O Me of Little Faith

O Me of Little Faith

Writer’s Mailbag

This is the question most often asked of published writers by potential writers: I’ve got a great idea for a book. How do I go about getting it published? (HT: Robert Fortner‘s comment on this post)

I wish I had a good — or at least encouraging — answer. These days it’s hard to get a book in the hands of an editor. Once there, it’s hard to get the book published. Once published, it’s hard to get the book to sell.

(Now you will play me a sad song on your tiny violin.)

Anyway, the publishing world is notoriously hard to break into. Let’s start with some background information. This is how a book gets published: Let’s say a person comes up with a great idea for a book. He or she mulls it over for the next ten years, then finally sits down to write a couple of chapters. The prospective author shows the chapters to some writerly friends, who say, “wow, a rambling book about Christian spirituality using the unresolvable nature of jazz as a metaphor? That’s pretty good!” and so the author writes up a 4-5 page proposal (if it’s nonfiction) or plot outline (if it’s fiction).


Then, through the power of interpersonal networking (or blind emailing after having scoured the Internet for contact info), those sample chapters and the proposal/outline are sent to an agent. The agent likes it, so he or she agrees to represent the potential author. The agent then packages up the book idea, has a few exploratory conversations with editors with whom he or she enjoys good relationships, and tries to sell them on the idea. Several editors may be contacted at once. Eventually, an editor becomes attracted to the book idea and thinks it might 1) be publishable; 2) be sellable; and 3) fit into the style, subject matter, and vision of the publisher, the editor’s employer. Then the editor must sell the idea to an editorial team at the publisher, who talk it over for a long time before finally deciding whether or not to make an offer to the writer. Once this offer is made, the agent and editor and author negotiate the contract and before long, the author’s book idea has been purchased by a publisher.


At which point the fun begins, because now you actually have to start writing the thing, while staring at a deadline and wondering how in the world you’re gonna think of enough stuff to fulfill the 60,000-word manuscript you’re contractually obligated to deliver.

(More violin music here, please.)

So there are several gatekeepers to the process, all of whom must be sold on the merits of the book. The author must convince the agent, the agent must convince the editor, the editor must convince his or her editorial board…and even further, as the publisher must then convince the buyers at Barnes & Noble and Borders and Wal-Mart, etc., to stock a whole bunch of copies of the book…and then the chain stores hope the book’s marketing and packaging are able to convince the book-buying public to purchase the store’s inventory.

Of course, I still haven’t really answered the question: How do I get it published?

I guess I’ll get to that tomorrow.

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posted February 28, 2008 at 8:52 pm

HA! I keep imagining the first time your agent went to an editor, and said, “No, seriously. It’s gonna be a pocket sized book explaining eschatology to the masses.”

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