Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Ask JKM a Question #23: About Writing Reference Books?

A reader named Jose writes:

“For those aspiring writers out there, like myself, would you be able to give a run-down as to what the process is, from pitching to publication, for a reference book such as the ones you've written?

“Be as brief or extensive as you wish. As a side-question, what do you consider to be important things for aspiring writers to keep in mind about this type of expenditure? 

Jose, that’s a great and important question, and one I’m very happy to answer.  I should hasten to add that the information I share here is a product of my specific and unique experience. 

Other writers may feel differently, based on their experiences, and that’s perfectly okay. 

Starting Out:

In terms of the process you inquire about, it all begins with your passion. 

Find a topic you wish to cover fully in terms of your reference book (a TV series, a director, a grouping of films, and so forth), and then think seriously about how your book should be organized, and what kind of materials you wish to include.

When you start to strategize your book, think seriously about your niche.  What makes you the right person to write this particular book??  In other words, what’s your approach and how does it distinguish you

For example, I see myself as a cultural theorist with a fluency in film grammar, and as a critic who has a specific view about what represents quality in film (my frequent “form must reflect content” edict).   At this point, I also know myself and my proclivities: I prefer writing laudatory reviews than witty cut-downs, or negative reviews.

The point is, find the approach that works for you. There are Marxist critics, feminist critics, snarky critics, you name it.  So pinpoint an approach that is brand-able for you and leverage that approach to the fullest.  Make certain that approach is one that fully and uniquely illuminates your subject matter.

As far as expenditures, you will want to consider including photographs and perhaps other materials too. This is trickier than it sounds. Purchasing photographs from professional sellers can be prohibitively expensive, and you must also consider trademark and copyright issues. 

For my early books with McFarland – a wonderful publisher, I should add -- I commissioned an artist to draw original illustrations. I also purchased the rights from The New York Times to re-publish Isaac Asimov’s review of Space: 1999 in my book on that particular series.  So have a vision for what you want your book to look like, and also for what you can afford, and what the publisher will accept.

Pitching and writing:

After determining what you wish to include in your book, write a sample chapter, a table of contents, and a kind of “brief” or “overview” about what the book concerns. 

You may want to include a page on how to market the book as well, noting specifically what kind of competition exists.  Be sure to name other successful books on related (but not identical) topics.

I am lucky enough to have a great literary agent to help me get a foot in the door with publishers, and this is the approach we always use for pitching. It has served us well for probably ten-to-twelve projects now.

But if you do not have an agent, don’t fret.  Conduct some extensive research yourself and select (from a guide to book publishers) five publishing houses that accept non-agented material and which you believe might want to release your book. Choose wisely and judiciously, and send those houses a very concise query letter, along with your sample chapter and proposal.

In these times, releasing your own e-book is also a real possibility, and a good avenue to see your work published. But it’s not one I unhesitatingly recommend for first-time writers because e-books don’t generally have editors looking over a writer’s shoulder. And honestly, it’s helpful for someone to back-stop you. 

Writers are human beings, and like all human beings, are imperfect.  I know that I get bleary-eyed when I’ve gone over a book one too many times in an evening.  In that wonked-out state, it is so easy to miss a typo or a grammatical error.

So editing can sometimes be a painful task. But in the long run, I’ve always been grateful to have another set of eyes looking over my books.   If you do go the e-publishing route, find someone you trust to proofread the text for you. 

When you find a publisher who is interested in your book, the house will usually provide you a word limit, a photo limit, a deadline, and perhaps even a format guide.  Then the publisher will send you a contract with either an advance, or an agreement/schedule for royalties once sales commence.

Sign the contract, then, just have a good time.  Write the best, most creative book you can within the time you have allotted.

I still find that particular experience…thrilling.

A note of caution: If you hope to work with the publishing house again, however, don’t miss the deadline, no matter the circumstances.  Some writers believe that no deadline is ever truly dead, but I don’t subscribe to that theory.  Above all, a writer must learn discipline.  And that includes the discipline to know when a work of art is complete, or should be complete.  Obsessive tendencies are not necessarily the friend of a professional writer.

So, if you get to choose your own deadline, I recommend following Mr. Scott’s lead.  You don’t need to multiply your deadline estimates by a factor of four, but if you have the option, build-in an added two months just for safety.  Perhaps that will give you the time to nab one final interviewee, or polish your work one more time.

Contrarily, if you don’t need the extra time, turn your book in early…and the publisher will think you’re the most amazing and committed writer on the planet.  Seriously.


During this entire process, I hasten to add, it’s important to keep your expectations in check. 

Advances, especially post-Recession tend to be lower than they used to be, and in terms of royalties, the general rule is that you get 10% of the net.  Notice I said net, not gross, meaning that many publishers subtract almost a third from that ten percent in case there are significant book returns.   

Again, I’m writing specifically about non-fiction reference books here. If you were to write a tie-in novel for a franchise, for instance, they are generally work-for-hire assignments.  You are paid a set fee, and that’s that.

So, in other words, your book isn’t going to get you rich fast, or perhaps, ever, unless you are very, very lucky. 

But if you love writing and you love your subject matter, the name of the game isn’t necessarily to get rich.  Each book is a building block in a larger professional career, and that’s how I suggest people view it.  .

After writing:

About six months after you turn in your manuscript to the publisher, you will get page proofs which you need to pore over with meticulous detail.  Nowadays, this is largely done with a PDF file instead of an actual  manuscript and galleys.  Turnaround is usually quick, and there is no opportunity here to really re-write your work.  So be satisfied, up front, that you’ve said what you want to say in the way you want to say it.

While proofing, you also compile an index and make certain you have written short, punchy captions for your photographs.  Some publishers give you two bites at the apple here, so-to-speak, providing preliminary proofs and final proofs.  Some don’t.

Also, be aware that you don’t set the price of your book, or, usually, have a word in selecting cover images.  I always find it amusing when a reviewer complains about the prices of my books…as if I personally have something to do with setting them. 

No writer that I know of gets that particular perk.


Once you’ve finished proofing and the book is at the printers, one of your most important jobs begins: marketing. 

Some publishers boast really great sales and marketing people -- ones who are really on the ball, and work with you to create videos, blogs, podcasts, and so forth.  This is the case, definitely, with Hal Leonard, publisher of my Purple Rain, Kevin Smith, and Spinal Tap books. 

Other publishers aren’t so good with this aspect of the business. 

The bottom line is that if you want your book to make a successful debut, you should work hand-in-glove with the publisher, and also, where possible, spearhead your own initiatives (tweeting, blogging, Facebook, etc.).

When I began my writing career in 1997, I had no idea how to do any of this. None. Zip.

The Internet was still a relatively new thing back then, at least to me.  In 2011, I enrolled in a graduate program in communications, in part to help me better understand social media, mass communication channels and the like.  I don’t consider this a necessity, obviously, for all writers…but it helps.  I got to the point where I felt like I was making a lot of mistakes in the so-called “branding” process -- and embarrassing ones at that -- so I felt it necessary to formalize my education.  

Your mileage will vary, obviously.  Marketing comes naturally to some writers, and not to others.  It's not my favorite part of the process.

Reception: Once you have become a published author…

In terms of aspiring writers, I will reiterate how important it is to manage expectations. Writing reference books isn’t necessarily the short-cut to fame and glory.  If you want to write these books, do it because you believe you have something important or interesting to add to the conversation, and because you love the act of writing.

Finally, in terms of reception, be prepared for the dreaded “gatekeeper factor.”  In some cases, the folks who will be reviewing your book are the very ones who secretly -- or not so secretly -- think they could have done a better job than you, and should have been given the assignment in your place.  They want to keep you down and out -- far away from success -- so they can “sneak in."

To wit, I remember one guy trashing my Blake’s 7 book on a web site a few years back.  He noted that he had been trying to get a book published for years and couldn’t understand why my book had been published, not his. That inadvertent admission revealed his hand, and the bias behind his assessment.  Watch out for these gatekeepers, but also expect that they are going to be there, waiting to take you down, lest you – gasp! – eclipse them. 

In terms of your book’s reception, learn to distinguish between genuine and detailed (and thus helpful) criticism, and a hit-piece.  You’ll sleep a lot better at night once you can separate the gatekeeper reviews from the ones that really engage with your books, and draw critical responses based on your arguments or writing

What I’m saying, finally is this: Write the book you want to read, learn from the editing process, don’t expect to get rich quick, and then be prepared to have a thick skin when the book comes out. 


  1. Anonymous7:36 PM

    John, extremely informative journey into your book publishing world. Fascinating.


    1. Hi SGB:

      Thank you, my friend. I thought it was an interesting question, and it might be helpful to go into a lot of detail...


    2. Thorough and plenty helpful even as an outline to the process. You were very gerenous with your time and experience as always. Best, sff

  2. John,

    This is a marvelous glimpse into the machinations of the writing world, and I am truly grateful and humbled beyond words that you took such great time and consideration in answering a question that I was afraid appeared to come from the basest feelings of self-interest.

    Needless to say I learned a great deal from this, particularly in the personal anecdotes which you shared. I'm not being facetious when I say that I will keep this post saved for future reference. I truly hope that your answer provides many other scribes-to-be with the great insight it has given me. Thank you a hundred times over, and the best of wishes to you in all your future writing endeavors.

  3. Thanks for all of these helpful tips, John! As someone who is working on a reference book this post is extremely informative. I'm certainly not in it for the money but to write a book that I would like to read and (hopefully) others will too.

  4. You, sir, are the man when it comes to being informative and thought-provoking. Don't ever change, my friend. Kudos for this.