Always beware free advice. It is worth what it costs!
That said, I get a fair number of notes from well respected, intelligent people who are embarking on their first non-fiction book project. They tend to ask very similar questions, so I thought I'd go ahead and put down my five big ideas in one place to make it easier for everyone.
I guarantee you that you won't agree with all of them, but, as they say, your mileage my vary.
1. Please understand that book publishing is an organized hobby, not a business.
The return on equity and return on time for authors and for publishers is horrendous. If you're doing it for the money, you're going to be disappointed.
On the other hand, a book gives you leverage to spread an idea and a brand far and wide. There's a worldview that's quite common that says that people who write books know what they are talking about and that a book confers some sort of authority.
2. The timeframe for the launch of books has gone from silly to unrealistic.
When the world moved more slowly, waiting more than a year for a book to come out was not great, but tolerable. Today, even though all other media has accelerated rapidly, books still take a year or more. You need to consider what the shelf life of your idea is.
3. There is no such thing as effective book promotion by a book publisher.
This isn't true, of course. Harry Potter gets promoted. So did Freakonomics. But out of the 75,000 titles published last year in the US alone, I figure 100 were effectively promoted by the publishers. This leaves a pretty big gap.
This gap is either unfilled, in which case the book fails, or it is filled by the author. Here's the thing: publishing a book is really nothing but a socially acceptable opportunity to promote yourself and your ideas far and wide and often.
If you don't promote it, no one will. If you don't have a better strategy than, "Let's get on Oprah" you should stop now. If you don't have an asset already–a permission base of thousands or tens of thousands of people, a popular blog, thousands of employees, a personal relationship with Willard Scott… then it's too late to start building that asset once you start working on a book.
By the way, blurbs don't sell books. Not really. You can get all the blurbs in the world for your book and it won't help if you haven't done everything else (quick aside: the guy who invented the word "blurb" also wrote the poem Purple Cow).
4. Books cost money and require the user to read them for the idea to spread.
Obvious, sure, but real problems. Real problems because the cost of a book introduces friction to your idea. It makes the idea spread much much more slowly than an online meme because in order for it to spread, someone has to buy it. Add to that the growing (and sad) fact that people hate to read. Too often, people have told me, with pride, that they read three chapters of my book. Just three.
5. Publishing is like venture capital, not like printing.
Printing your own book is very very easy and not particularly expensive. You can hire professional copyeditors and designers and end up with a book that looks just like one from Random House. That's easy stuff.
What Random House and others do is invest. They invest cash in an advance. They invest time in creating the book itself and selling it in and they invest more cash in printing books. Like all VCs, they want a big return.
If you need the advance to live on, then publishers serve an essential function. If, on the other hand, you're like most non-fiction authors and spreading the idea is worth more than the advance, you may not.
So, what's my best advice?
Build an asset. Large numbers of influential people who read your blog or read your emails or watch your TV show or love your restaurant or or or…
Then, put your idea into a format where it will spread fast. That could be an ebook (a free one) or a pamphlet (a cheap one–the Joy of Jello sold millions and millions of copies at a dollar or less).
Then, if your idea catches on, you can sell the souvenir edition. The book. The thing people keep on their shelf or lend out or get from the library. Books are wonderful (I own too many!) but they're not necessarily the best vessel for spreading your idea.
And the punchline, of course, is that if you do all these things, you won't need a publisher. And that's exactly when a publisher will want you! That's the sort of author publishers do the best with.
Here's the sequel.