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 resource.

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 there.

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” your subject.

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. Some examples:

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 fire.

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 pointers?

Because I teach grad students to write and I’m currently working on my dissertation, I lack the time. Book 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