That’s right, I just said I want to make money and I want it to be somewhat easy. I am a businesswoman who works long hours at a physically and mentally demanding job as a fitness studio owner. I’m also writing on the side as a service journalist for an online content provider, delivering simple articles on health and fitness topics for extra money—my fledgling studio hasn’t put me in the black yet. I don’t want my book project to be the death of me. I want it to pay off. I want to be good at writing it, so I can maximize the return on my time investment. These are my demands.

Turns out, being good at writing non-fiction is one of the first conditions of writing a non-fiction book that sells. Lucky me! Intuitively, I’m on the right track. Research tells me I need to have loads of experience, or a special unique perspective, or clear expertise, to write this book and sell it. I believe I do.

My second step was to learn about what makes for a successful journey to non-fiction book publication from the three non-fiction books I bought on the subject. But first,

Step 1.5: Decide to go for it.

In between thinking about what I might write and buying my reference books, I stumbled upon this nugget of information that sent my vision into warp speed: In non-fiction, you don’t write the book first. You write a proposal, and that sells the book. It’s no joke—you sell the book before you write it!

Basically, I’ll have to create a marketing plan in order to sell my book. Woo hoo! It so happens I have a marketing background. I developed brand strategies for large clients and the communications that would support them. So my heart went aflutter. Perfect.

Step 2: Secure reference books to guide the process.

I looked at reviews and picked three highly-rated guides to help me understand winning ways to approach the non-fiction book market. After that it was full speed ahead, consulting the three books, comparing advice and taking notes. Here are the titles:

Wow! Non-fiction seems like fun!

There are a few different approaches and actual proposal outlines offered among these books. In Camenson’s book, she recommends crafting a stellar query letter and sending it simultaneously to several editors or agents at once. The query offers up the full proposal to those interested. Before all that, of course, comes the research that will show up in your proposal, and be used to beef up your query: competitive and similar titles, what makes your book unique in the market, who the target audience is, and more. This is the approach I already imagined.

In Lyon’s book, the same is recommended but with a few more caveats. There’s a lot to be said for the writer who can devote a lot of time to the business of being a writer. For example, going to conferences each year, to hopefully meet editors or agents, knowing other established writers, or being able to talk with someone who can give you a referral to an agent or editor. But for me, this book is pretty much my fourth job. Industry networking isn’t happening. I’m on my own, a little minnow in the Unsolicited Sea.

The idea of finding an agent always sets me back, I must admit. It seems just as hard to get an audience with an agent as with an editor. To me, it looks like an extra set of locked doors to break through. There’s other good stuff in Lyon’s book, but maybe this mindset isn’t the right match for me.

In Whalin’s book, a really strong case is made for finding an agent. I pout. But, at least he provides some direct resources for doing so, even if it is only a listing or association to scour for possibilities. Again, it’s like a double door—do I want to bother with a whole extra layer of researching agents and their clients so I can select which ones to query? No, but maybe I have to. I thought this process seemed more fun than all that.

Finally, I go back and find a better answer in Lyon’s book. She recommends trying to snag an agent only if your market is medium to large. Many non-fiction markets are small, and if your book is a specialty book best suited for a small publisher, an agent isn’t the way to go. This offers me clearer direction.

At the moment, I haven’t yet decided which of my two ideas for non-fiction books I’m talking about here. Both are a great start to being able to craft a solid proposal, but the Pilates instructors’ handbook is suited for a smaller specialty publisher while the self-help wellness guidebook would have more of a mass market appeal. I have to decide which one to work with.

Step 3: Decide on the approach.

For me, this means first picking the book idea I will work with, since I have more than one. They lend themselves to different approaches so I really can’t move forward until I commit to a path. Here’s what I’m choosing from:

  • A) The Pilates Cue Guru: How to Make Magic with the Method is the only handbook for fitness instructors and Pilates teachers that specifically teaches creative ways to effectively cue all the different principles, exercises and goals of the Pilates method. Cuing is vital to the success and enjoyment of mind-body exercise and Pilates in particular, which features core principles of concentration, precision, flow, and more.
  • B) Project Pick One Thing: Rediscovering, Caring For and Honoring Every Bit of Your Beautiful Self is an engaging, accessible health-and-wellness guidebook in an easy-to-reference format that encourages positive lifestyle changes among busy adults interested in self-improvement. It is the first book to offer a customizable approach to taking care of various aspects of body, mind and life in an informal encyclopedic style that is informative but never dry; credible, but not clinical.

I have chosen, for my first attempt to take place this year, to go with A.

I’m just a little deflated by my choice because I’m pretty sure B is the real money-maker of the two, and I’m not going to get on Oprah with choice A. Plus, Project Pick One Thing is the most developed of my ideas, as I have been blogging in that very format for months now, and could clearly demonstrate its direction and my writing style with samples from my posts. However, my blog doesn’t have that many readers at this point, and while I love it and believe in it, I feel that it’s a harder sell.

Remember, I not only want to write a non-fiction book that sells; first, I have to sell the proposal. I have strong credentials and experience as a Pilates instructor and my cuing is bar none (if I do say so myself), which is why I came up with the book idea in the first place. Every other instructor or advanced student I meet confirms my gift in this area. It will be easy to define the size of my potential market and I can personally back up book promotion with published articles, my award-winning Pilates studio, and testimonials.

After perusing my guidebooks and considering the approaches they recommend, I’ve decided to go straight for smaller or specialty publishers. I’ll use Camenson’s and Lyon’s approach to query first, simultaneously (in small batches), and get requests for my proposal. I’ll use a sample query from Lyon’s book (Page 211, Sidebar 14-1) as my template. It works well with my topic, although it is aimed at getting agent representation, so I’ll need to change that aim to getting a request for proposal from an editor.

I want to find eight potential publishers to query, two or three at a time. I’ll query my leading contender within the first batch I send out, with the goal of landing it, or learning from the ‘no.’

The format I’ll use for my proposal will be the one from Whalin’s book (Page 154, Figure 1). Its marketing-esque slant, including the call for a Unique Selling Proposition (USP), which I have already started to do in my overviews of A and B above, feel like the right fit for me.

Step 4: Find Publishers, Query the Editors.

Check back in October for a progress update!

Final Poll Results

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