How much pre-writing research do you have to do?

As part of our special ‘A year in the life of an academic writer’ series,  Policy Press author and independent researcher Helen Kara shares her top tips on the research you need to do before you even begin penning the great work….

Helen KaraLet’s say you’ve had a terrific idea for a book that is making your brain fizz with delight. Should you run to the computer and start writing immediately, the sooner to light up the world with your genius? Nope. You need to check a few things before you reach that point.

First stop: Amazon. I know it’s the evil empire, but it’s still very useful for doing research, and they don’t make any profit from that. Suppose you decided my throw-away line about Mongolian puddings actually was a genius idea, because you lived for several years in Mongolia and you think other countries would benefit from learning about their impressive range of delicious desserts. So search Amazon (not just .uk but also .com) for ‘Mongolian puddings’ – and lo and behold, you truly do have a genius idea, as there are no existing books in direct competition. But do think of other search terms you might use. What about ‘Mongolian desserts’? Luckily there are no competitors there, either.

Production values

Once you’re sure there is a gap for your book, do some research into publishers. Look at the publishers of existing cookbooks and make a short list of those you might like to work with – generally speaking, the ones that publish the books you like the most. This is where you’ll realise that book publishing isn’t just about the words, it’s also about production values: paper quality, cover design, typeface, layout etc.

When you have a shortlist of publishers, check them out online. How big are they? National or international? What’s their business model – co-op, limited company, PLC? Are they solvent? Who else writes for them, and would you like to be in that gang? Do you know any of those authors – or can you find them online – to ask about their experience of working with that publisher?

Don't sit around waiting to be chosen by a publisher...

Don’t sit around waiting to be chosen by a publisher…

Novice writers often seem to feel quite diffident about approaching publishers, as if it would be a real honour to be chosen to write a book. I see this the other way round. Publishers can’t function without authors. That doesn’t mean authors have a right to walk all over publishers and make unreasonable demands. But authors do put in several years of unpaid time upfront, with not much financial reward at any stage.

For example, I began work on my last book in January 2011, spent many months writing it, then helped with the marketing, and two and a half years later I’d earned a modest sum in royalties. I’m not complaining about this, I know it’s the deal for any writer these days and I benefit in other ways. Nevertheless, given that we’re not in it for the money, it makes sense to me that authors take control from the earliest stage and find the publisher they feel most enthusiastic about working with.

I chose Policy Press because it’s a non-profit, which fits with my own ethos, and they work collaboratively with authors, so I can get involved in all phases of the book’s life. Other authors don’t want to collaborate, they want to do the writing and leave it to the publisher to do everything else. And that’s fair enough – but it’s sensible to work out what kind of author you think you’ll be, and find a publisher to fit.

“…then, and only then, is it worth starting work on your Mongolian Puddings masterpiece.”

Once you’ve chosen a potential publisher, find the author guidelines on their website and read their book proposal form carefully. This will give you a lot of insight into the kind of work you need to do at the early stages of writing. However impressive your idea might be, the commissioning editor will need to be able to sell that idea to the publisher’s sales team before you’ll get a contract. Your proposal helps the commissioning editor to make this sales pitch. If you can’t sell the book to the publisher, there’s little chance of it selling to readers.

When you’ve got your head around all that, find the relevant commissioning editor’s contact details online and give them a ring to talk through your idea. This may sound radical but, generally speaking, commissioning editors are happy to hear from prospective authors. You need to know whether your idea is, in principle, the kind of thing they’d be interested in commissioning. You also need to know whether they have already commissioned a similar book – if they have, it’s time to go back to square one. Also, you’re sounding them out as someone you may be working with quite closely, so it’s worth assessing how well you think you and they would get on.

If all the responses from the commissioning editor are positive, then, and only then, is it worth starting work on your Mongolian Puddings masterpiece.

Talking of starting work… I realise that I’ve been saying a lot about various stages of academic writing, without saying anything about what I’m actually working on at the moment. I confess that’s because I haven’t been doing much academic writing in the last few weeks, as I’ve been writing a hefty research report to a client’s deadline. But now I’m getting going on the second draft of my next book, so next week I’ll tell you how I’m approaching the process.

More blog shaped words from Helen can be found here:

Where does a book begin?

What, another blog on academic writing?!!!

A year in the life of an academic writer: About Helen Kara

And some books by the same author:

Research and evaluation for busy practitioners

Policy Press bytes

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