Sunday, November 13, 2011

New authors: How to break into publishing

A talentened friend of mine is wrapping up his phd in religious history. His dissertation has promise as a mainstream book, but he knows nothing about the publishing industry. He emailed asking for advice on how to get started (eg, how to approach editors.)

I started by telling him you don't approach editors: you start with an agent. Pretty soon I'd filled a page or two laying out the basics of breaking into this biz, and figured it could help some of you. (I get asked this a lot.)

The email felt like a good draft of a post I've been meaning to put together for a couple years now. But as you might have noticed, I've tried to keep myself from the blog the past year to focus on my next project.

So rather than let this languish in draft form indefinitely, helping no one, I'm just going to post it here as sent, complete with uncaps, fragments and gramatical mistakes. (Minus a few personal details). I think you'll get the gist.

Fiction authors: your process is very similar, except you have to write the whole novel and have that ready to send instead of the book proposal.

I hope this helps some of you writers trying to break in. To find it later, I'll add it to my Advice to Writers page.

The email:

the entry key to this business is a good agent. (not an editor, as most people think. they are the second rung in.) agents are the gate keepers. the big houses won't even consider "unagented" material anymore.

(if you want to go to a regional, academic or specialty press, ignore the preceding, though everything that follows will apply to landing them instead of an agent.)

once you land a good agent, you have passed the biggest hurdle, and your book has a very good shot at selling. 

finding an agent for nonfiction is pretty straightforward, though a lot of work:

1. write a kick-ass book proposal, and approx 3 sample chapters. (they don't want to read the actual book, they want to read a proposal.)

2. identify agents that are a good fit (a hard part).

3. Write a great one-page query letter. 

4. Keep sending #3 to agents until one agrees to see your book proposal. Send to about a dozen at a time, because it usually takes dozens. Once one says yes, you need to be able to mail/email the proposal that day, while their interest is up.

(Hence doing #1 before #3. Also, #3 is the hardest part for most people, and doing #1 distills their core ideas down for them and makes #3 infinitely easier.) You might want to start with a draft of #3 to get started with something small, kind of self-validate, and force you to distill your book into a few graphs. Then you widen back out to #1 and come back to #3 with new eyes and really make it rock. (It needs to.)

5. After they reject the proposal, return to #4 until one likes the proposal, and agrees to take you as a client. 

6. The agent will work with you on rewrites to make the proposal much better.

7. He/she takes it from there. but all the work you've put into finding an agent is recycled here, because a) she will start with an oral pitch to editors, where she will probably crib heavily from your query letter, as well as your proposal, b) once she gets them interested, she'll submit your book proposal to them. (and it will be photocopied 20 times in-house.
they have a whole internal process where they have to get one other in-house editor to agree to support the book before it can go up to the editor in chief and then the publisher, and if they buy in, to a big committee with people from sales, marketing, publicity, finance, etc., who must agree to it.)


now on the agent front, cold-querying is a real bitch, and it helps greatly to know someone who will vouch for you. your work still has to stand up by itself, but they will give a lot more consideration to someone who a trusted person says is bright, capable, not a nutcase.

as for the book proposal and query, there are entire books on each, because they are that important--and i bought, used three of the books to do mine. but lots of good agents have the basics on their websites. Rachelle Gardner has a good starter.

It links to her two posts on how to write a book proposal and a query letter. I think Nathan Bransford has the very best advice on query letters, with critiques of examples. Links to his stuff is on my Advice to Writers page.

(I think Rachelle lays out the basics best, whereas Nathan jumps right in halfway through, expecting you to already know the basic elements of a query letter, and how it fits in to the entire process. So I'd start with Rachelle, then move on to Nathan.)

if you're looking for a sense of size/time, my proposal was nearly 100 pages (which was too long) and took about 4 months. queries MUST be one page, and when i do them for magazine pieces, i usually spend at least a week on them, usually much more. (not full time, but they suck up most of my creative juice for the week). but i'm slow. really slow.

is that overwhelming? it gets much easier as you get familiar.

doing a great query and proposal are are each tricky in their own way, but the format is very well established, so get familiar with that. then it's all about execution. and the key to execution is to make it INTERESTING. get the flavor of your voice/personality in there.

i think a lot of writers get lost in the format of the proposal, thinking that if they just flesh out all the elements in the outline they are done. the key is hitting all the elements, but doing so in a way that someone would actually want to read. i can help you with that.

if you can tell a great story at a party, you can write a good book. you just have to believe in that same voice--your real voice, and get it onto the page.

much harder than it sounds, as you know, but 99% of the problem is your own lack of faith that it will work there. instead, people try to Write--or worse, Write Importantly--in some other ridiculous voice that belongs to know one and sounds like it.

i tell students that if you've got a great anecdote that you're telling a group of friends, and somebody walks in and interrupts, that once the interruption settles down, try NOT picking the story back up. somebody better ask you, "So what happened with xxx?" or whatever. if they don't, it wasn't that great a story, or you didn't figure out how to tell it.

if people do want to hear more of your stories, then you've got the gift. (and lots of writers lack the confidence to pull it off orally, but can nail it on the page. confidence is not the only thing, but it's an essential thing.)

that's the MAIN thing you should keep in the foreground of your mind as you go: that storytelling approach you already have when you're telling stories to your friends.

i hope i didn't make it sound crushing. one bite at a time, it gets done. good luck with it. it will be great.



  1. Dave - thanks for laying this out. I hung onto every word and have filed it as reference as I go forward with "Flying the Coop," a non-fiction narrative about how a lifer got away and took the warden's wife with him. Bravo Zulu for printing this (BZ is an old Navy term).

  2. Caroline in BaltimoreNovember 16, 2011 at 11:01 AM

    Thanks for this, Dave! I also passed this on to a friend.

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