Someone once said to me that publishing is a tough business.
Having been a publisher for over twenty years, I can certainly attest to the truth of that statement. Publishing in the United States has seen steady growth since 2013, largely fueled by the rise in self-publishing and the emergence of e-Books. Every year, there is more and more content on the market. Consequently, there is more and more for the reader to choose from, leading to a strongly competitive U.S. book market.
It is especially tough for self-publishing. Although over 1 million self-published titles flooded the market in 2017, many self-published authors will sell few books. According to the Nonfiction Authors Association, “generally speaking, most self-published authors will likely sell around 250 books or less. A few years ago, the industry was buzzing when statistics revealed that the average self-published author earns less than $500 from her books. That figure doesn’t even cover the cost of quality editing.”
That doesn’t stop the many writers in this country who desire to have their books in print. While the emergence of self-publishing makes it easier and more economical for the average joe to get a book into print, many desire to go the traditional route. They will submit their manuscripts to a traditional publisher and hope and pray that the publisher will find merit in their books and award them contracts.
Because of the aforementioned competitive challenges, traditional publishers have to be very selective as to the books that they publish. The cost to publish a book—editing, cover and interior design, illustrations, printing, marketing and promotion, advances—can run anywhere from the lower to high thousands. Given that cost, publishers need to be certain that the books they acquire will sell enough copies to recoup that cost and make a profit. For this reason, the average traditional publisher will accept only a small percentage of manuscripts that are submitted to them out of the hundreds, or many thousands, that they receive each month.
Therefore, fueled by market data, experience, and keen knowledge of the mission and vision of their company, most publishers who accept unsolicited manuscripts develop guidelines for the author to follow when submitting a manuscript or deciding whether or not to submit one. Since the staff member at the publishing company (“first reader”) who has the responsibility of sorting through manuscript proposals is a very busy person, your manuscript proposal may have only a few seconds or minutes to impress this person before she decides whether the manuscript merits further consideration, or whether she rejects it.
Unfortunately, many new or inexperienced authors don’t know this (hence the purpose of this article). Sans the knowledge of how a publishing company works, they submit their manuscripts to the publishing company and then are surprised when the company rejects the manuscript or does not respond at all. Therefore, authors must be knowledgeable in approaching Christian publishers. They must educate themselves on the requirements and submission processes of the publishing companies to which they desire to send manuscripts. Failure to do so significantly lessens the chance that a publisher will option your manuscript.
I can’t begin to tell you the many mistakes that authors make regarding this process. Just within the past few weeks, potential authors have made the following faux pas when approaching us for publication:
- Sending unsolicited manuscripts by postal mail or calling us to find out if we would be interested in reviewing their manuscript (we don’t, and never have, reviewed manuscripts by postal mail or through a phone pitch).
- Sending us emails with a brief synopsis of their book and asking us to contact them if we would be interested in evaluating it (we don’t accept queries via email; only via the submissions form on our website).
- Sending us manuscripts with the expectation that we will do ALL of the marketing and promotion (we expect the author to participate in the marketing and promotion process).
- Sending us manuscripts that are too short to publish in book form
Below are ten additional mistakes that authors make when approaching Christian publishers, and how to rectify those mistakes to enhance the chances of being published:
The manuscript has significant grammatical and stylistic errors
Most manuscripts, no matter how well-edited, will contain some errors. We have never received a manuscript that did not have them. However, a manuscript that shows many grammatical, spelling, and style errors on each page will likely head straight for the reject folder. Authors should polish their manuscripts before sending them. The author that says, “editing is a publisher’s job” may be correct, to an extent. Many small publishers do not have budgets to spend on extensive copy editing and proofreading. A manuscript sent to a small publisher that has several errors on each page may be too expensive for that publisher to edit and arduous for them to read, causing them to reject the manuscript. Would you sell a car with mud all over it? Of course not.
Sending in a well-polished manuscript shows that you are concerned about presentation, which can go a long way in the eyes of a publisher.
The author has no marketing and promotional plan
We still get manuscripts where the author states their marketing and promotional plan is to let us do all the work. Instant rejection. Even larger publishing companies have had to cut down on marketing and promotion of new books, especially by new or unknown authors, and many will not accept a manuscript by an author who does not have a significant platform. These days, social media savvy is a must. An author that has few Twitter followers and whose Facebook page contains only pictures of their family vacation, likely will not pass muster, unless they can convince the publisher that they have a plan to build those platforms.
In addition to social media, the author must be actively and consistently promoting themselves and their products. A web site, book signings, speaking engagements, blogging, getting reviews, and a host of other methods, are all designed to build a fan base and increase the opportunities for book sales.
Material not suited for the company
Not every Christian publishing company is the same. The word “Christian” in itself is a very broad term, encompassing various denominations, sects, cultures, and creeds. Find out what the company means when it says it is Christian, ensure that your manuscript fits their beliefs and theology, and adequately study the company to determine its needs. A manuscript that falls outside of a company’s vision and mission is likely a manuscript headed for rejection, no matter how well-written it may be. Authors should ensure that their work closely aligns with the mission and vision of their target company.
Poorly written books
You may have a wonderful proposal synopsis with a neat concept, a great marketing plan, and a strong platform. Unfortunately, the book itself is so poorly edited and written that it would likely take almost a complete rewrite to get it straight. We’ve received books from writers in which it was clear that the author had a great idea but zero writing skills.
Writing a book is not for everyone, but that doesn’t stop many people from trying. As a result, we get fiction books that feature thinly drawn characters, unrealistic situations (except for fantasy/sci-fi), or clumsy plots. We have also received non-fiction books that are rambling, repetitive, poorly structured, Biblically errant, or show a lack of knowledge of the subject matter. A publishing company may, if a book has merit, do basic copy editing, but don’t expect the company to rewrite your book. It will likely go in the reject pile.
Not studying the writer’s guidelines carefully and adhering to them
Almost every publishing company that accepts manuscripts has guidelines. Find the company’s website, search for writer’s or author’s guidelines, and follow them to the letter. With the number of manuscripts publishing companies receive, they do not have time to review manuscripts that fall outside of the guidelines.
Expecting that a company will have time to “pre-discuss” your manuscript
Not sure if a publishing company will accept your manuscript? Do you have questions about whether your manuscript is suitable for the company? Do you have questions that are not answered by the writer’s guidelines? Some companies give online email addresses so that you can ask questions before submitting your manuscript. However, do not expect that a company will have time to have in-depth discussions with authors about the merits of their manuscript. It is best to study the company by reviewing a few of their published books in your genre so that you get an idea about the types of books that they publish.
“Running with” the information in a writer’s market’s guide
Writer’s market guides are published by third parties who gather information from publishing companies and include that information in one volume for writers to peruse. They are wonderful resources for authors to get information about publishers who may be interested in their manuscripts. Keep in mind, however, that publishers may change their information after the guides are published and before new editions come out. So, the information in the guides may be out of date. Use the guides to get information about the publishers who may be interested in your work, but always check the publishers’ official website or social media pages for the latest information.
Not getting an agent where needed
A literary agent can be a tremendous resource to an author when it comes to approaching Christian publishers. An agent knows the publishing business and publishing companies and represents the author before these companies. The knowledge of an agent can be invaluable when evaluating the merits of your work, approaching companies, negotiating contracts, ensuring payment of royalties, and handling other aspects of the relationship between author and publisher. For this service, agents usually take a percentage of book sales. If the prospect of handling your book deals seems daunting, or if your time or experience is limited, an agent may be whom you need. Do a Google search for “Christian literary agents” to find agencies that may be able to help you.
Not knowing how to handle rejection
Any writer worth his or her salt, if they are tenaciously trying to get published, is going to get rejected, no matter how good their proposal. It’s part of the business. Do not retort. Do not get angry and give the publisher a piece of your mind. If your manuscript gets rejected, use the publisher’s feedback (if any) and use that to improve and strengthen your manuscript. Unless the publisher says that the manuscript does not fit their needs, you may be able to resubmit it later for reconsideration. If not, move on to the next publisher.
Making lofty claims
This book will change the church as we know it!
Reading this book will change your life!
No other book will free you from sin like this book.
This is the only book that shows you how to save your marriage!
It is important to sell your book to the publisher by pointing out the value that your book gives to Christian readers and how you plan to ensure sufficient sales to justify its publication. However, going overboard, as the above statements do, will likely get your book rejected. Many authors think their books are the best things ever released, and they try to make that point by making unsubstantiated and lofty claims about their books. Books answer questions, provide guidance and advice, give information and resources, entertain, tell stories, teach, and instruct. However, books alone cannot change anyone’s life. Only God, and the application of the human will, can do that. Try to avoid making lofty statements in a proposal. A first reader can often tell when a writer is trying too hard.
Avoid the above mistakes with approaching Christian publishers, and your manuscript and proposal will be stronger, more compelling, and more capable of catching the discerning eye of a publishing company.