What You Can and Cannot Control in Book Publishing

As I’ve shopped around book ideas, I’ve heard the publisher equivalent of the “It’s not you, it’s me” break up line—as in, “We love your proposal, it’s just not a good fit for us right now.

In publishing there are some things within your control, while others fall into the intangibles column. After looking for a publisher a few years ago, my agent began talking with NavPress. NavPress was looking to dig into practical theology, taking on the relevance of the Bible for today’s issues—that’s my take on them at least—making my Coffeehouse Theology book proposal a great fit for them. I hit them in the midst of a transition into a new line of books, meaning a new crop of authors.

In addition, NavPress has since revamped their web site and has a lot of exciting promotions coming up. Fresh ideas are welcome and there is a lot of enthusiasm to connect with readers in new ways, which encourages me and stimulates my thinking. It’s wonderful to be so intimately connected with the marketing of my book, thinking of the kind of promotions I would want to see as a reader. From my perspective, NavPress and I found each other at a great time.

While luck/good timing certainly played a part in my steps toward publishing, there were many things within my control…

I spent years practicing my writing online through blogs and a few magazines (though there’s no education like working with a book development editor), and began to develop my own voice and writing style. That experience was priceless as I set out to rewrite my book.

While blogging regularly, I began networking with fellow bloggers, keeping in mind that I may one day want to ask them to review my book on their blogs one day. Some of these bloggers have become online friends, and it’s wonderful to interact with their insights and ideas on a regular basis. They help me think and write better.

Read widely and broadly with an eye to what makes good writing work. I read the New York Times, Time Magazine, articles on the Del.icio.us hotlist, Google News, and blogs on a daily basis. I try to keep one bestselling nonfiction book on my night stand (I’m working my way through Malcolm Gladwell’s books right now) and a couple Christian books since that’s my main market, Refractions and The Secret Message of Jesus of late. While I want to learn from great writers in my field, almost any good writer can point me toward better use of language, style, or story structure. A few authors on our bookshelf include Lauren Winnter, Anne Lamott, Barbara Kingsolver, and Ruth Reichl.

Refine your book proposal so that it presents a real need and then fulfills it. The basic need I presented with my Coffeehouse Theology proposal was two-fold: theology is not accessible and Christians end up fighting each other over theology. I offered to make theology an accessible, unity-building practice for Christians in everyday life. If you can’t sum up your idea succinctly, then you’re not ready to write a focused, to-the-point proposal.

While all of these pieces were crucial steps, my practice and hard work were not enough. I needed a break, a situation that created the perfect opportunity for my book proposal to receive a green light. I know how it feels to read the rejection e-mails and letters, so if you’re a budding writer dealing with rejection for the first time, I feel your pain. You have unfortunately chosen a profession where the “no’s” will outnumber the “yea’s.”

Of course there may be times when you can wow a publisher with a bold, fresh idea. However, the break up letters will be inevitable. My advice is to work hard, keep getting your work out there, and make sure when a publisher says, “It’s not you, it’s me,” they will be absolutely correct.