Questions, answers and other thoughts from Ronin Research Scholars and writers

In January 2023, the Ronin Institute hosted a Research Skills 101 workshop for prospective authors curious about how to come up with a book idea, write a proposal and find a publisher. The Ronin Institute community is rich with scholars who have published in different disciplines. This workshop included six authors who had published books on topics from food science to coding and whose publishers included academic presses, self-publishers, and commercial trade publishers. Our panel included authors Jennifer Barr: To Clean Mother India: Sanitation, Caste, and NGOs during the Clean India Mission (Routledge 2023);  Jaqueline Kory-Westlund: tentative title “#PhDone: How to Get Through Grad School and Thrive—Personally and Professionally” (Columbia University Press); Alex Lancaster and Gordon Webster: Python for the Life Sciences (Apress 2019); Bryan Quoc Le: 150 Food Science Questions Answered (Rockridge Press, 2020); Emily Monosson: Blight: Fungi and the Coming Pandemic (Norton, 2023) and Arika Virapongse who helped run the panel.  Below is an expanded summary of the panel’s Q&A. 

Most people do not make a lot of money as a book author. Most authors write because they cannot NOT write—because they have a message to share—not because they want to get rich. 

How do you self-publish?

As there is a lot of interest around self-publishing, during the panel discussion we fielded many questions about this: who owns ISBNs, the pros and cons of self-publishing on Amazon, experiences using print-on-demand companies etc. One option, especially for authors who are working on technical books (such as programming or technology) is Leanpub, which focuses on e-Books. At the time that one of the authors on the panel published with them, Leanpub shared 80% of royalties with authors (it may be different by the time this post is published). They also handled all of the payment with the readers as well as the delivery of royalty payments to the authors. There are also many print-on-demand services, and one panel author used Blurb.com to good effect (there is also lulu.com).  

Copyright exists immediately upon creation of a work – in the United States, at least, there is no longer a need to “register” a copyrighted work for it to be covered by copyright. In most self-publishing scenarios, the author retains copyright and creates camera-ready versions (e.g. PDF, or other e-book formats like .epub or .mobi) to the self-publishing platform (there also exist open-source solutions that allow you to generate multiple formats from a single source document, such as Calibre). Some platforms have internal tools that allow you to write your book in their markup language, and their production systems will generate those multiple formats for you. But beware of platforms or tools that require you to sign an exclusive contract or that require you to assign copyright to the publisher. It’s a good idea to scrutinize any book contracts carefully, potentially even getting a lawyer to review them.

If you would like your book to be featured in a library, some panel authors were able to do this by donating a book, however, some libraries may not accept self-published books. Most libraries also care about the quality of the printed version of your book, such as having a high-quality cover and pages. One benefit of self-publishing is that you can typically fix mistakes in the text. As the author, you can also print books on demand and set your own retail price–for example, if you want to give your book to participants in a workshop.  

Helpful links:

  • Self-publishing platform: Leanpub
  • Print on-demand platform: Blurb
  • Information on how to obtain ISBNs: ISBN US 
  • Open-source self-publishing software: Calibre

Do you need an agent to publish a book?

For some kinds of publishers, it helps to have a literary agent i.e. individuals whose business it is to sell books to publishers. Namely, if you want to publish with a large trade publisher, you almost always need an agent. Academic presses happily take submissions from authors without agents, but you may get a better deal such as a bigger advance or better royalties if you have professional representation. An agent can also read the contract and ensure that it is the best deal for you (and them) rather than just for the publisher. If you do not have an agent, it may be good to have someone you trust who has experience with publishing contracts read over that contract. While many contracts are “standard” in terms of royalties and responsibilities of the author and of the publishing company, it can be good to have a legal expert confirm that! And even if a contract or clause is “standard”, “ it may not be what you want – so good to beware.  

How do you find an agent?

Look at other similar books and see who is acknowledged, or search online sites where agents seeking clients are listed. In directories or on their own sites, the agents will list the kinds of books that are of interest to them. Acquiring an agent can take many many tries, but don’t give up! Rejection often means just a bad match between a topic and an agent’s interest; it doesn’t necessarily mean that your idea or your book are not worth publishing.

Helpful links: 

How do you write a book proposal?

Most non-fiction books are sold based on the proposal you write. Publishers use the proposal to decide whether or not they want to publish your book. For fiction books, on the other hand, as well as most memoirs and creative non-fictions, publishers generally require a complete manuscript draft. The proposal explains what your book is and why a publisher would want to publish it. There are lots of books and websites out there explaining how to write one. You can also ask someone you know if they are open to sharing a successful book proposal with you as a model. Most publishers will also have relatively specific requirements for the proposal, so make sure you meet all of them. 

A fairly common outline for a nonfiction proposal to a trade publisher consists of: title; pitch; overview; who you are and why you should write this book; competing books and how well they have sold; table of contents; and the first or second chapter. The title is often the first thing an agent or publisher will see and sometimes just having a title can help frame the book for both you and your agent or publisher or reader.  So it can be helpful to take some time and come up with a powerful title. (That said, once a book is sold, the publisher may work with you to create an alternative title that they feel will be better for marketing.) 

How do you find a topic?

Writing a book is a long and sometimes arduous process. Pick a topic that you would be happy engaging with for at least three years. Look at your scholarly interests and your hobbies: what could you imagine thinking deeply and writing in depth about? If you have a topic you think is interesting, useful, or that you are passionate about, a good first step is to look at competing books. What else is already out there? When was it published? Are there two or twenty similar books? Even when there are seemingly similar books – yours will be different! If so, how different? What do you have to add to the field or discussion or topic? Publishers and agents will want to see this information to better understand your book’s potential market and audience. When there are a few good books, that can mean the topic is of interest and there may be room for more.

Do you make money from your books?

Most people do not make a lot of money as a book author. Most authors write because they cannot not write—because they have a message to share—not because they want to get rich. How much money you make depends on where and how your book is published. Self-publishing provides a greater return per book sold, such as 30% or more of the purchase price. Traditionally published books have a typical royalty rate of 10-15% for hardcover books and 7.5-10% for trade paperbacks. Audiobooks can pay 25% of net and ebooks around 35%.  If you are paid an “advance”(i.e. your “advance” is royalties you make from selling the book paid to you in advance of selling those copies) by the publisher, then you need to earn back the advance before you see any of the royalty money. Usually even if you do not earn back the advance,, you do not have to pay it back! How big is an “advance”? Amongst the panelists, the “advances” from academic or trade publishers ranged from $2-20K. Writing books is generally not a way to make a living. Instead, you might want to think about how you can leverage your book to serve your other income-generating purposes, such as being seen as an expert to help bolster your consulting business, bring you more clients, or get you your next job or promotion. 

Your publisher or agent may also be able to market and sell you books to foreign publishers or to an audiobook publisher, which might provide some additional income. But again, it’s not really enough to live on unless you’ve got a blockbuster! 

How do you market your book?

It helps to have some good reviews. You can ask friends, family and colleagues who might read your book to post reviews on Amazon, Good Reads and other sites to get the word out. You might also ask someone in the field to review your book and publish it. Publishers will sometimes provide an advanced reviewer’s copy of your book in digital format so that you can easily offer a free version for your reviewers to read (and don’t forget to thank them in the acknowledgements!).  If you have a publisher, they may also help market the book to some extent, arranging for interviews for you to do or sending out blurbs and catalogs that include your book to libraries and booksellers. But even if they do, you, the author, still have to do quite a bit of the work from the review to giving local book talks (or book launches)  to placing your book in bookstores if that is where they are most likely to be sold. Unless the book becomes a great seller, most of your marketing is most likely to happen in a burst – at its release, and then it’s up to you to keep it going. 

What are the pros and cons of a big trade publisher vs academic vs. indie?

Sometimes the smaller the publisher, the more attention you will get and the longer your book might “live” or be kept in print. Larger publishers may have an edge on the initial marketing, but there are plenty of books at smaller presses that have received a lot of attention – so it really comes down to Topic, Timing, Writing and Marketing by the publisher or by you. 

What are the cons of distributing or using Amazon as a publisher? 

If you are merely using Amazon as a storefront, rather than as a publisher i.e., “here’s a file of my book, sell it”, then you’re less entangled with Amazon (the corporation) and you can sell elsewhere too. But if you use Amazon for certain publishing services, then, depending on the specific service you use, it is possible that you may only be able to sell on Amazon and may miss some of your potential market. As a publisher, Amazon can be similar to commercial publishers.

Once you write, who reviews your work?

Finding people to read drafts of your book can be tough. The best reviewers are those who have some expertise/interest in the topic that you are writing about. Keep in mind though, reviewing a book takes time. Asking friends and family might elicit simple encouragement (“the book is great!”), but that’s not necessarily constructive (or, it may be just what you need). You could also try offering some incentives like a gift certificate for a book or leaning on your professional academic community who often enjoy reading the latest edge in their area of expertise. Asking strangers or people you don’t know well can be hard. Also, you want to trust that a reviewer will offer helpful critique and in a way that doesn’t discourage you. One option is if you interview or review other people for your book (and quote them or paraphrase or write about their work), then you can ask them to review that particular section or chapter. They have a vested interest in what you have written and may be more inclined to read. 

If you are taking an academic publishing route, a formal peer review is likely to be a part of the publication process. Your publisher may ask you for potential names of people qualified to review your manuscript; in that case, supply the names and contact information for people in your network or scholars you admire. However, ultimately, the publisher is the one who will be selecting your peer reviewers. Try to clarify with your book editor the role of the peer review at manuscript submission: will a bad review make them reject the manuscript? When peer review is at its best, it is an invaluable way to learn from people in your field and improve your manuscript.

If you wrote and published a book again, what would you change?

Emily said she would take more time on her books and think about their structure and scope differently–in particular, how she gathers information, covers topics, and integrates them to tell a story instead of focusing on, “got to get this out!” She would also hire a fact-checker and manage the sources of information (papers, interviews, etc.) in a more organized manner (at least, that would be the goal!) 

Other advice 

Some publishers will want you to have a “platform,” which functionally means an audience you’ve already built who would be interested in your book. You can get this through a blog, publishing academic papers or mainstream articles, or having social media followers, for example. But do not be scared off by not having one! Many books are published by authors with little or no previous platform. Just give it a try. 

Yet more helpful links: 

We are happy to answer questions if you want to send them in the comments! 

Jennifer Barr is a mixed methods social science and public health researcher with experience working on water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH); sanitation labor; Indian politics and caste; environmental health; and US health care policy.

Dr. Jacqueline Kory-Westlund is the author of Grad School Life: Surviving and Thriving Beyond Coursework and Research (Feb 2024, Columbia University Press). A scholar, writer, and artist, she has a multidisciplinary background with expertise in cognitive science, computer science, education, psychology, ethics, and robotics. Her specialty is being able to talk and work across disciplines—she builds bridges. She holds a PhD from the MIT Media Lab and BA from Vassar College.

Alex Lancaster is a Ronin Institute Research Scholar, an affiliated researcher at IGDORE and a computational and evolutionary biologist.

I am a toxicologist turned writer. Most of what I write is about how we impact the world; and how we can reduce our human footprint. My most recent book Blight: Fungus and the Coming Pandemic (W.W. Norton Press) will be in print Summer 2023. It is about fungal pandemics across species.

Bryan Quoc Le earned his Ph.D. in Food Science from the University of Wisconsin, Madison and an M.S. and B.S. in Chemistry from the University of California, Irvine. He is a food scientist, food industry consultant, and the author of 150 Food Science Questions.

This post is a perspective of the author, and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Ronin Institute.

One Comment

  1. Graham Wilson

    I hope that you won’t mind a few notes from my perspective?
    I’ve written a number of books over the years, and I think it is helpful to distinguish between genres. The processes of pitching, researching, writing, and publishing an academic tome, a management book, a technical one, and a textbook are all very different.
    In my experience, the majority of royalties come from foreign translations – what’s more they often get paid in advance.
    In the longer term, unless you write something with built-in redundancy yet on a popular topic, the royalties will quickly decline. A book that HAS redundancy and is on a popular theme, has the potential to either be good for multiple editions or reworking as an annual.
    As soon as any publication is ‘out there’ (and by this I mean mainly journal articles or books), it is well worth registering it with the national organisation that handles photocopying rights. In the UK, this is the ALCS. They pay once or twice a year, a sum based on audits of public libraries (incl universities). While you won’t get rich on this, my payment from them certainly covers the cost of a decent meal for two every quarter.

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