An interesting email landed in my inbox the other day. Mike—a special education teacher in a Chicago school—asked:
I read your article in the ASCD magazine Educational Leadership. I like articles written by teacher-practicioners as opposed to university professors.
Could you offer some advice on getting published? How did you go about getting a book contract?
I would imagine you put together a proposal of some kind. I am interested in doing this kind of stuff but not sure where to start.
Here’s my reply—which may be of interest to other readers trying to figure out how to unleash their inner-author.
First, good to hear from you and thanks for your kind words on the content that I create. I’m always curious about whether what I’m writing makes any sense to practitioners. While I feel good about what I’m sharing, feedback is always the best indicator of whether or not I’m succeeding.
As far as getting your foot in the educational publishing door goes, I’d probably recommend the following steps:
Suggestion 1: Start a blog
Sometimes I still have to pinch myself when I think that I’m actually a published author because it’s not something that I ever expected to be in my lifetime.
In fact, until I joined the Teacher Leaders Network and met John Norton—a TLN co-founder and one of the most important mentors in my life—I wasn’t much of a writer at all. Over time, however, John prompted me to write a few teacher diary entries for the TLN website.
The bits were 600-1,000 words long—the equivalent of 2-4 double-spaced pages—-and I liked it. It was fun trying to translate what I knew about the classroom into content that others would find engaging.
The process of writing was rewarding, too, because it gave me time to reflect on my practice and my profession—something that I think few teachers ever really take the time to do.
What was really rewarding, though, was seeing my content “published” on the TLN website. I was like a little kid proud to have my paper hanging on the classroom’s digital bulletin board.
From that point on, I was hooked—-and it wasn’t long before I was writing for everyone who asked. I started the Tempered Radical and was a regular contributor to a blog maintained by my school system.
While it was initially difficult to find the time to write, it was also remarkable practice. Writing an entire book is a pretty overwhelming task for anyone. Preparing for that task means polishing your writing skills by writing a ton—-and maintaining a blog is the perfect forum for constant practice.
Blogging has carried other benefits for me, as well. As I created more and more content, I found that my pieces were being picked up and shared by others.
I’d find my entries included in email newsletters sent out by publishers or professional organizations. I’d find my entries being shared on other people’s blogs. I’d find my entries ending up in communications crafted by school districts and PTAs.
And while I didn’t make a dime, I gained a measure of professional visibility.
It wasn’t long before I was getting emails from publishers and content directors for major professional organizations. NSDC reached out first, asking me to become a regular columnist on teacher leadership after reading my blog content.
Then, ASCD reached out and requested article submissions for Educational Leadership magazine—and after two years of writing for NSDC, ASCD asked me to write a regular column for Ed Leadership as well.
More importantly, blogging created instant feedback loops for me. You see, my readers push against my ideas all the time. Need an example? Check out the comment section of my recent post on testing and accountability.
A reader named Matt has been challenging me for two days now—and each time he’s stopped by, I’ve had to polish my position. While he and I share a lot of common ground, he’s shown me where I’ve failed to express myself clearly, and that’s cool.
It’s that kind of feedback that makes me a better writer and thinker—and I wouldn’t have gotten any of that kind of feedback if I weren’t blogging. By making my ideas transparent and allowing others to push back, I’m improving my content.
Over time, my blog has gained a pretty solid following too.
While I don’t have the subscribers or page views of the super heavyweights in the edu-blogosphere, I’m hovering pretty darn close to 1,600 regular readers here on the Radical and I’ve been averaging nearly 300 page views a day for the last year.
I’ve also got a huge amount of content on my blog in categories ranging from PLCs to politics and education. I’ve written about almost everything in education at one point or another.
And that’s important when you’re trying to sell yourself to a publisher. It’s a lot easier to land a contract when you can prove that you’ve built a following and earned the respect of regular readers—and it’s a lot easier for a publisher to decide to invest time, energy and effort into a writer when they’ve got a huge body of work to review and reflect on.
Does this make sense to you?
Basically, blogging will help you to practice your writing, hone your voice, improve your positions, create content that you might be able to multipurpose into book chapters and get noticed—both by your audience and by potential publishers.
Suggestion 2: Start Tweeting Your Blog Content
If you’re interested in being published, Tweeting your blog content and your core ideas is essential. Here’s why: Like the comment section of blog entries, Twitter makes it easy to let other people look inside your mind.
It is the quickest way to make what you believe transparent to people who might have different perspectives or who might just know a heck of a lot more than you do. They can push back at the flaws in your positions, forcing you to refine and revise. They’ll also let you know when you get something right.
Twitter can also help you to quickly find resources and ideas connected to your professional interests. Following the thinking of others—and checking out the resources that they’re sharing—-is the first step towards staying on the cutting edge of your field.
Now, building a solid Twitter network takes time and requires respectful participation.
Sharing your own content and testing your own ideas without ever reflecting on the ideas shared by others is selfish. The best Twitter networks are symbiotic. Everyone benefits from the collective thinking and shared reflection of their digital peers. You can’t be a part of that symbiotic relationship if you aren’t interested in helping others.
But if you get it right, Twitter will make you a better thinker—and better thinkers are always better writers.
Suggestion 3: Craft a Proposal
Finally, you’re going to have to write a proposal. While different publishers have different formats for book proposals—-which you can usually spot pretty quickly somewhere on their website—-most expect the same kind of content.
You’ll have to give a general overview of what you plan to cover in your book. You’ll have to share a list of competing titles on the same topic. You’ll have to detail your own expertise and experiences, create a short summary of each chapter that you plan to write, and submit at least one sample chapter of the book that you’re proposing.
Need a sample?
Then check out the proposal that I submitted for my first book, Building a Professional Learning Community at Work:
Then get ready to be rejected! And get ready to WAIT.
The manuscript review process can take a really long time, no matter what publisher you choose to submit your proposal to. Parry—my co-author on BPLC at Work—and I were shocked when the first publisher that we submitted our work to took nearly 6 months to look at our manuscript only to email us back with a one sentence rejection.
We submitted the same proposal to three other publishers before landing with Solution Tree—our current publisher and our best professional friends.
If I had it to do over again, I would have worked more systematically to choose publishers, rather than submitting to everyone we could find. The original publishers that we submitted our proposals to focused more on titles connected to classroom instructional practices than they did on titles connected to organizational change. That made it unlikely that our title would ever find traction in their publishing departments.
In the end, Solution Tree—the leading experts on Professional Learning Communities—-were the logical choice for our content. It was in their publishing wheelhouse and sometimes it surprises me that we didn’t start by submitting our proposal to them first.
I sure hope this helps somehow!
And I sure hope you dip your toes in the professional writing waters. Even if you never land a book deal, you’ll be a better teacher because you’ll be reflecting more frequently than ever before.
Rock right on,