According to Bowker’s, roughly 85% of all titles published are nonfiction. That’s good news for you nonfiction writers, because it means there’s a greater chance of you finding a home for your book.
For many of you, research will be an important part of your project. Balancing the amount of time and money you’re investing in creating the book proposal, before you have the guarantee of an advance, can be tricky. Here’s a little advice to guide you.
How much research must I complete before seeking representation?
If no one expects you to have your book fully written, it follows they also don’t expect you to have completed the research you’ll need to write it—at least, not yet. Your first consideration is whether there’s any information on which your entire concept depends, or if you expect any problems arising from an inability to get particular bits of data. Make sure you get that stuff done well before pitching anyone to make sure you have a book worth pitching!
Besides the table of contents and chapter summaries—for which you’ll want at least a basic idea of what you’re going to investigate—you’ll need to thoroughly research the topics of your sample chapters. It’s also important to do enough research to talk intelligently about your book, how it fits in the marketplace, and who you think the target audience is.
Basically, if you have enough information to make a convincing argument for why anyone should publish your book, you’re good. The goal is to make potential agents/publishers feel confident that you have a clear idea what you’re writing, even if you don’t have all the minute details researched yet.
How long can I ask for to research and write the rest?
Nine months to one year is a typical delivery schedule, but that doesn’t mean you can’t ask for more time if you need it.
The first issue is the timeliness of your book’s subject: Is it an evergreen subject or is it connected to some recent news event or cultural shift? Is there an upcoming newsworthy event like an anniversary that a publisher might want to use as a pub date to get more exposure for your book? Will readers still care about your subject three years from now? (Remember, it typically takes a year from manuscript to shelves, so you’ve got to factor that in on top of whatever time you need to research and write the thing.) These are things a publisher will consider regarding your delivery dates.
If your topic is interesting and marketable enough, and there are no timeliness issues, a couple of years isn’t an unreasonable request. Expect a deal structured around partial deliveries—so you may get a piece of your advance each time you deliver a certain number of pages, or chunks of notes, etc. Also keep in mind that you can continue to research while you’re looking for an agent, and likewise while your agent is submitting to editors; both aspects of the submission process can take months to years. So you will likely have a lot more research done between creating the book proposal and getting an offer anyway.
How can I avoid spending money on research before I have a deal?
The short answer is, you can’t. The tips in this article will help you limit your pre-contract investment, but at the end of the day that’s what research-related costs are: an investment in your business venture.
Consider self-publishing if you aren’t able to find an agent and/or publisher. Why let all that hard work (and money) go to waste? New technology and cultural shifts are making it easier than ever to get your work out to its intended audience. Writers are using resources like Kickstarter, a website that lets you raise funds for a work in progress (you could use this to fund research for your book proposal, too). Some writers release one chapter at a time and use paid subscriptions to fund further work. [Check out this neat article on “crowdfunding” for more ideas.]
However you intend to do it, be smart with where you spend limited funds, but don’t be cheap. After all, if you skimp on what’s necessary to write a compelling book proposal, you won’t have what it takes to get a publishing contract. Short-changing a great project in that way would be the real waste.
Founder of The Writer’s Ally, Ally E. Machate is a bestselling book collaborator, award-winning editor, and expert publishing consultant who loves using her insider knowledge and experience with the publishing industry to lead serious authors toward success. She and her team live to help make great books happen, whether that means showing a writer how to improve a manuscript, get an agent, or self-publish; or coaching an author on growing her platform to sell more books. Since 1999, she has supported hundreds of authors on their publishing journey and takes pride in serving as their books’ best ally.