Nikki McDonald on how to get a book deal

Nikki and friend.

After I wrote Speak Human and The Design Method, I got a lot of questions from other designers. The one that stood out from the rest was: “How do I get my book published?”

Seems that a great many hope to publish someday, but aren’t quite sure how. So, I turned to my friend Nikki, and asked if she’d become an advisor on Officehours.

Nikki McDonald is Senior Acquisitions Editor at Peachpit Press and New Riders. She focuses on photography and design books. In another life, she earned a magazine journalism degree from Ohio University. After this, she landed a job as a features editor at MacUser Magazine, and helped launch the magazines: MacAddict and DigitalFoto.

Thankfully, she agreed to take part and lend a hand to aspiring authors. Plus, she answered a batch of questions I bet you’ve wondered about. Here goes:

What makes for a great (non-fiction) book?

The same thing that makes for a great fiction book—great writing! I am fortunate to work with some truly talented writers who are also experts in their respective fields and that’s a tough combination to find. Alberto Cairo, Michael Janda, Susan Weinschenk, Robin Williams, Stefan Bucher, Marty Neumeier, Von Glitschka—they are all great storytellers as well as designers.

Scott Kelby is the number-one bestselling author of photography techniques books because when you read his books, you feel like you’re getting advice from a friend. He’s conversational and funny and he teaches you a ton of great techniques without boring you to death in the process. Readers love to be entertained as they learn. The best authors can do that.

How do you help cultivate this sort of a work?

I always encourage authors to write in a conversational voice, as though they’re talking to a friend. Many people tend to become oddly formal when they write, as if they have to be boring to be taken seriously. They write things they would never actually say out loud. I tell authors to write how they talk. Keep it short. Use active verbs. Get all your facts right. Tell some good stories to get your points across. And try to have some fun.

Do certain types of books sell better than others?

Yes. Books that teach basic, fundamental skills tend to sell well and sell well for a long time. Robin Williams wrote The Non-Designer’s Design Book for Peachpit over 20 years ago and it’s still one of our bestsellers because she explains the core concepts of great design in a simple, easy-to-understand way. She’s not remotely pretentious or long-winded. And she’s funny. That woman still gets fan letters every day from people who have successful design careers because of her book.

Books that teach hard-to-learn programs or skills are also pretty successful because people really need that information to succeed in their careers.

And occasionally you’ll get lucky and find a really charismatic author who is also a great writer and public speaker with a huge social network and a unique point of view on a particularly popular topic who will write a random, one-off title that sells like crazy—but that doesn’t happen very often.

Christopher Navetta and Max Friedman created a super hero persona for Nikki, and mock comic book cover, while making their Design Fundamentals books with Rose Gonnella. Christopher Navetta and Max Friedman created a super hero persona for Nikki, and mock comic book cover, while making their Design Fundamentals books with Rose Gonnella.

Is there a book you wish someone would write?

Always. I wish a really charismatic author who is also a great writer and public speaker with a huge social network and a unique point of view on a particularly popular topic would send me a proposal for their book today. And send it just to me, not five other publishers as well. That would be wonderful.

What are you looking for in an author?

What does my dream author look like? I’m not saying that every author I sign meets these requirements, but it’s helpful to have as many of these qualities possible:

  • Must be a respected expert in your field
  • Must be a compelling storyteller and gifted writer who can transform the driest subject matter into a tasty, educational feast
  • Must have a large and active social network of eager fans and followers who can’t wait to buy their book
  • Must have a unique and fully formed idea for a book that would appeal to a large audience
  • Must be a nice person. I don’t like authors who swear at me or miss deadlines or lie to me or disappear for weeks on end when a chapter is due or blame me for the fact that the United States has not yet converted to the metric system.
  • Must meet all deadlines. Always. I’m not called The Red Deadline, aka The Whip, for nothing.
  • Must turn in material that is unique and compelling, and not paraphrased from six different design blogs without their knowledge.
  • Must be willing to promote the book after the book comes out. Some authors do a mic drop with their mouse when they’ve written their last chapter. That’s it. I’m out. I’m done. They don’t spend the time on social media continually talking and educating people about whatever it is they are teaching in the book. Those authors’ books generally don’t sell very well.

Should authors avoid saying/doing certain things (when looking for a publisher)? Put another way: What do authors do that immediately scares you away?

It takes a lot to scare me, but it takes even more to impress me. So, while I might not run screaming from a crappy proposal, I won’t likely get very excited about it either. Oh, and do not send in a proposal filled with typos. I will throw it away. It’s sad how often that happens.

What common obstacles do first-time authors face?

Many first-time authors can’t stop tweaking the text. That is crazy making and almost always results in errors and missed deadlines and frustrated editors and exhausted authors. You have to know when to let go. Finish a chapter and move on.

How do you recommend they move past these obstacles?

We work really hard to get the table of contents right from the start. If you already know what you want to write in every chapter before you start writing, you’re going to feel less of a need to go back and add or remove things from earlier chapters after you’ve turned them in.

Fun is a big part of what Nikki attributes to a book’s success. (As seems evident in this photo of her with Rob Sylvan.) Fun is a big part of what Nikki attributes to a book’s success. (As seems evident in this photo of her with Rob Sylvan.)

Is there something that first-time authors consistently get wrong?

Most people speak in the active voice but write in the passive voice, which is what makes their writing boring. I am always telling authors to use active verbs. Write in short sentences. Show, don’t tell.

I lectured one particular author so many times about using the active voice that before turning in chapters he would do a search in Word for passive verbs like “are,” “is,” “am” and “was” and then try to replace them with more active verbs and sentence structures. I’ve had other authors who struggled to make their writing sound conversational record themselves talking about their ideas out loud and then transcribe the recorded conversations to get the text for their first drafts.

Writing is harder and more time-consuming than most people realize (kind of like parenthood) so it usually takes most authors longer than they anticipate to write their books, which leads to all kinds of stress for everyone. It’s a lot of long nights, long weekends, and time away from your friends and family. I read the acknowledgments in every book I pick up, whether I’ve worked on it or not, as a silent show of respect to all of those people who helped that writer get through making that book.

Is there a piece of advice you find yourself repeating?

Write in the active voice. I think I’ve already said that three times in this interview alone.

  • Use concrete, visual words and short sentences.
  • Write like you’re speaking to a friend.
  • Build up your Twitter following.

Read The Elements of Style by Strunk & White and then go read Made to Stick by Chip and Dan Heath. Most of my authors know their subject material inside and out so helping them to be better writers is the usual challenge.

Nikki sporting a temporary tattoo by Stefan Bucher.Nikki sporting a temporary tattoo by Stefan Bucher.

What books are you currently most excited about? Why?

I’m excited for Scott Kelby’s The Best of the Digital Photography Book Series to come out on October 2. I did a final proof of that book and it’s just crammed with tons of really useful tips for photographers of all levels. Plus, Scott’s goofy section openers actually make me laugh. I also just did a final read of Susan Weinschenk’s 100 MORE Things Every Designer Needs to Know About People, which was absolutely fascinating. She’s great at explaining scientific research and finding practical applications for it that really anyone can use, not just designers. Von Glitschka’s second edition of Vector Basic Training just went to press too and it’s even better than the first edition. He recorded over 7 hours of new HD video tutorials to go with it and included an all-new chapter on illustration techniques. He’s a funny guy and his voice definitely comes through in that book. Plus, his illustration work is phenomenal so the book looks great.

I’m also excited for two new series on design fundamentals that I’ve just started publishing. They are both very different and wonderful in their own ways. Jim Krause just published the third book in the New Riders Creative Core series called Lessons in Typography: Must-know typographic principles presented through lessons, exercises, and examples. His Creative Core books cover the basics by breaking them down into a concept per spread and using big visuals to illustrate the points he’s making. It’s a quick and easy way to learn the basics.

Rose Gonnella’s third book in her Design Fundamentals series is also on type. It’s called Design Fundamentals: Notes on Type. Her books are so different from anything I’ve ever published. We wanted to create books that look like a student’s notebook for a completely different learning experience. Most of the illustrations were created by Rose’s student at the time, Max Friedman, and they are just incredible. You really have to get those books and flip through them to appreciate how fun and informative and gorgeous they are.

If a writer wants to work for you, and Pearson, what do they need to do?

First, come up with a great idea. Second, build up your social network around that great idea so you have an eager audience ready to place some serious pre-orders. Third, fill out our proposal guidelines. Fourth, send your finished proposal directly to me along with $50 and a box of chocolates and your proposal will most definitely be considered.

Got a burning question about getting your book published? Request a session with Nikki and take your book from the idea stage to bookstore shelves!