A good idea isn’t enough, it has to be marketable. Unless you are writing for pleasure, an idea must appeal to people who will pay you. This applies to magazine articles as well as books. Here’s a list of rejected book proposals I’ve made to different publishers in the last three years:
A book on current Nevada agriculture. Although Nevada is best known for mining, agriculture plays a vital role in my state. I think its fascinating how agriculture goes on in the driest state in the nation. But it seems no one else is interested, even the Nevada Farm Bureau, who rejected sponsoring the title. For a university press, I offered to expand the work’s range, to include agriculture across the Great Basin, but even this idea was turned down. I learned a great deal in writing the proposal, however, and I made a website for pitching the project that I still like: http://NevadaAg.com
A Nevada almanac. I love almanacs and Nevada has nothing current. I thought this an opportunity, publishers did not. Not enough people in the state to market to and almanacs were expensive to publish. I was also told they have been replaced by the internet, something I disagree with. Alas. I wrote more on this in a previous post (internal link).
A book on monuments across a state, possibly a series of books covering entire regions or perhaps the entire country. Historical monuments and commemorative plaques dot the landscape, noting everything from an Indian war site to a Revolutionary War battlefield to a civil engineering wonder like the Hoover Dam. My book, probably books, would have shown every publicly accessible monument, given its location, and provided a map. A title to have on a road trip or to enjoy just armchair traveling. I approached the largest publisher of regional histories in the country. They were interested at first, requested a sample chapter, then declined to do further business with me.
A Stanton Delaplane reader. (internal link) Another no-go. A beloved and now almost forgotten columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle was Stanton Delaplane. My book would have reprinted the best of his daily columns covering a span of over fifty years. One publisher said the title might have a limited market in the San Francisco Bay area and wished me luck.
Rock, gem, and mineral titles books. I’ve floated numerous ideas. One was rejected by two publishers, both of whom really liked my writing but could not find a way to market what I envisioned. It did not fit in with their existing catalogs. Perhaps the publishing house I am now dealing with will find a way to sell my current proposal and I can be on my way with a book contract.
You’ll note that I didn’t try to keep selling one idea, instead, I kept coming up with different ideas. One approach might be to continue to push ahead with one proposal to many, many different publishers. But you run out of publishers quickly when you are selling a regional interest title like the ones I have been proposing. Perhaps that’s the lesson: propose something with wide area appeal.
What about self-publishing? I’m not enamored with the idea. From what I read, most self-publishers do more marketing and self-promotion than writing. With a publisher you have help in the selling and distributing department. And if a publisher won’t back my work, then I figure I won’t be successful on my own. This again gets back to why you are writing. Self-publish if writing is your art and you can’t find a backer. Find a publisher if you want to be a part of the wide, wide world of book writing and authorship.
I can see an exception and I once did this for the magazine I used to produce, private line. For several issues of private line I produced the magazine myself. I had a copy shop run off its pages and then I collated and stapled the issues together. Later, as the magazine got more successful, I had a printer do the work. The bankruptcy of my chief distributor, robbing me of thousands of dollars, throwing me into debt, was the chief reason my little magazine died. But that’s another story. Back to self-producing.
I wrote for telecom hobbyists and telephone hackers, an obscure niche if there ever was one. Computer hackers also enjoyed my magazine, and I was always treated well by them, even at Def Con II and III in the mid-1990’s. What my readers were interested in was content. If I produced the magazine on toilet paper, well, people would have probably read it. My readers were ardent and tolerant. You may succeed, therefore, if you are in a speciality field that has a devoted base, even if your profits are small. For a magazine, your chief obstacle to financial success will be finding advertisers. And there is a way to self-produce short books.
Write with self-publishing in mind. If you take an 8 1/2″ by 11″ piece of paper and fold it in half, you have the basis for a book. Add a cardstock cover, staple all of your pages in the middle and voila!, you have a book. Any writing software can format a book like this. And any copy shop can print from the resulting .pdf file. This method will work up to twenty sheets of paper, giving you fifty pages or so in total. Use at least 24 pound paper on the inside if not 28.
Jim Straight is the smartest metal detectorist alive. He’s prospected all his life and his writing shows it. For decades he’s produced his own books, often mailed out of his home, sometimes one at a time, and all done on in that 8 1/2″ by 11″ format. He’s sold thousands and thousands of copies this way, in multiple printings. Photographs and layout are somewhat basic but he effectively conveys his ideas. He’s an expert, people will seek him out on his terms. A printer produces his copies but, again, you can make up your own work at a copy shop if you are simply testing the waters.