Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The Book Process: part I

I did a blog post a little while back about some of the similarities I noticed between the quilting blog world and the knitting blog world. One thing I've seen on a lot of quilting blogs lately is a "Process Pledge." The Process Pledge is a vow to not just "show finishes or occasionally confess about our moments of indecision, but chat openly and often about our works in progress, our inspirations, and our moments of decision," to quote one blogger.

It got me thinking about blogging about the process of writing a knitting book, and since there's been some positive feedback from you, the readers, about me doing that, well, here goes. It's important to remember when you read this that these observations are based mainly on my personal experience, which is limited, and to a lesser extent on my conversations with others in the knitting/crochet industry. Others may have had different experiences. It's probably also worth noting that I don't have any background in the publishing industry. If anyone else wants to chime in by leaving a comment to give a different take on this, please feel free. So here goes.

Part 1: Selling your idea

Every book starts with an idea. It can be a topic that hasn't really been covered before in a book, or one that hasn't yet been covered adequately (I envisioned Knitting Socks with Handpainted Yarns because no one had written a book about that topic but so many knitters seemed to struggle with it). Maybe it starts with a sensibility or a very distinct knitting style -- Melanie Falick books do this beautifully. Often an author uses a theme to group projects around, like Kristen Rengren's Vintage Baby Knits, or gathers projects that all use a particular technique, say all fair-isle patterns.

One of the things that's exciting about a creative industry like knitting is seeing the fascinating ideas that people come up with. Stitch 'N Bitch is a great example. By combining her own sensibility (hip, urban chicks with sticks) with a learn-how-t0-knit book, Debbie Stoller came up with a franchise that hit exactly the right spot at the right time. Charmed Knits: Projects for Fans of Harry Potter was published in 2007, but is still selling strong, cleverly sensing the overlap between knitters and Harry Potter fans. There have been knitting books for roller derby fans, a book featuring knit bloggers, two books devoted to punk-themed knits, a book of vampire knits, and coming within the next year is a book of goth knits, knits for self-proclaimed nerds, and who knows what else. There have been books based on Barbara Walker's techniques, socks inspired by oriental rugs, knits in skinny yarns, knits in chunky yarns, and so on.

However, the world of publishing is littered with the carcasses of book ideas that never made it. Sometimes good ideas just don't make good books. Sometimes a trend doesn't have a long enough shelf life to make it through the book-writing process; books take at least a year and often two or more to write from beginning to publication date. If you pitched "Grunge Knits" in 1993, by the time the book came to press in 1995 or 1996, grunge might seem passe. Sometimes an idea is good, but it proves to be difficult to get the people at a publishing company (especially one that doesn't specialize in craft books) to realize it. Or maybe they recently published a book that seems too similar ("we just published a sock book last year'). And sometimes an idea is good, but sadly, it just doesn't make it in front of the right editor at the right time.

In any event, once you've got that idea ("Deep-Sea Knits: 25 Projects Inspired by Jacques Cousteau") you've got to somehow get it in front of a book editor -- specifically an acquisitions editor who has the cool job of reviewing proposals and ideas for books and deciding which ones to pursue.

It can be really hard to get an idea in front of an acquisitions editor (although I can see why -- you know that everybody from their son's softball coach to the bag boy at the supermarket is always trying to sell book ideas to them, so who can blame them for being kind of hard to approach?). If you can manage it, it helps to run an idea by an editor in an informal way to get their reaction before going to the trouble of putting together a proposal. Generally, they either wrinkle their nose and say "I don't think we'd be interested in that" (oh boy, have I seen that nose-wrinkle a million times) or they say "That sounds interesting; do you have a written proposal?"

If you get past the nose-wrinkling test, then you've got to come up with a professional-looking written book proposal. Every editor and publishing company has a slightly different style and format (check the publisher's website; often they have written guidelines to help you) but basically you spell out your idea, tell why you think it's worth writing a book about it, give some analysis of the market (i.e. who do you expect will want to buy it), and provide outlines, sample chapters, sample projects and so on. Putting a written proposal together is a lot of work. Having it look super-polished is well worth the extra time it takes. When I first started mucking around with the idea of writing books, I thought that the strength of the writing and the concept were more important than the packaging; now I think that the packaging of the concept is half the battle. If you think that spending a lot of time crafting a book proposal is too much work, then trust me: you don't really want to write a book.

When your proposal is ready to go, you send it to the acquisitions editor, and wait. And wait. And maybe wait some more.

It's hard to say how long it can take to get a firm answer on a proposal. Sometimes you get a pretty fast no. Sometimes you are contacted and asked more questions, or to provide more material or elaborate on your idea. You might be asked if you are open to a slight change of focus. Sometimes you don't hear for ages and you have no idea why.

If you're lucky, and the proposal ends up in front of the right person at the right time, you'll get a call or email telling you the editor wants to do the book, but first has to present the proposal to a committee of some sort. The committee members may include management and other corporate overlords, marketing people, publicity people, art people, who knows who else? If you're very lucky, and if the acquisitions editor has all the information (s)he needs, your proposal will sail through and you'll get approval. Yay! Hurry up and sign the contract before they change their minds!

If you're not so lucky, the editor will come back with more questions, which may be hard to answer (e.g. "We did a book on beach knits a few years ago; how will Deep-Sea Knitting be different?"). You'll provide more information and hope it goes through the committee next time. Alas, there are times where you and the editor like an idea, but for some strange reason, perhaps a reason that is never articulated fully to you, the committee says no. Could be budget; could be publishing trends; could be a zillion different things. If you really believe in the strength of your idea, take that proposal and send it out to another publisher.

The conventional wisdom says that a prospective author only submits a proposal to one publishing company at a time; after they give you an answer, you then approach another one; and so on. However, if you sign with a literary agent, the agent can submit the proposal to multiple publishers simultaneously. I don't know why it's somehow appropriate to do it one way if you're unrepresented, and another way if you have an agent.

By the end of this process, you will either have a book contract, or will have been turned down by every publisher of craft books known to humankind. You can either try self-publishing, start work on a new proposal, or decide to go in a different direction.

You can see how the process of getting a book contract tends to straddle the line between doing something new and interesting (which seems risky to publishers but has the possible upside of being very popular while being the only or first book to tackle that topic) and doing something tried-and-true (easier to sell because publishers can look at sales figures for similar books and feel more confident there's a market for the topic, but may feel derivative or repetitive). It also explains why a year and a half after "Deep Sea Knits" is published, you might see "Underwater Knits" and "Titanic: 20 Knitting Projects Insipred by the Greatest Shipwreck of All Time" and maybe even "SpongeBob Knits" for the kiddies.

Next in the series: beginning work on a book


syeds said...

Really wonderful piece of information and I appreciate it that you share

Unknown said...

I'm in the process of working up my book proposal and what I have found is that publishers of knitting books will take direct submissions, sans an agent, who's going to take a cut of what you get.

The knitting book market is flooded these days, which makes it even harder than ever to sell a book concept. Many people think that self-publishing is cheap and easy. NOT. Well, if you don't know how to market your book, how to design a book layout, how to set up your ISBN, and a few other tasks, you're in deep doodoo.

Carol said...

Publishers will take direct submissions -- absolutely. An agent does take a percentage of your royalties. You have to ask yourself whether it may be worth it to have access to essentially the Rolodex of the agent -- his or her contacts can get you at the top of an editor's list and taken more seriously than unvetted unsolicited proposals. An agent can also approach a publisher and say "I represent So-and-So and she would like to work with you, let's talk" and possibly produce a project. Like everything else, it's trade-offs.

Carol said...

That should say "percentage of your royalties AND advance."

Steph said...

It seems now a continuum is developing: from traditional publishers to indie or small publishers like Cooperative Press to extraordinary self published books (JC Briar, Sandra McIver & the other Visionary Retreat folks)...comments on pros & cons of this? Why you would consider one over the other?

Carol said...

Great question. I think I am going to do a separate post talking about alternatives to traditional publishers.