Vision: A Resource for Writers
Lazette Gifford, Editor

Nonfiction Idea to Publication

by Robert Billing
2004, Robert Billin

According to my research, the non-fiction market is, at the moment, in a remarkably healthy state. There are publishers actively seeking new authors for a diverse range of subjects, including cooking and gardening.  Spirituality, particularly New Age, and computer books also appear to be selling well.

The primary qualification for selling a non-fiction book is knowledge of the subject. But beyond that there are things you can do to endear yourself to a publisher and generate repeat sales.

I call these the three Ps. 

  • Prompt -- The author who is near godliness gets manuscripts, proposals and proofs back to the publisher a day or two early. 

  • Precise -- It's impossible to make no errors. But if you check five times and ask your friends to read the manuscript as well you should be able to keep them to an acceptably low level. 

  • Professional -- Do what you say you are going to do and don't sulk if the publisher doesn't see things your way.


The Steps

1)  The Idea

The idea needs to fit in with the publisher's list, supply something that the publisher does not have, and address a potential market. For example, if a publisher has books on learning French, German and Italian, a book on Spanish might sell. A book on Chinese might be seen as outside the range of the publisher's list, and one on Basque as only having a small market. 

2)  The Pitch

This is sent by e-mail or post, depending on the publisher's guidelines. Study the guidelines carefully and try to find the name of the commissioning editor. You can call the publisher and ask the switchboard for the name of the correct person. My pitch e-mail is an appendix to this article. 

3)  The Proposal

Usually this will be a chapter, or a few sample pages, and a synopsis, which for a non-fiction book is just a list of headings. The publishers may also want to see your credentials as evidence that you have sufficient experience to write the material as an expert. 

4)  Contract

If everything goes well you may be offered a contract at this stage. It is well worth getting an intellectual property expert to look it over if you do. If you don't use an agent -- I don't -- try approaching the Society of Authors. 

You may find that the publisher is amenable to small changes to the contract. Conclude negotiations as quickly as you can. Note that the contract will specify a deadline and you must be able to meet it. Don't agree to something you can't do. 

5)  The advance

Suddenly you are a real writer who gets paid. Don't go too wild at this point; remember you haven't actually written the rest of the book yet. 

6)  Research

You now discover that you don't in fact know as much as you thought you did about the subject. Don't worry, but remember that you will have to do more research. 

7)  Write

Set sensible goals and keep going steadily. Don't sit around doing nothing visible, and then try to write the book in the last three weeks. Including research, writing, revision, and testing together, an average of 10,000 words per month is reasonable. 

8)  Panic

You may have to shut yourself away for months to work on the book. After a while you might develop cabin fever, lose confidence in what you are doing and contemplate giving up. Take the afternoon off and go to the cinema, or treat yourself to some retail therapy. 

9)  Test

Try to find friends who are interested in the subject and get them to read what you are writing. Ideally, try to recruit a panel of beta readers who will read and comment on the completed manuscript. You need both beta readers who are experts and will nitpick and beta readers who know nothing and will get lost if what you wrote isn't clear.

Assume that about half your beta readers will fail to produce anything, and that a few will send you essays on why you have written the wrong book, rather than critiques. However, you will probably find a few gems, such as the lady who went through my manuscript ferreting out every misplaced comma for me. 

10)  Submit

Publishers will tell you -- probably in the contract -- what you are expected to send to them. They will definitely need a printed copy, possibly two, and you may be contracted to provide the manuscript in electronic form.

It's better not to use single-vendor standards such as .doc, .sxw or .wpd as they can behave in a capricious way when imported into another package.

Plain text or .rtf (Rich Text Format) will probably work at the first attempt.

Adobe .pdf (Portable Document Format) has one enormous advantage: a .pdf file generated on one computer will display or print absolutely identically on any other computer. Unfortunately, it is almost impossible to import a PDF into a typesetting program.

At this point the commissioning editor will hand you over to someone else who will do the detail editing. Expect to be asked for some changes at this stage, and budget the time to make them. 

11)  Copy Edit

The copy editor will now take over, and make adjustments to bring the format of your book in line with the publisher's house style. This is where double spacing and big margins come in -- copy editors have to be able to mark up the manuscript to give instructions to the typesetters. 

12)  Typeset

Mercifully this process is now electronic, and usually takes the text from your disk. However, computers aren't what they used to be, and a number of silly things can happen. For example, the typesetting software can try to convert the quote characters to "smart quotes," wrecking samples of computer programs if you've written a computer book. 

13)  Proof

In most cases, you will be presented with a thick wad of paper -- the book pages printed exactly as they will appear in the finished product. You now have a ridiculously short time -- probably no more than fourteen days -- to check the proofs very carefully and get them back to the publisher.

There are standard marks used to indicate the various kinds of corrections. The publisher will probably send you a crib sheet.

Note -- and this is important -- that the colour of ink you use for correction is significant. The typesetter will already have marked any errors he found in green. You must now use red to mark any typesetting errors that you find. If at this stage you find that you, rather than the typesetter, have made a mistake, you should mark it in blue. Publishers can, in theory (they don't always bother doing this), count up the coloured marks and use the totals to apportion the cost of correcting the typesetting.

If something is seriously wrong, ask to see the corrected version of the proofs, just in case the correction itself goes adrift.

You may also be asked to compile an index at this stage. If so -- you will know when you sign the contract -- it's worth using your word processor's index tool to do a first pass, and then manually adjusting the page numbers.

14)  Publish

That's it. Once you send the proofs back the publisher should send you the second part of the advance. Now you can begin planning the launch party and the shameless publicity. 


Appendix: Websites of computer publishers actively seeking new authors.

The original pitch e-mail:



Subject: Linux 

Dear Ms. XXXXXX,


I notice that you don't appear to have a "Teach Yourself Linux" among your titles. 

The growth of Linux in the last few years has been one of the major success stories of the software industry. Some publishers, such as O'Reilly, have brought out a great many titles related to this software. 

I think there still remains a gap in the market for a book which will explain Linux to the reader who is broadly familiar with desktop computers but is not a specialist.

 I am very well placed to be able to write this book if it would be of interest to you.

I originally learned to program from your "Teach Yourself Computer Programming" in the late 1960s. Since then I have bought and benefited from several of your titles. 

I have been using Linux for six years. 

I have written extensively, producing several technical articles on digital television, two novels (alas unpublished), and a great many short stories. 

I am currently running my own company, so there can be no disputes about assignment of intellectual property. 

I know some of the people responsible for the major distributions of Linux. 

I have been accepted by XXXXXX Ltd. to teach their embedded Linux course on an occasional basis. 

I was one of the speakers at the "Embed with Linux" seminar recently held in Reading. 

If you are interested I could put together a proper proposal and let you see it immediately after the new year, and then write the book in about six months.



Robert Billing