Writing non-fiction – is it text-book stuff?

Fancy trying your hand at a spot of non-fiction book writing? You have a corker of a subject in mind and can bash out a knock ’em dead synopsis. So what’s stopping you?

The trouble is for every Nick Davies, Jon Snow or Andrew Marr, there’s twice as many journalists turning out works for small presses whose sales, to put it politely, aren’t going to set the world alight.

These aren’t the esteemed writers whose works excite the chattering classes, but jobbing freelances whose aim is to help their career and hopefully earn a few quid along the way.

If you are considering writing a non-fiction book because you would like to make a fortune, then you need to reconsider.

Think what else having a book published can bring you. If you are building a specialism then having a book or two under your belt is a real boost. Then there’s the relative longevity of such a title – books may be cherished by readers far longer than a piece in a magazine, newspaper or website. So where to start?

Ghostwriter and author Andrew Crofts says it’s best to find an agent: ‘It is better to have an agent unless you already have a contact inside a publisher’s office who you feel you can go to.

‘Agents help you shape the sales pitch, know which publishers are in the market for what, and can nearly always get the price up higher.”

Yet, in an increasingly competitive market,

persuading an agent to take you on is easier said than done and you may be better off approaching publishers directly. Former Rough Guide editor Fran Sandham, clinched a deal for his travelogue Traversa by the tried-and-tested method of writing to publishers listed in the Writer’s Handbook.

He adds: ‘Don’t be afraid to ask for changes in your contract. Don’t take the publisher’s word that it’s a standard contract. Every contract is negotiable – although not necessarily every part of it.

‘If the publisher simply won’t change something, you’ve lost nothing by asking. If they insist they won’t deviate from unacceptable terms and the Society of Authors agree it’s unreasonable, don’t sign it.”

When it comes to money, you may have heard that you can get an advance, royalties or both. What are the sums involved? Don’t book that cruise just yet. An advance may not even be offered, or may be the equivalent of one 500-word piece in a national magazine.

‘Seek advice,’says Sandham. ‘If it is awful, then you may be able to negotiate elsewhere.’Crofts adds: ‘Always get as big an advance against royalties as possible, just in case the book doesn’t sell many copies.

‘If they have paid you a lot up front, then publishers are more likely to put some marketing muscle to recouping their money.

‘Most books only earn a few thousand pounds for the author. It doesn’t sound like much if a book only makes £5,000, but if you can write it in a month it’s not so bad.”

You should also take into account the difference in ‘culture’between the industries of journalism and publishing. Freelance journalist and author of The Girls’ Guide to Losing Your L Plates, Maria McCarthy, says that writing a book is a ‘much bigger deal”.

‘Don’t think it’s going to be a breeze. Writing a book is a much bigger job than writing a series of articles,’she says. ‘You can get bogged down in research, underestimating the time to actually write it up, thinking that the writing will just happen one day.”

You also need to be prepared to work hard to push your book. Crofts warns: ‘Never expect too much from publishers. You are just one product among many, and unless your book takes off quickly they will soon forget about it. Have your own marketing plan.”

These days that includes blogging, Facebook and Twitter. In the absence of a massive PR machine, word of mouth can be key. Even established author Crofts has turned to YouTube, uploading a trailer for his next book, the Overnight Fame of Steffi McBride.

Linda Jones is the author of The Greatest Freelance Writing Tips in the World

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