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Dancer’s Image: Selling Your Book to a Non-Equine Publisher

Presented by Milt Toby at 2011 San Diego Seminar

A few bestsellers like Seabiscuit notwithstanding, horse books always have been difficult to sell to non-specialty publishers.  The sluggish economy has made things even worse.  Milt Toby, author of Dancer’s Image: The Forgotten Story of the 1968 Kentucky Derby and five other books, discussed strategies for selling your book to publishers not usually associated with the horse world.

The Market:  Writer’s Market 2011, an annual review of book and magazine publishers put out each year by Writer’s Digest, lists only three publishers that are looking specifically for books about horses—Half Halt Press, Trafalgar Square Books, and Alpine Publishers.  A fourth publisher, Eclipse Press (which published Milt’s other books), is not listed this year.

The bad news is that these publishers reported that they produce a combined total of around 30 books annually.  That amounts to very limited opportunities for authors of equine-related books, and authors likely will need to look outside traditional publishers.  There is some good news, though.  These specialty publishers often use first-time authors and authors not represented by agents.

Milt successfully sold Dancer’s Image to a non-equine publisher, The History Press, utilizing a strategy he calls “The Three ‘P’s”—proposal, platform, and promotion.

Proposal: Non-fiction books typically are sold to a publisher based on a proposal rather than a completed manuscript.  (This is not the case for fiction, a market in which agents and publishers almost always want to see a completed book.)  As the name suggests, The History Press publishes books about history.  To attract their attention, Milt’s proposal for Dancer’s Image characterized the book as a historically important because it dealt with the only disqualification in Derby history, rather than as a “horse book.”  How you describe your book to a potential publisher is important!  Give the publisher what they want and expect.  A book about horses is not necessarily a “horse book.”

The proposal should include a cover letter, a summary of the book, a detailed Table of Contents with chapter descriptions, a list of similar books on the market, and the author’s writing credentials.  It is very important for the proposal to do two things: first, you must convince the publisher that the book need to be written, and second, the publisher must come away knowing that you are the person who should do the writing.  Several good books devoted to drafting a successful proposal are available for guidance.

Platform:  “Platform” is a popular term in publishing today.  It simply means that there must be an audience of potential buyers for your book and that you must be able to show a publisher that you have a way to reach that audience.  Publishers are conservative, especially now, and they want to have some assurance that a book will sell before they agree to publish it.  You establish a platform for your book through personal contacts, social media (AHP programs are great for learning about Facebook, Twitter, etc.), speaking and writing, anything that establishes yourself as an expert (or better yet, as the expert) in your field.

Milt’s platform for Dancer’s Image was a combination of a well-established association with Thoroughbred racing, readers of his equine law blog “Horses and the Law” (at www.thehorse.com) and a monthly equine law column in Paint Horse Journal, a publishing history of books relating to racing and equine law, serving as Chair of the Kentucky Bar Association’s Equine Law Section, and his admittedly limited social media presence.  Dancer’s Image is a book about a horse, the Derby, a disqualification, and five years of legal wrangling over a positive drug test and who should get the purse and gold trophy.  Everything about Milt’s platform suggested there was an audience for the book and that he could each it.

Promotion:  Finally, who is going to promote and sell your book, you or the publisher?  In the best of all possible worlds, the publisher would do all the heavy lifting for authors.  In the real world, on the other hand, the majority of promotional work will fall on the author.  Although he has a publicist from The History Press to help with promotion, Milt knows the market and has more contacts within the industry.  Nearly all the public appearances Milt has made promoting Dancer’s Image were events he arranged.  Selling a book to a non-specialty publisher involves selling your ability to promote the book.  No one knows the book better, or has more time and effort invested in its success, than the author.

Finally, authors should consider alternatives too traditional publishing, including self-publishing and e-books.  The stigma of presumed low quality associated with self-publishing is vanishing, and Amazon.com is reporting that sales of e-books is surpassing sales of print volumes.

Dancer’s Image is available through Amazon.com.  If you have questions or comments, Milt can be reached at milt.toby@miltonctoby.com, or through his website, www.miltonctoby.com.