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I've written several essays and am still working on some that I would like to eventually get published.

The issues I cover are on a wide range of topics ranging from Scientology to Piracy to Democracy. All of them are controversial topics. I've supported all my arguments with references to try and give them credibility. The average length is about 2000 words, with some being over 6000 words.

What is key is that I think the views I advocate are unique or at least controversial. In all cases my arguments are well supported by evidence and reputable sources.

I would like to publish a book in the line of "Arguably Essays" by Christopher Hitchens or Jon Stewarts early book "Naked Pictures of Famous People".

What can I do to formulate these essays together in a way more attractive for publishing?

  • Should I try and link them, however loosely?

  • Should I try and shorten them, making them more brief and thus perhaps more accessible?

  • Should I leave opinion out of it to a certain extent?

Or anything else that has slipped my list of issues to consider.

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When I saw the title, I thought this was going to be another question about e-books vs. traditional publishing, but that's not the case at all. Does my edit to the title work for you? –  Neil Fein Mar 13 '12 at 1:26
    
@NeilFein Title edit is fine, thank-you :) –  J.T. Apr 2 '12 at 0:41
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5 Answers

The up-hill battle you face is that there's a lot of material out there and publishers can afford to be choosy. Based on observation only (I haven't tried to get essay collections published nor am I a publisher, but I've watched others pursue this), publishers are looking for a unifying theme that can be used for marketing. With Christopher Hitchens or Jon Stewart that unifying theme is the author -- people have heard of those authors and are naturally going to pay attention. They've never heard of me or (I presume) you.

A unifying theme can work even for an author who is previously unpublished, but it requires an established base or a compelling hook. For example, Gordon Atkinson sold Real Live Preacher (now out of print), a collection of essays from his blog (with some new material), and Michael Burstein sold I Remember the Future, a collection of stories that had been published in magazines and had all been nominated for awards. Michael Lopp published Managing Humans and Being Geek, collections that originated on his blog, and Johanna Rothman published a book about hiring technical people based on entries in her blog. In cases like those, people are attracted to the theme and have also had the opportunity to sample.

In your case, you offer a collection of essays that may be individually compelling, but they aren't tied together somehow, they haven't been previously published (I presume) and vetted by the public, and (I presume) you are not already known personally. That's going to be a hard sell. Things you might do to increase your odds, all of which will take time, include:

  • Seek publication of individual essays in appropriate venues.

  • Blog, and drive enough traffic to that blog to build the beginnings of a base. (How to do that is beyond the scope of this question.)

  • Self-publish some of your material (e-books make this easier than it once was) so that you can point to those sales when approaching publishers later.

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Opinionated people with opinions they want heard are dime a dozen, and if you want essays on a range of topics, search no further, millions of blogs are there free for you to pick for free.

Opinionated people with opinions worth listening to are an entirely different matter, they are rare and few in between. Finding them and recognizing them is a difficult work, not a work most book editors are willing to undertake.

What you need to do first is make sure your name is known as the latter.

Maybe instead of going for a book, you might want to start as a columnist for a magazine/newspaper? That way the editor may cherry-pick what they like most. They don't risk much, and you're earning some, but most importantly you have something to show the publisher: "renowned columnist for a popular newspaper".

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This will sound like a lame response, but your problem is that you are not famous. Keep in mind that publishers do not want to publish collections of essays, generally speaking, since they do not consider them marketable. Being famous is the way that people like Stewart and Hitchens have "solved" this problem of marketability.

Effectively, I am saying the same thing as the above commenters. You need to develop a following outside of the writing world and then use that profile to overcome the resistance that the marketing department will have for your book.

I would not recommend self-publication in this instance. Unless you have a strong, clear, core idea that has a niche audience that can be identified and reached, it's a bad option. You are talking about promoting controversial views on general and varied subjects. Consequently, you will quite simply be unable to sell this book until you have raised your profile - whether to publishers or individuals/groups. So you should focus as the above recommend on raising your profile and publishing the individual essays. Then collect them as a book when you are famous enough to do so.

Don't kill the book's prospects by prematurely self-publishing the volume. If it was marketable, you would be getting responses from publishers. If a publisher is not willing to market the volume, you will not want to take on this difficult job yourself. Self-publishing is currently still only a good option for non-fiction when a niche market exists that either (1) you could reach effectively yourself, and will receive no benefit from a publisher (in this scenario, you would have no problem finding a publisher if you wanted to) or (2) the same is true except that the market is too small for a publisher to care about.

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Your difficulty is that you need an elevator pitch.

If you're unfamiliar with the term, an "elevator pitch" is a super-brief description of your book - basically, how you'd pitch it to somebody sharing an elevator with you. A line, two - no more. This level of succinctness is crucial, because from most potential buyers - both publishers and, eventually, readers - that's pretty much all you're going to get to catch their attention.

This makes marketing anthologies (of any kind - fiction, nonfiction, opinion, whatnot) extra-difficult - because you need to bundle a bunch of different, unrelated pieces into a single quick pitch. Consider your own reaction, if you were offered a book like you're describing. If somebody (say, other than a personal acquaintance whose opinion you trust) were to say, "Hey, you should totally try this book! It's got a whole bunch of essays on a whole bunch of topics! Yes, just like on lots of places on the internet - but this guy's really good and his ideas are really interesting!". Would you be excited by that intro? Would you believe the last part? Would you pay money for that? Or would you figure you could get the same in a hundred magazines and blogs? That's the problem you need to overcome - once you've got a pitch, your work will stand or fall on its own merits.

What's a good unifying pitch for my collection?

Common was to unify your pitch include:

  • Focus on a specific topic. If you can focus on a single issue, the book becomes much easier to describe and to market. If you're after publication, you can deliberately target a topic. The topic also doesn't need to be entirely expected or straightforward - if you've got something clever or unusual, or something that stretches a definition in a way people will enjoy, that's great too.
  • Focus on your unique style and character. Then that becomes the draw. "A Zen Master takes on everything from Piracy to Scientology!", "Delightfully tongue-in-cheek, Things White People Like mocks every staple of everyday life!" etc. etc.
  • Focus on a consistent approach. Popular science books like Freakonomics or A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper cover a huge range of different topics, but they're all an attempt to examine a variety of issues in pretty much the same way. Similarly, if you've got a core insight you apply over and over, or a regular system by which you ferret out the basis for your controversial opinions, then that approach might be the core of your book.
  • Have an existing following. Then the pitch is really easy - "read the exciting insights of [semicelebrity X]!". Nice work if you can get it.

What other options do I have?

It sounds, from your question, as though you're having a tough time finding a unifying concept. That's perfectly reasonable (albeit, of course, less fortunate than the alternative). In that case, your pieces might really be better off as standalones. If you come to this conclusion, you have a few worthwhile avenues to consider:

  • Sell your pieces to professional publications. This is the single-piece equivalent of publishing a book. It gets your name out, it gets you paid, it brings you contacts, it establishes reputation in the field. You can even spread out into several directions and different publications at once, which is really rather nice. Don't forget to consider respectable, popular online venues - writing a guest post for a really popular blog gets you a lot of readers, at least briefly.
  • Blog. It's tough to get a following, but good content will generally find an audience. A decent blog readership is often acheiveable - and could even be the basis for the "have an existing following" option for some later project.
  • Self-publish as an eBook:
    • As a collection - This is straightforward, and gives you the self-publishing version of what you wanted for traditional publishing. But, you'll run into the same problems selling this that you would with writing a pitch to begin with.
    • As individual ebooks - this might be a great solution if you really think you've got marketable content. Split up into a bunch of tiny ebooks; sell 'em cheap. This lets you pitch every single one of your essays independently; each individual pitch will be much easier; each individual ebook will be cheap (and hence pretty attractive to newcomers). You might even distribute some free, as a sample that'll help draw more readers to your ideas and your writing.
    • Both - lots of itty-bitty little ebooks, and one "big" one collecting them all. The small ones are great as above, but they also direct readers towards the big collection. This is no guarantee that the big collection will sell nicely, but this is literally no additional risk (and very little additional effort) beyond what you've got for the individual ebooks. So, yay!
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Keep in mind that "attractive to publishers" means "readers will pay money for it". That and only that. What you will need to do is prove that there is a market for this (when we can already read megawords about people's views on "topics ranging from Scientology to Piracy to Democracy" for free online). Not that it can't be done: look at Freakonomics. You have to make it new, unheard-of, fresh.

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