Discover more from Ijeoma Oluo: Behind the Book
What's It Like To Write A Book?
Behind the Book: All I know, part 1
Hey y’all! Hope you had a good week last week and those of you celebrating holidays in the US were safe and got to see some loved ones while also acknowledging (btw, that word is too long and I hate it) the brutal history of genocide of Native peoples that is somehow still celebrated by a day of roasted turkey. Anyway. I took last Thursday off to acknowledge (ugh, there it is again, so many letters) the day of mourning and had family dinner on Friday and a bunch of leftovers over the weekend and now I don’t really remember how my computer works. I almost missed this post because while I remembered that Tuesday is the day I can trade in my Sephora points for a $100 store credit, I almost didn’t remember that Tuesday is also the day I publish this newsletter.
So - in the spirit of “holy shit, what am I going to write” I decided to do a brain dump of all I know about writing and publishing a book! I’ve done it twice so I’m basically an expert at this whole book thing, right? Anyways, this will be a multi-parter because even though my brain is *a little bit* rusty right now, there is a lot to writing a book and a lot that I get asked about - and I now have a little series I can turn to the next time my brain is overly mushy and I need to figure out what to write about!
First of all, let me make this intro even longer with a disclaimer: I currently have only written non-Fiction books and only in the US, so my experience is pretty specific. I’ll try to slip in what writers of other genres or from other areas have told me, but if you read this and are like “this isn’t helping me with that combo cookbook/poetry idea I had at all” well - sorry. Also, if you read this and immediately said to yourself, “cookbooks and poetry - genius!” at least give me a shoutout in the acknowledgements (ugh).
So, without any further ado, here are some of the top questions I get asked about writing and publishing a book, part 1:
Do you need an agent? No, you do not! I have quite a few writer friends who have self-published their books, or have worked with smaller publishing houses directly without an agent. Some of my friends with mega-bestsellers have never had an agent. But I will say this: I love, love my agent (Lauren Abramo). She has definitely been a huge part of my writing success and I trust her implicitly. She has always been able to turn a deal into something that was more to my benefit than it was before she entered the conversation. I don’t want to make deals, it sounds hard! I just want someone to magically offer me money for things. She’s also incredibly ethical, and incredibly protective of me as a Black woman in a predominantly white, hyper-capitalist industry.
Some of my writer friends love their agents to similar levels. Some absolutely despise their agents. I have some writer friends who have been gaslit out of great writing projects by agents who thought they could get that 15% without actually believing in the talents of their writers. So if you do go with an agent, do your research and definitely ask if you can speak with some of the writers that the agent represents! A good agent will not only be your biggest supporter in the industry, they will also be able to find you the best match for an editor and publisher and will work to get you the most advantageous deals that fit your needs and your ethics.
Do you need a publisher? Nope, you don’t! Self-publishing is one of the oldest, most established ways to get your writing out into the world, but it’s modernized quite a lot in recent years! Self-published books don’t have to look like the pamphlets that hoteps on the street hand you while trying to convince you that your menstrual cycle is a sign that your blood has been corrupted by white supremacy. There are some pretty cool DIY companies out there that make it pretty easy to design your book layout and cover, and get the finished product out into the world. It is still a lot of work (but working with a publisher is still in many ways, more work?) but you get to keep the vast majority of the profit, instead of the 7-12% that you usually get when you go through a publisher. I myself made a little coloring book years back (the real ones know) and self-published and legit paid my mortgage for a few months with the proceeds.
So why would you go with a publisher? Distribution. Distribution is one thing that many of us don’t really have on our own. Getting that book printed is one thing, getting that book in stores around the country, or even in your local area, is another. Publishers can get books in stores and that’s where they sell the most. Also, not having to find your own editor and cover designer and pay them out of pocket is great. Publishers will also handle a lot of the promotion of your book (even though the amount they do seems to decrease every year and they still really rely on authors to do a lot of the work). Yes, my self-published book paid my mortgage for a few months, but my other books literally built my house (and my mom’s). Finally, there’s the advance.
What’s an advance, how does that work? An advance is money that a publisher pays you in order to get you to sign with them, and also to free up some of your time (by financing or partially financing your living) while you write your book. An advance is not a gift, it’s basically a loan from the money they expect to be giving you in royalties for your book, that has no interest and you don’t have to pay back (phew, amirite?) if your book doesn’t sell enough to earn those royalties. You basically get that money up front, and then don’t get any royalties on the finished book until it sells enough that the royalties you earn have paid back that advance. I think I remember reading somewhere that the average book advance is around $7k (I’m too lazy to double-check that but it sounds about right). Within that amount are really small advances of a few hundred or thousand, and the million plus dollars given to really big megastar writers. Most books don’t sell enough to sell out their advance, but the sales from the really successful books make up for it - and the fact that publishers are still keeping over 80% of the money that comes in from your books anyway.
A large advance can be a great signal of how much a publisher wants or supports your work - as well as how much work that publisher is likely to do to promote your book in the hopes of getting their money back - but it isn’t all gravy. The higher the advance, the higher the bar of sales for judging your book a success. If your book earns out its $5k advance in a year, your publisher will likely be excited to publish your next book and you’ll start getting royalty checks sooner. But if you only get $100k into earning out a $500k advance, you may not get another deal. Also, a lot of my friends who get large advances really blow through that lump sum and then pretty much have to start working on selling another book as soon as that one is published because they aren’t getting royalties on that book anytime soon and they need another advance to make ends meet. And, as I’ve said before, writing books is very hard and horrible and that can be a very draining cycle to be in.
Finally, it’s important to realize that the amount that a writer is given in an advance is often shaped by white supremacy, ableism, and sexism. Last year (or the year before? What year is it now? What is time?) there was a twitter hashtag #publishingpaidme where writers talked about what their advances were for their books. The difference, especially around race and gender lines, is stunning. White writers who had written little more than a viral twitter post were given six-figure advances while Black women who write some of the best books in the world were given a few thousand to go create fucking masterpieces. Go look it up and then join me here in the comments in rage over how little respect some of your favorite Black women writers have been given by the industry.
Do you need to write the whole book before you find an editor or publisher? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. For nonfiction I’ve found that if you go the whole agent route, that you usually just need a good proposal (more on that in a minute). Also, if you are approached by an editor or publisher, often they will ask for a proposal and not the entire manuscript up front. But I know many fiction writers and poets who had more success shopping around a finished draft of their books than with proposals, and some smaller publishers would rather work with a draft than a proposal. Also, once you’ve published a book, you often will just need proposals from thereon out (and if you are working with the same publisher, it can often be much less detailed than your first proposal)- unless you are switching genres, in which case a publisher might want to see at least part of the actual book before making an offer. It’s going to really depend on what you’re trying to publish and where you’re trying to get it published. So….yeah. Was this even helpful? I don’t know.
What’s a book proposal? Hell. Ok, next question.
Just kidding. Sort of. A book proposal is basically like a little book about the book you want to write so that you can convince an editor that your book idea is a good one and that you know how to write books. It took me almost as long to write my book proposal for So You Want To Talk About Race as it took me to write the book. Why? Because a) it was like 100 pages and hella detailed, and b) it is soooo tedious to write a book about the book you want to write (can you imagine, with my ADD brain?). A book proposal will usually have a long explanation of what you want to write, chapter outlines, a few sample chapters - even some market research and competitive analysis. You can find book proposal outlines and samples online that fit the style of book you want to write or if you have a writer friend who went through this process already, you can borrow theirs (thanks Lindy! btw, you should totally subscribe to her newsletter, Butt News). If you have an agent, they are really helpful with this whole process as well since they see a lot of writing proposals.
I hate book proposals and never want to do one again, and I’ve been lucky as a published writer to not have to create one nearly so detailed for my second (and upcoming third) book. But that said, having to do all that prep work made the actual writing of the book a lot smoother and more focused. With MEDIOCRE I had this great idea, sold it, and then had to figure out how the hell I was going to make that vision a reality, and that took a lot of time out of my deadline.
Ok, I think that’s all for now. I hope this was helpful or at least interesting to you! In future installments I plan to cover working with editors and publishing teams, book research, dealing with deadlines, and more. What questions about writing a book do you want answered? Put them in the comments below and I’ll add them to the list for future newsletters! Writing a book is one of the greatest/worst experiences a writer can have and I highly recommend it/give my condolences to any writer who has to go through it! I hope these newsletters fill you with appropriate amounts of fear and dread to enable you to write your book.
Thank you for reading. If you liked this newsletter and want to support my work, please consider subscribing here:
Ijeoma Oluo: Behind the Book is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.