How to Publish a Bestselling Book and Become THE Expert in Your Niche

I almost fainted when I drove by Book Soup and saw my name on the marquee
I almost fainted when I drove by Book Soup and saw my name on the marquee

Do you want to share your dark to find your light?

In other words, would you like to make your messiest experiences into your message?

If you answered yes, you need to write a book. But first you need to write a book proposal.

In this post, I’m going to tell you how. Or at least I’m going to tell you my experience doing exactly that, which as close as I can come to telling you how.

I’ve published six books about addiction, recovery and relationships — four with HarperCollins, one with Simon & Schuster and one with an indie publisher. One of those books became a New York Times bestseller.

My traditionally published books
My traditionally published books

I’ve also published directly on Kindle, both through assignments from Amazon (in the case of two Kindle Singles) and on my own.

I’ve seen all sides of it.

And as a result, I’ve become a person who helps other writers with stories to tell write their book proposals and sell their books.

I can’t tell you how many of these conversations start out with people telling me they are “working” on their memoir. They ask me what they should do. And I tell them exactly what I’m about to tell you…

If You’re Writing Your Memoir, Please Stop!

“Be sincere, be brief, be seated.”

― Franklin D. Roosevelt

Here’s something I was shocked to learn: most publishers don’t read entire non-fiction books written by authors they don’t know.

If you think about it, this makes sense: do you want to read 300-ish pages by someone you don’t know?

Probably not. But you might like to read 10–50 pages.

In other words, you, like this prospective publisher we’re talking about, may not be open to reading a full manuscript but would be open to reading a proposal — which is essentially just a document which describes the book and explains why it will be successful. Good news for the person who’s already been writing the book: proposals include a sample chapter or two.

[Don’t believe me? See above where my agent—who works at the agency which reps Lena Dunham, Lionel Shriver and Anthony Bourdain, among others—says the same thing.]

If, however, someone asked you to read their novel, it would be a different situation: you’d read the whole thing. In that case, you want the story and not the story about the story.

But back to your memoir.

Non-fiction proposals contain several crucial elements: an introduction or overview of the idea, a chapter outline, one or two sample chapters, a marketing analysis section which lists other books in the same genre that have sold well as evidence that this book will as well and a promotional section which details the profile of the author and the things that author will do to help sell the book.

“But what if I decide to self-publish?” people will ask. “Wouldn’t a book proposal be a waste of time? Shouldn’t I keep working on my book?”

Er, I say no. Not now, anyway.

To Self-Publish or Not: That Is the Question

“Anyone who says it’s easy to self-publish a book is either lying or doing a shitty job.”

― Nan McCarthy

Here’s the thing: if traditional publishing doesn’t work out, you can always self publish and if you have a strong book proposal, you not only have the perfect outline to work with but also a solid promotional plan.

And you can’t do this the other way around: while traditional publishers will occasionally buy the rights of self-published books that have sold like crazy, 99% of the time, publishers will not acquire books that have already been self-published.

There seems to be this myth out there that the path to success involves loading a book onto Amazon and watching your sales figures rise.

I once bought into this myth.

I had published three books through HarperCollins and figured I had a solid following so that I didn’t need that crusty old publisher to be successful. Plus I was on a TV show giving sex and dating advice.

And so I wrote a short book filled with all that dating advice, titled it Sex with Anna David, loaded it onto Amazon, and well…no one cared.

Exclusive photo you can’t see anywhere else! (Because I won’t let you)
Exclusive photo you can’t see anywhere else! (Because I won’t let you)

Later, I was lucky enough to be one of the first writers assigned a Kindle Single. These are, essentially, short books that Amazon assigns to certain writers. I worked with an editor there on an idea based around my relationship with my cats and next thing I knew, Animal Attraction became the most successful book I ever wrote. I followed that up with another Kindle Single, They Like Me, They Really Like Me and that, too, has performed really well.

As for Sex with Anna David? My 30,000+ Twitter followers didn’t seem to want to part with $5.99 for it. I sold under 10 copies — and then I took it down.

Since then, I’ve learned a lot more about how to self-publish. I’m definitely going to be doing it again. But I tell every writer who wants to start there: why not try the traditional path first?

Okay Fine. But Do You Really Need an Agent to Take Your Money?

“Hell hath no fury like a hustler with a literary agent.”

― Frank Sinatra

Lots of people tell me they’d rather not bother with an agent. They think it’s a good idea to skip out on the person who can legitimize them like no other.

Sure, you don’t need to have an agent. You also don’t need to have a bank account and yet you probably do.

Contrary to what many seem to think, literary agents aren’t rolling around on their money beds, cackling over how much they’ve made off of talented but naïve new writers.

Most literary agents I know can barely pay the rent on their railroad-style apartments.

If you want to go big — that is, sell your book to one of the “big five” publishers (Penguin Random House, Macmillan, HarperCollins, Hachette or Simon & Schuster) — or go home, you need to have an agent. With some exceedingly rare exceptions, editors at these houses simply won’t look at un-agented material.

Whatever money the agent makes off your book sale, she will very much make you in terms of guidance, advice, direction and other gifts.

My current agent worked at my first literary agency (I was repped by someone she mentored). Within a few days of my being signed there, she sold an essay I’d written for an anthology to the Modern Love section of The New York Times.

She didn’t make money off of that — I think I may have only been paid $100 — but she changed my career.

If you happen to somehow get around this because your aunt’s friend works at a publishing house and your proposal finds its way to someone who is interested in acquiring your book, that editor will then connect you with an agent (unless that editor is a scam artist who hopes to take advantage of a newbie).

In other words, your big plan to save that 15% by leaving the agent out of the loop probably won’t work in the end, anyway.

[Don’t believe me? See above where my agent — who works at the agency which reps Lena Dunham, Lionel Shriver and Anthony Bourdain, among others — says the same thing.]

How Your Agent Sells Your Book

“No matter how good it is, your book will not sell itself.”

― Elinor Florence

In future posts, I’ll be delving further into how to get an agent but for the purposes of this piece, let’s proceed like you’ve got one.

Here’s what should happen: Your agent will submit your book to roughly 10 editors at publishing house.

If you’re lucky, your agent will submit it as an “auction,” which is another way of saying “a method for getting publishers to read it fast.”

My first agent went the auction route, explaining to me that she would tell the publishers that I was going to be in New York the following week so they’d have to read my material immediately if they wanted the chance to meet with me.

“If no one responds,” she told me, “then you don’t need to do anything. If at least two of them want to meet with you, then buy yourself a ticket from LA to New York and we pretend you were coming all along.”

Her plan worked. They read it right away and two of them wanted to meet with me. A third read it when I was already in New York — and this third publisher was Regan Books, my top choice by a mile — and wanted to meet with me as well.

That was on a Friday.

The following Monday, the two original publishers passed but Regan Books made an offer.

Here’s Why I Got So Lucky

“Luck favors the prepared.”

-Louis Pasteur

Before you resent me for my easy route to publication, let me assure you that this is not what happened with later books of mine. I had a Cinderella sort of beginning.

And that wasn’t because I was so awesomely talented.

It was that I had spent the previous three years building up my name by writing for magazines. By that point, I’d been published in Playboy, People, Premiere, Us Weekly, Entertainment Weekly, Variety, Cosmo and Details

This means that I’d spent years developing my voice — and also that I knew people in the media who could support my book when it was released.

Publishers arguably care more about that second factor than they do about the first.

More reasons not to be jealous of my experience: Years before, I’d gone through the process of getting a screenwriting agent by going through a book called The Hollywood Creative Directory, mailing a letter (this was the Dark Ages) to everyone in there who took unsolicited submissions, sending the four out of the hundred who responded my script and then singing with the one out of there who liked it.

(That agent, for the record, never sold one of my scripts.)

And even in my book writing career, unlike Cinderella, I struggled after my beginner’s luck to again find the glass slipper.

What Usually Happens

“The world is the best of all possible worlds, and everything in it is a necessary evil.”

 — F. H. Bradley

It can take months for publishers to respond and sometimes they won’t at all.

Sometimes their passes will be nice, sometimes not.

It can take multiple submissions by agents. Sometimes those agents will give up on you; sometimes they won’t.

While I had great luck out of the gate (and assumed, of course, that this wasn’t luck but evidence of my talent — until later, when my luck changed), I ended up bouncing from agent to agent later.

One of those agents was so unpleasant that the only thing she said to me during my struggles to finish the book that became the New York Times bestseller was, “Sweetie, this book will never see the light of day.”

Before that, I had a manager friend submitting me to various agents — and they all passed.

This was after I’d released two books!

He forwarded me all their passes. One of them wrote, “I’m sorry but her writing is just not strong.”

But I digress. Let’s assume we’ve sold your book. What now?

Working with Your Publisher

“Publication is not all it’s cracked up to be.”

-Anne Lamott

When I first landed at Regan Books, my life felt blessed. Yes, it had taken a few months for the negotiating process to happen but after that, I had an amazing editor who took me and my agent to lunch when I was in New York and told me we should work on developing reality shows about my life.

The famed Judith Regan told me she loved my book and that she thought they should slap my face on the cover.

Then, in the biggest scandal to hit publishing, Judith Regan was fired. (Because I happened to meet with her the day this happened, I even made the New York magazine story about it.)

Most of the books they were planning to release were trashed.

I was one of the lucky ones.

Party Girl was released under an imprint that HarperCollins invented.

But there was no one at my publishing house anymore — no marketing department, no one in PR, not even my editor.

Writers talk about being orphaned when their editor goes to another house between when their book is acquired and released. What happened in my case is that I was orphaned and then the orphanage was burned to the ground.

Here’s What Happens If Your Publishing House Doesn’t Go Under

“The conventional definition of reality, and the idea of ‘normal life’, mean nothing.”

 — Sigmar Polke

In most cases, the writer will spend several months working with the editor on the book. Then they will spend a lot of time waiting for Release Day.

During that time, authors get “name” writers to blurb their books.

I got my first one, Jerry Stahl, because I saw him in public, recognized him. introduced myself and asked him. He graciously said yes and wrote me the world’s kindest blurb.

Once I had this rave, I approached other writers — mostly friends and friends of friends — and got more. I emailed Dr. Drew Pinsky, whom I’d come to know from interviewing him for magazine stories, and he loved the book so much that he called “its portrayal of the experience of addiction and recovery as the most accurate of addiction I’ve come across.”

Dr. Drew wrote me a nice blurb!
Dr. Drew wrote me a nice blurb!

I dined out on that for a while.

Next, the cover. While I’ve heard horror stories about authors being saddled with covers they hated, I was delighted by how open my publisher was to working with me on the cover. They showed me a few options and allowed me to pick my favorite.

Then Your Book Comes Out — and Crickets

“Disappointment to a noble soul is what cold water is to burning metal; it strengthens, tempers, intensifies, but never destroys it.”

– Eliza Tabor

The most shocking moment in a first-time author’s journey is often the release.

They’ve usually spent over a year waiting for this moment.

They’ve probably spent roughly half their time since they first got the idea to write a book thinking it’s going to be the world’s biggest hit and the other half wondering who the hell they think they are writing a book.

Yes, they had self-doubt but who would commit to sitting in front of a computer pouring out roughly 300 pages if they didn’t secretly fantasize that their book would be a sensation?

They’ve heard that lives tend not to change overnight, that they’re probably not going to get famous, that most first time authors are terribly disappointed.

They all think, It’s going to be different for me.

And yet the silence once it’s released, for most of us, is deafening. I felt that way, even though my book got press. It just doesn’t seem like enough compared to some other author’s experience. It just doesn’t feel like enough to justify what you’ve put yourself through to get to this point. 

I remember once reading a tweet from Joel Stein that said something along the lines of how having a book come out is just like having a movie come out — except that no one cares.

I have an author friend who says, “I always feel so sorry for people the week their book comes out.”

Here’s why: everyone is congratulating you so you feel like you should be ecstatic but really you’re constantly hitting refresh on Amazon and trying not to take it personally when someone who can’t spell calls your book unreadable on that very same site.

You’re bombarded by people asking how your book is doing and you have no idea what to tell them.

You have your big launch party or reading and while all your friends and maybe even some strangers show up, you silently note who doesn’t buy the book, failing to feel grateful for the fact that, well, they showed up.

You stew over the fact that your publicist does not seem to be doing for you what you’re positive she did for that other author you know.

And speaking of your publishing house, they are strangely silent during this entire period. Where did they go?

And why on earth, if this is so horrific, would anyone go through this?

Look out for my next post, where I will tell you.

(And no, it’s not that all writers are masochists.)

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