Non-Fiction Book Writing Seems Fun! Part II: Trying to Find a Fiancé

Absolute Blank

By Faith Watson (fmwrites)

Recap: A few months ago, when I finished up with Part I of this topic, Sell First, Write Later? Non-Fiction Book Writing Seems Like Fun!, I was gung-ho and ready to go, on the verge of fleshing out my straw-man idea for a non-fiction book. After preliminary research and careful consideration, I had selected a promising book idea of mine as my pet project.

My Unique Selling Proposition (USP) was compelling and concise: 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.

I settled on using guidelines and templates from two different reference books to create a proposal and the initial query letters. With my “presearch” now done, I was set to move on to the crafting phase: pull the query and a proposal outline together. I was lookin’ to get hitched. Who were my prospects and what would they want from me?

The Pre-Proposal Period

Before I could query, I needed to research the market-at-large, identify possible selling statistics, and be able to provide my prospects with factual information on the audience for my title. The next step was to develop a list of potential publishers with similar titles or similar categories of books. The idea at this stage is to be able to speak knowledgably of publishers’ lists and specifically appeal to the readers of the queries. Finally, I needed to learn exactly what each of my publishing targets wanted to hear or see from me. Did they want sample chapters or just a query letter? Did I meet their stated criteria for authors?

Here what I learned as I made my way through these three steps of the pre-proposal period:

1. Selling statistics, my audience, and the market at large. A sound approach to finding out what sells is to go to a place where they are selling items similar to yours, and snoop around. There’s a reason the average grocery store carries a lot of flavored coffees and teas, but very few limburger-flavored coffees or eye-of-newt teas. The same applies to the books stocked on the shelves on a big chain book store, and what’s being sold on Amazon.com. Since I’m a Pilates instructor, I also have an extra level of information at my fingertips among my professional references. I learned a lot by looking at my own office shelves and internet bookmarks, as well as at bookstores and online.

What I learned: Big chain stores stock one or two perennial favorites in the Pilates subsection of the Fitness and Exercise subsection of the Sports and Fitness aisle. They are written by well-known or well-respected instructors—trainers to the stars, or Pilates elders (original teachers). They are published by imprints of large publishing houses. Expanding my search to the yoga and other fitness categories, I found a similar pattern. The fitness books sold in stores and frequently bought online by consumers are “how to do” books, not “how to teach” books. This is the lay of the land at the point of sale.

Among my professional references are a few self-published books, and a few more published by specialty houses on behalf of large professional organizations. For example, certification exam study guides have been published by every reputable Pilates certifying body. A few illustrated guidebooks for Pilates anatomy, or books for teaching special populations (pre-natal Pilates, Pilates for seniors, and the like), also exist. You buy them through proprietary companies that also sell Pilates equipment and host national conventions. Joe Pilates’ original Return to Life through Contrology has been republished and is selling again, but mostly to instructors. I know Joe Pilates himself had quite a bit of trouble getting his book published; in 1998 it was updated and edited with the copyright assigned to Presentation Dynamics. Duly noted in my notebook of pre-proposal possibilities.

My takeaways: My title is not going to make it on consumer shelves. It’s a “how to teach” not a “how to do” book. It won’t be a public library staple, either. Its salability is going to be tied to either professional organizations’ interests (like the educational arms of large certifying bodies) or Pilates-related corporate interests (like how Weight Watchers and Yoga Journal added to their empires, which now include cookbooks and yoga kits respectively). This is not the greatest of realizations. What I need is the Pilates equivalent of a university press or a niche-merchandising brand.

I already had the specifics on my audience—I am part of my audience—and I remain prepared with numbers on new instructors in training, how many certified in the last x amount of years, etc. These figures are published in trade journals with some regularity. The good news is Pilates is still popular and the number of teachers and participants continues to grow.

I also found something out about my market that seems positive —there really are no other books out there quite like mine. I’d be filling a hole.

Your takeaways: If you want to craft a non-fiction book proposal, determine what books your book would be next to on store and library shelves, then see how your book fits in. Look at your favorite books in your category to find out who published them, and when. Keep notes on every publisher of several books related to or comparable to yours. This list will later help you connect positives for your queries to editors (they’ve published three books about coffee beans but never one on tea leaves; hole in the market I will fill) or negatives for your own notes (dozens of comments and reviews on the coffee-related books online but no one ever comments on the tea books). Finally, pour through your trade journals. Look for books being advertised in the back pages, read book reviews, and find out if the journal publishers also publish books.

2. Potential publishers. First I looked up the most promising potential publishers from my master list of books and their publishers from Step 1 above. I found two possibilities with actual websites and guidelines for authors. Both are smaller presses that might be interested in a Pilates title, but have none so far. I ran into several dead ends on the web as well. Dead ends, because the publishers were either too big to post submission guidelines on their websites, or they no longer seemed to exist. A few were swallowed up by big guys, and some others were just not findable on the internet.

Next, I went back to the bookstore and pulled the most recent Writer’s Market off the shelf and spent time cross-referencing the potential publishers I had left on my list. Yes, I did that at the bookstore. I bought an overpriced latte so I didn’t feel too guilty about it. I must say, the market for writers has changed since I last looked in “The Most Trusted Guide to Getting Published” ten years ago. I learned a lot flipping through it.

What I learned: 2011 Writer’s Market features a chart of seven publishers that are masters of the domains of dozens of others they have merged into their own universes. It’s just a list of names really, so you don’t get specifics in Writer’s Market about submitting to, say, Random House or any of its 70+ imprints. I learned a few trainers-to-the-stars had books published by bigger houses. How did they do that? I’ll guess: an agent. That, and/or a reputation with a recognizable celebrity or sports name as a testimonial. I looked up several of the smaller publishers I had searched for on the internet, and found most of them not to be present in Writer’s Market, either.

My takeaways: I was left with the couple of maybes I found online and in Writer’s Market, and a protruding pout. Back to the drawing board to figure how I can get hooked up with my “Pilates equivalent of a university press or a niche-merchandising brand.”

Your takeaways: You can pout, but you have to keep trying till you’ve exhausted your avenues. (The latte does help.) A few months ago, I thought that non-fiction book writing seemed like “fun!” but I’m here to tell you it feels a lot more like “work!” at this stage. Keep your trusted notebook of possibilities at hand. There’s more to do.

2.5. More Potential Publishers. Since I only found three promising potential publishers, instead of the eight that was my goal, I decided to travel a little farther down the professional trade road. I began with a couple of magazines and online publications I myself read and refer to. PilatesStyle magazine has a readership that overlaps my book’s market—niche consumer along with a lot of instructors, as it is the only Pilates-specific magazine out there. I found some articles on the path to teaching, and featuring other teachers. Nothing much new as far as book publishing goes, though. Next I went to IDEA, the world’s largest association of fitness professionals, of which I am a member. Their collection of articles on mind-body fitness pursuits is hard to beat. I search through the giant Inner IDEA website for anything related to my book proposal, and guess what comes up? An article: “The Art of Cuing” by Rael Ishowitz. He’s pretty famous in the modern Pilates world.

What I learned: It’s a lovely article. No, it doesn’t do what I say my book is going to do, exactly. Phew. Instead, it’s a more general article on why cuing is important and it discusses how one can improve one’s instruction with attention to the art of cuing. So yeah, there’s some overlap for sure. But not a lot of specifics. (This is all me talking to myself after reading the article.) My book has specifics. As my USP says, it’s a handbook. For people to refer to when trying to develop better cues for exercises, or to get ideas on new ways to help people visualize exercises—

—Uh-ohhh. A revelation. I think I know why there’s a hole and it hasn’t been filled with a book. It’s not the market, and it’s not the audience, and it’s not even the subject—it’s the function of the book. The function of the book (I repeat to myself, nodding for emphasis) in relation to the subject and the audience. How will this book be used, and when? I can answer that question myself (I am my audience, after all) in two words. It won’t. Instructors will take an illustrated guide to pre-natal exercises off their shelf and use them to plan such classes ahead of time. They will take down their anatomy book to look up a muscle group that is giving someone trouble. They will read their study guides before testing or retesting and they will read Joe Pilates’ book to understand the historical context of the method.

They won’t pull out a little book that lists several effective and creative ways to talk about the shoulders while teaching The Rollup. They can’t refer to this book during class and they won’t think of consulting something like that in between classes when they’re researching anatomy or prenatal exercises. It’s a reference book that can’t be referenced when you need it. They won’t be going about their business thinking “If only I could think of something different than ‘string of pearls’ when cuing the spine.” They won’t.

My takeaways: I’m okay, I’m okay. Even though I’ve come this far only to realize I cannot propose my book because I, as my own audience, know that I won’t read my book of lists of ways to cue the body in Pilates classes. I will however go to a workshop or seminar and have an engaging expert speak to me on the topic for an hour or so… and I will read an article or a series of articles on this topic to spark some ideas and give me a few new cues to try out. I will even save the article or series of articles and use it to help inspire other teachers who I might be training… but (wah!) I won’t read my own book. Time to outline my workshop idea. Time to research magazines and online sources that will publish my article (IDEA and PilatesStyle come to mind!).

Your takeaways: When developing your non-fiction book idea, aside from considering your expertise as the author, the market for your topic, your audience’s needs, trends in publishing for your genre, the potential for selling this book, and your USP, also consider the function of your book. How and when will this book be used in the format you’re suggesting? An encyclopedia of tea leaves is one thing, but The Tourist’s Pictorial Guide to Selecting Teas at any Market in Asia better be a slim little thing—like maybe a brochure that an Asian tea company gives away.

Afterward: I still want to write a non-fiction book—a book that sells. I’ve got a new idea, the best one yet (I think), and I’m applying everything I’ve learned so far to develop it through to the official proposal period. So, there just might be a Part III on this topic, if all goes well and I find that “special someone” (a publisher willing to commit).

Final Poll Results

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