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Feature Story
reed magazine logoAutumn 2008

First Books

by Megan Holden

It should come as no surprise that Reedies write and publish books at a brisk rate. Titles pour into the alumni & parent relations office and the library each month. Most of these are first books—some written after graduation, others upon retirement. Maybe you wrote one, or maybe you saw the title of this article and have read this far because you have a book idea or a manuscript saved onto your hard drive—a mystery, a cookbook, a Peace Corps memoir.

This flow of new books reflects a national phenomenon—our “collective graphomania,” to borrow New York Times journalist Rachel Donadio’s phrase. The number of books published in the United States skyrocketed last year. According to the industry tracker Bowker, there were 100,000 more books published and distributed in 2007 than the previous year. Bowker attributes the startling jump—which has ushered in what some are calling the age of the author—to the increase in print-on-demand (POD) and short-run books.

Before I launch into a discussion of what a nerd is and where the idea of nerds comes from, I’d like to disclose that when I was eleven, I had a rich fantasy life in which I carried a glowing staff.

American Nerd: The Story of My People

Benjamin Nugent ’99, American Nerd: The Story of My People (New York: Scribner, 2008)

For a writer new to the field, navigating the sometimes unpredictable book business can be discouraging. Following is an overview of the publishing process—how to get a book published by a commercial press, as well as a quick summary of newer digital options. In addition to conducting industry research, I talked with more than a dozen Reed alumni who are recent first-time authors or who work in the book trade. Their experiences, and advice, offer a smart, thoughtful—and hopefully, inspirational—perspective on a field that can be maddeningly opaque.

Traditional publishing

Before word processors became ubiquitous, there were three paths for turning a manuscript into a book: signing a contract with a traditional publisher, paying a vanity press to publish your book, or self-publishing. Today, those same choices exist, but print-on-demand technology has blurred the distinctions between the options.

Whether you are still at the idea stage or have completed a novel, the path to finding a traditional publisher is the same. The most important first step in writing a book is to figure out who your audience is. Once you have a clear picture of your ideal reader, you will know how technical, general, or specific you should be and whether your topic is geared more toward a commercial publisher, also called a trade publisher, or an academic or university press. When writing An American Nerd: The Story of My People (Scribner, 2008), Benjamin Nugent ’99 confesses that his ideal readers were “people who were popular in high school, because I still crave their approval.” Of course, he hopes many more will pick up his book: “the more readers the better.”

The biggest challenge for first-time authors, according to David McCormick ’84, a literary agent for McCormick & Williams in New York City, is “getting someone to read their work.” A strong proposal is key. Think of the proposal as your calling card or sales pitch. Crafted by the writer, it is used by the agent when it comes time to sell the idea; by the editor who presents it to the editorial board; and then by the sales rep when calling on booksellers. A good proposal will help catapult you past the industry’s gatekeepers: from literary agents to acquisitions editors whose job it is to assess quality and sales potential and to determine whether your project is a good fit with the rest of the publisher’s list. Add to that a cover letter that distills your concept down to its essence, an outline or table of contents (which should expand your concept), and a sample chapter for evaluating your writing style.

reed magazine logoAutumn 2008