My experience with writing books and finding publishers is extremely limited, but a few early insights might make it easier for others interested in doing the same. The following, it should be noted, relates to nonfiction works — the only world I know — but most of it could probably be applied to novels.
First, write your book. Take as much or as little time as needed. I cranked out the first draft of Racism in Kansas City in four months and promptly began sending it out to publishers (April 2014). Why America Needs Socialism I wrote off and on for six years, at the end throwing everything out (300 pages) and starting over (though making much use of old material), finishing a new version in five months. Just make your work the absolute best it can be, in terms of content and proper grammar. But you can reach out to certain publishers before your manuscript is wholly finished. Pay attention to the submission guidelines, but for most publishers it’s not a big deal (many ask you to explain how much of the work is complete and how long it will take you to finish). I feel safest having the manuscript done, and it would likely be risky to reach out if you didn’t have over half the piece written — your proposal to publishers will include sample chapters, and if they like those they will ask for more: the whole manuscript thus far.
You’ll scour the internet for publishers who print books like yours and who accept unsolicited materials, meaning you can contact them instead of a literary agent. If you want the big houses like Simon & Schuster, Penguin Random House, or HarperCollins, you’ll need an agent, and I have no experience with that and thus have no advice. But a million small- and medium-sized publishers exist that will accept unsolicited queries from you, including significant places like Harvard University Press or Oxford University Press.
Following the firm’s guidelines on its website, you’ll generally email a book proposal, which offers an overview, target audience, table of contents, analysis of competing titles, author information, timeline, and sample chapter. If there’s no interest you won’t usually get a reply, but if there is you’ll be asked for the manuscript. It’s an easy process, there’s simply much competition and varying editor interests and needs, so you have to do it in volume. Keep finding houses and sending emails until you’re successful. From March to May 2018, I sent a proposal for Why America Needs Socialism to 91 publishers. Eight (about 9%) requested the full manuscript, and two (about 2%) wanted to publish it. The terms of the first offer were unfavorable (walk away if you have to), but by September, after seven months of searching, a home for the book was secured, Ig Publishing in New York City.
The same technique and persistence is required when seeking blurbs of praise for the back cover and promotional materials. You simply find ways to call or email a dozen or so other authors and prominent people, explain your book and publisher, and then four of them accept your manuscript and agree to write a sentence of praise if they like it (or write a foreword, or peer review it, or whatever you seek). It is very convenient for nonfiction authors that so many of the folks you’d want to review your book are university professors. You simply find Cornel West’s email address on Harvard’s faculty page. Similarly, you shotgun emails to publications when the book comes out and ask them to review it. I sent a query to 58 magazines, papers, journals, and websites I thought would be interested in reviewing Why America Needs Socialism, offering to send a copy. Seven (12%) asked for the book to do a review; two others invited me to write a piece on the work myself for their publications.
I didn’t keep such careful records of my Racism in Kansas City journey, but after I began submitting proposals it took three months to find a publisher who agreed to publish the work — temporarily. I made the mistake of working for 10 months with a publisher without a contract. At times, publishers will ask you to made revisions before signing a contract, a big gamble (that I wasn’t even really aware of at the time). This publisher backed out due to the national conversation on race sparked by Mike Brown’s death and subsequent events through late 2014 and early 2015, which was seemingly counter-intuitive for a publisher, but they were more used to tame local histories than what I had produced, a history of extreme violence and subjugation. So the search continued.
Writing a local story, at least a nonfiction work, certainly limits your house options. There are some, like the above, that are out-of-state that will take interest, but generally your best bet lies with the local presses. And unfortunately, there aren’t many of them where I reside. The University of Missouri Press was shutting down, the University Press of Kansas (KU) wanted me to make revisions before they would decide — and I wasn’t looking to repeat a mistake. I didn’t approach every Kansas City-area publisher, but rather, feeling the pressure of much wasted time, decided to stop looking for a house and instead to self-publish (with Mission Point Press, run by the former head of Kansas City Star Books).
A traditional publisher pays all the costs associated with the book and you get an advance and a small royalty from each copy sold. (With Ig Publishing, I gave up an advance for a larger royalty — a worthwhile option if the book sells well.) With self-publishing, everything is in reverse: you pay a “nontraditional publisher” to birth the book — editing, cover design, maybe marketing and distribution — and you keep most of the profit from each copy sold (not all, as someone is printing it). There’s also the option of skipping a nontraditional publisher altogether and doing everything yourself, working only with a printer. A traditional house is the big prize for a writer, because it offers that coveted validation — a firm accepted your piece instead of rejecting it, like it rejected all those other authors. It’s about prestige and pride, and not having to say “Well…” after someone calls you a published author. But self-publishing can give you more control over the final product, in some circumstances more money over time, and it works well for a local book (it’s Kansas City readers and bookstores that want a book on Kansas City, so I don’t have to worry about marketing and distribution in other cities).
The whole process is an incredible adventure: the intense learning process of researching and writing, the obsession, the hunt for and exhilaration over a publisher, the dance and give-and-take with editors who see needed changes (“murder your darlings”), the thousands of footnotes you format (kidding, it’s hell), finding key individuals to write a foreword or advanced praise, getting that first proof in the mail, releasing and marketing your work, winning coverage and reviews in the press, giving book talks and interviews, hearing a reader say how much what you created meant to him, learning your book is a classroom text, being cited by other authors or asked to give advanced praise yourself, being recognized by strangers, seeing your work in libraries and bookstores across the city, and the country, and even the world.