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

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