Hi. I’m writing a book on regenerative design for structural engineers with my friend Oli. The book aims to challenge engineers (who, alongside many other things, are responsible for a huge amount of carbon that is released) to reimagine the way they design.
We are still grappling with the exact meaning of regenerative in this context (which may well form another post) but one of the key factors is that regenerative design is about the process not the product.
We decided to write a book because we love books. A book is clearly a product. But we want the project to be about a lot more than just the product. We want to share the process. Oli and I have agreed to do this in a variety of places and in lots of different formats. As a BILT fellow and a huge fan of BILT blogs I wanted to share my long form writing pieces here, so that hopefully it can create some conversations.
That’s my back story.
Right now, Oli and I are having loads of fun dreaming about the book and debating the content. Next up we will write a book proposal. This post is about all my previous book proposals – because when we write our new proposal we come with a history (hopefully mostly good) and it’s important to understand that I think. Apologies in advance if you find this a little naval gazing – I hope it will also be useful.
Books published: 3 (plus one self-published).
Books folders on my hard drive: 12 (each new book idea starts as a folder).
Book proposals submitted: 16ish for 7 books.
Book proposals accepted: 3 (one is still being drafted).
My first book
For my first book, Structural Timber Elements, I was very fortunate. I didn’t write a book proposal, instead the publisher approached me. I had just moved from working in industry almost full-time to becoming a full-time academic. One of my old colleagues had the idea for the book but didn’t have time to write it, so, knowing I had just become an academic (and therefore lots of free time on my hands, ha) I would be able to make it happen. As chance would have it I was able to write it and so that summer (2015) I wrote my first ever book. Please note this is not typical.
My first rejection
My second book was going to be about changing the world (of course). I actually wrote it, over the course of a week. All 30,000 words. It was a book I needed to write, just to clear the thoughts out my head. I then started writing proposals. I have lost count of how many I sent off – at least 5. And I first encountered the silence that follows. For most of the proposals submitted that never became books the silence is normal. It’s not nice. In fact it’s horrible. But, unfortunately, it is my experience. The book remains on my hard drive – now 5 years out of date. Occasionally I refer to it, and as a reference of my own thoughts I find it helpful. But at least for now it will never see the light of day.
My second rejection
Following my first rejection it was time to try again. Rather than write some waffly nonsense about a subject I am ill-equipped to write about it was time to go back to what I know – concrete design! You may be shocked to discover that books on concrete are incredibly boring! Having taught the subject for over a decade I wanted to write a book that captured the highs and lows of designing concrete. A book that would maybe even make you laugh! The aim was not to provide new information but instead to make the current understanding of the subject much more accessible. My proposal was sent to a major publisher, and they decided to develop it. So it went out for review (including a sample chapter). The response was marmite. Two people were very positive. One person hated it. In my attempt to make the book accessible I had intentionally moved away from traditional academic language.
“the language is not appropriate for a book e.g. expressions such as Fantastic! Or Hell yes!”
So a case was made for the book to be published. But sadly, it fell at the next hurdle – the ‘will it make any money’ hurdle? And so, it was another rejection. Although at least this time I knew why, and what was good and bad about my approach. And I had some nice reviewer comments I could show other publishers.
My first success
If you don’t at first succeed, pivot!
At the same time as I received my rejection I was talking to my publisher about updating the book I had published. I received the final rejection on my iPad as I waited in a coffee shop to discuss details with my editor. And so, at the end of that meeting I suggested a new book. In fact exactly the same book as above, but now on timber (wood) design. They were interested so I drafted a proposal. And this time the idea was accepted. That book was published in 2020. 2 years after that initial conversation.
In my spare time I run a Micro Record Label. I have published two books as part of my record releases. But I wanted to write and publish a book on how to run your own Micro Record Label. I self-published the book by funding it through Kickstarter. I printed 200 copies (roughly 100 were bought as part of the Kickstarter) and they all sold out within 6 months. Plus, my book featured in some end of year lists. Along the way when I saw what I thought was a suitable publisher I sent out a proposals (at least 4 but I’ve lost count). With pretty good sales for a book with zero marketing and which is willfully obscure and some great feedback I was hopefully that someone might like to take over the book and publish more – alas it wasn’t to be.
My Second Success
And so back to engineering. Following the successful release of my first book and having a second on the go, I wanted to write one on conceptual design. This was one of those books that needed to be written. Everyone knew it needed to be written. And people had wanted it for literally decades. And yet it still didn’t exist. So I proposed it. I again submitted it to a specialist engineering publisher. It was accepted. I then couldn’t resolve a few contractual details with the publisher (not limited to, but importantly, they wanted us to carry unlimited liability on the book) so part way through writing we moved to another publisher. The book is now both their fastest and best-selling book ever (but remember this is a very small engineering publisher with a very specific market) and is helping to redefine the books they publish (the one after includes movie quotes, in a book about engineering!)
In fact, in 2020 I accidentally published three books, I would not recommend this.
You’d think by now every proposal would be a hit, right? Wrong. I proposed another book. A quirky rapid floor design book that is based on a children’s mix and match book. Sadly no one wants to publish it.
So, in all of this failure and the occasional success what have I learnt?
Well firstly know what you are good at. It turns out I am good at writing accessible engineering books for the structural engineering market. My books are quickly written (normally in a couple of months over the summer). Others could write them better (and slower). But it turns out that when no one else is writing them and there is a need it is better to write the book than not.
Secondly know who your target audience are. Every successful book I’ve written had a clear audience. When I try and propose something more vague and for all living people, it turns out no one wants to publish it. When I propose a book for engineers at a specific stage in their career and can show why it is important – publishers become interested.
Thirdly work out who to publish with. Start noticing who is publishing in the area you are interested in. Build relationship (the concrete textbook actually started with the publisher asking me to review a book proposal from someone else – I did a very good job (I hope) and said and by the way would you be interested in this proposal?).
Finally, if you don’t at first succeed. Try pivoting. Or try a new idea. Or try again with the same idea. But don’t give up.
4 thoughts on “Publishing a book in a year: January”
Inspiring stuff – looking forward to reading more.
I found this overview of experiences really interesting. Providing a description of each proposal/project ‘case’ available alongside others helped me see how you were making decisions and trying out alternatives as well as making sense of the tough times in a productive way. Thanks.
Really interesting James, have definitely thought that your stuff should be more available, its just a shame that it has to go through publishers and that seems very hard. I did wonder if the best way is to serialise things as blog posts or other online things, because thats where I go for my information these days! Super interested to see how you get on!
Great insight into your experience James. I love the look of the kid’s mix and match book!