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Get Found: A book editor explains how he finds authors

Get Found: A book editor explains how he finds authors

Picture of Angilee Shah

Last week at Career GPS, we met Dave Parks, a longtime newspaper reporter who found new opportunities to do meaningful work. It is more accurate to say, though, that at least one of those opportunities found him.

Apress editor Jeff Olson was looking for a writer who could explain health care reform knowledgeably and accessibly. He scoured the Association for Health Care Journalists freelance directory, came across Parks' listing and website and wrote him a cold email asking if he was interested in writing a book.

Apress is best known as a publisher of technical computer books, but Olson edits their line of business books. Parks' Health Care Simplified was the only health-related title they published this year. But Olson is looking for more health content, specifically a writer who can tackle health care options for businesses. He is seeking health-related pitches and can envision Apress publishing books on certain sectors of the health industry, such as pharmaceuticals or medical devices. Health is, after all, a huge part of the economy.

This week, Olson talks with Career GPS about how writers and journalists can position themselves well to be found by book editors, and what they should expect if they choose to do a book project. We talked on the phone from his home office in Vermont. The transcript is edited for length and clarity.

Angilee Shah: How do you go about looking for authors for Apress books?

Jeff Olson: If you know that somebody can deliver on time, that's huge. If I can find somebody I've worked in the past, that's good. If that's not the case, sometimes I will ask for referrals from people I've worked with in the past. That sometimes works out, sometimes it doesn't. The other thing I like to do is look at blogs. You can tell how diligent somebody is by how often they are posting to their blog, and you can also see how well they write and what they're writing about. So I spend a lot of time trolling the Internet and looking at people's blogs, not just in the health are but all kinds of different areas.

Do you follow blogs over time or find them as needed?

I find them as needed, although sometimes I will keep track of a blog that I may find useful later on. If I'm looking for someone to write about estate planning and run across somebody who is doing an interesting blog on product development, I'll just save it and come back to it later.

What qualities make a blog interesting to you and show you that the author can write?

I can spot good writing -- that's one of my main jobs. That's the easy part. The harder part is finding people who are not just parroting. That's what I don't like about Twitter. Everybody is just retweeting everybody else's stuff and I don't find that very useful. Likewise with the blogs, there are people, especially in politics, who all pretty much say the same things, no matter where they are on the spectrum. It's rare to see something truly new and innovative to come out of, well, just about anything. I'm looking for those rare people who have unique insights into the world for unique books.

In the case of Dave Parks, I was simply looking for someone who wrote really well and could describe the Affordable Care Act in layman's terms. And I know that journalists, more than anybody else, understand the importance of a deadline.

Blogs vary a lot in terms of style and tone. Do you look for people with strong voices or already have a readership base?

One thing I look for is that they're blogging regularly. So often you'll come across a blog with an entry in Oct. 2010, one in Feb. 2011, two in April, one in July, and that's it. That actually describes the majority of what I run across. I look for people who are regular contributors to their own blog. That shows me that they enjoy writing usually.

What if they're regular writers at various sites, not necessarily their own blogs?

That's fine. Usually blogs will have an "about me" page with links to the things they've written for other people. I'm looking for consistency of output. It's usually a pretty good indicator that this person will be a reliable writer.

Is there anything else you scour to find new writers?

Usually that pretty much covers it. You can find almost anything on the Internet now. Once in a while I will email journalists who don't have blogs but are regular contributors to publications. So they don't have to have a blog; there just needs to be evidence that they write well.

Do they have to be journalists?

No. In fact, it can be harder to strike a deal with a journalist than with other people. Journalists are used to getting paid, and paid up front for the work that they do. The book industry is a little bit different. You do get an advance against royalties, but the bulk of your payment will come down the line as the book gets out there and sells. There's always the danger that if the book doesn't sell, there may not be a lot more money coming in. It requires a little bit of a leap of faith and I find some journalists just don't like the idea very much. I don't blame them because if they can just call up their usual contacts and find work that gets paid immediately, then that's probably a better gig for them.

Do you often look at professional organizations' directories?

Sometimes. But not a lot of them. The Association of Health Care Journalists directory was interesting because it was fairly comprehensive and it had details so that you could reach people. Some organizations have member lists that are inaccessible to nonmembers and others maybe just have names. So they're not quite as useful.

I'd be remiss if I didn't ask, what kind of pay should authors expect for doing a book like Health Care Reform Simplified?

I probably shouldn't say. I'm happy to talk about that if it seems like an idea might go forward. Part of the reason is that it depends on how it's done. A short book might result in one kind of a contract and a longer book might result in a bigger advance. Again, ultimately the level of pay depends on how well a book does over time. Every so often, there's a book that just does really well and is in the market for many years. So it's a nice return for the author.

It's a gamble?

Yes. And it is for us too. In a way, the author shares in the gamble with the publisher. In most cases, you've got to be writing a book for more than just the money. Sometimes it's a nice credential to have and opens the door for other things.

There are people who will look at this post and say, why would someone want to get into the book industry now?

Apress -- a little plug for our company -- is at the forefront of what's going on. We're very advanced in electronic publishing. Much of the industry is fading away, especially with the demise of bookstores, but there is a segment of the industry that is pretty healthy.

So Apress is growing?

Yes. Book publishing is probably a fixed pie but there are winners and losers within that pie.

Do you think that your industry is going in the direction of books that are turned around quickly and respond to current events?

Only partly. The healthiest part of the industry is seems to be what is called STM: science, technology and medicine. These are typically high-priced books with pretty significant information that you can't really find elsewhere. There are some segments of the industry that are doing pretty well.

If someone is interested in writing for Apress or getting assigned to the book about health care options for businesses, what should they do?

They should get in touch with me directly so we can talk about the broad overview.

Is there anything else you'd want the Reporting on Health community to know about what you look for in authors?

I'm always open to ideas. Anybody is free to email me and pitch an idea. I'm happy to take a look at it and think about it. If it's not going to work for us, maybe I'll know somebody else it might work for.

Should people send you book proposals?

A book proposal will be needed ultimately, but just send a quick email asking if I will be interested -- I'll know right off the bat in most cases. It's not worth putting a lot of time into. But we're looking for, especially, complex topics that need to be simplified so I think journalists are good at doing that.

You can contact Jeff Olson by email at jeffolson at apress dot com.

(Photo Credit: Apress photo by Anil Jadhav in Flickr Creative Commons)

Read more about getting into book publishing :

So you want to write a book?

So you want to write a book? More tips from a second-time author

"Blood Feud": How I Turned My Health Journalism Fellowship Into A Book Deal


Picture of Laura Newman

Helpful, streamlined advice here. Thanks, Angilee.

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