Q: I’m thinking about writing a controversial book about [subject deleted for privacy]. There have probably been a number of books already written on this subject, and there is a ton of information about the subject on the Internet.
I have two concerns. One, could plagiarism be involved if I take information from the Internet? My next concern has to do with the market. I wrote to some of the Web sites for permission to use their material, and a person wrote back and claimed that books of this nature do not sell well, even if you are an experienced writer. Any thoughts?
A: Research statistics and information are available to us all. You plagiarize only when you use the exact sentences and paragraphs someone else has written, but if you take information and rewrite it in your own words, you are not plagiarizing.
As to the issue of marketability, obviously the subject goes against popular thinking, which means one of several things can happen. It could hit a controversial note, catch a publisher’s eye, get published, get a great deal of publicity, and sell many copies. A few controversial books have done so. At the opposite end of the spectrum, it could be too controversial and not unique, and no traditional publisher will want to touch it. How can you guess which it will be?
Here’s the thing to remember: Only one percent of all manuscripts written ever get traditionally published, but people keep writing books, and publishers keep buying them, so people who are passionate about their subjects and diligent about polishing their writing and editing skills are still being successful, even in a tough market. Self-publishing means you take all the risks, but you could reap the benefits if your book becomes a hit.
The reason traditional publishers want a book proposal for nonfiction books is simple: Proposals make the author research the market and estimate the size of the market as well as the size and toughness of the competition. My suggestion is this: Instead of writing the whole book, write a proposal. Get a book on how to write a book proposal and perform all the research a proposal requires. Study the size of the market. Find other books on that subject and find out how they fared. Don’t listen to one person’s vague comment. Go to the publishers of similar books and ask for sales figures.
See what, if anything, you can do to make your book unique, better than others on the market, and more appealing to a broader audience. If you can’t come up with a unique selling point, you may decide not to write the book, or you may decide to self-publish a small quantity and test the market yourself, if you have an outlet for your book—that is, if you can find a way to reach into the niche market to which it is geared.
Bobbie Christmas, book editor, author of Write In Style (Union Square Publishing), and owner of Zebra Communications, will answer your questions, too. Send them to Bobbie@zebraeditor.com. Read more “Ask the Book Doctor” questions and answers at http://www.zebraeditor.com.