Book Review: Thinking Like Your Editor

Book Cover: Thinking Like Your Editor
Thinking Like Your Editor:
How to Write Great Serious Nonfiction—and Get It Published

Susan Rabiner & Alfred Fortunato
W. W. Norton & Company, 2002
Paperback, 288 pp.
ISBN-13: 978-0393324617
List Price: US $15.95

I’ve read many (very good) books about how to write a non-fiction book proposal. While Thinking Like Your Editor includes a substantial section on your “submission package” and concludes with a sample of a successful proposal, the best parts of this book are the subjects not covered in similar books.

Of course, the authors should know all about the importance of including something in your book that your competitors don’t have: they’re literary agents. Before she was an agent, Susan Rabiner was an editor, first with a university press, then with HarperCollins. She provides a lot of inside info not just on how editors interact with authors, but on how they deal with booksellers. (Getting a new book onto a prominent display of new titles requires the payment of “co-op money.”)

There are too many important points made in this book to list here, but one that I can’t remember seeing put into so many words is “Every work of serious nonfiction (Rabiner and I disagree on the need for a hyphen in that word) begins with a question the author has about the topic and ends with an answer the author wants to provide.”

This is something I need to ask my clients, many of whom have a topic but aren’t yet sure which book on that topic they’re going to write: “What is the question driving your book?” The answer to that question could result in several different books on the same topic—books that might compete with one another, but which might all find publishers, nevertheless.

In fact, I might even start asking that question of my blog and podcast clients. It has that “If it was a snake, it woulda bit me” sense of obvious rightness to it.

In addition to such tips as how to leave a good voice mail message for an agent, the book addresses the specific issues of writing serious non-fiction, methodically laying out many things that lurk in the realm of intuition for those who have read widely in this genre. There are lots of good tips for recovering academics, things I had to learn by doing when I made the transition from jargon-laden academic writing to punchier, to-the-point business writing and copywriting.

The one problem I have with this book is that it doesn’t define “serious non-fiction.” For instance, given that Wiley, the largest publisher of business books, isn’t listed among the trade publishers of serious non-fiction on page 130, you might think this category of book doesn’t include business books, yet there are business books chosen as examples elsewhere.

I would recommend that if you’re in doubt as to whether publishers (who themselves seem to have a different definition from this book’s authors) would consider your book “serious non-fiction,” you should read the book anyway. You can check it out of the library, as I did when Hilary Powers recommended it on the Editors Guild list, or you can buy yourself a copy to keep around as a reference, which I expect to do soon. But make a point of reading it, either way.

Marketing Sherpa Wants You to Know about Ghostwriters

Today is the last day to get a free copy of Marketing Sherpa’s 80-page report (regular price US$127) How to Get Your Business Book Published. If it’s still November 27, 2007 as you read this, go download your copy of the report right now and don’t wait to finish reading this post. If it’s too late and you want to know whether to pony up the $127, read on.

The report starts with an examination of what writing a business book is good for your career and covers everything from agents, publishers, contracts, and marketing to—yes—working with a ghostwriter. It concludes with four sample book proposals from successfully published books.

Examples like this are always worth having, because every author, even those who self-publish, should have a proposal. These are recent examples, so they give you a good idea of what you need to know and do to make your book succeed in today’s saturated publishing world. The report also provides contact information for business book agents (rarer and harder to find than agents for fiction) and publishers.

Marketing Sherpa’s recommendations and warnings are consistent with those in RainToday’s 2006 Business Book Publishing Reports (well worth reading, if you haven’t seen them yet). There’s plenty of fresh, original material here, though, and it’s presented in a very accessible way. Two of my favorite sections are those on agent turn-offs and myths about publishing.

And what does Marketing Sherpa think about hiring a ghostwriter? The best way to sum it up is probably “When it is good, it is very very good, but when it is bad, it is horrid.” And naturally I’m in full accord with their conclusion:

As in most things, you get what you pay for when it comes to hiring ghost writers. Professional, experienced writers charge more than, say, a graduate student majoring in writing—spend the money to go with the professional. You’ll save time and money in the long run—the better the work, the less rewriting and editing you’ll do. Expect to spend at least $5,000 (it could be much more) for a 250-page book.

While it may seem that the ghost does all the work while you get all the credit, that’s not the case. You’ll need to work closely with the ghost writer from the beginning to be certain that everything you want to say will be included. You will probably want to at least provide the writer with an outline, and will certainly want to spend some time giving the writer background on the subject. Then, once the copy is written, you need to make sure everything is exactly the way you want. You must copyedit, fact-check, and revise—or have the ghost revise—until the book is perfect. Remember, it’s your name on the book.

I couldn’t have said it better myself.

Reading the Dictionary

Charles Hodgson, host of Podictionary, the podcast for word lovers, e-mailed me a few weeks ago to ask whether I’d like a copy of his Navel Gazer’s Dictionary of Anatomy, Etymology, and Trivia. (That’s the subtitle; the main title is Carnal Knowledge. And while I’m on the subject of titles, I love the fact that HTML distinguishes between book titles and other things you italicize, by using the <cite> tag. Of course, some style sheets render <cite> and <em> using something other than italics. But I digress.)

Of course I said yes. As a writer and a student of languages, sitting down to read a dictionary is just the kind of thing I like to do. Though I no longer read Greek and Latin for a living, I remain a philologist in the root sense of the word.

Podictionary provides “the surprising histories of words you thought you knew.” Carnal Knowledge provides words both familiar and unfamiliar, from polysyllabic medical terminology to the crudest of slang. It includes one word invented by the author: “eyedema”, meaning the bags under your eyes (from “edema”, which means “swelling”).

Hodgson even discusses the lines read by palmists, though there’s an error in the entry for “head line”: the word “linen” comes not from “line” but from Greek linos, which means “flax”. Which makes you wonder a bit about the Linos who was the son of Apollo, but that’s another story. This caught my eye because I was reading the lambda section in my Greek dictionary the other day, and I verified the etymology of “linen” at, because I’m such a natural-born pedant that I can’t keep from doing things like that.

My biggest laugh so far has been the emoticons based on the word “ass.” Somehow, despite being online since 1985, I had never encountered these.

Carnal Knowledge is a highly entertaining and informative book. For a dictionary, it’s a surprisingly quick read. Amazon says it will be available as of August 7th, but you can pre-order it now. If you want to bone up on your anatomy, pick up a copy and start thumbing through it.

Carnal Knowledge: A Navel Gazer’s Dictionary of Anatomy, Etymology, and Trivia. St Martin’s Press, New York, 2007.

Don’t Write for the Royalties

Inspired by’s Business Book Publishing reports.

It should come as no surprise that the more books an author sells, the better the effect on her business, but consultants who are considering writing their first book may not realize how little book sales actually contribute to a business author’s income. interviewed 200 business book authors to find out whether writing a book was worth the time, effort, and expense involved. The introduction to The Business Impact of Writing a Book describes becoming an author in decidedly unromantic terms:

What conventional wisdom fails to tell you is that the act of writing a book is an enormous investment in blood, sweat, and all too often, tears. Writing and publishing a book is a time-intensive, laborious process that begins well before the actual writing of the book, and continues through the long editing, publishing, and book marketing process. Aspiring authors may have to deal with finding agents, marketers, publishers, negotiating contracts, and, ultimately, the marketing and publicity of the book—all while keeping up with their everyday business activities. (p. 6)

Nevertheless, 96% of the consultants who participated in the study, only a few of whom had written best-sellers, agreed that publishing a book had a positive impact on their business. But it wasn’t fat royalty checks they referred to when asked what publishing had done for them. In order of popularity, the benefits of publishing they cited were:

  1. Improve my brand
  2. Generate more speaking engagements
  3. Generate more clients
  4. Generate more leads
  5. Charge higher fees
  6. Generate more desirable client base
  7. Close more deals

Marketing, Marketing, Marketing

A book is a marketing tool for an author. More book sales result in more awareness of and credibility for the author. You have to market the book before the book can market you. The correlation between the number of books sold and the author’s business success was so high that the researchers concluded that marketing the book was the most important part of the entire process.

Part of the reason the author needs to focus on marketing is that publishers have less money and fewer personnel to devote to marketing books than they used to. As a result, even authors who sign with major publishers need to do most of their own marketing. Authors who self-publish need to do all of their own marketing. In general, those authors who put more into marketing got more out of it, and those who hired professionals to help them sold significantly more books than those who did not.

Indirect Revenue

Among the authors surveyed, direct revenue from publishing topped out at about $100,000—still quite a tidy sum and considerably more than most business book authors will ever earn in royalties. Indirect revenues were double the direct revenues in the 25th percentile, triple in the 50th percentile, and quintuple in the 75th percentile (p. 42).

According to Chip Bell, author of Managing Knock Your Socks Off Service, “If you work at it, you can probably make about ten times as much revenue from sources generated through your book than from the royalties themselves” (p. 43). Given that most traditionally published authors make about $1 per book in royalties, it’s easy to see why a book’s greatest value may be as a glorified business card or brochure.

Even authors who sell fewer than a thousand copies of their first book are still in a good position to raise their rates. But the more books you sell, the more you can charge for speaking and consulting. If your book actually makes it onto the best-seller list, you become a hot commodity. (And, conversely, if you’re already a celebrity, your book has a much better chance of becoming a best-seller.)

Most business books sell about 5,000 copies, which means about $5,000 in royalties. In most cases, it will cost the author far more than $5,000 to write, publish, and market the book, even if her only investment is time. To ensure your book is profitable, you need to take a look at the other ways it can increase your income.

How many new clients would you need at your current rates to make your book pay off? How much would you have to be able to raise your rates? How many speaking engagements would it take to balance out the costs involved? What can you up sell most easily? Can you convert the book into a series of spin-off products and capitalize on what you’ve already invested?

Publishing a book is by no means a get-rich-quick scheme. Becoming an author is hard work, even for those who like to write—or those who hire a ghostwriter. But it pays off in many ways over time.

© Sallie Goetsch 2006