Saturday, February 16, 2008

Quick Digression on Publishing Nonfiction

This is really for tudor rose, who is/was in academia, polishing her MA thesis, and wondering how I went about getting published and what she might do—but since a) I know this is kind of a popular question [g], and b) the answer I started to leave started to get rather long—I figured I'd put it in as a separate post.

Anyway, the answer is (as always) that it kind of depends. I did a _lot_ of freelance nonfiction stuff, back when I was a scientist--but I rather fortunately had an expertise in scientific computation, at a time when that was a) rather rare, and b) highly in demand, because of the huge new popularity of personal computers.

What I did to break into that market (not that this is _why_ I did it) was to a) start my own scholarly journal, called SCIENCE SOFTWARE QUARTERLY, b) write a comic book for Walt Disney's Educational Media Department, titled NUTRITION ADVENTURES WITH ORANGE BIRD (I got that job because I was already writing comic book scripts for Disney, and when the Educational Media person called the comics editor looking for a writer, he kindly gave her my name. Tip #1: the more people who know you and what you do, the easier it is to get jobs), and c) wrote a brief note to the editor of BYTE magazine, enclosing a copy of "Orange Bird" and a copy of SSQ (with my name as founder and editor-in-chief circled on the masthead, and checkmarks next to the articles I'd written in the Table of Contents)

The note just said, "Dear Sir—as you can see from the enclosed, you won't find anyone who knows more about scientific and technical software than I do, and at the same time, can write to appeal to a broad popular audience. Yours truly…. P.S. I've never missed a deadline in my life."

OK, this worked. [g] I got an immediate assignment from BYTE, then used the clip of that article to get assignments from InfoWorld and PC Magazine—and with published clips from the Big Three (as they were then), I could pretty much write for anybody in the field of personal computing—and did, for several years. Within a year or so of beginning my freelance career (mind, I still had a full-time job as a university professor), I was making just about as much from writing as I did at the university (which is mostly an indictment of how badly universities pay their assistant professors).

Now, I really don't know whether tudor rose's thesis is in an area where there's a lot of publishing interest, or extant periodicals. If not…then your best bet (if that's the material you want to publish) is probably to try to produce a book-length manuscript, oriented to the popular market if you can (much better sales potential), but otherwise as a scholarly book—which is not likely to make you much money, but will establish your credentials, ala my SSQ/Orange Bird strategy. [g]

If there are periodical markets for your material, though—perhaps you could write articles based on your research for magazines like Archaeology, or The Smithsonian. Essentially, what you want to do in the beginning is to get into print. Nothing makes an editor want you, like proof that some other editor has already wanted you. And short articles like that could form a useful credential to accompany a book proposal.

One of the nice things about nonfiction is that it's possible to sell a book without actually writing it. You can put together a proposal for the book, indicating what material it would cover, who the potential audience would be, how long it might be, and an idea of how it might be structured—accompanied by things like your cv (if that's relevant), or any published material you might have (which indicates a) that you can write, and b) that there is some interest in your topic).

You can't, btw, sell fiction this way, unless you're already a well-established author. That's because no one can tell, from a proposal, whether you can really tell an engaging story or whether you know what a good novelistic structure is, or whether you have good characters. So you do (with very rare exceptions) need to have a finished manuscript (and I do mean finished, not, "Oh, surely the editor (who buys this for a million dollars) can tidy up all those pesky little grammar things, and I never paid enough attention in school to know what they're even called, hahahaha…" Stay tuned, btw, for an upcoming rant regarding homonyms and prevailing ignorance thereof. As a corollary to which, if you'll pardon my mentioning it, the male protagonist of my books is J-A-M-I-E. Not "Jaime". But I digress…) in order to sell a novel.

Anyway, tudor rose—the first step would be to look for markets that publish the material you're interested in publishing. Do you have a subject that can be adapted to magazine articles or other popular forms? (I'm not addressing online means of publication here, just because I've never done that, and it would take awhile to poke around and consider things. Also, I've never met anyone who's actually made money by publishing things online, and I think that's probably one of your eventual goals. [g]) Is it a subject that has no particular popular aspects, but is hot academically? There are lots of university presses and academic book publishers.

The most important thing—as always, in anything to do with writing (well, anything else, for that matter)—is persistence. Start looking around, and keep working.

Oh—and good luck!


  1. Thanks! I've got a couple of journals in mind, but as someone who's literally never had ANYTHING published before, I'm bracing for rejection... If persistence is key, though, then I'll just have to be persistent. :)

    I was sort of wondering about academic publication more than anything else - I will certainly keep digging, speak to former profs, etc.

    Again, thanks. I could tell you more about my thesis, but it's probably better left off a public forum - let's just say that the first sentence from one of my blog entries near Christmas when I was doing my course work was this: "Honestly. I'm working on a paper that involves 204 18th-century infanticide trials, so yay for cheery Christmas reading!"

  2. Looking forward to that promised rant on homonyms [g]! For what it's worth, I have a cousin named Jaime (short for James, of course) whose name is pronounced "Jamie", and all my life I've thought how strange it was that they spelled it that way. It just looks completely wrong to me, spelled like that.


  3. A great place to get started is by checking the LMP (Literary Market Place) to see if there are any publishers out there that specialize in your field. Your library should have a copy of the LMP.

    Also, because you're a historian, you might try writing ABC-CLIO abstracts. I'm a reference librarian and had a colleague who also had a history masters and did this. This would likely be boring as hell, but if you spend a lot of time keeping up on the current literature of your field anyway, you might as well get some writing experiences out of it. Here's a link:

    I also had another friend in grad school who wrote a lot of encyclopedia articles for weird, specialized encyclopedias, like The Encyclopedia of Emancipation and Abolition in the Trans-Atlantic World.

    It seems like you normally need to beef up your resume writing things you're not particularly interested in before you get to write what you want!

  4. Karen
    I not sure I want to read Diana's rant on Homonyms. I remember sweating bullets in English 101. I just know she will reach through the computor screen, grab me around the neck and scream "pay attention". I did try, it still makes me nervous even to type on this blog.
    I think I did ask earlier when you submit a manuscript if you had to have all the I's dotted and your T's crossed. I think I'm about to get the answer on that one. Big time.

  5. Dear Karen--

    It's probably the fault of that actress whose parents were either whimsical, dyslexic, or Spanish/Portuguese. The trouble is, if you speak Spanish at all, you can't help mentally pronouncing that name "HY-may."

    Annoying, though--rather like the people who blithely assume that my name is "Diane"--overlooking the one-inch letters on the front covers of all my books. (These people are usually the ones who assure me that they _are_ my "biggest fan".)

    Well...there are people to whom Spelling Matters, and those to whom it rather obviously Doesn't, and it is presently non-PC of those of the former to regard those of the latter persuasion with a jaundiced eye (having heard kindly explanations to the effect that people who don't spell simply haven't the gene for it). But we _do_.

    Let me put it this way: I went to a Catholic parochial school, lo, these many years agone. And while the people with whom I passed eight years definitely covered the spectrum in terms of learning abilities, aptitudes, etc.--every single ONE of those people graduated from the eighth grade able to read, spell, write legibly, and do basic math.

    (I personally taught all my kids to read, spell, and do basic math _before_ they went to public school, because I didn't trust the school system to do it. all honesty, I taught my daughters to do basic math. My son does not have a math gene. [G])

  6. Dear Sharaf--

    Yes, you _do_. [g] Pay attention. It's not that hard.

  7. Dear Diana,
    Oh yeah now I can comment here!! [g] About pronouncing: How is "Fraser" pronounced? Just with a "s" or "sh"?

  8. Ironically enough, my cousin Jaime grew up in Denver, Colorado, which certainly has plenty of Spanish speakers. I'm sure he's heard his name pronounced that way many times.

    I am definitely one of those to whom Spelling Matters. As a matter of fact, my first paying job (at 16) was as a proofreader for my local newspaper (a small suburban weekly paper in NJ). I had that job for about a year, then they introduced word-processing into their operations and decided they had no more need for proofreaders. This was around 1981, and since then a whole generation has grown up thinking they can rely on spell checkers to do the thinking for them.

    It may be un-PC of me to say so, but I think you're absolutely right about this. [g]


  9. Diana (not Diane) or, may I call you Artie?

    All right, I'll stop being a dumb-ass.

    I ALWAYS read Jaime as HY-may when I see it misspelled -- it makes me crave chips and salsa.

    I would like to share something.....

    I am one of 11 kids (10 living), all of whom went to Catholic school -- the same school, and many of us had the same teachers. (As provenance, my older sister was a nun for 17 years in the Sisters of Notre Dame.) Interestingly enough, only four of us are capable of spelling with any degree of confidence. The rest have other talents but, in that group of non-spellers, are 3 brothers who are ADD or ADHD (diagnosed as adults) and a sister who routinely mispronounces words, i.e., di-vouge for divulge. It would be easy to say they didn't work hard or attend to their studies; I recall their struggles but there was no ADD or ADHD then (in the 60's, 70' or even the 80's). As a parent of an autistic teenager, I am all too aware that there are many, many, different ways of learning, of processing, and that education, regardless of the environment, has only just begun to accommodate these differences -- with one major exception -- private/parochial schools. They don't have to. But there are lots of kids in those schools who are not receiving services, who are not diagnosed, and will not learn to spell or read or function.

    Yes, that was a restrained rant. I never thought I'd undertake the task of doing such but, you see, I had to. That is my job. It is what I do well.


  10. I have a feeling I'll really enjoy the homonym rant. :) Nothing is more distracting to me as a reader than to see a misused homonym, unless it's a misspelled word. *G* I know I make grammatical errors occasionally, usually misuse of the dreaded apostrophe, but that, to me, it much less distracting to the eye. Or maybe I'm just trying to make myself feel better for not paying better attention in class!

  11. Diana, did you "home-school" your kids?
    What curriculum did you use to teach them the basics before they entered public education system?

  12. People sometimes ask me how to spell my last name.

  13. Dear Midge--

    Thanks--I always appreciate a good (and well-founded) rant. [g]

    Yes, you're totally right; there _are_ any number of people whose learning modalities are different than the statistical "norm" and who would profit from help, if and as it can be found. And certainly it would be wrong to label anyone who can't spell as being lazy or inattentive.

    BUT...there are a heck of a lot of people who _don't_ have ADD or other difficulties and just think that "all those grammar and spelling things" are irrelevant or unfair.

    I remember one woman who sent me a chunk of her manuscript to read (this was years and years ago, when I was still able to do such things; my agents don't let me read stuff anymore that doesn't come through them), and when I pointed out that she had a remarkable number of random commas ("She stopped, to think, and when, the man rode toward her, she, turned around to, look, and..."), blithely told me, "Oh, I just sort of hit the comma key whenever I can't think what to put next."

    I mean, I _have_ seen manuscripts by people who really do have a disability, and they're quite different from those of the people who just don't care.

  14. Dear Sarah--

    Oh, glad you got in!

    "Fraser" is pronounced like "Frazer." Not with an "sh" sound, but not with an "s" sound, either.

  15. Dear Diana,
    I found out that when I'm sitting on the laptop I can't comment, but when I'm on the computer I can.

  16. "Yes, you're totally right; there _are_ any number of people whose learning modalities are different than the statistical "norm" and who would profit from help, if and as it can be found. And certainly it would be wrong to label anyone who can't spell as being lazy or inattentive......"

    Thank you, Diana:

    You see, my eyes cross and I see that good ol' *red* you write about because it's so easy for folks to make generalizations. I fully acknowledge that was NOT the case in your comments.... but my butt started percolating because it was a little close.

    "BUT...there are a heck of a lot of people who _don't_ have ADD or other difficulties and just think that "all those grammar and spelling things" are irrelevant or unfair."

    As a former educator, I'm sure you had plenty of evidence to support your comments. And, I agree whole-heartedly with you. I'm old enough to see the changes to know that the standards of education have hugely shifted but, as with most things anymore, it's a many-faceted argument as to why. Politics, changing demographics and populations, technology -- have we dumbed down our population as we become more technologically savvy? And, at the most basic level, some folks just don't care how they sound or appear when they communicate.

    I can be somewhat anal (Okay folks -- take your pot shots!) about it all. It's probably taken me 30 minutes to put my comments in print for all of the stopping, thinking, deleting, recomposing and contemplating I've done. I preview my comments so many times before I press that publish button that I start to wonder if I'm OCD.

    You have to know what a thrill it is for me, for all of us, to have even this level of dialogue with a wordsmith; maybe, because it is in the context of the printed word, that it's especially meaningful. All our weaknesses are on graphic display. For myself, in the process of exchange, I find that I am challenged to recall the long ago lessons of grammar, spelling, and composition. I have the blessing to possess a broad vocabulary and an ability to bullshit, but it takes huevos to do so here. It is in the process that I become re-educated and I thank you for opportunity.

    .....I guess it can be said that you are still teaching, though not science.


  17. When were you writing for the computer trade press? I was on staff at InfoWorld from 1985-1988, and then I freelanced for Byte after that. I didn't write for PC because they were mainly reviews-based, but a friend of mine from college was editor.

    I went to Catholic school from first through third grade and misspellings annoy me, too. I still remember my third-grade spelling book with a long list of 100% weekly tests.

    On the other hand, a lot of schools don't teach spelling well. They tell kids, "Sound it out." Well, there've been studies that indicate that that's not how good spellers work -- they do it *visually*, by creating an image of the correctly spelled word in their head, and then comparing the word to the image, and then having it "feel right." So I've been teaching my daughter to spell that way, and she's doing it, and she's the best speller in the class.

  18. Diana
    What is your opinion on the text messaging creeping into the school systems?
    I have heard several reports from teachers that students use this method in their school work without thinking anything of it.
    With everyone having cell phones will it become more and more invasive. Will children think it the norm?
    Will our next generation become an abbreviated society, and will they be our next teachers? Am I just an old lady worrying to much about nothing? OMG
    O BTW LUV D.G. OL B's

  19. If I hear "between you and I' on TV or radio, I cringe, but I think it is becoming accepted. People seem to be accepting more and more sloppy speech and writing patterns. I was taught that what I write reflects on how I think, but that seems to matter less and less. Those of us who still care about language are seen as fussy and pedantic. It's too bad. English is a beautiful language when properly used.

    I do have a lower standard for email because I put it on the same level as notes passed in class, but I think it a matter of courtesy to the character to spell his name correctly. I reach for the chips and salsa when I see Jaime, too.

    I am also looking forward to the rant on homonyms. It's a pity when writers don't know the difference between its and it's or who can't discriminate among their, there, and they're. I call this the communication equivalent of eating peas with a knife. It gets the food to the mouth, but there are more elegant ways to accomplish the task.

  20. Julie, you're awesome! I've just submitted my application to do abstracts for CLIO - I imagine you're right, and that quite a bit of it will be boring as hell, but hopefully there will still be enough of interest to keep me going.



  21. Diana
    Quick question: Are you fluent in any other language?

  22. Diana:

    Aye, two, am looking forward too you're rant on homonyms. Eye think it will bee a grate topic an won from witch wheel awl learn. In fact, aye visited a websight that listed over 1600 pears of whirreds, and was last updated in 1997. It was a reel butte.

    Homonyms are knot something my brain allows four me two mistake with any comfort at awl. It was very difficult fore me too rite this post without almost becoming physically ill. Aye almost wretched, my mussels ache, and my head hertz.

    Again, thanks four allowing mi two converse threw this forum. I half to go because won of my kids is wining. Aye whisht he wood stop.



  23. Sharaf--

    No, I can speak Spanish (very badly; no grammar! [g]), and I can read French reasonably well and German with difficulty (could do better if I had reason to do it regularly, but I don't).

    Back in the antediluvian, when I was in graduate school, you had to have "reading facility" in one foreign language for an MS, two for the Ph.D. program. (Hence the French and German; those were the languages most useful to a biologist interested in behavioral and physiological science.)

    Now, English has become the _lingua france_ [g] of both the scientific and the business worlds. I doubt most graduate programs have a foreign-language requirement anymore, which is rather a pity.

    I'd love to be fluent in a few other languages--as it is, I can get around Europe fairly well, because I can read signs [g] and order food (though when I ordered food in French in the Louvre cafeteria, the server immediately assumed I was a German, and replied to me in that language), but that's it.

  24. carefully adjusting fan-girl hat. *squee* I stumbled across this today, and I'm just thrilled. After I get these papers graded, I'm going to set in for some good reading.{end_fangirl}

    Seriously, I am glad to have found this. Do you happen to know if there's a livejournal feed for this blog? If there's not, would you mind if I set one up?

    And I still want to read your dissertation. (yes, I'm a biology nerd, and I have my very on shiny PhD myself. I think I'm going to need to write my own "outlander" so I can pay off my student loans! *giggle*)

    Looking forward to Happy Reading.

  25. There is a LiveJournal feed -- I just found it. :-) happy dance.

  26. Dear Jerusha--

    Happy to see you!

    I blush to admit that I haven't the faintest idea what a livejournal feed is or does--but if you think it's desirable and want to, I'd be most obliged to you for setting it up--whatever it is. [g]

  27. LiveJournal is rather like blogspot except it's more interactive (in some ways) because threads of conversations are kept together. The other advantage (IMO) is that it has a friends page where you can easily read what your friends are up to -- it's a very easy way to keep up with other journals and/or blogs. Mine is here

  28. Jerusha -- Thanks so much for the LJ link!! I've been anxiously awaiting this, but didn't know how to make it happen, myself.

    I couldn't agree more about the sloppiness of many people these days about homonyms and general spelling/punctuation/capitalization. It really drives me nuts, especially in business correspondence.

    I'd say more, but my shift is over and it's time to go home. Ta, all!


  29. I had to show that I had six years English for my master application.
    If you want to read something German I can send you my Bachelor's Thesis or any other thing you like to read. :)
    I can speak a little bit Danish.That is very useful when I'm there to make holidays.Not that I need it cause most of the people speak German there.
    So that was that for now. :)

  30. Jerusha, what is the livejournal feed for this blog?


  31. To Christa (and anybody else who's on LiveJournal) that URL is

  32. Diana,

    Thanks SO MUCH for the Jamie spelling comment! I see it spelled wrong in so many places, and it makes my head hurt! lol

  33. hello Diana,

    I have to agree with most of the others that spelling, grammar and punctuation are not taught well in schools today. However, the thing that disturbs me the most are the errors I find in books and newspapers. Working as a librarian on a major city daily I can understand a occasional typo but when I see factual mistakes it drives me bonkers. In books today I find typos and copy-editing errors -- something I never saw years ago. The copy-editing boo-boos really are frustrating. To read a paragraph where a character is refered as Fred and in the next two graphs he becomes Frank and then back to Fred you have to wonder what the author or proofreader were doing for that to get by them. This is in the final product and not the bound galley! Amazing!

    As you know publishers many times send galley copies to be used as review copies with the poviso that a reviewer check quotations against the printed book for accuracy, so many ties I get to read the galley rather than the book. I have manged to get two of your Lord John novels that way.


  34. Dear Scott--

    Oh, don't even get me started. [g] Though in all fairness to the excellent copy-editor who's done my last few books--it isn't always either the copy-editor's _or_ the author's fault. I don't have time right now, but will try to come back later and tell you the hair-raising saga of what happened to THE FIERY CROSS--and why there are (in spite of the best efforts of self _and_ German translator) still a couple of egregious mistakes in the German dialogue bits of the English edition of BROTHERHOOD OF THE BLADE.

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