Welcome to the World of Trade Publishing

Philip Freeman, May 2007

LogoMost of us in academics spent our graduate school years buried deep in the bowels of some giant research library writing a dissertation no one will ever read. Is it any wonder that we sometimes fantasize about seeing our names on the New York Times best-seller list or dream of national television appearances? ("Why yes, Oprah, Foucault has been a major influence in my work.") If you've ever considered writing a history book for a non-specialist audience, the good news is that you might be able to get it published, but the process will probably be very different from what you imagine. I've never written a best-seller and I doubt I ever will, but a few years ago I had an idea for a historical biography of St. Patrick that launched me into the weird and wonderful world of trade publishing. I'd like to share a few tips I learned along the way.

1. Pick a suitable topic

I know you are passionate about your research on gender roles in the Xin dynasty or Bolivian diplomatic history, but the painful truth is that most people don't care about such topics. You have to pick a subject that will appeal to a wide enough audience to make money for a publisher. This doesn't mean you have to sell out or dumb down your work, just that you have to chose a topic with broad popular appeal. You need to understand that major publishers do value the expertise and credibility that professors bring to a book, but only if you can write for the general public. If you're a specialist in the history of pandemics, consider what you could say about the Avian Flu. If your field is early American history, see if anyone has written a recent biography of John Quincy Adams.

2. Make you proposal shine

For a non-fiction work, you don't need to have the whole book completed to sign with a publisher. You will, however, need a detailed proposal and at least one sample chapter. In the proposal you'll have to explain why your book is unlike any other in print, what kind of audience you're aiming at, and why it is likely to sell. Avoid academic jargon like the plague. The publisher will also want to know how long you'll need to complete the book. Be realistic, but two or three years is normal.

3. Find a good agent

Major publishers are not likely to even read your proposal for a book unless it is presented to them by a professional literary agent. How do you find such a person? Look at one of the many guides for budding authors in your local bookstore or on similar web sites. They will usually have a list of established agents with the sort of books each handles. If an agent specializes in romantic fiction, don't send them a history proposal. Carefully follow the instructions of each agent and include a stamped, self-addressed envelope if they request it. Expect to send your proposal to dozens of agents before you hear any good news. It took me 58 letters.

4. You won't get rich

Let's say after sending out the proposal you finally get that magic letter from an agent who is willing to represent your book. Don't start planning any tropical cruises yet. Chances are your agent will bounce the proposal off several publishers, one or all of which will turn you down. If you get lucky, your agent will call one afternoon with an offer from the publisher of a few thousand dollars, maybe as high as the low five figures. Enormous advances are for John Grisham and Bill Clinton, not for first-time academics. But say they offer you $20,000—the trick is you don't get it all and you don't get it immediately. A standard 15 percent goes to your agent, then the rest is parceled out over a few years as you sign your contract, turn in your completed draft, and publish the final version. After you get done paying taxes, you might get to actually take home a few thousand a year over three years for all your hard work. Nothing to sneeze at for a poor professor, but not exactly instant riches.

5. Remember your audience

This is the most important rule for trade publishing and the hardest one for academics to follow. We work in a profession where specialized vocabularies, copious footnotes, and hair-splitting arguments are prized. But a retired insurance salesperson from Sacramento doesn't care about any of that. Your readers will simply want a good story told accurately and well. If you are in doubt, find a few nonacademic friends and run your manuscript past them. Your editor will also let you know if you stray too far from the path of clarity, so please trust his or her judgment.

6. Your colleagues may not understand

The Greek poet Callimachus said, "I abhor all public things"—and some of your fellow academics will feel the same way. Think very carefully before you spend your precious time writing a book for the general public, especially if you lack tenure. Enlightened professors will see such writing as an extension of teaching and an important means of outreach, but some colleagues may not.

7. Why hasn't Terry Gross called?

After a few years of writing your book in between grading term papers and serving on college committees, you will finally turn in your completed manuscript to the publisher. Your editor will revise it—thank goodness—and call in a professional indexer (for whom you pay out of your advance). Then at last it will go to press. Your editor will have the publisher's publicity department contact you, but don't expect to see your face on the cover of Newsweek. Publishers reserve their advertising budgets almost exclusively for big-name, proven authors. They will send free copies of your book to media outlets around the country in hope that some will write a review. Chances are a few will like your book and write about it in their Sunday book section. You might get on a local radio program or even NPR, but don't count on it. Unless your book is a potential sensation, you are unlikely to make it into the major media. But be grateful for every newspaper in rural Iowa that publishes a review of your book. When it's all over, then you can start to think about your next book. Welcome to the world of trade publishing.

—Philip Freeman is chair of the Classics Department at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa. His books St. Patrick of Ireland and The Philosopher and the Druids are published by Simon & Schuster.