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So you want to write a book?

So you want to write a book?

Picture of Angilee Shah

You know you want take the long journey of writing a book, but how do you take the first step? Here are some top tips for getting published from three health writers who have been there.

As always, you can find job, internship, awards and fellowship opportunities at the end of this post. If you have ideas for future posts or listings you'd like to see here, you can log in and let me know. Keep up with Career GPS by signing up for weekly newsletters or via RSS.

Dr. Daniel Carlat is a psychiatrist and founding editor-in-chief of The Carlat Psychiatry Report. He has written passionately about the dangers of pharmaceutical industry-sponsored Continuing Medical Education for physicians. His book, Unhinged: The Trouble with Psychiatry - A Doctor's Revelations about a Profession in Crisis, was published by Free Press in May. The book, he explained in an email, was possible because he already had a well-known name but also because he had a good agent.

I have two different kinds of advice. To land a deal, I suggest getting into print at the highest level publication you can in order to attract the attention of good book agents. With Unhinged, I was able to get a book deal because I had an excellent well-connected agent who also participated very actively in helping me to write a proposal.

My agent is Rafe Sagalyn, of the Sagalyn Agency. He found me because his wife is a psychiatrist who subscribes to one of my newsletters, and he enjoyed leafing through it. He emailed me out of the blue one day and asked if I thought I had a book in me. He specializes in "serious non-fiction" and can be contacted via his website.

Linda Marsa is a medicine and health journalist, a contributing editor to Discovery Magazine, and the author of Prescription for Profits: How the Pharmaceutical Industry Bankrolled the Unholy Marriage Between Science and Business, published by Scribner in 1997. Her forthcoming book about the health effects of climate change will be published by Rodale in Spring, 2012. She offers practical advice about crafting a proposal.

My number one piece of advice for getting a book deal, especially in health-related areas, is to find an angle that 1) hasn't been done before and 2) has broad appeal. A tall order. A suggestion is to think of something you'd like to write about and then make an exhaustive analysis -- which you'll have to do anyway when you do your proposal -- of what's already been written on the subject. See if there's an angle that hasn't been written about to death. Check out Amazon. I wrote three proposals before I sold my book. In each case, the reasons the proposal didn't sell is because there wasn't a strong, fresh angle. The other key is to pick a topic where you're going to be mining a rich vein, and which will be able to keep your interest for an extended period. Remember, you'll be living with the subject for a year or more. And if you get bored with it, imagine what your readers will do.

Marsa gives some examples: The "side effects of prescription drugs; marketing of prescription drugs; problems with antidepressants," are not fresh angles because they have been written about ad-nauseum. She points to Shannon Brownlee's 2007 book Overtreated as an example of addressing a fresh question: do we have too much medicine in our lives? Book proposals also should not be too narrow. Marsa says she once wrote a proposal about unfair practices in the airline industry that hurt consumers, which was a topic she later realized was better suited to the length of a magazine article. Here's how she came up with the angle of her current book project:

I knew I wanted to become an expert on the effects of global warming because I think it will be the most important story to write about in all of our lifetimes. So I analyzed all the books that had been written in the past two to three years. I realized that all of them were either trying to prove that there was global warming or were looking at what global warming will mean for iconic species, like polar bears, or what would happen to the Earth. But what I think most people want to know is what global warming is going to mean in their lives. Then last June, a huge study came out in The Lancet talking about what the authors characterized as the most vital issue about global warming that no one was talking about--the effect it would have in our health. That's when I knew I potentially had a book. I managed to get a magazine assignment to write about global warming and its health effects, so that I could get paid to do the background research and truly see if there was a book. And the article -- which will run in Discover in December -- became the springboard for the proposal, which I was able to sell as a book.

Sonia Shah focuses on science and politics, and her latest book The Fever: How Malaria Has Ruled Humankind for 500,000 Years, published by Sarah Crichton Books/ Farrar, Straus & Giroux last month, stays true to that calling. "In my case, what sold The Fever to my publishers wasn't the health angle so much as the history and politics of the story," she writes in an email. "So for me, at least, providing the social and political context of my health topic was crucial. But then again, that's what was most interesting about the story to me, too!" This is her fourth book, so she was aware of the importance of having a committed team behind her book. She explains how she found her editor and chose a publisher:

I was introduced to [agent] Charlotte Sheedy through Anthony Arnove, who was my first agent and an old friend from college. Charlotte represents writers such as Laurie Garrett and Mark Kurlansky, which attracted me -- I write on similar topics and attempt a similar narrative style. So I felt she would understand what I was trying to do, and she did. She agreed to represent The Fever based on a chat over lunch and then a one-page email, which she helped me expand into a 50-page chapter outline. She took this to a number of publishers and we got several offers. I went with FSG not because of any health focus on their list but because I wanted to work with the editor Sarah Crichton, and that was part of their offer. She has her own imprint, which I liked not only because I liked the list of books on it but because it means that, with her name on every book, she's as committed to the book as you are. I'd had experiences with editors in the past where I felt my work was handed off from one freelancer to another, with no one to really advocate for it. Not the case at FSG with Sarah.

Carlat offers this caveat on editors:

My other piece of advice concerns what to do after you get a book deal, and it is this: Always remember that you are the writer, and that the editor's role should be simply to edit, and not to help you write. Don't send sloppy drafts of chapters to editors, with the expectation that they are going to whip it into shape. Some of them will, but then you will find that the book you envisioned becomes the book envisioned by the editor.

Interested in writing a book? What questions do you have? If you have already written a book, what do you wish someone told you before you began? Share in comments.

As always, here are this week's opportunities:

Jobs, Awards and Fellowships

Business Writer (including heath care coverage), Pittsburgh Tribune-Review (via
Location: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Status: Full Time
Medium: Newspaper

Editorial Intern (including health care coverage), San Francisco Business Journal (via
Location: San Francisco, California
Status: Part Time, $12/hour
Medium: Weekly magazine, online

Government Healthcare Data Specialist, Bloomberg

Location: Skillman, New Jersey
Status: Full Time
Medium: Wire Service

Government Healthcare Data Specialist, Bloomberg

Location: Washington, D.C.
Status: Full Time
Medium: Wire Service

Healthcare Editor, Sg2
Location: Skokie, Illinois
Status: Full Time
Medium: Marketing, Online

Pitches for stories about health care, Making Contact
Location: Anywhere
Status: Freelance
Medium: Radio

Producer/Reporter (general assignment including health care coverage), Colorado Public Radio
Location: Denver, Colorado
Status: Full Time
Medium: Radio

Reporter (including health care coverage), The Business Journal
Location: Greensboro, North Carolina
Status: Full Time
Medium: Weekly journal

REMINDER: California Health Journalism Fellowships (a program of the California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowships, which publishes this website)
Eligibility: Open to professional journalists, including freelancers, in California who have a strong interest in health news, though they need not be dedicated health reporters.
Award: About one week's worth of all-expenses paid intensive seminars in Los Angeles and
Deadline: Sept. 2, 2010
From the Website: "Taught by prize-winning journalists, community health leaders, policy analysts and health care experts, this Fellowship program features two intensive sessions, held three months apart. Fellows participate in field trips, workshops and seminars highlighting some of the top health challenges facing California."

REMINDER: Excellence in Journalism Competition, Society of Professional Journalists Northern California
Eligibility: For stories published between July 1, 2009 and June 30, 2010 by news outlets or individuals based in Northern California, with $25-$35 entry fee
Award: Multiple categories, including special prizes in environmental and health care reporting
Deadline: Sept. 7, 2010
From the Website: "These awards honor the journalists whose work best reflects the SPJ ideals of initiative, integrity, talent and compassion."

REMINDER: Fund for Investigative Journalism
Eligibility: U.S. Journalists in local, regional and/or ethnic media
Duration: None
Benefits: $500 to $10,000 grants for investigative projects and mentorship
Deadline: Sept. 8, 2010
From the Website: "For more than forty years, the Fund for Investigative Journalism has supported work by reporters who do not have the resources to do their investigations, with grants ranging from $500 to $10,000. The Fund's distinguished board not only decides which applicants to help, but also provides guidance in pursuing stories and placing them with media outlets. In a new partnership with Investigative Reporters and Editors, the Fund also matches grant recipients with veteran journalists who serve as mentors, at a recipient's request."

REMINDER: Abe Fellowship for Journalists
Eligibility: Open to citizens or permanent residents of the United States or Japan with at least five years of professional journalism experience, with priority given to U.S. or Japanese journalists with no prior experience in the other country.
Award: Up to $23,500 for field work abroad and a fellows retreat to produce analysis or feature story about public policy topic.
Deadline: Sept. 15, 2010
From the Website: "The Program defines policy-relevant research as the study of existing public policies for the purpose of: a) deepening understanding of those policies and their consequences; and b) formulating more effective policies. Policy-relevance also pertains to the public dialogue on contemporary social issues."

REMINDER: Philadelphia Enterprise Reporting Fund, J-Lab
Eligibility: Proposed projects must be about Philadelphia or the surrounding areas and must come with a distribution plan.
Award: $5,000 awards to 10 projects
Deadline: September 16, 2010
From the Website: "The Philadelphia Enterprise Reporting Fund is a pilot project designed to develop opportunities for amplifying public affairs journalism in the region. The purpose of this fund is to help in-depth reporting projects get off the ground and to explore collaboration opportunities among news providers in the city and surrounding counties."

REMINDER: U.S. Young Journalist Program, Fulbright Kommission
Eligibility: Must be a U.S. citizen, with academic achievement and a good proposal and good to very good German language skills
Award: 10 month stay in Germany with stipends and expenses, as well as language training
Deadline: Oct. 18, 2010
From the Website: "The approximately 10-month stay begins in September and typically consists of an initial research phase, during which the grantee becomes familiar with his/her project in a German setting, followed by one or more internships with German institutions of print or broadcast media."


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