Over the years Sherry and I have been writing we have had many people ask us about how to take first steps into the world of publishing. Since this is a very common question, we decided to write down some basic guidelines we feel are helpful. What follows is simply a collection of our observations and thoughts on what might help anyone who wants to be a writer or to publish a book.
LEARN TO LOVE WRITING FOR THE SAKE OF WRITING, NOT FOR THE SAKE OF PUBLISHING
We encourage you to grow as a writer because you love to write. If you have a passion for it, you will keep writing. Also, if you feel God is calling you to write, go for it. No matter what else happens, you will have been faithful to the Lord, and this matters most of all.
LOOK AT PUBLISHING FROM A REALISTIC VANTAGE POINT
Most acquisitions editors get countless unsolicited manuscripts each year. These are book proposals sent in by an aspiring author that the editor did not request. Some of these are never read or reviewed. The truth is, acquisition editors (The ones who decide what books should be considered for publication) are already over-worked and have many published authors who they are partnering with. When the time comes for you to submit a proposal to an AE (Acquisitions Editor) you need to present the right thing in just the right way. We will give you some ideas about how to do this later in this article.
The simple truth is, it is hard to get a proposal to the right person. And, once they have it, it still might not go forward and become a published book. This is why we encourage people to write out of a passion and desire to write, not just because they want to publish something. If you end up being published, great! But, if you knew you would never be hired by a publisher, would you still write?
If you are certain you want to publish something you have written, but you can’t find a publisher, we encourage you to consider self-publishing. The cost of publishing your own work has decreased in recent years. This is a very viable route to take for anyone who is really committed to seeing their work in print and available to others.
Kevin’s little sister Elisabeth had a book idea that was turned down by every publisher she went to. So, she self-published! His mom was her editor. Friends proofed the work and gave input. Her book has become a leader in her industry (employment). If you asked her if she wished a publisher had picked her book up, she would say, “No.” Self-publishing worked very well in her case and it might be the way you want to go…at least with your first project.
People who think they have a great book idea (but have never been published in some other format) rarely get a hearing from publishers. There are very few professional basketball players who did not play in grade school, high school and college. When Sherry and I did our first projects for Zondervan, we had already written over 200 articles (for youth and adults) for a publication called The Sunday School Guide. This guide had a modest circulation and was used in Christian education settings. We started small! Also, we wrote small group guides and did editorial work for Zondervan for almost a decade before we wrote our first book.
One suggestion is to write short sections of your book and seek to have them published as magazine articles or on-line resources. Pick what you feel will be your strongest pieces. Choose what you are most passionate about. Then, write articles that are 600-1,500 words. Once you have three or four solid pieces, review magazines (print or online) that might fit the content of the pieces you wrote. E-mail the magazine and ask them about the procedure for submitting an article. If they publish a piece you have written (and maybe ask for you to send them more articles) you have a confirmation that there is interest in the topic of your book. Also, if you take your book concept to a publisher later, you can show them that sections of your book have already been published.
Another helpful idea is to have your articles published in church magazines, on denominational websites, in blogs, or anywhere else. Be creative…but get some stuff in in front of people.
TAKE WISE STEPS IF YOU WANT TO BE A WRITER
Here are some general suggestions if you want to progress as a writer:
- Write often. Make time to write at least 4-5 times a week. You might not even plan on showing it to anyone, but develop a discipline of writing.
- Be sure to focus your writing on things you are passionate about. Don’t let writing become a chore, but let it flow from your heart.
- Be realistic. Too many people say, “I have a great book idea” but they have not written anything. What they mean is they have a great idea and maybe a clever title. Unless you have been moved to write many pages already, you don’t really have a book, you have a dream. If you want that dream to become a reality begin writing.
- Don’t over-spiritualize your desire to write. Too many people say things like, “I know God wants my book published,” or “The Lord gave me this book.” It is fine that you feel this way, but Christian publishers will not respond well to someone who tells them they need to publish this book because God said so! Let your work speak for itself. And, if God wants it published, He will make this known.
MOVE FORWARD THE RIGHT WAY
If you feel you are ready to send something to a publisher, here are our suggestions. We do not personally deliver other people’s manuscripts or book ideas to our publisher or editors. We feel this would be an inappropriate use of relationships we have developed over the past two-decades. What we can do is guide you in a way that will get your work into the hands of the right person in the right format. This means you will avoid the part of the process where many of the manuscripts are tossed out. You will start as the smaller percentage of manuscripts that gets put into the hands of an AE. Then, your work will have to stand on its own merit.
Here is what we suggest:
- Pray for the Lord to lead the process. If it is God’s plan for your work to be published, He will guide you. Be prayerful every step of the way.
- Get your book proposal to the right person. Never just send your work to a publishing house. Call first and ask for the name of the editor who should receive it. For instance, if you are writing a book on marriage, simply call and ask for the acquisitions editor who handles books about marriage. Once you have a name, be sure to send your work to their attention. Add a cover letter that introduces you, your vision, and expresses your appreciation for them taking a few minutes to look at your work. Be sure your cover letter is less than one page. Less is more! These are very busy people. You might even try to call the AE to whom you will be sending your proposal and ask for a brief five minute conversation to share the vision of your book and give them a heads-up that it is coming.
- Quality, Quality, Quality! Your cover letter and proposal need to be professional and high quality. If they are full of mistakes, the chances of your proposal progressing drops fast! Everything you send in needs to reflect your skill as a writer and your commitment to excellence. If you need to have a friend with a degree in English, ask if they will edit your work before you send it in.
- Send only what they want and need. There is a very specific format and content needed in a book proposal. If you include the following things in the order we give them, your proposal will be complete and professional. Please, don’t add lots of extras. Less is more!
- Cover page: A proposal for…book title (top and center on the page). At the bottom of the page put your name, address, phone number and e-mail.
- Proposal summary: A page or less giving the heartbeat and focus of the book.
- About the author: Tell about yourself. Why are you qualified to write on this topic? Do you have a platform from which you speak on this topic? What else have you published? This should be less than a page.
- Audience: Who will want to read this book? Why will they buy it? Here are two very important reminders. 1) Don’t say that everyone will want to read your book. This is simply not true. Think specifically about who will be excited enough to pay for your book and list these people. 2) Publishers must sell books to stay in business. Don’t resent the fact that there must be a strong audience for your book. If Christian publishers are not wise and discerning about what they commit to produce, they will go out of business. If they are not discerning, they will forfeit their position of influence for God’s Kingdom.
- Competition: List five or six books (both classic and recently publuished) that have been written on the same topic. You can do a search on the Internet to help with this. Be honest, even Solomon said there was nothing new under the sun (and that was thousands of years ago). The truth is that what you want to write about has already been said, and said very well. However, if you have a unique spin or perspective, make it clear. What will make your book stand out?
- Suggested length, format and completion date: Be clear about how long you feel the book needs to be. How long will it take for you to complete the book?
- Book introduction: Include a copy of the introduction to your book. It needs to be clear, compelling, and very well written. An AE will toss out the whole thing if the introduction does not hit home. Make sure this is no longer than two pages.
- Chapter 1: Include a copy of the first chapter of the book. Again, this needs to be your best writing. It must grip the reader immediately and convince an AE that there is reason to consider publishing your book. If you have already written the book, do not send the whole manuscript. Send only the first chapter. If they want more, they will ask.
- Chapter summaries: Give a title and one paragraph overview of every chapter of the book. Keep it tight, but make it compelling and clear.
That’s it! Once you send in your proposal, pray again and entrust the whole process to the Lord. We hope this is helpful as you consider your next steps as a writer. Again, write out of love, passion and calling. If you get published, great! If not, remain faithful.
Sometimes God calls us to write for Him, for ourselves, or for those close to us.
Kevin and Sherry Harney
PS- Due to our busy schedule and the number of people we encounter who have an interest in writing, we do not review people’s work, edit manuscripts, or personally deliver other people’s book ideas to our publishers. Our contribution is to offer this brief paper and to pray God will lead you forward.