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Thoughts on Writing a Book

Each year Safari Press receives dozens of manuscripts (MS) for consideration, so we felt that an essay on this matter would help steer potential authors toward writing a better and more marketable MS. We make this paper available because so many of the MS we see are unsuitable for publication and do not have any more of a chance of being published than the proverbial snowball in hell.

 

Limit the subject matter

You will be amazed how many people approach us with a MS concept such as  “The All Encompassing Book on North American Hunting and Firearms” in which the author tries to tackle handloading, caliber selection, firearm choices, natural history of big-game animals, hunting methods, finding the right guide, figuring out how to draw tags, and about 20 more subjects.  This may seem like a somewhat dramatized example, but we have actually had submissions just like this. Unless you are willing to write a 15-volume encyclopedia, such a book would have to consist of generalities at best and superficial brushovers at worst.  We live in an age of specialization, so boil your MS down to what you know and like; keep to your own particular area of expertise.

 

Why are you writing this book?

So you are writing a book on Northwestern African Buffalo Hunting.  Why?  Are you uniquely qualified to write on this topic?  Have you spent years hunting in that part of the world?  Is your job related to this subject?  If the answers are yes to these questions, you probably have a good chance of writing an interesting tome on the matter.  But if the answer is no, you are going to have to have an extraordinary MS to compensate for your lack of experience. We would be looking for superlative narrative & descriptive writing skills in such a case in order to make your book interesting enough to sell in quantity.

 

Consider your market

Ultimately, a book is a product, so it has to compete with thousands of other books out there.  Have you done your research so that you know just how many books have been written lately on the subject matter you wish to cover?  Is the market you are targeting big enough to sell at least a few thousand copies?  It does not take an Einstein to figure out there are only, at best, a few thousand persons on earth interested in the subject matter of Northwestern African Buffalo Hunting.

 

Competition

So, you want to write a book on whitetail hunting tactics and sell a lot of books?  Best be prepared to do quite a bit of research on competing books already in print before you put pen to paper, for there must be at least 10 books on this subject matter that have been published in the last 10 years.  It is fair to say that the market for whitetail-hunting books is just about the most competitive of all hunting books worldwide.  Yes, you can make your whitetail-hunting book a success, but you had better have a super MS if you want your book to sell in the current marketplace.  One more thing about competition and submission of MS:  All word processing programs have spell and grammar checkers built in, use them.  If we receive two books on the same subject and one is full of spelling and grammar mistakes, guess which one we’ll take?

 

Know your purpose in writing your book

Many people write a book, normally only one in their lifetime, because they would like to record their thoughts and adventures for posterity.  There is nothing wrong with this as long as such a book is well crafted and the author’s life has been an interesting one.  However, if you intend to write this type of a book, don’t expect it to cover the mortgage payments of your new house.  For that you will need to think of a subject that has broader appeal that will sell to the masses—for example, something along the lines of All You Wanted to Know about Paris Hilton.  If you intend to write a book on a narrow subject, do not expect to garner the sales of a New York Times bestseller.  These are highly unlikely in the hunting and firearms arena.

 

Approach the right publisher

If you wish to have a book published with color photos but your potential publisher has not done any color books in the last 10 years, better think twice about approaching him. Get familiar with the product your publisher has been producing.  If you want your MS to be a softcover book, make sure the publisher you have in mind does softcover books. Similarly some book publishers will happily tackle tomes of up to 600 pages while others have a more formalistic approach and tend to publish books between 200 and 250 (printed book) pages.

 As an aside, a 60,000 word MS is a small book of around 140-160 printed book pages.  An 80,000 word MS will produce a book of around 225 pages.  A 600-page book takes around 200 to 250,000 words, sometimes more.

 Similarly, some publishers will shy away from books with tables and detailed maps (both are very time consuming to produce), so again search for a publisher who is willing to tackle labor-intensive jobs.  Tables are best prepared in Microsoft Excel form (or with the tab feature in Word) which they can be converted to data for typesetting with the least amount of trouble.  Keep in mind that if you do want maps included in your MS, they need to be as clearly done as possible for submission purposes.  No chicken scratchings on torn notebook paper, please.  The better prepared they are, the higher the likelihood that your MS will be accepted.  Since maps will need to be created online by the graphic artists working for the publishing company, we will need good paper maps—again, we are not talking some “artist concept” sketches with a pencil on a piece of scratch paper.  Good maps, and especially those done in color, are costly to produce and costly to print.  Your chances as an author of getting a MS with maps and tables accepted are heightened if you do your homework up front.

 

Ghostwriter or assistant

Some people have the practical experience of hunting but not the time or writing skills to create a MS.  If you are willing to lay out the money, you can hire a ghostwriter. A ghostwriter is not cheap; count on a minimum of $15-18,000 for a small MS or serious rewrite but figure that you might end up paying more.  We can put you in touch with ghostwriters.

 

Photos

Good photos are so important to the ultimate finished product that I cannot emphasize their importance enough.  Get a good camera, learn how to shoot decent photos, and do not only make shots of the dead critters.  Make photos of the camp, trackers, villagers, locals, horses, guns, equipment, tents, vehicles, and even the insect life.  This variety will give your book flair.  For more information on photography, see our MS Submission Guidelines.

 

Consider your audience

At the risk of sounding like a high school English teacher, you must consider your audience.  If you are known as “Mr. Elk,” have been an elk hunter all your life, been featured as a speaker at the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, and have written elk magazine articles your entire life, do you really want to try to write a book on African buffalo hunting?  Again this may seem obvious, but you will be surprised at how many people wander off the path in this manner.  Play up to your strengths; tackle a MS that will appeal to the market in which you are best known, whether it is the local Safari Club or the Pheasants Forever Foundation.

 

Consider your marketing strengths

Publishing is a very mature industry, it has been around for centuries, and there is not a subject matter on this earth that has not seen at least one book covering it.  Most subjects have at least a dozen books written on them, and some a few thousand.  Give your publisher some ideas how you can help in the marketing of the book you propose to write.  When you submit a MS for consideration, you should pay almost as much attention to the marketing as to the suitability of the MS itself.  Are you a speaker at local and national hunting club events, do you have tables at the local guns shows where you will be selling the book, or do you write magazine articles (what magazines, how often) where you can place a small trailer at the end of your stories announcing the book?  We are willing to sell books to you on a wholesale basis so that you can resell your own book in order to make some money in addition to the royalties.

Are there local hunting stores in your area where you can hold a book signing?  Are you in the hunting business and can sell this book during the course of the year at shows, in your hunting camp, or on your Web site?  Do you have a mailing list of clients, friends, and other likely customers for this book?  Do you know editors or publishers of prominent hunting magazines that will review your book? 

Tell us how you can help market your book, but do not give us an endless list of feats you well know you will never do.  Balderdash will hurt your chances.  We know many editors in our industry on a first-name basis, and normally a few phone calls is all it will take to discover the truth. In addition, we keep detailed archives on which magazines have reviewed our books. Hype in this matter will sink your chances for a publishing contract quicker than a lead balloon.

 

Is the Publisher not supposed to Sell my book?

“Hey,” the author protests, “I wrote the thing, and the publisher’s job is to sell it!”  This is true enough; in fact, if your publisher cannot sell your book, you would do well to look elsewhere.  The best publishers spend anywhere from 2 to 3 dollars on marketing for every one dollar on production.  But remember what I said earlier—book publishing is competitive.  If you are able to help in selling the book, your chances of having the book published has a definite advantage, all other things being equal.  If your name is Peter Capstick, Robert Ludlum, or Craig Boddington, you do not need to sell your own work.  Anyone else needs to think how to help. I do not know Robert Ludlum but I have known Craig Boddington for several decades and I knew Peter Capstick for about 15 years.  Both authors were very active in the selling and marketing of their books.  It is not a coincidence that they are successfull book writers.

 

First time authors

Do not have outsized expectations.  The average print run of a North American hardcover book is somewhere between 2,000 and 3,000 copies. This is not the average hunting book print run!  That is for all books. Do not forget that this includes the Harry Potter books, Robert Ludlum novels, and others like it. If you are a first-time author, consider that there are approximately fifteen MS that are never commercially published for every one that is accepted by a for-profit publisher.  These are tough odds.  If you get a contract for your first book, more than likely the proceeds will not cover a down payment on a Rolls Royce.

 

Final thoughts

Before you start writing a book, know that it is a lot of work.  Your heart must be really in it because the satisfaction cannot only come through your wallet.  However, in the end a book is a product that will last for a few hundred years.  So far, nothing in the history of mankind leaves such an enduring legacy.  You, your children, and great grandchildren will enjoy the fruits of your labor.  No other media to date lasts longer—not photos, not video footage, not a spot on YouTube.com.  Nothing can be as easily sent to relatives and nothing will be referred to again and again with such ease.  A book is a lasting legacy, and a successful book leaves a legacy to be treasured.  It is our hope that this essay will give you an idea on how to make your book the best it can possibly be.

 

Ludo Wurfbain

Publisher Safari Press