The good news about getting a contract for a nonfiction book is that you don’t have to write the book to sell it. You just have to write the proposal. The bad news is that often authors spend four or five months figuring out what the proposal is.

Where agents earn their commission is helping the author to understand what they should be writing a book about. Last week, my agent, Susan Rabiner, laid out seven tips for writing a better proposal. And this week’s Coachology will be 90 minutes of free help from her to get your proposal into shape. Or, if your initial idea doesn’t work, she’ll help you to come up with something else.

For those of you who think 90 minutes is too long, I just got a contract for my second book — to be published in 2008 — and I spent the last five months writing proposals until I got it right. I’d say that I spent about 900 minutes on the phone with Susan, but after 90 minutes you will at least know what you need to work on.

If you’re interested in working with Susan, please send a three-sentence summary of your proposal (include the idea and your qualifications to write it) by the end of the day on April 29.

A few months ago, I saw Guy Kawasaki’s blog post, 10 Ways to Use LinkedIn, and it made me realize that you can use LinkedIn for a lot more than just networking. For example, journalists can get value from LinkedIn both as a research tool and as a tool for career development:

Here are ten ways for journalists to use LinkedIn:

1. Get noticed for the work you do
I’ve seen a lot of journalists with pretty sparse profiles. This is a mistake. You don’t have to write a novel, but at least put information about your areas of interest so that people know what to contact you for. The text that you include is searchable, so if you’re looking for travel-writing gigs, make sure you include this somewhere in your profile. Also, listing your past employers and education makes it easier for old colleagues and classmates to find you. Here’s an example of a well crafted profile: David Lidsky, Senior Editor of Fast Company.

2. Build a network without making networking your full-time job
To use LinkedIn well, you need at least 20 connections. But, this doesn’t mean you should connect to every publicist who sends you an invitation. LinkedIn works best when you connect to your top sources, important industry contacts, coworkers, and people who know you well. These are the people who can help you do your job, find new opportunities and pass on story ideas that are more likely to be of interest to you.

3. Network without suffering the deluge of requests to “write about me!”
Journalists and high-profile bloggers tend to be highly coveted individuals. In fact, TechCrunch blogger, Michael Arrington, is the second most contacted person on LinkedIn (after LinkedIn’s founder). Control who makes it to your in-box by going to LinkedIn’s Accounts & Settings page to alter your notification preferences. If you find yourself overwhelmed with requests, you can opt to receive notifications once a week or only when you log into the LinkedIn website.

4. Use a connection to get a great assignment.
If you’re a freelancer or looking for a job, perform a search in the “Writing and Editing” industry sorted by “Degrees away from you” to see who might be able to help you in your network.

5. Find an expert fast
The advanced search feature is the most powerful tools you can use on LinkedIn. You can search for any combination of keywords, job title, company, location, industry, and you can sort by “degrees away from you” to find people close to you in your network. This is a great way to find experts in almost any field or subject matter. You can also track down executives at companies.

6. Confirm a rumor
One of the best ways to find out the inside scoop on companies is to find former employees who are willing to talk to you. To do this, use LinkedIn’s advanced search for the company’s name and uncheck the “Current companies only” box. The results will include both current and past employees.

7. Get responses to queries from non-PR types
Often, if you send a query to a place like PRLeads, you get mostly public relations people answering you. This works fine in most cases, but sometimes you need something different – for example a quote from a type of person who would not typically hire a publicist. LinkedIn’s Answers service allows you to ask questions to the network and get answers from a wide range of people. Answers are tied to the professional profile of the person who responded so you can quickly assess credibility and determine whether to contact the person. Here’s an example of a journalist’s question on LinkedIn Answers.

8. Get ideas for sources, topics and trends
If you don’t want to post a question, LinkedIn Answers has a search box that allows you to search the archives. This is a great way to search for sources. A search for keyword “Des Moines” will likely find you folks in the city who like to talk about it, a search for “iPhone” will show you some of the buzz around the product. A great way to get ideas for stories is to peruse through the various categories of LinkedIn Answers to find out what people are saying about topics and trends. For example, here are a few of the many categories: career development, personal finance, technology.

9. Qualify pitches
I
f you find yourself getting daily pitches from the “hottest new [insert industry buzzword] company,” try searching for the company on LinkedIn. Take a look to see if you are connected to any of the employees, check out their profiles, their backgrounds, and their relationships. If they’re really hot, then they’re probably connected to key industry movers and shakers.

10. Promote your book!
LinkedIn allows you to publicize websites. There are a few pre-selected categories like “My Website,” “My Company,” etc. If you select “Other” you can modify the name of the link. If you have a book, you can create a link to a webpage that promotes it or directly to an Amazon page where people can buy it. You can bet that I was all over this feature: My new book: Brazen Careerist.

I met my husband when he was in film school at UCLA. He was doing quirky video art instead of mainstream feature films, which made me think he’d be good to date. So when he was interviewing people for a video about memory, I was happy to participate.

I tried to be really charming in the interview – scintillating, funny, adorable – all the things he might want in a date.

Then a year went by with no contact.

Then I got a call from him. He ended up making the whole video about me, and the video was being shown in Europe and winning film festivals and it was part of UCLA film school’s curricula. He said he spent a ten months editing my interview and he felt like he’d been talking with me the whole time.

Of course, I knew this was my cue.

On our second date, I saw the video. He had footage of me telling all the most important stories of my life. He cut up the footage, reordered it, and created a tool that allowed viewers to recombine stories as they unfolded.

He basically made me sound like a lunatic. Like I was probably a liar and maybe delusional, depending on how someone ordered the video.

I fell in love with him immediately. I thought the work was genius commentary on storytelling. We each tell stories that matter to us. We take in the world, and tell it back in a way that creates meaning. My husband’s video is an extreme example, but it resonates in a lot of different contexts, including journalism.

The reason that everyone thinks journalists misquote them is that the person who is writing is the one who gets to tell the story. No two people tell the same story.

Not every example of this is so extreme as my husband’s video. Look at David Sedaris and Amy Sedaris. They grew up in the same house, but they don’t have the same tales to tell from it. They are both great writers who see different stories in the same facts.

Journalists who think they are telling “the truth” don’t understand the truth. We each have our own truth. When you leave out details, you might leave out what is unimportant to you but very important to someone else, and things start feeling untrue to the person who wishes you included something else.

Recruiters, by the way, know this well. If I get fired from three jobs but I only report that during that period I taught dance lessons to toddlers, I am not lying. I am merely telling the part of the story that I want to tell. No one can tell every part of every story. The details are infinite. But in this case, the fact that I left off the details most important to the recruiter makes the recruiter feel like it’s lying. But it’s not. I’m telling my version of the story.

So everyone feels misquoted because people say twenty or thirty sentences for every one sentence that a journalist prints. It’s always in the context of the journalist’s story, not the speaker’s story.

Here’s my advice: If you do an interview with a journalist, don’t expect the journalist to be there to tell your story. The journalist gets paid to tell her own stories which you might or might not be a part of. And journalists, don’t be so arrogant to think you are not “one of those” who misquotes everyone. Because that is to say that your story is the right story. But it’s not. We each have a story. And whether or not someone actually said what you said they said, they will probably still feel misquoted.

And this problem is not limited to text-based journalism. When my husband and I got married, we had a big wedding. When the photos came back, I said to my husband, “These are terrible. He missed all the good photos.” And my husband said, “They seem fine. They’re the photographer’s version of the story.”

Other posts from “A Week in Journalism” series:

How to be a freelance writer without starving

How to move from print journalism to online journalism

Seven ways to get an agent’s attention (by my agent, Susan Rabiner)

This list is from my agent, Susan Rabiner.

I love Susan because she just sold my second book proposal to the same editor who bought Barack Obama’s book. Susan also represents the author who just won the Pulitzer Prize for biography. So you can be certain that following Susan’s advice is a good idea if you want to sell a book.

Here’s her list of seven things to do to improve your chances of getting an agent’s attention for our book proposal:

1. Think in terms of genre.
To you, it’s a novel. To an agent, it’s a thriller, a mystery, chick lit, woman’s commercial fiction or a literary novel.

The same is true for nonfiction. You’d be surprised how often I read a cover letter that gives me no clue as to whether you are pitching a memoir or a self-help book on the topic.

Why do agents think in terms of genre? First, because most of us specialize. More important, the rules change as genres change, and we can’t make any decision until we know what standards to apply.

So before you go on and on about what’s in your book, either identify its genre, or tell us who you are writing this book for, or modestly suggest the title of a recently published successful book that you’d like your book to sit next to in the bookstore. Nothing makes a would-be author seem more like a rube than going on and on about a book that is ill-defined

2. Tell me who you are.
I want to know something about you in the first paragraph. Why? To eliminate you if I don’t think there is a good enough match between you and the book you want to write. If you are a lawyer who tells me you have always wanted to write about quantum physics, you are heading for the reject pile. There are certain topics where credentials are all important and physics is one of them. But you don’t necessarily have to be a Harvard-trained historian to write a book about a historical event, or a psychiatrist to write about the experience of depression, provided there is some other meaningful connection between the book you want to write and you as the author.

So what to do if you have no tight connection to the topic? Don’t go for a book proposal quite yet. Start a blog on the topic. Prove that you can attract a devoted readership with your commentary. Interview known experts on the topic. They’ll come in handy as outside validation later on. If you really have something to say, your blog will get buzz and then agents will find you and ask you if you might have a book in you.

3. Show outside validation.
The key to self-praise is to have others say it for you. So, for instance, if someone else has called you a gifted writer and that someone is not your wife or your mother, do tell us. Outside recognition could be that your blog gets a gazillion hits a day or was just cited in Time Magazine. This is what we want to hear. There’s an art to bragging and it involves finding someone else who will do it for you.

4. Have a story to tell
Good proposals don’t just communicate facts. They tell the story of how you found this topic and why you became convinced that with all we know about this topic, the most important questions have still not been addressed; the story of how you came to realize the deeper meaning of an experience, the story of an idea that has changed as we as humans have changed. The best proposals read like good mysteries, then they throw out tantalizing tidbits as partial answers so we salivate for more.

5. Check your competition.
Agents can Google. So can editors. If either of us finds most of what you are saying by spending five minutes on the web, we know that we are working with an aggregator not an author. Especially today the question editors ask is: What value does this author add?

6. Tell me why I should care.
Why will readers find what you have written irresistible? How will reading this book change them for the better? Will it make them happier, richer, more at peace with themselves? Will it give them insight into a topic of great interest? Will it teach them about something they have already been curious about but could never quite master? Remember these words. Agents and editors are advocates for the reader, not the author. Impress upon them the payoff for the reader and they will be interested.

7. Answer the question, Why now?
The typical publishing contract gives the author 12 to 18 months to write the book and gives the publisher 8 to 12 months to publish the book. So how do you, as an author, answer the question: Why now, when now is likely to be two to three years from today? By telling agents and editors why the topic is not going to go away and exactly what you will say that will be of interest to people two or three years from today.

So, take use these seven tips to guide you as you write your proposal. And then send it out. How do you know if your idea is good or bad? By the responses. If you haven’t heard back from an agent in 30 days, consider it a no and move on. If you do get a response, take a look at that letter. Agents will only spend time writing something specific when they were truly impressed with what you wrote and want to acknowledge that fact. If all you are getting are form rejections, there is a message in those one sentence letters: Time to rethink that proposal.

Other posts from “A Week in Journalism” series:

Why journalists misquote everyone (and how I met my husband)

How to be a freelance writer without starving

How to move from print journalism to online journalism

One of the biggest issues for writers today is how to move between print and online. The issue is really authority. For print people, moving online is difficult because their established offline authority has relatively little meaning online. Conversely people who are mostly online understand that there is a much more structured way to earn authority offline, and they want to feel they are respected in that way.

In both cases, the way to get to the other side is, first and foremost, to care about the other side in a way that is deeper than prestige and self-preservation.

There’s advice here for online writers first, print writers second, and everyone who isn’t a writer and worries about the length of this too-long-to-be-a-post post can skip to the last two paragraphs.

Here are three ways for people to move from online to print:

1. Understand that it’s about paying dues.
And surely you know what I think about paying dues. But you need to work your way up in the print world. Even if you’re great. Sure, there are exceptions, but not so many that you should build a career plan based on them. So if you are doing a lot of work you don’t like doing, and a lot of work you’re not really learning from, you might be on a solid path toward an essay in the New Yorker.

2. Write all the time and expect to be rejected all the time.
You absolutely have to believe that you are a good writer. You must believe this independently of what the rejection slips tell you. Or there is no way to go on. You also absolutely must figure out what you are good at, and this will make rejections in other areas not hurt so much.

No one is good at everything. Very few people really are essayists. Very few are columnists. Very few people give good advice about sex. Fortunately there are lots of different specialties. Figure out what’s right for you. Some people can write for Maxim and some can write for The Atlantic. Few can write for both, but both take talent.

3. Learn the rules.
You have to know how to write a good query. Just stop everything you’re doing and learn how to write one. And have someone you trust review your queries at the beginning. Good resources for this are Media Bistro’s How to Pitch section, and the classes for writing queries at Freelance Success.

The rules for print are arcane. How to get a column is arcane. Mostly, you can’t ask for one — an editor asks you. How to get syndicated is arcane. (But here is some advice on that anyway.) The only thing that is not arcane is the rule that people hire who they like. It’s true in every industry and publishing is no different. So get to know editors if you want writing assignments.

Soul search tip: Ask yourself why you want the prestige of writing for a big-name publication. Prestige is not an end in itself. It doesn’t change who you are, and it doesn’t change how good (or not-so-good) your writing is. Sure, prestige opens doors, but what door do you want to walk through? And why? Because maybe you don’t actually need that particular type of prestige to get where you want to go.

Here are three ways for people to move from print to online:

1. Get a voice and have opinions.
The world does not need another Associated Press. We already have it. So making a name for yourself online is not going to be about duplicating the reporting that the AP is doing just fine. Online success will be something different. It will be about taking a stand. Even if it turns out to be wrong, just take one. This means you have to unlearn all that impartiality.

2. Get off your print pedestal.
Writing online doesn’t mean taking all the stuff that the New Yorker rejected and pasting it into blog software. Writing online means genuinely responding to the community you’re talking to.

If you “just want to write” then moving online is not for you. Because print is about writing from authority and everyone listens. Online is about establishing your authority and having conversations, and people dis you.

Also, be careful whom you emulate. Some people leveraging huge offline brands to move online are not necessarily the online writers you want to emulate. Malcolm Gladwell, for example, is not part of a conversation. He is a great print journalist posting his stuff online. Seth Godin is not having conversation. He doesn’t even accept comments. He is an extremely highly paid public speaker who writes an online diary.

You have to think about where you fit in this new world. And how you want to be. It’s not just writing. It’s a discussion, and there are a lot of different ways you can talk.

3. Educate yourself. Constantly.
The video titled The Machine is Us/ing Us is one of the most enthralling things I have seen about writing online. It has been viewed 2 million times and 5000 people left comments. This video shows what writing online is and what it will be and where we fit. I have watched this video fifteen times, and each time I learn something new.

Many of you will understand almost nothing of this video when you watch it the first time. But if you watch it, and then you read blogs, and you read your news online for a few weeks, and you set up a Google alert system, and then an RSS feed. And after each of those actions, you look at the video again, you will understand a lot.

Soul search tip:
I know this sounds like tons of work. But if you really want to move your print career online, this is the work you have to do. Are you totally annoyed to hear this? It’s okay to not want to learn about how information is spewed and sifted online. Maybe it’s not that interesting to you. But then be honest with yourself: If you don’t get excited about learning about it, why would you want to be a part of it? Think about other career options that get you really excited about learning.

And you know what? This is career advice that applies to everyone, in any career. You need to love learning and exploring in the career you choose. Or else what are you doing there? And you need to be going after something bigger than prestige. If nothing else, we know it’s inherently unsatisfying.

So find what you love to learn about, and find what you’re great at doing, and see where they intersect. That’s where your career potential is strongest.

Other posts from “A Week in Journalism” series:

How to be a freelance writer without starving

Why journalists misquote everyone (and how I met my husband)

Seven ways to get an agent’s attention (by my agent, Susan Rabiner)

Here’s how I became a writer. I started writing when I was six and wrote nonstop, about things no one cared about.

Nineteen years later I thought, I like to write, I should get paid for this.

So I went to graduate school for writing, and the first day, the teacher said, “If any of you can imagine yourselves doing anything but writing, you should do that. Writing is hard, and lonely and full of rejection and you’ll never make any money.”

I stayed in school (I had a fellowship – who can give up free money?) but after school I got a job in marketing at a Fortune 500 company. And I made a lot of money.

But I kept writing. For ten more years. I wrote after work, and when my jobs were slow, I wrote at work. I used my vacation time to send writing to publishers who rejected me. But then they stopped rejecting me. And slowly, I realized that I could support my family with my writing. So I took the leap. (And, note, a huge salary cut.)

If you think you want to be a writer, first pay heed to my teacher’s advice. If you still want to write, remember that most writers spend years and years writing before they get published in a national magazine. So keep your day job until you’re sure you won’t starve. Here are three other things to do as well:

1. Rethink your ideas about time and space.
The best way to build up a freelancing career is to have another job with a steady paycheck, to support you while you’re honing your skills as a freelancer. This means that you need to be able to write in small, disjointed spurts of time, because you have a day job, and responsibilities, and you don’t have three days to craft each sentence.

But maybe you’ve already quit your day job as an expression of commitment to the freelancing. That’s fine, but maybe you don’t have a lot of money. Writers do not need their own pristine office and gorgeous PowerBook. I wrote for years on my kitchen counter because our New York City apartment didn’t have room for a desk. It wasn’t great, but it was fine.

2. Accept self-promotion as a way of life.
No one likes to do self-promotion, but the people who really, really want to work for themselves force themselves to be good at it. There is no one to get work for you except you. And it takes a lot of time to get the word out about what you do and why you do it well.

There are a ton of freelancers who can do a competent job at any given job. The freelancer who gets the work is the one who is best at marketing herself. So don’t talk about the injustice of the world and how you are too much of an artist to promote yourself. Instead, set aside 40% of your day for self-marketing. I used to think that as I got to be a better writer I would do less self-promoting. But in fact, it never happens, as far as I can tell. It’s forty percent forever.

3. Give up the notion that there’s one, perfect way to do it.
Not that the perfect word doesn’t exist. But it’s in the eye of the beholder. Who, in this case, is your editor. But look, you’re not writing the next Magna Charta. Maybe you’re writing a how-to piece for a men’s magazine. Or, if you’re lucky, you’re writing some travel piece about a hotel that’s giving you free lodging. What I’m saying here is that the stuff you’re writing isn’t so precious that the editor can’t rip it to shreds and rewrite it in his voice.

So what? You still get a check. You still get to say you were published in that magazine. Don’t write for that editor again if it’s so upsetting to you. But remember that the best money does not come from the best assignments, and there’s a reason for that.

So be flexible. I have found that when I took assignments that I didn’t like, I still learned a lot, even if the editor didn’t love my word choice. Focus on the learning, and the side benefit will be that you’ll have better relationships with editors. For a freelancer, the steady work comes from a combination of good work and good relationships.

Other posts from “A Week in Journalism” series:

Why do journalists misquote everyone (and how I met my husband)

How to move from print journalism to online journalism

Seven ways to get an agent’s attention (by my agent, Susan Rabiner)

I am speaking at the American Society of Journalists and Authors in New York this Sunday. So I thought that in addition to regular posts, I’d do a little series this week on tips for writers.

I have never done a series, but I’ve seen them done on other blogs, so I thought I’d try it. When other bloggers do it, they give a schedule. So, here’s my schedule:

Monday: How to be a freelance writer without starving

Tuesday: How to move from print journalism to online journalism

Wednesday: How journalists can use LinkedIn

Thursday Sunday: Why journalists misquote everyone… or do they? (And how I met my husband)

Friday Saturday: Seven ways to get an agent’s attention