How to Break into Publishing

Want to break into publishing?

If so, I suggest you begin by going down to your local Half Price Books or Powell’s 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 2006 Writer’s Market. It’s about two 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 text consists primarily of publisher listings and submission requirements. It’s a great resource.

When I teach my master’s-level writing students, I usually 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. (The Writer’s Market 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.” Send the publisher your proposal, not a manuscript, with copies of your articles. If the editorial team likes your concept, the proposal will go to the marketing department. The people in this department want to see a couple of things. First, it’s unusual for any book to sell more than 5,000 copies, and the publisher wants to stay solvent, so the team will need to see evidence that you can sell enough books to make a profit. 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 there.

2) Make a list of the places where you’ve spoken in the last year. The publisher will assume that when you publish your book, 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, an author, the president of an influential 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 narrow profit margins, so it’s vital to the publishing industry that they at least break even each time they offer a book contract.

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 book contract, right now I make about 12 to 16 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.

Which I hope you will do!

Sandra Glahn, who holds a Master of Theology degree from Dallas Theological Seminary (DTS) and a PhD in The Humanities—Aesthetic Studies from the University of Texas/Dallas, is a professor at DTS. This creator of the Coffee Cup Bible Series (AMG) based on the NET Bible is the author or coauthor of more than twenty books. She's the wife of one husband, mother of one daughter, and owner of two cats. Chocolate and travel make her smile. You can follow her on Twitter @sandraglahn ; on FB /Aspire2 ; and find her at her web site: aspire2.com.

One Comment

  • Terri Moore

    academic publishing

    and for academic publishing it is good to start with presentations at professional societies (for peer review and input) and to write book reviews for journals.

    or so I’m told! (do as I say not as I do!)

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