My Book Writing Journey

A couple of days ago, I finished my first book and turned it in to my publisher. You’ll be hearing a lot more about it in a few months, but this post is for the large number of readers who have sent me all kinds of questions about the book publishing process.

It was a tremendous feeling, to finally finish my book and know that it’s actually going to be published. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do – write a book of my own, see it published, then walk into a bookstore and find it on the shelf. The idea that it actually happened is almost unbelievable to me, even now.

Many readers have asked me over the last few months to talk about how I secured a book deal and managed to actually write a book. Did I get an agent? Did I write the book first and then shop it? What exactly was involved? What can I expect for income?

Here’s the real scoop on my book deal from beginning to end. This is not a “how-to” on getting a book deal. This is merely the path I followed from dreams of writing a book to writing one.

Before the Deal

Ever since The Simple Dollar became successful, I’ve been thinking about publishing a book. I tossed around a lot of different ideas about what it could be, but for a long time, I never really did anything about it. It just seemed like a neat idea, but my time was so tightly packed that I never really went forward with any plan.

Last September (2007), I decided to get serious about the book publishing idea. It was about this time that I was beginning to think about writing as my primary career and walking away from my job at the time, and I decided that getting a book written and published might be a good way to do that.

I hit my social network pretty hard and found two people who were in the publishing industry and another who had published five (or so) books, and asked them what I should do to get my foot in the door. They all told me that the first thing I should do is put together a book package, describing exactly what I wanted to do.

The Book Package

Basically, the book package that I assembled had four pieces.

A cover letter

This was basically just a letter introducing myself, giving a one paragraph pitch of who I was, a two paragraph pitch of the book, and a one paragraph pitch of why I was perfectly positioned to write the book.

A justification

In other words, why am I an appropriate author for this book? I described my personal story and the success of The Simple Dollar (450K monthly visitors, 35K subscribers, built within two years with no promotion). At the time, I had very few other writing credits, so I felt that was the biggest hole in my package.

An outline of the entire book

This was basically a four page document outlining my full idea for the book I was proposing. I described the full idea, then broke it down chapter by chapter.

A rough sample chapter

I also included a sample of one of the chapters. I spent about a week writing a rough draft of one of the easiest chapters in the book, intending it to be a sample of what I was working on.

Trying to Find an Agent

I then attempted to find an agent for my book. I basically spent five months doing this without actually finding an agent to represent me. I had several strong bites, but the biggest thing that seemed to turn most of the agents away was the realization that I had almost no print publishing history. If you can’t point to stuff you’ve done before, you have to rely entirely on your other successes, and a lot of literary agents don’t get the internet. Yes, there are some that understand what’s going on online, but they’re few and far between and they’re usually out there cutting their own deals.

I almost acquired an agent twice, but both times they seemed to completely drop off the face of the earth. They simply stopped responding to emails, so I gave up.

Trying Another Path

Given this failing, I was pretty disheartened in February. I talked to some of my friends and they encouraged me to just send out the package to publishing houses that seemed appropriate. I basically made a list of the publishing houses of many of my favorite personal finance books and I simply sent a copy of my package to all of them.

No responses at all for a month and a half.

I had basically given up, when out of the blue I was contacted by Adams Media. They weren’t interested (yet) in my proposal, but they were interested in my story and they offered me an interesting deal. They had a general concept of a book project that they were interested in publishing and they thought that I was almost perfect for the idea. Would I develop a proposal for that book and send it their way?

The idea they had in mind was just about perfect for what I wanted to do. It gave me a ton of latitude to take things in my own direction and focused heavily on useful information for a broad audience. I really can’t talk about the specifics of the book quite yet (be patient, I will before very long!), but there were many aspects of the project that I loved.

I put together a proposal centered around the idea they had in mind. They loved it and accepted it almost immediately. Three weeks later, I had signed a book deal. No agent, no anything. The advance (which are book royalties paid in advance of writing the book, usually to help support the author while the book is written) was reasonable for a first time unpublished author who’s not riding a tidal wave of publicity (between $5K and $10K).

As the project developed, Adams informed me that they were very happy to hear a proposal on a second book project from me, perhaps an updated version of my original one. This is something I’m going to mull over in the future, but I’m already thinking about it on the back burner.

Writing the Book

My first attempt at tackling the book was a failure. I tried just starting at the beginning and plowing through the whole thing based on the very brief outline I’d included in my proposal. Bad, bad idea. I got about 20% of the way in and hated it. It was disorganized and nonsensical.

So I trashed the whole thing.

I started over again, using the methods for writing that have worked well for me for The Simple Dollar. Basically, that means doing an enormous outline. Each time I write a post for The Simple Dollar, I first come up with an idea and toss some fragmented ideas down on paper. I then do any necessary research, figure out the ideas I want to communicate, then develop an informal outline down to the individual paragraph.

So that’s what I did. I wrote an outline for an entire book down to the individual paragraph. The outline itself took up almost fifty pages in Word, and it was what I spent about 50% of my total writing time on. I finished this outline in early May.

After that, I wrote between 1,500 and 2,000 words a day on average for the book, fitting paragraphs onto the outline that I’d developed. I promised the publisher I would be able to deliver a strong draft of the manuscript on July 1, and I was pretty confident about making it.

But another problem developed. There was a lengthy period in early June where I was distracted by a lot of real-world events. This left me focusing intently on the book for most of the second half of June, writing as many as 5,000 words a day on the manuscript over the last two weeks. I used a common time management trick to do this – I basically ignored everything that was not vital in order to get it done. This means I currently have 1,300 email messages in my inbox that I need to read and respond to.

I finished the manuscript on June 24, turned it into my publisher, and now I’m waiting. Next comes the editing process and some design choices, then it will be made ready to publish, with promotion and other such things. Adams Media seems pretty committed to get the book out the door by the end of the year – in fact, the editing process has already begun and I’ve already been involved with some of the promotional issues related to the book.

This is where things sit right now. The last month or so has been incredibly intense, so I intend to take things a bit easier in July. At this point, just keeping up with The Simple Dollar seems like taking things quite a bit easier.

If you have any questions, I’d love to answer them. Ask away in the comments. I will probably assemble a “reader mailbag” just of questions about this process (at least answering the questions I can answer right now) and post it soon.

Trent Hamm

Founder & Columnist

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 and still writes a daily column on personal finance. He’s the author of three books published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press, has contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and his financial advice has been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.