“How did you find a publisher?”

5 Crucial Publishing Tips for Beginners

The first question I get when friends, family, and fellow writers find out I signed a publishing contract is always, “What’s it about?” (Read the synopsis here

Once I fumble through my elevator pitch, the follow up almost always comes. “How did you find a publisher?” “How did this come about?”

Honestly, the most accurate answer is “a little bit of luck and a whole lot of hard work.” 

I received a ton of help along the way from writers who have gone before me and agents/publishers willing to put free resources out there. So, here I’ll pass along the tips, tricks, and wisdom that guided me to where I am now.

1. Know your genre and the publishing norms that go with it

A few days ago, a fellow writer posed this question on Twitter: “I have a few chapters done in my fantasy wip. Should I start querying, or should I write more first?” 

wip = work in progress. querying = sending proposals to agents/publishers

First of all, this writer was being smart and seeking advice. Several of us were able to give him a heads up that he should have his full manuscript complete before querying. Even though most agents/publishers only ask for about three chapters in a submission, they will ask for the full manuscript if they like your proposal. You want to be ready if that request comes.

BUT, that’s only the norm in fiction. If he were writing non-fiction, a few chapters would be enough, as it is generally expected that non-fiction writers do not complete their book unless they know they have a contract. Confusing? Yep.

The moral of the story: Do your research. There are all sorts of expectations out there for each genre, and you won’t know them if you don’t go looking for them. It’s a give and take. You need to be proactive and take initiative to learn. At the same time, the writing community is very generous, and it’s easy to find helpful information just by Googling things like, “How long should a young adult science fiction novel be?”

2. Know the difference between agents and types of publishers

An author’s agent seeks publishing contracts on behalf of the author. Sure, they take part of your earnings, but they typically have access to larger, better-known publishing houses.

If you choose to go straight to a publisher, rather than working with an agent, you need to know the types of publishers out there. Here’s a quick read that walks you through some of the options. 

I personally decided to query both agents and trade (traditional) publishers. All of those stories of famous authors being rejected by dozens of publishing houses made me think that finding an agent may be easier than finding a publisher, so imagine my surprise when I experienced the opposite. I rarely heard back from agents (not even a rejection email sometimes!), but I received multiple requests for more information from small traditional publishers. 

A note of caution: There are plenty of scams out there. Beware of “vanity presses” that masquerade as traditional publishers. “Congratulations! We would like to publish your work. We ask our authors to contribute to the project to show us they are dedicated. If you are willing to pay (insert thousands and thousands of dollars here), we will draw up the contract for you to sign.” This happened to me about a year before I signed my actual contract. I’m glad I had done my research and knew to run the opposite direction. 

Traditional publishers won’t ask you for contributions to the project. They cover the costs of editing, design, etc. My publisher asked if I wanted to purchase wholesale copies of my own book, at a writer’s discount. But they would have signed me even if I had said, “No, thank you.”

Reputable self publishers will be upfront about who and what they are: a service for writers to pay for their book to be created. The author pays for the design, editing, etc. This is becoming more and more accepted. If you go the self publishing route, do it with a company that doesn’t try to pretend it is something else.

3. Know what the publisher/agent wants before sending your query. 

The biggest bummer: You shouldn’t put together one generic query letter and proposal to send out to all agents and publishers. That’s a very quick road to rejection. 

First, you need to research publishers and agents. You can search the web, or you can use resources like the one that was suggested to me (and ultimately led me to a publisher): The Christian Writers Market Guide by Steve Laube (here is the 2019 edition)

There is no point sending your cookbook proposal to an agent who only represents children’s books. It’s a waste of time to query a Christian publishing house with your erotica devil worship series. Find agents and publishers who are looking for your type of book. 

Next, go to the agent/publisher’s website and look for their submission guidelines. They almost always have a link in the menu at the top of their website. Here’s what it looks like for Ambassador International.

Make your submission exactly what they ask for. When I am hiring someone to work for me, I automatically reject applicants who can’t follow instructions. Agents and publishers do the same. Don’t be a unique creative genius who follows your own rules and rebels against the establishment. The establishment won’t send you a contract.  

If the submission guidelines are vague or simply asks you to send your proposal, I highly recommend following the Steve Laube Agency guidelines. This is the most helpful resource I have ever found (and I happened to be rejected by his agency AND a publishing house he owns, so there is truly nothing in this for me when I promote him! Ha! But, his website and market guide led me to my contract with Ambassador International)

If an agent or publisher’s website says they are not taking submissions, respect them and move on. 

4. Be willing to build your own platform and learn marketing skills

One of the biggest surprises for me was when I learned most authors, even traditionally-published authors, have to do the majority of their own marketing and promotions. If you score a contract with one of the big dogs (think Random House or Zondervan), they will likely push your work through media interviews, magazine and online ads, prominent placement in bookstores, etc. For the other 99% of us, it’s primarily on our own shoulders. If you aren’t willing to build your social media presence and get yourself out there, you’re probably going to flop. Major bummer. 

I’m still learning a lot about this part of the whole gig, and I’m not even close to being an expert or even *decent* at it. However, when my publisher contacted me with an offer to publish, he specifically noted in his email that he appreciated my willingness to learn marketing skills and my understanding of how important it would be for me to grow my platform (all of which I mentioned in my proposal). 

Right now I am studying the social media profiles and posting habits of authors who are a few steps ahead of me, and I’m reading everything I can find on building platforms and followings. I’ll put what I learn into practice to boost my launch this coming spring. 

5. Rejection is going to happen. Keep trying.

Rejections. Lots of rejections. Doesn’t matter how talented you are or how hard you worked. Your rate of rejection has little to do with your writing talent. Have you seen some of the junk that gets published and even makes it on best sellers lists? Those authors may or may not be better writers than you. The thing I know for sure is that they found the right agent or publisher at the right time and were willing to work their tooshies off to market themselves and their books. 

The roughest rejections for me were the first one (ouch. We all have fantasies of immediate acceptance by the very best agent/publisher) and one that came in spring 2017. It was the furthest I had advanced with any traditional publisher. After I submitted my proposal, they had asked for my full manuscript. Then the acquisitions editor emailed me to say she read the whole thing in one night because she loved it so much. She was taking it to the final review board. I thought, “THIS IS IT!” A few weeks later, she emailed again with an apology, a reminder that she loved it, and an unexpected rejection. It didn’t fit what they were going for at that time. I was CRUSHED. But, she encouraged me to keep trying. 

I put it all away for several months. I didn’t want to get my hopes up only to face more rejection. 

When I finally returned to my book, I gave myself the goal of submitting a query/proposal once a week, alternating between agents and publishers. I made a spreadsheet of agents and publishers who accept proposals for Christian young adult fantasy. I ranked them by several factors. Were they specifically looking for Christian fantasy, or do they accept a broad range of genres? I gave publishers and agents whose passion is Christian fantasy higher rankings than others. I also looked at things like their web design. I didn’t want to sign a contract with a company whose website looked unprofessional or outdated (that may seem superficial, but it matters!). 

Once I had my list, I chose one agent or publisher per week and created a query letter and proposal based painstakingly around their specific guidelines. 

Less than two months later – a request for my full manuscript. Less than a month after that – a signed contract. 

If you have questions about the publishing process that I didn’t answer here, send them my way! Comment or DM on any of my social media platforms. I’d love to help fellow writers the way others have helped me. 

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