Breaking into Publishing
by Sandra Glahn
I am interested in writing a book. How do I go about
contacting a publisher?
I suggest that you begin by going down to your local Half
Price Books (or the equivalent) and see if you can find an old copy of one of
the annual Writer’s Market books. You don’t need the most recent
year. For example, you could buy the 2004 Writer’s Market. It’s about
2 inches thick. In the beginning pages of this annually published book you’ll
find instructions for how to write a query letter and how to format a
manuscript. Following some preliminary articles about writing, the book consists
primarily of listings of publishers and their requirements. It’s a great
When I teach my writing students at Dallas Seminary, I usually
make it a point to tell anyone who wants to write a book that the best place to
begin is by writing magazine articles on the same topic as the proposed book. (Writer’s
Market also tells how to do this.) Going to a publisher with a book
manuscript without ever writing magazine articles is like going to a church of
3,000 fresh out of seminary and applying for the job of senior pastor. Sometimes
it’ll happen, but usually publishers want to see a track record. They need to
know you are used to "being edited," that you can meet deadlines, that
you have begun to develop a following on your subject, and that you know terms.
(For example, SASE is a self-addressed stamped envelope and not some society to
which you must belong, as one student thought.)
Once you’ve published several articles, put together a book
proposal. Outline what you plan to include in each chapter, along with an
analysis of "what’s on the market" (see below). Send the proposal
(not manuscript) with copies of your articles to a publisher. If the editorial
team likes your concept, the proposal will next go to the marketing department.
The people in this department are looking for a couple of things. First of all,
it’s unusual for any book to sell more than 5,000 copies. And the publisher
wants to stay in business, so you need to convince the team that you can sell
enough books to at least break even. You as the author are their best source of
sales contacts. So they will want to see—in addition to your manuscript—some
marketing information. Here’s what that involves:
1) Do a search of books related to your topic. Write up a page
explaining what you found and how your book differs from every other book out
2) Make a list of the places where you’ve spoken in the last
year. The publisher will assume that if you have a book, in the future when you
speak, you will have opportunities to sell.
3) Write a list of all the key people who could endorse the
book in a variety of venues (someone in your denomination, someone who has
published a book, the president of a key organization).
4) Gather a list of all the organizations to which you belong.
Include alumni associations.
5) List publications where you have published articles on the
topic of your book to establish that you are becoming a known source on this
subject. One advantage to writing for periodicals is a broader base for
ministry. As I said, the average book does not make it past the 5,000 sales
mark. However, the average magazine has a distribution of more than 40,000
readers. So you will reach a much wider audience with your message by writing an
article. Can you write a monthly column for the local newspaper?
The book publisher’s marketing department has a lot of say
in the final decision, so this is a key document in addition to your manuscript.
Publishers operate on a narrow profit margin, so it is vital to the ongoing
publishing industry that each time a publisher offers a contract for a book, the
company can at least break even.
Consider other vehicles for publishing, too. Self-publishing
is becoming a big market. If that interests you, go to the public library and
get some past issues of Writer’s Digest magazine. Look up what they
have to say on the topic. An advantage there is that via Internet you can sell
to readers in Britain and Australia and Kenya and South Africa, where people
speak English. (Most U.S. publishers don’t have reps in those places.)
Self-publishing used to be called "vanity"
publishing and it was looked down on, but now that so many movies are
self-produced and called "indies," the stigma is disappearing. One
advantage with these last two options is that you can keep a much greater
percentage of the profits. For example, on a good contract, right now I make
about 12 to 14 percent of retail sales. With self-publishing you keep 100
percent after you’ve paid for production costs. Even though you may not write
for the money, greater income means you can re-invest what you’ve made to pay
for the costs of producing a second book, if you want to keep writing.
To find magazine writers’ guidelines on a variety magazines,
you can follow the link below.
How can I improve my writing?
Change passive voice to active. The
passive usually appears as a "be" verb + the -ed form. "I was
awakened" (passive) vs. "The alarm awakened me" (active). Or the
word "by" might clue you in: "I was hit by a car" (passive)
vs. "The car hit me." To fix it just make the object of "by"
Use robust verbs—as one writer
described it, we need to use verbs "with hair on them." After writing
a first draft, I use the "find" function on the computer to locate all
the forms of the boring verb "be"...be, is, was, are, were, am, being,
becoming, been, became, becomes. Then I try to "beef up" these verbs.
Dalmuth was a senator from Ethiopia, and he was quick to put
out the fire with his hands.
Better: Dalmuth, a senator from Ethiopia, clapped out the
I have been trying to contact her.
Better: I have called and left her three messages.
When possible change negations to assertions. Instead
of "There was no wind," I could say, "The air stood still"
or "remained still." Instead of "she was not happy" I can go
with "She looked unhappy" or better yet, "she frowned."
Next, circle all adjectives and adverbs and ask if you
have used them to tell when you could show. For example:
She came from a small town.
She came from Sandy Cove, population 201.
Improving your writing in these four areas will start you on
the road. A good resource here is Strunk and White’s classic, The
Elements of Style.
Will you take a look at my manuscript and give me some
Because I teach grad students to write and
I'm currently working on my dissertation, I lack the
endorsements are generally limited to former students with publishing
contracts and colleagues; these I consider on a case-by-case basis. While
I love mentoring writers, I also have to guard my time so I can write and
focus on my students. That is why I have made many resources available for
free here on the web. For specific feedback, I strongly recommend joining a
writers' group and attending some of the many conferences where you can hone
your craft and network with editors and agents.
Keep writing. And have fun!
©Sandra Glahn, 2011
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