How to land a book contract


If you’re a fed who has a book inside you, you’re in good company. Since I published my own book, “How to Land a Top-Paying Federal Job,” many feds have asked me how they can get their books published. My advice:

*Get motivated. You will probably spend several years pursuing a book contract and then writing and promoting your book. You will be able to maintain your fire in the belly through this protracted, time-consuming process only if you’re inspired by solid intellectual reasons for writing a book. Such reasons may, for example, include your desire to educate a large audience about your topic, establish yourself as an expert in your field, or preserve a body of information.

Your reasons for writing a book should not be based on fantasies of earning big bucks. Unfortunately, most books — even informative, well-written and well-reviewed ones — are not money makers. According to my agent, only about 10 percent of authors earn back their advances, which are usually under $10,000 for first-time authors.

*Choose a publishing strategy. If you self-publish, you will earn significantly more money per book than you would earn via a traditional publisher. In addition, the stigma of self-publishing is fading. Nevertheless, self-published books are less likely to be reviewed, carried by bookstores and generally taken as seriously as traditionally published books. What’s more, if you self-publish, you will have to manage the layout, editing and distribution of your book yourself.

*Write a book proposal. This document should be designed to convince an agent to represent you and then convince a publisher to offer you a contract. It should include: an overview of your book; descriptions of competing books and an explanation of why yours will sell better; a table of contents; a sample chapter; a description of your target audience; a description of your credentials; and a marketing plan that describes the venues you will access to promote your book. These promotions include speaking gigs at conferences, media appearances, and publications, newsletters and Web sites that are likely to review your book or publish articles featuring your advice.

Your marketing plan may be your proposal’s most important component because publishers are primarily concerned with a potential book’s sales. Nevertheless, most publishers devote most of their marketing muscle to only a few big-name books. Their other books receive only a brief, half-hearted pulse of marketing attention immediately after they are published. Therefore, one of the best ways to impress publishers is by presenting them with a marketing plan that proves you’re willing and able to aggressively promote your book yourself. Sparing no expense, many authors even hire their own publicists.

Also keep in mind that in addition to helping you land an agent and publisher, your marketing plan may also influence your book’s content. Once you identify your book’s target audiences and describe promotional activities to reach them, you may want to tailor some of your content to better appeal to them.

For more advice on book proposals, find books on the topic by searching on book proposals.

*Get a literary agent. An agent can help you identify publishers that cover your topic and leverage his personal relationships with publishers to ensure your proposal is read rather than blindly discarded because you’re an unknown quantity. The agent can help you identify the best publishing offer if you receive multiple offers; negotiate your book contract, and thereby increase your percentage of royalties and improve its terms in other ways; and troubleshoot problems that may arise with your publisher after you sign your contract.

Find agents who may represent you by using your networking connections, conducting Google searches on literary agents, or consulting books on the topic.

*Review book contracts. Carefully read any contracts that you consider signing, and ask your agent to negotiate terms you consider questionable or disagreeable.

Lily Whiteman is a public affairs officer at the National Science Foundation and author of “How to Land a Top-Paying Federal Job.’’ Her Web site is The views expressed in this column do not necessarily represent the views of the National Science Foundation.


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