How to get published. Advice to a commissioner.

A few days ago I was approached by someone ostensibly wanting to commission me to ghostwrite his non-fiction book, a guide to business success based on potted biographies of successful and not-so-successful people from a thousand years ago up to the present day.  He had apparently spent the last few years compiling these, in the process using up all his savings, so he couldn’t afford to pay for my services.  I assumed he was offering a share of potential royalties.

I normally offer to do a sample piece of writing, based on what potential commissioners send me, but in this case I decided it would be better to offer him some advice and a critique of the chapter he had drafted.  What follows is an edited version of that advice, which I offer free to all aspiring non-fiction writers.  Feel free to copy and distribute it, provided you retain the copyright notice at the end.

Dear ____

I have now had time to digest what you sent and have put together some ideas/comments.  These are not comprehensive, and I could say more, but should give you an idea of my competence.  See what you think.

General discussion of your project

The sample is fairly well written, although it could be tweaked here and there.  There are also a few spelling mistakes [I listed a couple of examples] and possibly a factual error.  According to… [I provided details of an apparent error in his chapter and gave him the reference I consulted to check his facts].

The book would have more credibility if references were cited.  That way you would also avoid accusations of plagiarism or inaccuracy.  If you want a ghostwriter/co-author to tweak things then having the references would make it much easier for this writer to ensure (a) that direct quotes from sources were properly attributed (put in quotation marks and referenced), and (b) that the rest of the text was significantly different from passages in the reference works for it to pass as original work and so avoid charges of copyright infringement.  Additional advantages would be the added value to the reader and the goodwill of the authors/publishers whom you cite.

[Then followed a detailed discussion of the purpose and structure of the book.]

Publishers are, by and large, only interested in publishing books they are convinced they can sell.  The marketability of the book depends firstly on its contents and secondly on what the author/authors can contribute to the process.  Do they, themselves, tick the “interest boxes” of the media, and/or do they have a marketing plan themselves?

Regarding the first point, your book very much slots into an established genre:  self-help/business.  That will make it relatively to easy to sell to publishers, but then it should also have at least one unique selling point (and preferably more than one).

Regarding the second point (what you can bring to the book’s marketability), you need to establish your credentials with publishers, especially if your own biography isn’t included in the book.  Who are you?  Why were you motivated to write the book?  How are you qualified to write the book?  Obviously you don’t need to portray yourself as a writer, as such, if you are working with a credible, published ghostwriter/co-author, but you do need to explain why you are knowledgeable about the subject, and if you have an interesting/amusing/dramatic story to tell about your life, so much the better.

What to do next?

The good news is that, as long as you have a credible published co-author, you shouldn’t need to finish the whole book in order to land a publishing deal.  What is required is:

·        A one-sentence attention-grabbing summary of the book

·        A one-page synopsis of the book

·        A summary of the individual chapters of the book

·        The complete first three chapters

When that’s done, you need to systematically work your way through bookshops/Amazon/The Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook identifying all the publishers of similar books.  (This is most easily done through Amazon, which automatically suggests books similar to any you are looking at.)  Identify which of these publishers accept unsolicited manuscripts, and then, of these, which accept submissions by email.  Starting with those in the latter category (to keep costs down) you need to find out exactly how each prefers to be approached, before sending them an email outlining the similarities with and differences between your book and one or more of the books they have published.  This should emphasise, of course, your book’s advantages, and state what you can personally add to the book’s marketability and what you see as the target readership.  (Incidentally, I think a good hook might include something like “the perfect book for a time of recession”.)

It is vital that if publishers specify that they require an initial letter (or email) only, then you send just that, if they specify an email and a synopsis then you send just that, etc.  If your earlier approaches were satisfactory then most will eventually want all the things I listed above before offering a contract but, if you have “ticked all the boxes” (including that of having a credible co-author/ghostwriter), then you should be able to negotiate a publishing deal without having completed the book.  [N.B.  This applies to non-fiction only!]  Any credible co-author/ghostwriter will be a member of the Society of Authors (I am on the committee of the Scottish branch) and so will have access to free and expert legal advice on the wording of contracts.  (The SoA inspects contracts line-by-line and, in my experience, always succeeds in getting these altered to the benefit of the writer/writers.)

My offer

I have not re-written what you sent me because I have already given you significant advice for free and my time is valuable, as I know you will appreciate.

If you cannot pay me for my time up-front, I would be prepared to help you do everything in the “What to do next?” section for a 50 % share of all rights and royalties, should the book be published.  An alternative would be the inclusion of an option allowing you to buy out my share for £X at a later date.

Best regards


It then transpired that this potential commissioner had had a “reputable” agent for 18 months and had submitted his book, through this agent, to many publishers, all of whom had responded that the book wasn’t quite right for them, and that he now intended to self-publish.

I wrote back to him as follows:

Good luck!  Some words of advice:

(1)  Don’t make the mistake of going with a vanity publisher […].

(2)  Bear in mind that if you self-publish you will need to pay someone to edit the book for you.  It does need some work, and few professional editors/writers would be prepared to do this work for a share of the hypothetical profits from a self-published book. That’s not to say that it’s impossible for the book to be successful if it’s self-published, but it is certainly less likely.  You will have to work extremely hard at getting bookshops to stock the book, at getting reviews etc.  Reviewers are snowed under with conventionally published books, to the extent that they can’t possibly review them all.  If they can see that a publisher hasn’t been prepared to take the book on then they are far less likely to review it.  Likewise, bookshops are besieged by big publishers trying to get shelf space.

(3)  I am rather puzzled by what you say about having a reputable agent.  Is this agent experienced in this particular genre?  Has the agent obtained publishers for such books in the past?    Has the agent read the whole manuscript?  If so, then he/she has let some errors slip through, and I’m not surprised that publishers have told you that “it’s not quite right for them”.  I don’t mean to be rude, but warning bells are ringing here.  (You don’t have to respond to any of this, of course.)

Anyway, I do wish you well, and if you change your mind and decide to negotiate with me, the door is certainly open!

Best regards


I hope this is helpful to aspirant authors.


The above may be freely distributed provided it is accompanied by the statement that it was written by Dr R Eric Swanepoel of

BioWrite website

BioWrite website

About biowrite

I am a writer specialising in non-fiction, particularly in assisting people with their biographies.
This entry was posted in My books/commissions, Writing, Writing advice and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s