Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The Truth About How Long it Takes to Get a Book Published

I don't do much author mentoring, because I have learned a painful truth: The vast majority of people who say they want to write a book for publication are not willing to submit to 1) the discipline of learning to write well and 2) then going through a frustrating and time-devouring process of personal inactivity (that's code for "waiting and waiting and waiting") to see it through.

I'm not a good example of the norm for getting your first book published by a major Christian publisher, because as a young author with a few magazine article credits, I made a chance comment about being a former Mormon to a published author I'd just met. She said, "I have a publisher who would love to publish a book by you," -- and within a few months I had a contract with Zondervan. Not the norm. Did I say, "not the norm"? (I see it as the power of God, operational and irrepressible. And the book has stayed in print, with only one small hiatus, for 30 years.)

But now, even with over a dozen published books, I submit myself to the process that may have only slightly fewer steps than that for a complete neophyte. For the sake of those of you who wonder what you might reasonably expect (divine intervention excepted, that is), here is an approximate timetable of the process.

I begin by saying that two things must precede this process: You must have something unique and compelling and marketable to say (and if for the Christian market, inner assurance that you've been called to be a writer), and you must be able to write well. Please do not inflict yourself upon the overwhelmed professionals of the market if you have not fulfilled those two requirements.

Since most Christian publishers today do not accept unsolicited manuscripts, and if you do not win a contest (like our "Audience with an Agent" contest) or meet an editor or agent who requests your materials personally at a conference such as Mount Hermon, I will start the process steps with the acquisition of an agent.

Please bear in mind that this is an approximation of the process which any number of factors can greatly lengthen or shorten.

1. Author completes a non-fiction proposal (including polished sample chapters) as per the style sheet or instructions on an agent's Web site. This must be as perfect as he can make it because rarely does an agent ask for a rewritten proposal. At this point a very wise (and relatively inexpensive) strategy could be to pay a publishing industry professional to read and evaluate your proposal before sending it. (Our own Sharon K. Souza offers such a service which I highly recommend.)

2. Author seeks that agent with the completed proposal. If submitting to multiple agents, the author carefully fulfills each agent's specific guidelines that may include parameters such as word count, line length, and manner of submission; and indicates in the cover letter that the author is pursuing multiple agents.

3. Agent typically takes several weeks/months to respond to proposal. Many proposals which have not followed guidelines, are inappropriate for the agent's profile, are unremarkable, or are poorly written are never seen by the agent. An assistant weeds them out and rejects them.

4. If the agent likes the proposal, the agent will typically research the author’s Web presence, confirm any claims the author has made about himself if possible, and use any other resources the agent has (including talking to other agents.) If agent likes what he sees, he signs an agent's contract with author. Author may want to have a lawyer look at this contract. (An author should never sign with an agent who also offers editorial services for hire, or who works with a vanity publisher.)

5. Agent will correspond with author for additional information such as specific marketing plans, then tweak proposal. Agent then asks editors if they want to see the proposal (this action is called a pitch.) Sometimes an agent will not pitch to editors with individual projects, but will wait until making appointments with editors at an industry event like ICRS (the Christian book industry's annual conference), where the agent will maximize the editors' time with one-on-one sessions in which the agent tells the editor of multiple authors' projects appropriate for that publishing company. Therefore, a pitch can be inactive for several months before such a conference.

6. At a conference or other face-to-face meeting, an editor will usually tell the agent which ideas are appealing and she would like to pursue by seeing a proposal. If the pitch was via email or phone conversation, the editor expresses interest, sometimes quite a while after the conversation.

7. The agent sends the proposal to the editor. If the agent has pitched multiple projects to multiple editors, this may take a week or more as the agent returns home and tries to catch up on emails, etc.

8. If editor wants to pursue the proposal he/she received, he/she takes the proposal to a publishing committee. These meet sometimes only two to four times a year, some more often. Sometimes a publishing house has more than one committee to evaluate a book.

9. Marketing people do analyses, publishing committee members all read proposal.

10. If the publishing committee(s) decides to publish the book, the publisher sends a book contract to the agent.

11. Agent negotiates the publisher's contract. (This sometimes takes quite a while because of such things as electronic rights, royalty rates, and delineation of publisher’s commitment to marketing.)

12. Agent sends final publisher's contract to author.

13. Author reads carefully and then signs contract -- and only then can author correspond directly with the editor who is assigned to work on the book (sometimes not the acquisitions editor who first asked for the proposal or book.)

14. The author completes or rewrites the contracted book as per company guidelines. The contract specifies a deadline, and since many processes (such as catalogue listings) depend on this deadline, the author must never miss the deadline. Often first-time writers have to do extensive line edits or revisions after submitting what the author considered to be the "final" manuscript. (Here, too, is where a publishing professional’s evaluation and pre-editing can help. Some of us NovelMatters writers use such professionals to tweak our manuscripts before submission, even though we are experienced writers.) The writing/rewriting process can take months to complete -- or longer.

15. Editor approves the final draft of the book. Author may or may not be included in such decisions as cover art, though an agent usually insists on this.

16. Author looks at page proofs to catch last-minute errors.

17. Usually several months, sometimes much more time--even over a year-- transpires before the book appears in print. Some books are not scheduled for release for years or more after the contract is signed because of full publication rosters. Other projects get “bumped” by higher-profile books with time-sensitive subject matter.

Sometimes the process has "extra" steps. For instance, since my first book, The Mormon Mirage, was controversial and I was relatively unknown, the publisher sent my proposal (and then later the entire manuscript) to an expert in Mormonism to read. This evaluation (completely separate from the selection and editing processes) held up the publication for several months.

Published authors, do you have anything to add to my list? Those of you who are pre-published, what do you think?


Wendy Paine Miller said...

And now to breathe. ;)

Two good things--one, I'm not in a hurry and two, I know how to keep hopeful and active during the wait.

I've read about the process before, but you've put it so clearly here. Thanks.

~ Wendy

Jan Cline said...

What do I think? When I read these kinds of posts I sometimes want to run for the hills, then again it often deepens my determination to do whatever it takes to run the race. However, my flight instinct gets less every day because I am learning the craft and pressing forward. I know my calling is more important than my fear. I do my best and the final outcome is in God's hands. Consequently, I am at the point of seeking an agent and loving the process.
Thanks for the insight, as always.

Latayne C Scott said...

Wendy and Jan, I'm glad this didn't discourage you. Some of it is worst-case scenario, but it's always better to understand what's going on that you don't know.

Besides, as Jan pointed out, God is supervising the process. That gives me hope and peace.

Anonymous said...

An excellent post, Latayne. This certainly is a waiting game, but as Wendy said, knowing how to stay active during the wait is important. Continuing to write and improving your craft are all part of the process. But mostly it's about learning to wait on the Lord, who never misses a deadline.

Eric W. Trant said...

You're right. Most authors believe -- and in many ways are taught -- that the steps are 1-2-17, nothing between.

And don't forget all the work AFTER you're published... gads, you'd be up to 50 or 60 steps if you added the full gambit.

Plus the pay stinks, at least it stinks 80-90% of the time.

- Eric

Megan Sayer said...

I read once (it may have been in Stephen King's "On Writing"...?) that (the author) finishes a manuscript, writes "The End" on the bottom, makes a cup of coffee and then writes "Chapter One" on a new piece of paper. In other words, once you've finished, don't dwell on it. Move on to the next thing.

I've yet to write "The End" on anything manuscript-length, but the more I learn about the editing and publishing process the more sense that author's behaviour makes. This post was a great one.

By the way Latayne, your comment about your first experience in publishing, with The Mormon Mirage, was also really inspirational. We live daily with the seemingly impossible vision of getting an agent, and even after that, maybe one day five years down the track might possibly see our books in print for a short time. Yet to be reminded that God CAN do anything HE wants (granted, not necessarily what WE want, or in our time frame) is priceless.

Speaking of which, your book "Hinges of your History" came in the post the other day (just to prove I've been regularly ripped off by Amazon's postal prices and approximate delivery times) - thanks again so much - IT IS SUCH A PROFOUND BOOK!!!!! Seriously guys, get a hold of this book when you can, Latayne's unpacking of the faith journey is one I've never ever heard mention of before, yet it's so simple and so incredibly profound. I'd had it less than a day before I was emailing quotes off to friends who needed to hear it. It's a beautiful reminder of the true nature and character of God, especially when it comes to WAITING (and hey, that seems to be what today's post is all about!)

Nikole Hahn said...

I knew it took a while. I'm not discouraged, just educated a little more to make sure my online presence stays consistent and clean and my writing continues to grow as I daily continue to improve my craft. Thank you.

I'm an ex-mormon, too. :o)

Henrietta Frankensee said...

It reads like the Julia Childs Beef Bourguignon recipe I am following. (It will all end next Tuesday in a dinner party.) Intricate, lengthy and the result is an explosion for the senses.
I am comforted to learn of the agent's support and expertise potentially lined up on my side. Birth is not something to go through alone.
And I agree with Megan about your Hinges book. I am on pg. 120 of my first run. I am not doing the application questions this time, just absorbing a brand new way to think. I estimate it will take me a year to do the written work, it is so profound. Thank you for sharing the gift of very high thinking!

Latayne C Scott said...

Sharon, you are such an encouragement to me. I want to shout it, to tell everyone how all the NovelMatters ladies are so helpful to me. Love you dearly.

Eric, I wrote this post originally for a starry-eyed musician who wants to publish his story -- and it will be a good one --but he believes only in a two or three step process. Yeah, right. And what you said about the pay -- I figured that prison inmates make more per hour than I have on some of my projects. Really.

Latayne C Scott said...

Megan, I really appreciate you sharing that from Stephen King. It's true of any true artist -- they are constantly thinking about the next project even as they are finishing the present one. And the only way to keep going when you're discouraged or see no results-- is to keep going.

I'm glad you liked the story of my first book, The Mormon Mirage. It has been a symbol to me of what God does when we get out of His way!!

Latayne C Scott said...

Nikole, I didn't know you were an ex-Mormon! We're everywhere! No kidding, people are leaving the LDS church in greater numbers than ever before.

Good for you, to not let all my "steps" discourage you -- the purpose of the post was to let us all be realistic about the price we pay for writing: And one of the highest prices is the loss of time, which none of us can reclaim.

Latayne C Scott said...

Henrietta and Megan, I am deeply touched by your supportive comments about The Hinge of Your History: The Phases of Faith. I had a little old lady in her eighties whom I've known for decades come up to me at church last week with tears in her eyes, telling me that the book gave her the courage to deal with her beloved husband who has Alzheimers. I hear stories all the time about how the book has literally turned peoples' lives around.

The book, though, needs some champions. I am so grateful to Megan and others who tell their friends about it. I know it can help people. Bless you and thank you.

Marcia said...

LaTayne, thank you for these vivid snapshots of what being a published author is all about. Since I've started to read this blog several months ago, my eyes are being opened wider and wider to reality.

We don't mean to, but in our ignorance sometimes we live in a dream world. (In fact, I sometimes wonder if even the most realistic of Christians will feel that way about his whole life when he steps across the finish line and fills his lungs with the first breath of heaven. He'll think, “Why didn't I live with eternity constantly before me?”)

For years I've felt called by God to write, happily whiling away the hours without knowing the full extent of what might be in store for me. Now, when I hear in specific detail what is required, the carnal part of me would like to say, “No thanks. I'm happy with the good life I already have. I'll just be a closet novelist.”

To take that attitude would be to slap God in the face. Seems I heard Him saying to me yesterday morning, “Marcia, this is where the rubber meets the road. Are you going to walk in faith and continue doing what I've called you to do—no matter how much stress is involved--or is your soul going to be fearful and shrink back?”

I have to keep trying, though I feel less gifted, less talented, less able than ever before. There's so much to learn. I wonder if I have what it takes, but that's not the point, to God. His point is that I exhibit faith in the daily trenches. If I do that, no matter what, He will reward me in the life to come. My greatest works will likely culminate a couple thousand (or a couple million) years from now, and they'll only get better from that point on.

It's my relationship with Him that matters in this world and the next. If I want to walk with Him, it has to be on the path of long obedience. I quake when I say those words, and pray for the guts to live out my faith on the road of discipline. If I can only depend on His strength and not my own!

Anyway, thanks for throwing some light on the path ahead. It will keep those who persevere from being blindsided.

Steve G said...

My one comment would be this: You actually start with the premis of non-fiction. There is one major difference between that and fiction, namely that if you are doing the "fiction track" the book usually has to be written completely before you go after the agent. I think this is because fiction is so much about the voice and the writing. Even if you have a great idea, if you haven't got the voice it won't go very far.

I know a couple authors that have gotten agents and publishers based on the strength of their writing. The point you made at the very beginning about the discipline of learning to write well is probably the most important point for the fiction writer. When you read the histories of how books like The Help found publishers it is about the initial voice of the writer, even though the book content ended up being edited extensively.

Bottom line, for most people it takes a long time to make money. In the Christian (read "niche") market it is even harder because of the size, the amount of people writing in it, and the limited breadth of topics selling. Who would have the stats on what the average Christian market novel sells? How many novels a year would it take then, to be working full-time?

Latayne C Scott said...

Marcia, I want to encourage you to keep on. One thing that writing the Hinge book taught me was that God does not always reward hard work. He does always reward faith.

Steve, you're right about the fiction-nonfiction difference. I tried to hint at both in my post but didn't delineate the two.

And like you, I'd like to know where to get those stats!

Sheila Deeth said...

Kind of encouraging and discouraging both, but thanks. Still writing, still submitting, though mostly to small publishers now (and got my first ebook out, though still dreaming of print and books on real bookshelves). Maybe I should try agents again sometime.