When my telephone rings, I almost always check the caller ID before I answer. If the number and name look unfamiliar, I assume that the caller is probably (a) a prison inmate, or (b) a would-be author seeking advice about publishing a book. Why that pairing? As an investigative reporter, I write frequently about malfunctions of the criminal justice system. Having gained a reputation among convicts and their families as a journalist who might look into claims of innocence, I receive numerous calls from desperate people. Most inmates and their loved ones are grateful if I do nothing more than listen. Wannabe authors, on the other hand, expect a great deal and are rarely appreciative when I offer candid advice. All things considered, I’d rather hear from serial killers.

Those who work for book publishers and booksellers, as well as authors like myself, understand how difficult it is to write, edit and market a compelling volume. Many other people, however, seem to assume that the process is a no-brainer, that surely their book will prove irresistible to everyone.

As far as I can measure anecdotally, at least half the academics I know—from physicists to political scientists—are absolutely certain trade publishers will welcome their manuscripts. This is also true for war veterans (choose your war), triathletes, fly fishermen, astrologers, born-again Christians, amateur chefs, sex exhibitionists, jazz enthusiasts, volunteer tornado trackers and baseball card collectors.

To academics seeking a wider audience than captive students and colleagues attending annual conferences, to amateurs with big dreams abetted by a messianic impulse, writing a book sounds desirable. A book will spread the gospel, confer fame and maybe even bring wealth. It also sounds simple. A book is just putting words on paper, after all. Why not try it?

If I sound like a curmudgeon, unfortunately—for me and for the productive use of my time—I am not. I accept every call out of some twisted sense of duty. I try to answer politely, although I fear I am sometimes curt, especially when I’m on an unforgiving magazine or book deadline of my own.

Most people in the book business I know face similar situations, whether they’re fellow authors or acquiring editors, publicists, literary agents, packagers, bookstore owners or clerks, or even librarians. For those of you fielding umpteen calls from novices who want to talk about that bestselling book inside their fertile (and quite likely deluded) brains, here’s some advice.

Question: Will you read my manuscript and give me feedback?

Answer: You might read the manuscript, if the person making the request seems promising and is prepared for a candid assessment. The trouble is, lots of hopeful authors reject negative or even lukewarm opinions. By the time they call you, most have already decided they’re on the way to writing a bestseller.

Question: Do I need a literary agent? If so, how do I find one?

Answer: The main reason to seek an agent before completing the manuscript, as all of you publishing professionals know, is if the project will require a significant amount of money upfront—say, $25,000 or more. Tell aspiring authors the best way to find representation other than referrals from established writers is to study the acknowledgments section of books within the same genre to extract the name of the agent being thanked.

Question: Which publishers would be interested in my manuscript?

Answer: Insist that the wishful writer study the publishing world at bookstores, at libraries and online. They can determine which publishers acquire similar books. But tell them not to expect a quick answer. In fact, they shouldn’t expect any answer. Not even from the small presses, who sometimes are as inundated per capita as the behemoths.

Question: How much money will I earn from my book?

Answer: Tell eager beavers to forget about making a profit. Almost all books lose money. If they actually finish a manuscript, if it is any good, if it attracts an agent, if a publisher offers a contract—only then may they start thinking about an income stream. Then tell the budding authors that if they actually come out ahead financially, they have accomplished something that so far has eluded me.

Author Information
Steve Weinberg is the author of six nonfiction books, with another coming next year from W.W. Norton.