How to write a book for the general public and get it published

Consumers have an insatiable appetite for information about aesthetic plastic surgery and nonsurgical procedures. Many well-known physicians have used the power of print to effectively grow their practices and to expand their profiles in their specialties.

A professionally published book can be the ideal jump-start for expanding your aesthetic practice. Being an author gives you instant recognition among consumers, the media, and your peers, and adds to your credibility in the field. It also gives you a venue to get your message out to the public.

As Kathy Fields, MD, an assistant clinical professor of dermatology at the University of California, San Francisco, says, “The primary goal for Katie Rodan, MD, and me for writing Unblemished [Atria, 2004] was to create a cutting-edge guideline on acne, its causes, and its treatment. Acne destroys self-esteem, and very often the acne sufferer never gets to the right resource or physician to help them. This book has been very successful for our patients and thousands of other people to get control of their skin and change their lives.”

A Book Idea

The basic rule of writing is to stick with what you know. Write about a topic that you are passionate about so that you can draw on your longtime experience with patients. Your book should also reflect your own personality and specialized approach.

To help you prepare, visit Amazon. com or your local bookstore to see what books are currently available in your area of specialty and how they are positioned. If dozens of books like the one you will write are already on the bookstore shelves, you may have to rethink your subject or give it a new spin.

On the other hand, a lack of books on your proposed topic may be an indicator that the idea is too limited or that your intended audience is too small. Your topic should be broad enough to appeal to a sufficient number of readers to make selling it viable for booksellers.

Book ideas and titles cannot be copyrighted. Copyright protection applies to the work as a whole, but you cannot protect your ideas. It is very likely that more than one person will have the same idea at the same time. Occasionally, series titles may have some trademark protection, but that is not common.

Writing a Successful Book

The best reasons to write a book are to communicate something that hasn’t been said 100 times before, and to establish yourself as an expert on the subject. The market has become saturated with books written by aesthetic plastic surgeons and dermatologists, so for a book to become successful, it should be unique and stand out from others with the same subject matter.

Therefore, I offer the following important tips:

• zero in on a hot topic;

• target your readers;

• understand the marketplace;

• make the book readable;

• choose a great title; and

• optimize your front and back covers.

A book written for the consumer audience should be simple, informative, and educational. It should not be overly technical or complicated, or resemble a textbook.  The trick is to for you to establish a voice of authority while keeping the reader interested and entertained.

Often, physician-authors need assistance in translating complex theories into consumer-friendly terms. Physicians are accustomed to communicating with other medical professionals, and they often struggle with expressing their concepts and opinions in layperson’s terms. Also, many of them simply do not have the time in their busy schedules to develop a book concept; research, write, and fact-check the book; and organize the elements required to publish it.

Therefore, you should look for a publishing service that can do it all—including writing, research, editing, design, typesetting, artwork, print and production, as well as marketing and promotion—and deliver quality printed materials in a cost-efficient and timely fashion. Also, work with an editor who understands the specialized needs of physicians and will be able to represent your professional image in an appropriate manner.

The Book Proposal

Once you have finished writing your book, the first step in getting it published is to write a proposal to give a prospective publisher a sense of what the book is about and who its intended readers will be. It should be clear, articulate, and to the point. Go all out to capture the buyer’s interest as quickly as possible and to hold it as long as you can. How your proposal looks, and how professionally it is presented, are critical to shaping the attitude with which it will be viewed.

The elements of a book proposal are:

• a one-page cover letter;

• a one- or two-page introduction that sells your idea;

• an annotated table of contents;

• a sample chapter;

• information about the author; and

• a marketing plan.

Perhaps the most important element of any book proposal is the marketing plan. All prospective publishers will want to know in precise terms what you will do to help sell this book. They are interested in your public-relations (PR) efforts, potential distribution outlets, and other unique ways that your book may be promoted. You will be expected to take time away from your practice to promote your book in terms of national media, satellite radio tours, book signings, and other promotional events.

In today’s competitive book market, books do not sell themselves. Most commercial publishers will not invest unlimited time and money into promoting a book by an unknown author. The in-house PR representative assigned to your book will be juggling several titles at once, and will typically spend about 3 months promoting your book before moving on to the next group of books he or she is assigned. The best advice is to hire your own PR firm, preferably one with well-established publishing experience.

Finding a Publisher

Once you have written your proposal, it is time to send it to prospective publishers. When publishers evaluate your proposal, they look at the idea to see if they like it, then they look at the sample chapter to see if your writing measures up to the idea. Don’t worry—publishers are not typically in the business of stealing ideas from prospective authors.

Ideally, you want to find the best publisher to get your book into print and make your book a success. The bookstore is a great place to research the publishers that dominate your field of interest. Your local bookseller or librarian may also be able to shed some light on the specific publishing houses that meet your criteria.

Some publishers purchase manuscripts selected from the pile of those that are sent to them “over the transom,” but the overwhelming majority do not. Books that get sold this way tend to carry low advances. Also, many well-established publishers are not interested in purchasing manuscripts sent to them from authors who do not have a nationally recognized name.

Instead, large and well-established publishing houses deal almost exclusively with agents—in fact, many will not even look at a proposal that is not submitted by an agent. Agents know what all of the individual editors in a publishing house are looking for, what kinds of books they have bought before, and what titles they may be interested in adding to their lists.

Ideally, an agent will help you finalize your proposal and get it directly to the editors and publishers most likely to buy health and beauty books. Because agents work on a commission basis, they need to sell a lot of books and cannot usually devote individualized attention to each one of their authors.

Even if you think you can get a publisher interested by yourself, you may need an agent or a literary attorney to finalize a suitable contract. Most commercial publishers offer you some form of nonrefundable advance, applied against royalties accrued on all sales. Most agents charge 15% of this advance for their services. Certain publishers are known to invest more artistic effort into their projects, and therefore will offer lower royalties. In some cases, a book may be published without any advance and a higher percentage of royalties.

Choosing a Title and Cover Design

You have written a book proposal, and you have sent it to prospective publishers. But you’re not done yet: You’ve submitted a working title, but what will your book’s title really be? The title should be attention-grabbing and memorable, and it should concisely convey what the book is about. The subtitle can explain the book’s content in greater detail.

It is helpful to survey the market to see what other titles are out there. Look for your prospective title in Books in Print (or booksinprint.  com) and run your title through Internet searches to determine its viability.  

Along with a catchy title, the book should have a well-designed cover. This is what the bookseller will look at to determine the book’s marketability, and it is what the consumer will see first when perusing the bookstore shelves.

What to Aim For

Do you have a great idea for a book dealing with plastic surgery? Now could be a great time to write and publish it. Peter B. Fodor, MD, FACS, an assistant clinical professor of reconstructive plastic surgery at the University of California, Los Angeles, Medical Center, is the editor of an upcoming book titled Be Your Best. He sums up the state of consumer-oriented books on plastic surgery, and on aesthetic treatments in general, as follows:

“Prospective aesthetic plastic surgery patients have never been as confused as they are now about what they can and cannot expect from aesthetic surgery. The excessive media hype of aesthetic procedures, self-promotion by physicians without appropriate formal training, and the unreality of ‘reality’ television shows has contributed to this confusion. Plastic surgeons writing consumer books containing reliable information on aesthetic surgery will help to dispel current misinformation about the field.”

With the general public’s current interest in plastic surgery, fueled by the numerous reality shows on television and the media’s interest in the subject, the marketplace is primed for books dealing with the many nuances of aesthetic plastic surgery. By following these tips, maybe you too will become a published author. PSP

Wendy Lewis is a contributor to Plastic Surgery Products and the author of nine books, including America’s Cosmetic Doctors (Castle Connolly). She is also editorial director for www.MDPublish.com, a medical publishing group. She can be reached at [email protected]

Alternative Routes to Publishing

Today, more opportunities to get a book published are available than ever before, including more than 50,000 independent publishers in the United States. Many good independent small and midsized publishers may be more amenable to working with new authors than the publishing giants.

The self-publishing route is the natural choice for many physicians. The main advantage of self-publishing is that it affords the author complete control over the book’s content, structure, timing, and design.

—WL