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What I learned from the Nonfiction Authors Association Conference

I love being the catalyst for your ideas as they develop. When you need someone to get you unstuck, collaborate on re-enlivening your creative practice, or help you make your writing awesome, I’m your gal. 

But I’ll be frank: I don’t know much past the basics about working with an agent, or about what needs to happen after your book is out in the world. I’m studying up so I can better support you through the whole life cycle of your book.

To that end, I attended this month’s virtual Nonfiction Authors Association conference. There were sessions on the pros and cons of self-publishing versus traditional publishing. Experts spoke on the whys and ways of building your author platform. If you want to learn more about publishing and promoting your nonfiction, non-academic book, NFAA could be a good community for you.

Here are a few insights from the conference.

For folks going the traditional publishing route

I got to listen in during a Pitch-the-Agents session as brave writers pitched to four agents and got immediate feedback on their book ideas and on their pitches. These agents made the same six recommendations about pitches and query letters over and over again, and so I’m passing them to you:

  • Your pitch or query letter has to include a clear benefit to the reader. What will the reader get out of your book, feel at the end, or be able to do differently after reading? (I’ll add: knowing this is critical to the writing of the book, as well! I can work through it with you in a Partnership or developmental edit.)
  • Don’t get caught in the perfectionism/fear trap. Send your query out in good shape, rather than endlessly polishing it out of fear (I’m often this person / see this post on letting go of perfectionism). If you’ve had someone reach out to you or otherwise express interest in your query, get it out to them immediately. Some trendy topics move fast enough that “you’ll be yesterday’s news by next week” (eep!) or the agent will have had 15 similar books cross their desk while you dithered, so really…send it.
  • Actually publishing a book takes a long time—years!—so think carefully about the longevity of your thesis and examples. You probably also want your book to have staying power on a backlist. Currency is great, but try not to write or pitch something that will only be relevant for a hot minute.
  • Pick good comparison titles, known as comps. Good comps are titles that have sold well, indicating your book’s viability in the market. (Just don’t comp to Eat, Pray, Love, apparently—all the agents are tired of it.) See this post for some advice from an expert on picking comps.
  • At the same time, make sure you also highlight what makes your book different and why it’s worth adding to the market.
  • Show that you have an audience ready to buy the book. This is often called an author’s platform. Newsletter subscribers, followers on social media, organizations that are interested in having you as a speaker, speaking engagements you’ve already done, connections to traditional media outlets, connections to organizations that will want to buy the book for their members, etc.

An interlude: agents

For more on agents, querying, and the publishing industry in general, I highly recommend agent Kate McKean’s Substack newsletter, Agents and Books, and the friendly community of subscribers it has generated. I pay for it and it’s worth every penny, but I think you’d get a lot out of the free subscription, too. And now, back to the conference….

Sell content, not books, especially when self publishing

The author is the primary marketing and sales mechanism for most books. This is a given if you’re self publishing, but is usually true even if you’re working with a publisher. Don’t assume your publisher is going to do all this work for you.  

Think well beyond bookstores. Stop selling your book. Instead sell what it doesThe content is fixed, but people use it in different ways, so how can XYZ group use it? Who else needs the content? Bring the book to them, based on that need. This is probably easiest with prescriptive books, but imagining unexpected audiences is a useful exercise across the board.  

Again, I’m new to the world of post-publication marketing and sales. Maybe this pointer is obvious to many of you, but it was a real “ohhhhhhh” moment for me. 

How do you build your audience?  

What do you want to know about publishing or marketing your book? Send questions via the comments or via email. Maybe I can answer them now, maybe I’ll be learning about it right along with you.

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