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Tuesday, November 27, 2007

I've got a great idea for a book about movies/moviemaking. I assume this all starts with a query letter. Do you have any general advice? Also, I'm young with no moviemaking credits, how much harder does that make it for me to sell a book about movies?
The book biz is an entirely different racket than the movies. Books cost little to produce, authors make very little, and it takes an astonishingly long time for publishers to produce a finished book from your electronic manuscript. (Though it takes iUniverse about two weeks...) The book biz is also bizarre because booksellers get to return any unsold book to the publisher for a total refund, which is a huge waste of shipping and paper that no one seems able to stop.

But the critical difference you need to know about is between the book biz as it used to be, and the book business now. By and large, publishers are not looking for a good book. They are looking for a book with a "platform."

What's a platform? It's what makes the book promote itself. Any book by a celebrity (Diane Keaton's books of photography, an autobiography of Joan Jett, etc.) has a platform. A book by a writer who makes a business out of selling his books has a platform. They want a cookbook by a chef who has his own cooking show, or chain of restaurants, or both. They want a book on screenwriting by an author who does weekly seminars all across the continent. They want a book on art buying by the head of Sotheby's, or the former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Any book by a celebrity will get press. Thomas Hoving is pals with lots of reviewers; his books get press too. And, of course, any author who goes around personally promoting their book at seminars and other events doesn't really need press.

I was recently talking to my editor trying to sell her a second, revised, expanded edition of CRAFTY SCREENWRITING. Her main question wasn't "how will it be better than the first edition?" Her main question was what my platform is. I have a popular blog, appear randomly on radio, occasionally jury things, appear on panels and so forth. So I'm not without a platform. But I don't cross the country teaching seminars and selling my books. (I don't have time.) I may have said I would do, back when I wrote my first book, but by now it is obvious that I don't.

So it may not be easy to sell your movie book, if you don't have a platform. A great idea may not be enough.

The process for getting a book contract, as far as I've seen, is:

a. Tell your idea to a book agent;
b. If she bites, write her a proposal. This is a document of forty or so pages with a sales pitch, a marketing plan, an explanation of your platform, an outline, and a sample chapter.
c. She helps you polish your proposal then
d. sends it to publishers, who hopefully get in a bidding war.

One other thing you should know about book writing: by and large, you don't do it for the money. On most books you'll be lucky to get a $5,000 to $20,000 advance for 3-6 months work, and you'll be successful indeed if you clear your advance.

You write to help crystallize your own thinking. It may be an excuse to do some research you wanted to do anyway. It is a great opportunity to interview people who might not talk to you if you weren't writing a book. It is fun to give back knowledge.

And it sure impresses your parents!

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