So, You Want to Write a Farm Book: Q&A w/ Chelsea Green Senior Editor Fern Marshall Bradley

So, You Want to Write a Farm Book: Q&A w/ Chelsea Green Senior Editor Fern Marshall Bradley

If you’ve clicked on this link, chances are you’ve either 1) thought about writing a book or 2) are currently working on one.

In the light of The Organic No-Till Farming Revolution, we would like to help demystify that process a little (because selfishly, we want more no-till books).

I got ahold of the amazing Fern Marshall Bradley, Senior Editor at Chelsea Green Publishing—whom you know for publishing authors like Eliot Coleman and Ben Hartman—and Fern generously allowed us a little glimpse behind the scenes to better understand what CG looks for in authorship and some places would-be authors go wrong. So, before you pitch Chelsea Green (or any of the other popular ag-publishers, for that matter) definitely give this article a read, as it could save you a lot of time—and heartache—and help land you that book deal.

I thought maybe we could start with some basic numbers here: approximately how many book pitches does Chelsea Green see every year, how many proposals do you request of those, and then of those how many are published?

I don’t have exact figures for you, but I can give you the ballpark which would be that we see hundreds of queries. We see them via email or somebody asking the question. Of those? We probably review more than 100 proposals a year. We publish 25-30 books per year, and that’s across all of our publishing categories, not just our agriculture books.

In terms of experience and expertise, what are some of the common qualities you look for in a Chelsea Green author?

I would say we’re looking for someone who has a creative solution, a creative outlook, on what might be a pretty common topic like growing vegetables, but they have something unique in their experience. And I think “experience” is a key word there, too. Most of our successful agriculture books are written by people who are writing from their own experience. They may draw on the experience of other farmers they know or have talked with, but [the book is] based on “this is what I do, this is how I do it, this is why I do it, this is why I’m excited about it.”

I think prospective authors are also people who enjoy teaching. A lot of our authors are people who we have met someone in a situation where they are giving a workshop or a talk or we see things they’ve written for a magazine or online. And so they have already that inclination to want to share what they do with others.

It’s ideal if someone already has a platform, such as a blog or podcast or other published writing. But we can work with authors as they develop a social media presence. Equally important is a willingness to develop a workshop proposal to submit to ag conferences and to do some traveling to give presentations. Most interviews can be done from home these days, thanks to electronic technology, but in-person appearances are still an effective way to build awareness of a new book and generate sales. 

So that’s a part of the conversation prospective authors should have with themselves and their families—can they make time to do promotional work, especially during the first year after their book is published? Chelsea Green’s publicity and marketing teams give great support to authors, but the author needs to be a partner in the effort. So if the idea of public speaking is terrifying, or if a prospective author really doesn’t like to travel, that’s an obstacle to success.

If you’re trying to get a book published, the first step is the pitch or query letter. And if an editor likes the pitch they will ask for a proposal so is there anything that helps a book pitch or proposal stand out and should an author have their proposal prepared before they pitch?

I would think an author needs to have at least part of their proposal before they pitch. A pitch letter sounds like a simple thing: a two page letter that basically gives a snapshot or the core idea of the book, why the author is the right person to write it, why the book is important, and why it’s likely to be successful at this moment in time.

But in order to write a good letter about your idea for a book, I think you probably have to have drafted some version of your outline. The outline is going to be the proof of whether or not an idea has legs, and can be turned into a book.

An outline is a key piece of the proposal, and I’m not talking about the outline as just list of chapters but beyond the list of chapters, a description of each chapter that will be in the book. So what we are hoping for in a pitch letter is that idea expressed in a way where we get it—that we’re sure that we know what the person wants to write about.

If you have a catchy title, that doesn’t hurt, but if you don’t, that isn’t going to stop us because the title of a book often gets discussed and changed in the editorial process anyway, but the idea underlying the title needs to be a fresh, interesting, meaty idea.

What are some avoidable mistakes when it comes to pitching Chelsea Green that often doom would-be authors?

Some mistakes that people may make is saying they would like to write a book but not knowing what they want to write about, so maybe not having done that background work. Also, developing your writing voice is important. And that’s also another piece of the work that I suggest people do before they try to write a query letter.

We work with a lot of people who are trying to write their first book. It’s not as though you need to be a published author to work with Chelsea Green, but we are looking for someone who can write with a persuasive and interesting style.

Sure, it may need editing and that’s fine. We’re happy, that’s what we do, we edit books. But if you haven’t spent some time with your writing to see that you like doing it for one thing, and to find out whether you have a unique voice just to get in touch with your own writing voice. That can be a mistake, to try and launch into your book before you really develop your style.

Also, I don’t know if I’d say it’s a mistake but we do often get proposals from people who we are interested in what they are doing, but we think perhaps they need to spend some more time in the development of their actual farming before they’re ready to write a book about it. So, being willing to take the time to be sure you’re grounded enough in your subject.

We say that we publish books for serious readers—people who aren’t just looking for the ABC of something, but rather the whole alphabet treatment of a topic.

If someone feels like their ready to pitch Chelsea Green, how much of the manuscript do you suggest they have written before contacting you?

In order to present a proposal to Chelsea Green we request two chapters. That might be the book’s introduction plus a chapter or it could be two full chapters of the book. I’m sure that many authors don’t have their two chapters written when they first send the query letter. They may only have their outline in development. If an editor becomes interested in your query letter and gets in touch with you and starts working through a proposal, that proposal is going to require that expanded outline and two full chapters before it would be presented to the whole editorial group.

You all only publish 25-30 books per year and that means that there are several books that someone on the staff or several people on the staff enjoyed—are there ever times you’re having to turn down a book that you really liked?

I would say certainly there are times that we turn down a book with regret. And that might simply be because we don’t feel we could provide the proper marketing support to most effectively bring that book out into the world.

Every book we either accept to or reject is sort of an unique set of circumstances, so I would say yeah, there are certainly proposals that we discuss at length but sometimes ultimately decide we’re not going to go forward with it.

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