Vision: A Resource for Writers
Lazette Gifford, Editor

Selling Non-Fiction

Bob Billing
2003, Bob Billing

n November 2002, I was browsing the web looking for computer books. I realised that one of the major UK publishers -- in business for over fifty years, and famous for a line of self-instruction texts -- didn't have one on the Linux operating system.

Linux, for those not familiar with it, is the brainchild of the brilliant Finnish programmer, Linus Torvalds. It is an alternative operating system for not only on PCs, but also servers, Macintosh, and other top-end machines such as the Alpha. It has its own desktop environment, and is very easy to use once you have it set up and spectacularly reliable. I've been using it for about six years now and it's never failed on me.

I spent a few hours cruising around the web, first to convince myself that the book didn't exist, and then to learn more about the publisher. I finally tracked down the editor of the series and wrote a long e-mail detailing my experience with Linux and what I'd already written, and describing the sort of book I thought would fill the gap in their list.

Then I hit SEND.

Well, I thought, that was a waste of an afternoon. I've been sending proposals, even completed manuscripts, to publishers for sixteen years now and collected enough rejection letters to wallpaper the bathroom.

Five and a half minutes later I had a reply to the e-mail. The editor wanted to see a proper proposal.

Some jubilant gibbering later I sat down to put the submission package together. I'd been asked to provide a sample chapter, synopsis and my curriculum vitea. The CV -- a brief biographical resume of career and training -- was easy.  As a software contractor I keep it permanently on file.

Putting together the synopsis wasn't that difficult. I wandered around for a few days with a notepad, adding topics that I thought the reader had to know, crossing off ones that were too advanced, and shuffling the order around.  I suffered agonies of indecision until everything clicked into place and I had twelve chapter headings, broken down into apparently endless sub-sections.

Then came the sample chapter. I know what textbooks ought to sound like: "...this result, which is a lemma, of MacWombat's theorem is left as an exercise for the reader."

However, that didn't seem to sit with the publisher's upbeat "You can do anything if you try" approach to self-instruction. I had to break down the barrier of respectable academia, drop the stuffy, passive voice and language and simply chat to the reader. This was the beginning of wisdom for me: the realisation that the way I would teach Linux to someone sitting next to me was the way to write the book.

There is, of course, always the proverbial insect in the unguent, the pinch of sand in the sugar bowl. The first thing a new user has to do with Linux - and therefore logically the subject of the first chapter - is install it. And installation is one of the trickiest things about Linux.

I managed it. The text went through a string of rewrites before I was happy, but in the end I got there. Not by trying to make it sound easy, but by being honest about the problems, and describing what can go wrong and how to recover from each difficulty.

I parcelled it up and sent it off, and then went away for Christmas.

Nothing happened.

I left it alone - editors don't like to be chased - for a week or two. Then very timidly I enquired if it had arrived.

It had, the editor liked it, and she was going to put it to the committee.

I waited.

An e-mail arrived. "That's it," I muttered, "the rejection." Bear in mind they every book-length submission for sixteen years had ended in a rejection.

It was the acceptance.

I screamed.

Then I e-mailed everyone who had been involved, and ran around in a state of limited-sanity euphoria for the rest of the day.

The contract turned up in the post a few mornings later. I hadn't used an agent and my normally tame lawyer confessed to not knowing a lot about publishing.

The Society of Authors in London has a scheme for the newly-published. It lets a first-timer join as soon as he has an offer, and use their contract vetting service on the first contract. I sent off my cheque for 80 and a photocopy of the contract. They then lost the contract, found it again, apologised for the delay and sent me a three-page fax of things to query. I edited these into an e-mail and sent it off. To my enormous surprise the publisher agreed to almost every point, and at once sent out an amended contract.

I signed it and sent it back, and by return another envelope arrived - with a cheque for the first half of the advance.

Suddenly it all became very real. I'm a proper writer. I get paid.

That was just over two months ago, and I have four more months before the deadline. The book is taking shape - I'm over half way with the first draft - and it's well on schedule.

The non-fiction market is out there. If there's any subject that you care enough about to have studied it in depth, and if you can master the mechanics of getting what you know down on paper, you stand a good chance of making a sale.

If you want to try, I would like to offer three tips to help you.

1.    Be PRECISE. Make everything as accurate as is humanly possible. Check your references, and try out your instructions exactly as you have written them. Don't trust your memory when you can look things up.

2.    Be PROMPT. Do what you say you will by the time you agreed to do it. Reply quickly to e-mails, and get the proposal in a few days before the agreed date.

3.    Be PROFESSIONAL. Get names right, send things to the correct address, format your manuscript properly - there are plenty of articles to tell you how. Avoid gimmicks, say what you mean in the covering letter and above all stick to the point.


Finally, I'd like to offer a few words about writing to a deadline. It's easy to think you can work all day and night, seven days a week, on a project that interests you. Your body will not agree. It will come up with all sorts of reasons why you should be in another profession, in another country or in hospital. Pace yourself. Take at least one clear day a week off. Get out occasionally, ride a horse or shampoo the cat. Don't agonise about a wasted day when the bank makes a total flamingo of a simple transaction, and you spend six hours listening to their hold music. These things even out as long as you keep up a steady, sensible rate of work.

And above all enjoy doing it.