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?