Skip to Content
Walden Magazine // Jul 01, 2009

5 Ways to Publish Your Book

Which one is right for you?

By Heidi Kurpiela

Image of books on a shelf.Remember these words every time you gloss over the books on your home office shelves: labor of love.

Unless you're a celebrity who's just received a seven-figure book advance from Simon & Schuster for your ghostwritten memoir, publishing a book-be it fiction or nonfiction-can be downright vexing.

Before vanity presses took off and self-publishers started vying for niche markets, aspiring authors used to court agents and publishers, submit manuscripts, and keep their fingers crossed for months before receiving a response. Landing a book deal was a nail-biting endeavor contingent on a list of factors beyond mere writing prowess and subject matter. The process, according to some contemporary authors, is even more cutthroat today.

So where does that leave you, the educator, the business executive, the nurse practitioner, the mental health counselor, or software engineer? If you're ready to disseminate your knowledge on a particular topic, choosing where to pitch your book depends on your endgame, audience, and chutzpa.

Packaging a book proposal, then steering it in the right direction, is just as critical as penning the book itself. There are a variety of publishers at your disposal with different audiences and standards. And like books, no two are the same.

Trade Publishing

BEST FOR YOU IF: You've got writing chops, clout, or popularity. These are the big guns-Random House, Penguin Putnam, Simon & Schuster doesn't mean you can't aim high. If your objective is to gain recognition by lining the shelves of brick-and-mortar bookstores in shopping plazas across the country—and you've got the wherewithal to pitch multiple agents on a blockbuster topic with mass appeal—then a trade publishing house might suit you.

PROBABLY NOT FOR YOU IF: Your audience is so unique you wonder if Barnes & Noble has a section for your book. You want full control over your book's design and marketing plan. You can't imagine losing the rights to your work, and you aren't comfortable with multiple parties taking a piece of your sales figures.

WALDEN STORY: When Dr. Carolyn Chambers Clark, a faculty member in the PhD in Health Services program at Walden University, set out to write Living Well with Menopause, her agent pitched the proposal to several large trade publishers before HarperCollins finally signed her. Chambers Clark, a board-certified holistic nurse practitioner, had already published a dozen textbooks on wellness education and enjoyed commercial success with her trade paperbacks on topics ranging from weight loss to leadership; so a book on menopause, which affects more than 50 million American women, was a relatively easy sell with her track record. The recipient of three Book of the Year awards from the American Journal of Nursing and a frequent source for daily newspaper reporters and magazine writers, Chambers Clark had the kind of risk-free résumé trade publishers look for. I started writing textbooks because the books available for the courses I taught were never right, says Chambers Clark. I went into the trade market because I thought I had new and different information to share, but no matter who's the publisher, you have to explain why the book is important.


Write a riveting book proposal. Authors should prepare a compelling book proposal before approaching agents. In Telling the Story, HarperCollins author and literary agent Peter Rubie recommends proposals be enthusiastic but pragmatic: Make them feel they must have your book at all costs—but do it without being too cute, or arrogantly obnoxious, or obviously trying to make a silk purse out of a sow's ear.

Find an agent. Most traditional publishing companies won't accept a book proposal unless an agent has submitted it. How to find one? Consult the Literary Market Place 2009 (LMP) or Jeff Herman's Guide To Book Publishers, Editors, & Literary Agents 2009. Research other authors' agents. Once you narrow down your list, consult each agent's Web site to determine exactly what material they want to receive (i.e., query letter, proposal, first chapter) and respect submission guidelines. Query dozens of agents at once (include this is a simultaneous submission on your query letter), and don't be afraid to follow up with an email or quick phone call. Take this confidence boost from novelist John Grisham: If your writing is good, an agent will see it, sooner or later.

Know your field and your competition. Comb bookstores, Web sites like, and book reviews for similar books in your genre. Read these books and determine what makes your work better or different. Read reviews of these titles and understand how they have been received by readers and the review media. Know what unique qualities you bring to the table as author, but realize that with more than 190,000 books published each year, yours won't necessarily break through.

When you see an opening, make a break. Chambers Clark got her start by answering an advertisement in a professional journal looking for writers. I was lucky because my first book was part of a series and someone else determined the content. Always take advantage when a great opportunity presents itself, she says.

Textbook Publishing

BEST FOR YOU IF: Your primary objective is to impart knowledge to students. You are a college instructor itching to teach a specific course, but have discovered that too few textbooks exist on the subject. You work in an ever-changing industry that requires new or updated materials for students in high school or college. You're already publishing in academic journals and want to expand to a student audience.

PROBABLY NOT FOR YOU IF: You're too busy to take on a long-term project with frequent (and tight) deadlines. You fear updating a chapter every time your subject area undergoes the slightest transformation. Your research and writing is too complex or too simple for your target audience.

WALDEN STORY: When pharmacist Elaine Tompary, an MS in Mental Health Counseling student at Walden, was an instructor at William Rainey Harper College in Palatine, Illinois, she taught a pharmacology course that required a textbook she and her colleagues bemoaned using every semester-not because the text was abysmal, but because it sorely needed updating. The original author had passed away and we were still using it, says Tompary of the original version of Human Diseases: A Systemic Approach. One of my colleagues actually remembered helping the author type the manuscript on a typewriter. So Tompary rounded up three professors who were using the text, contacted the book's publisher, Prentice Hall, and pitched a revised edition. The editors at Prentice Hall were thrilled with the proposal. With so many instructors using the book every year and so few resources available on the subject, the publisher gave Tompary and her co-authors freedom to overhaul entire sections and add new chapters. In fact, says Tompary, Prentice Hall was so receptive to the project it published three revised editions by the same trio of instructors over the course of eight years. If you're teaching a course and there's a publication you want, just go for it, says Tompary. The publishers were motivated because the book needed updating, and we were motivated because we actually use the book. Luckily the rights to revise this particular book were available, but those attempting to revise an existing work should be prepared to address this issue with the publisher and possibly the author or author's agent/estate.


Be compelling. Just because you're writing a textbook doesn't mean you have to be dull. Cite real-life examples in your book proposal. For example, in her chapter on mental health, Tompary discusses psychiatric patient Shirley Mason's multiple personalities, made famous by the 1973 book Sybil. When I wrote a chapter about blood, I included a story on the use of medicinal leeches, says Tompary. Students like sensational stuff. The more gory the picture, the more dramatic the details, the likelier your chapter is to be read.

Think interactively. Textbooks often come with CD-ROMs, instructor manuals, test banks, and extra online features. Include proposals for the content and design of these materials in your book proposal. Consider technology options and tailor your materials to today's student body.

Network. Textbook publishers frequently send sales representatives to colleges and high schools to promote their books. If you work in a school, chat up a sales rep and find out what's selling on his or her list. Attend professional and academic conferences. When Tompary worked for a pharmaceutical company, she attended American Diabetes Association meetings, where any number of textbook publishers were on hand to peddle new books in the exhibit hall.

Incorporate feedback and move on. Just because you get rejected doesn't mean you don't have something to say, says Tompary. Work with the feedback you get from publishers and you'll be better equipped to find the right one.

Scholarly Publishing

BEST FOR YOU IF: After combating sleepless nights penning a 300-page dissertation, you feel the next logical step is publishing a book on the same topic. You seek credibility and recognition from scholars in your field. You would love to contribute your knowledge to the discipline. You've published articles in academic journals and are comfortable writing for an intellectual audience. You're an academic.

PROBABLY NOT FOR YOU IF: You would hate for readers to feel as if your book was over their heads. Your goal is to reach a wide variety of people, not just those studying the topic. Your subject is so popular it might be worth pitching your book to a trade publishing house.

WALDEN STORY: When Dr. Leslie Van Gelder was working toward her PhD in place studies and experiential education at Union Institute & University she wrote a dissertation on what she calls, the last emotional landscape left unarticulated -people's ties to places. Determined to add her voice to her field's breadth of research, Van Gelder, a faculty member in Walden's Richard W. Riley College of Education and Leadership, drew on her strengths as a scholar and creative nonfiction writer and pitched a book based on her doctoral dissertation. The concept was part environmental literature, part memoir, part travel narrative, and part anthropological study. After querying 10 university presses that were closely associated with the subject, Van Gelder signed a contract in 2003 with the University of Michigan Press. Five years later, Weaving a Way Home: A Personal Journey Exploring Place and Story was published. The process, says Van Gelder, required more doggedness than she had expected. The book underwent multiple and lengthy peer reviews, changing hands numerous times as editors left the press and new ones were hired. But rather than dwell on the pace, Van Gelder says she focused her energy on the positive feedback she received from notable colleagues, specifically those who had agreed to write flattering endorsements for her book. It's important to recognize that university presses have limited time and resources, says Van Gelder. The more willing you are to develop a network of colleagues who can support your work, the better off you'll be.


Write intellectually, but think commercially. University presses are interested in work that has a scholarly base but might still reach a larger audience, says Van Gelder, who admits she struggled with the concept the first time she saw the cover for her book. My editors wanted something that looked like a memoir, and I wanted something that looked closer to wilderness literature. I think from a marketing perspective they were probably right.

Academic integrity matters. Academic presses can be more discerning about the rigor of your work than traditional publishers. Your proposal should include a summary of your professional experience as well as an explanation of how your book will contribute to the scholarly literature in a particular area and measure up against other scholarly texts in the same genre. Consider sending a sample chapter complete with endnotes and references along with your proposal and your CV.

Be picky. Look at your own library to see which scholarly presses published the books on your shelves. Does one press outshine another in a particular field of research? Where does your audience study? Where do they teach? Where will your book be reviewed and distributed?

Play to your peers. One of the fundamental differences between scholarly presses and trade publishing houses is that scholarly books undergo anonymous peer reviews by experts in the field. You're being vetted by the academic community long before your book comes out, says Van Gelder. Remember, you've got to answer to the satisfaction of the reviewer first.

Niche Press

BEST FOR YOU IF: You're the only one in your extended family who takes an interest in the topic, but every time you talk about your book at work, your colleagues' tongues start wagging. You're a specialist in your industry and have discovered something useful that you think will be valuable to a small or underserved segment of the population.

PROBABLY NOT FOR YOU IF: Your target audience is already inundated with similarly themed books. You feel your subject matter has a broader consumer reach and you wish to spread the information beyond office water coolers.

WALDEN STORY: Leslie Minton, a math teacher from Augusta, Maine, knew she had a winning niche topic when she started scanning her own library of books at home and realized none addressed a concept she conceived years ago—that students struggling with math learn better when teachers approach the subject from a literacy point of view. Drawing on her own hurdles as a child, Minton, who received her MS in Education from Walden in 2006, theorized that the same comprehensive reading strategies used to teach English might also help students understand math. After I began playing around with some strategies in my classroom, I realized it was something that needed to get out, says Minton. We've always taught math as such a procedural process, but it's not just a straight line. Plenty of teaching strategies cross over. Motivated by her students' success, Minton decided to pitch the concept to niche publishers at a teacher's conference in Anaheim, California. An editor at Corwin Press, an educational publishing company that specializes in practice-oriented books for grades K-12, instantly warmed to the idea. Two years later, What If Your ABCs Were Your 123s? was released. At first I thought, 'I don't know how to write a book,' says Minton. But after my conversations with Corwin, it occurred to me that my message could absolutely change the way we teach math.


Know your field. Corwin Press prides itself on publishing content-rich and practical books based on sound theory and research. View your book proposal like you would a term paper. Experience alone won't cut it.

Be user-friendly. Does the expression sounds great in theory ring a bell? Keep in mind that no matter how well you articulate a concept or thoroughly cite your research, niche publishers also want to offer readers hands-on advice.

Know your audience. Go to conferences. Read online message boards. Find out what your audience is reading and what they wish they could read about. Figure out what inspires them and irritates them. Ask them how they hear about the latest books.

Be creative. Minton used her sense of humor to come up with entertaining chapter titles. Education books can be so dry sometimes, says Minton. No matter your audience, you should be able to identify your message in a sound bite. People want to be intrigued.


BEST FOR YOU IF: You could wallpaper your office in rejection letters from traditional publishing houses. You want your book to go from manuscript to printed copies in less than six months. You have the time, tools, pluck, and aplomb to promote your book. You're looking to earn more money off each copy sold and prefer to own all the rights to your work. Your topic is so taboo that very few publishers will touch it. You wish to quickly make your research available to colleagues, clients, or students.

PROBABLY NOT FOR YOU IF: You have high expectations—Oprah endorsements, Katie Couric interviews, movie options, etc. You want your book displayed near cash registers in bookstores nationwide. You're looking for prestige, name recognition, and a sizeable advance.

WALDEN STORY: After receiving his PhD in Applied Management and Decision Sciences from Walden in 2007, New York City leadership expert Mario Barrett was ready to publish his first book-Leading from the Inside-Out: Using the Barrett Leadership Model to Achieve Sustainable Happiness by Creating and Pursuing the Fulfillment of Your Life's Vision. However, after weighing his options, Barrett decided it was more important to own the rights to his work and get his message out quickly, rather than pursue a traditional publisher and risk losing control and postponing his release date. Unless you get to a point where you're Dean Koontz, it's just not worth it, says Barrett. You could send your manuscript to a traditional publisher and it might be six months before an editor sees it. Self-publishing seemed like the most appropriate fit for the self-help guru, so Barrett settled on Dog Ear Publishing, a small print-on-demand self-publishing company offering affordable publishing packages with four-month production schedules and total author rights. Already a successful consultant, Barrett was confident he'd be able to sell his book at seminars and workshops and on his company Web site and personal blog. Barrett's $14 paperback was published in April 2008 for $1,100 and has already earned him more than $4,000. I look at everything as a business venture, says Barrett. I believe first you create something of worth, then you find a demand. I didn't write for money. I wrote because I wanted to put something out in the world.


Let the Internet be your publicist. Get a Web site. Write a blog. Sign up for Facebook, Twitter, and MySpace accounts. Sell your work online. Film a YouTube commercial. Remember that social networking sites spark viral marketing campaigns.

Keep it real. If you find a ton of books available on your topic, make yours stand out by being authentic, says Barrett. The book shouldn't be disconnected from who you are. When you go out on the street and have conversations with people, you and the book should be one and the same.

Compare publishers. Research different companies—Lulu vs. iUniverse vs. AuthorHouse vs. Publish America, etc.

Read the contracts. Find out what kind of royalties you'll receive. Can you name your retail price? Or design your book cover? Do you own all the rights to your work?

Heed success stories. For instance, in 2003, former Wall Street analyst Andy Kessler slapped together his self-published memoir Wall Street Meat after a literary agent suggested the story only warranted a magazine-length article. One year later, HarperCollins called, bought the paperback rights, and offered to publish Kessler's second book, Running Money.

Learn more about books published by the Walden community.