Interview with Stephen Blake Mettee

The author of the Fast Track Guide on How to Write a Nonfiction Book Proposal talks about the impetus for his book, on why the nonfiction book market is easier to break into than the fiction one, his Fast Track series, the development of his company Quill Driver Books, about the differences between independent publishers and the big multinationals, subjects not being addressed in the proposals he gets, self-publishing, and lots more.

Interview by Magdalena Ball

Magdalena: What was the impetus for writing How to Write a Nonfiction Book Proposal?

Stephen: There are two other good books on how to write a book proposal, but they are both pretty lengthy. I would be speaking at writer’s conferences and hold one of them up and tell people to buy it and use the information in it and their eyes would glaze over. They seemed to be saying “You mean I have to read 230 pages to learn how to write a 15-50 page proposal?” As you know, the best tool left unused is worthless. So, I undertook to write a short book that covered the subject completely but didn’t subject the reader to hours and hours of study. I tried to do what I tell authors to do: Write with a high ratio of ideas to words. Maybe I did it, the first month it was out USC adopted it for their graduate publishing program.

Magdalena: Which came first, the Fast Track Course or the book which led the series?

Stephen: We were planning on starting the Fast Track Course series so I figured this would be a good inaugural title.

Magdalena: Is the nonfiction market easier to break into than the fiction market? If so, why?

Stephen: Much easier. For at least two reasons, first something like 85% of the books published each year are nonfiction and, second, the big publishers still control the distribution avenues for first-time fiction since most first novels come out in mass market paperback. It is easier if the big publishers have fewer titles to work with and since fiction is pretty much a monopoly, why bring out hundreds of extra titles? This will change. Like with nonfiction a number of years ago, independent publishers are beginning to publish fiction and figure out ways to sell it.

Magdalena: Have you ever considered writing a novel?

Stephen: I have, and I will before I die, but first I have to learn to play concert piano, teach myself fluent Spanish, and find a cure for cancer.

Magdalena: You mention in your preface that there are small but important pieces of information left out of other books on writing nonfiction proposals that your book covers. Can you give a quick run through of what these are?

Stephen: The sameness of editors and agents when submitting–meaning you prepare the same proposal for each. That you still need a proposal even though you wrote your book. I also give actual figures on what one can expect for an advances and royalties. I believe I did a better job of clarifying the difference between royalties paid on the cover price and royalties paid on net. I also strongly advocate multiple submissions–even to those who say they don’t want to get them. I think others disagree with me on that.

Magdalena: Tell me about Quill Driver Books how did it come about?

Stephen: I had tired of owning a printing company, loved reading and writing–my degree is in journalism–knew how tough it is to make a living as a writer, so decided to start Quill Driver Books.

Magdalena: Apart from the obvious differences in size and scale, how do independent publishers differ from the big multinationals?

Stephen: I have a detailed comparison of the two in the book, but I think the two biggest factors are the greater personal contact the author has with the staff at the independents and that independents have a reputation of keeping a book that isn’t quick coming out of the gate in print. Large publishers tend to publish a great number of titles every year–they kind of throw a few hundred titles up against the wall and the ones that stick get promoted and the ones that fall to the floor get discontinued. This is bad because some titles take months to find their market. The Chicken Soup for the Soul guys said it took their first title 18 months to take off,

Magdalena: Is there any subject you feel is in demand but not being heavily addressed in the proposals you see as a publisher? In other words is there a hot subject you would love to see a proposal about?

Stephen: We are really anxious to get more Best Half of Life titles. These are upbeat self-help and how-to books for people over 50–think “Dummies Guides for baby boomers and beyond.” For this series, we get a lot of proposals of inspirational memoirs from people who have survived one tragedy or another when what we are looking for are books like Golfing after 50, Dating after 50, Scuba Diving after 50–mainstream activities just geared to the special needs and wants of people born before 1950.

Magdalena: Talk to me about self-publishing. Do too many authors get into it without understanding the complexities of publishing?

Stephen: With self-publishing, you become the publisher, complete with marketing, publicity, distribution, editing, warehousing, collections, financing, etc. You’ll need office space, a set of accounting books, a UPS account so you can ship, letterheads, invoices, boxes, etc. If you are a good marketer and a good business person, this might be the right move for you. For most authors, it isn’t, The distribution channel through wholesaler to retailer is particularly unresponsive to self-publishers and start-up independents. The most successful self-publishers I’ve seen are speakers who sell their books at the back of the room.

Magdalena: Is editing becoming a lost art?

Stephen: You hear this refrain all the time and with some of the books that make it into print, that’s understandable. We don’t think it’s a lost art at Quill Driver Books. I do think the type of editor like Max Perkins (Hemingway, Fitzgerald, etc.), who could cultivate an author until something good came from him, is pretty much extinct.

Magdalena: Tell me about the non-profit fundraising book you re working on.

Stephen: I’m almost embarrassed to talk about it. I do think its a great book, it is a collection of fun and profitable fund-raising events anyone can hold with all sorts of resource material, but I’ve put it on a back burner–like so many writers–until I get more time.

Magdalena: What are some of your other big projects/ or thing you are excited about right now?

Stephen: Glad you asked. We are currently launching our first 1,000,000-copy seller! I know, you’re asking how I can say it is a 1,000,000-copy seller if we are just now launching it. Just watch, I’ve never been so excited about a book. The content is right, the author is right, and the market is huge. The title is “If You Want It Done Right, You Don’t Have to Do It Yourself.” It’s by Donna M. Genett, Ph.D. a psychologist who has been coaching executives at major corporations for the last 15 years. “If Your Want It Done Right” is a business management allegory in the spirit of “The One Minute Manager” and “Who Moved My Cheese” but with a greater degree of immediate practicality. We have gotten great prepublication endorsements from people such as Ken Blanchard the co-author of ” The One Minute Manager.”