By Amy Karon
At AMWA's recent national conference, attendees chuckled and scribbled notes while authors and former journalists Alisa Bowman and Debra Gordon dispelled myths and offered practical tips on breaking into the book business.
The two know the market. Bowman spent several years as an editor at Runner’s World magazine before her husband negotiated her first book contract during a magazine gala at FAO Schwartz.
“I loved my job at Runners World,” said Bowman, who has since ghostwritten* and co-authored seven New York Times bestsellers. “But it was apparent to me that I could make much more money working for myself.”
Gordon’s titles include When Sex Hurts and The Idiot’s Guide to Type 2 Diabetes, and, with her husband, a fellow enthusiast, Wine on Tuesdays. “We managed to do it with our marriage intact,” she grinned.
Read on for Bowman and Gordon’s advice on taking nonfiction health and medical books from inspiration to publication.
Tip: Books published under your own name often pay little.
In traditional publishing, Gordon said, authors receive only about 15 percent of book sales, and that first goes to repay the publishing company’s advance. “The vast majority of authors never receive royalties,” she added. “Write a book because you want the experience and exposure.”
But self-publishing and e-books have gained popularity as potentially lucrative alternatives. Authors pay a self-publishing company for services they choose, such as copy editing and printing, Bowman said. Because no agent or publisher are involved, the author earns 100 percent of the sale price of every book and can still sell it on Amazon.com.
Another way to make money by writing books is to ghostwrite or co-author with someone else, an accepted practice in the publishing world.
“Most of the bestsellers out there are written by people like Alisa and me,” said Gordon, adding that she just signed a $70,000 contract for a book on mobile health.
To break in, tell clinicians and academics you can help them write books for consumer audiences. If you see a study you think can make a book, contact the authors and pitch the idea.
Tip: Unless you self-publish, you’ll need to hire an agent.
Writers can be so emotionally invested in a project that they accept tens of thousands of dollars less than they should, Gordon said. But an agent’s job is to negotiate, and she or he won’t shy away from getting the best deal possible.
Agents also can serve as liaisons between a medical writer, the person they’d like to write for, and that author’s agent, Gordon added. That approach can spare writers from burning bridges with medical professionals they may have worked with for years.
Tip: Publishers won’t pay for a great book idea, even if it comes with a cover letter and outline.
To successfully pitch a publisher, you need a good proposal and marketing plan, Gordon said. Proposals tend to run 50 pages without a sample chapter, which some publishers also require.
Don’t write proposals for free, cautioned Gordon, adding that she charges about $8,000 whether a publisher accepts a proposal or not. “I tell clients, I don’t go to Las Vegas and gamble,” she said, “and I don’t gamble with my business.”
Proposals should focus on what makes the book sellable and unique. Perhaps it will include patient narratives, or a sidebar with the latest advice on disease management. Add a detailed marketing plan.
“I think this is almost more important than what’s in the book,” Gordon said. For example, is your blog receiving a lot of hits? Do you have a mailing list you can use to promote the book? Do you or your co-authors speak at medical meetings or other venues? Can you secure a high-flying expert to write a cover blurb?
A proposal’s table of contents should list each section and chapter, Gordon added. She writes the first two paragraphs of every chapter and the major topics she’ll go on to cover.
Tip: Don’t plan to blow your whole advance on a home remodeling project. Use it to cover your essential needs while you write.
Advances are usually paid a third or a quarter at a time over months or years, Bowman said. They must pay for illustrations and marketing consultants, such as search engine optimization experts or people who will help secure deals to write guest posts on blogs.
Tip: Tackle a book as you would any other project–by outlining and breaking it into pieces.
Gordon does not turn down all other assignments while writing. “Instead of telling yourself you need to write 80,000 words,” she added, “tell yourself you need to write one chapter and turn it in by the end of the month.”
Bowman calculates how many chapters and words she must write every week, keeping in mind that her pace will be slower at first because of time spent researching. “If you’re in a panic at the end, you’re not going to be able to write a great book,” she said, especially because the first chapter must convince customers to pay for the product.
Tip: Book writing requires skillful communication and ego management. If you can’t work with your co-authors, agent, and editor, you might not get another book deal, Bowman said. “This is a word-of-mouth business,” she added. “I very rarely have marketed myself.”
If a co-author has an idea Bowman knows will not work in the book, she suggests it become another book or a blog post. Gordon tells co-authors it’s their book and they have the final word on its contents, but that it’s her responsibility to share what she knows of the market and intended audience.
If the book targets people who don’t know much about science, for example, Gordon makes sure co-authors understand that dense medical prose could harm readability and sales.
Bowman said she has only cancelled a book deal once, and that was when a co-author repeatedly took others’ ideas without credit, even after she talked to him about it. “It was the only time I’ve broken up with a client,” she added. “But I do not regret that decision.”
Tip: Length matters. Stick to the agreed-upon word count. Publishers study consumer behavior to set a book’s price point, and price depends on number of pages, said Bowman.
“You don’t want your book to be the most expensive one in the category,” she added. “You also really hurt your editor’s job of making your book better if you come in way over the word count.” Publishers have even canceled book deals when drafts are too long or short, she said.
If you choose to write an e-book, study the market. Short e-books are selling the most copies on Amazon now, Bowman noted, partly because readers face time crunches.
Tip: Word of mouth won’t turn you into a household name. You have to market yourself. Books only stay in the store for 3 months, Bowman said. To create the biggest impact possible during that period, you must generate buzz before the book comes out.
Publishers also expect authors to do much of their own marketing these days. That means learning about search engine optimization and social media. Bowman and Gordon suggested getting on a local TV station, such as the Fox channel’s morning programs.
“You have to know as much about marketing, interpersonal skills, and being an entrepreneur as you do about words,” Bowman said. “You don’t want this to be your only book. You really want it to make a splash so you can write a second and a third.”
*Editor's Note: This article discusses ghostwriting in the context of books written for the consumer audience. Ghostwriting of medical research manuscripts in peer-reviewed journals is considered to be an unethical practice by many organizations, including AMWA. For more information about AMWA's position on the importance of acknowledging the contributions of medical communicators, please see http://www.amwa.org/default.asp?id=308.