If there is one key piece of advice my editor, Jane Friedman from Writer’s Digest Books, has for writers with a non-fiction book idea, it’s the importance of narrowing a book’s focus before submitting a query. Seven years ago, I didn’t know that I needed to start the nonfiction book pitching process with a simple, narrowly focused query. I made things much more difficult for myself by trying to write the whole book first and then trying to sell it, lack of focus and all.
Even with a referral from Julia Cameron, the author of The Artist’s Way, my “book” didn’t stand a chance with her agent. In fact, Susan Schulman responded that my manuscript struck her more like a collection of magazine interviews than a nonfiction book. And, by gum, looking back now, I can see that she was right.
Seems I had to learn a few things about book pitching the long, hard way. (Just moan quietly if you identify.) Back then, I couldn’t absorb what Schulman was saying as far as how to re-approach my book manuscript. I’d invested so many months of time and energy into a big, fat, totally un-sellable manuscript that it had become “my baby.” But really, all that attachment to something so unwieldy is not healthy or helpful for writers. So instead of moving forward with that first attempt, I decided to go sell some interviews and articles instead. Why not, since that’s what I was already producing?
With a lot of trial and an equal amount of error, I sold a bunch of interviews, articles and profiles. Today, I’ve sold over 200 articles, which is not a whole lot, really. Many of my mentors have sold five times that. But it was enough for me to learn the writing- for-publication ropes. And I also had a baby, moved a couple of times, and supported my husband while he got his Master’s in Theater, teaching certificate, and first teaching job. I’ve also been teaching writing for publication for six years and I started an E-zine, Writers on the Rise.
Schulman inadvertently pointed out something extremely helpful. I really didn’t know what I was doing when I sent her that un- publishable manuscript. I was submitting it on a wing and a prayer instead of professional know-how, market research, and a finely tuned pitch. Thanks to her, I learned that there is no harm in writing publishable articles and interviews before attempting to pitch and write a publishable book. An important lesson I pass along to my students, whether they want to hear it or not, is that a writer with a proven track record of published pieces is more likely to land a book deal than a writer with no previously published clips or professional experience.
Of course, I know that there are exceptions to every rule. But this is what has proven true for me. I pitched my book Writer Mama, How to Raise a Writing Career Alongside Your Kids (Writer’s Digest Books, 2007) verbally at the Willamette Writers Conference in August 2005- without a manuscript or even a completed book proposal-only with a finely focused concept. By Labor Day, I had an offer. By October, I’d contracted with an agent, Rita Rosenkranz. Fourteen months later, I turned in my complete, revised manuscript. Today, I am proud to call myself an author.
Sometimes, taking baby-steps is the best way writers can learn necessary skills, like how to fine-tune the focus of a pitch. For this writer, it was the only way.
Christina Katz, author of Writer Mama: How to Raise a Writing Career Alongside Your Kids (Writer