Occasionally, I receive questions from blog readers who are curious to know how I wound up writing a book. Many bloggers have similar aspirations of writing for a larger audience. So questions inevitably come up:
“How did you get published?”
“What kind of proposal did you do?”
“What is the key to getting a book deal?”
Of course, the questioners are not merely interested in my personal story; they want to follow the same road and get published themselves.
The only advice that I can give about publishing comes solely from the author’s standpoint. I usually recommend that you try to get published in some magazines first. Building a blog audience is a good idea. Try to get your work into other places (whether there is a financial benefit or not). Sometimes, I will tell someone to consider self-publishing, especially if they have many traveling and speaking opportunities.
Of course, all this advice is from the author’s standpoint. The best thing you can do is hear the editor’s point of view.
The world of Christian publishing differs quite a bit from the world of non-Christian publishing, but enough of the same rules apply to non-fiction that one can glean important insights from editors of secular non-fiction. Thinking Like Your Editor: How to Write Great Serious Nonfiction–and Get It Published (W. W. Norton & Company, New York, 2003) by Susan Rabiner and Alfred Fortunato is a good place to get started.
Aspiring authors need to know what editors look for when they see a book proposal. They also need to know a little about the decision-making process. I learned from experience how to craft a book proposal, but it would have been helpful for me to have known some of the suggestions in this book before starting the proposal.
For example, when I first began speaking with an editor of a Christian publishing house, I quickly came to discover that although my editor really liked my proposal, the decision was not his alone. He was going to have to “sell it”, so to speak, to the board of editors that makes these decisions.
It’s a little like American Idol. The first major step forward is simply getting your work to an editor’s desk, just like the thousands of Idol contestants hope they will get the chance to audition for the judges. Once you have an editor who is in your court, you move pass the initial round of going “solo” and now must compete against all the other proposals. (It’s like Hollywood Week.) It’s no longer just you and the editor. Now your proposal has to stand out in a room with lots of other proposals, each of which has support from other editors. If you pass this test, you’re on your way.
If you want think like an editor, I recommend this book. It comes highly recommended by my friend, Justin Taylor, editor at Crossway. And no wonder. This book takes you through the thought processes of a non-fiction editor. The five big questions that every editor wants to answer are:
- What is this book about?
- What is the book’s thesis and what’s new about it?
- Why are you the person to write this book?
- Why is now the time to publish this book?
- Who makes up the core audience for the proposed book, and why will they find it appealing?
If you can satisfactorily explain all five of these things, you have at least a shot at getting published.
The book also includes a couple of chapters on how to write well. The authors give tips on writing, using narrative tension, and treating other arguments fairly, etc. There is also a good deal of advice for authors once they have a book proposal that has been accepted. What can an author expect from the publisher? What can an author expect in terms of marketing?
Reading this book after going through the publishing process was especially enlightening. Looking over my initial proposal for Holy Subversion, I can see some of the things I did right. And thinking ahead, I can see some things I will do differently when making future proposals.
Thinking Like Your Editor is what I’m going to start recommending to people when they ask about being published or how to be published. You really don’t need to talk to an author so much as you need to talk to an editor. If you don’t know an editor, this book is the next best thing for writing non-fiction and getting it published.