Want to publish a book? Become a passionate expert

When I was a bookseller I was always being asked the insider’s tips for getting published. I’m not sure why they asked me. I wasn’t a publisher. But I suppose I knew what was being published, what the publishers liked and I often knew the backstories to a bestseller’s success.

Of all those books with buzz, seldom did the author’s journey involve “get an agent” and “wait for the offers to roll in”. For every “get an agent” success story there are thousands of people who took a different route. In the past this might have been self-publishing or submitting to a million publishers or schmoozing with an editor – but there was never one right way.

Here I am fifteen years later, when publishing is a whole different game, and I’m stunned when I hear people say that they need to get an agent. Perhaps the publishing industry likes everyone to believe that it is “agent or nothing” (they have their make their commissions!) but the backdoor has always been open.

So how does one get a book published in 2009? Knowing the right people and schmoozing still seem to be the easiest routes, but the path I’m hearing of more and more is the “passionate expert” approach.

It’s fairly easy to become an “expert” these days. The ease and accessibility of blogging – and the way internet searching is structured – make it possible to become known as an expert in your field without the requisite 10,000 hours of practice.

David Meerman Scott at WebInkNow, has a great post on how new author, Lisa Genova, got her novel bought by publisher Simon and Schuster for half a million dollars.  Lisa’s book, Still Alice, is set for an initial print run of 250,000 copies. That is H.U.G.E. (Reality check: You’d be a happy clam in Australia if your book got a print run of 10,000 copies. Real happy.) Sure, it’s not quite JK Rowling territory, but Lisa has done very very well.

So how’d she do it? Well, the book is a fictionalised account of a woman who develops early-onset Alzheimers. It’s something that I’ve never heard of, but heck, it would be pretty devastating if it happened to me or anyone I know. But while my interest may be piqued, Lisa couldn’t get any literary agent or editor to touch it. And she spent a year trying.

Lisa could have given up – many do – and popped the manuscript in the bottom drawer as a forever reminder of her “learning experience”. But she didn’t. Instead, she used all that information and knowledge she’d acquired about Alzheimers when researching the book to put together a website. The website got the attention of the Alzheimers Association, who she then started blogging for. When she decided to self-publish (through print-on-demand publisher iUniverse), not only did she get the Alzheimers Association’s stamp of approval, she got a ready-made audience for her book.

The book sold well through online bookstores. It touched a nerve with people who had been affected by Alzheimers, and soon the agents were knocking at her door.

As I write this, Still Alice sits at Number 7 on the New York Bestsellers List, less than a month after being published by the major publishing house.

Not bad, eh? Lisa attributes her success to the following:

  • A website
  • Amazon reviews
  • Her blogging
  • Interviews on podcasts
  • Profiles at MySpace and sites for booklovers
  • Reviews at other blogs
  • Reviews in traditional media

All these activities increased the marketing potential of the book and made it very attractive to the bidding publishers.

Lisa’s advice to writers is this:

“If you don’t find a literary agent falling into your lap quickly enough, if you feel like your work is done and is ready to be shared with the world, self-publish. Give your work to the world. Let it go.”

I’d also add in a caveat: It helps if you have a smattering of talent. While I could list a dozen books that have been very very successful despite the atrocities they have committed in the name of writing, being able to write well certainly helps. If you weren’t born with a silver pen in your hand, then you need to read and write and write and write. And get feedback. (Wow, looks like those 10,000 hours are starting to add up…)

You don’t need to do exactly what Lisa did. That’s just what worked for her. The beauty and inspiration in her story is her courage to sit down and find another plan when Plan A(gent) didn’t work.

So get out there and find your readers. Touch their hearts. Give them valuable information. Speak passionately about what you know best. Connect, and you never know where it might lead.

You can read more of Lisa’s story at her blog or check out the book.

Thanks to David Meerman Scott for the heads up on Lisa’s story. His new book, World Wide Rave, is out next month (March 2009) and you can checkout his fabbo free ebooks on marketing at his website