How I got my book published
“Hey, Kelly, have any advice for me about getting my book published?”
I have no shortage of opinions (about anything, really). Whether they’re useful to anyone else remains to be seen. I’m always happy to share my experience, but I’m an expert only on my own experience, not on the industry in general. I know what worked for me, but it might be completely different for you. However, I’m asked this question enough that I wanted to post some answers on my blog.
There are many, many helpful resources online for writers. My first go-to source is Jane Friedman. Her site is full of accurate, realistic information and she is a master at curating helpful resources for writers. This post covers all the basics of getting a nonfiction book published. You can go there, explore and read for days and days, and never need to look back here. You can also find information on Michael Hyatt’s website and in The Christian Writer’s Market Guide—or a million other places.
But, in case you’re curious, here is how it worked for me.
I had a quirky idea for a colorful gift book called Praying Upside Down. Various circumstances and comments led to me realizing it could be more than that. I spent nearly a year (working on it a little bit here and a little bit there) preparing a nonfiction book proposal, which contains information like summaries of each chapter, marketing ideas, competitive titles, my qualifications, and anticipated audience. I also wrote several chapters to get a feel for how the book would all come together and to establish my voice. I planned to pitch my idea to an agent who would be at the Midwest Writers Workshop that July. (She liked the idea and asked me to send her the full proposal, but eventually got back to me and said it was “out of her wheelhouse” and she wouldn’t be able to help me.)
In the meantime, I Googled “Christian literary agents” and found a list compiled by Michael Hyatt. I visited each agent’s website, printing out information about what types of books they were looking for and who else they represented, which I then alphabetized in a three-ring binder, complete with tabs. (OCD much?) After choosing the agents that seemed to be good matches, I narrowed it to my top three choices. Two of them asked for electronic submissions, and one requested a hard copy by mail. I sent off the emails and then, when I got together with a couple friends to pray over a house one of them needed to sell, I took the envelope with me and we prayed over it, too. I also submitted a shortened version of the proposal to Christian Manuscript Submissions, a website I’d read about online.
And then I felt like I really wasn’t in the place to be writing about prayer. I was floundering spiritually and emotionally, and I wanted to try something new. So I did the practical, obvious thing (not) and decided to go to Italy for a writers workshop with Elizabeth Berg and learn about fiction. Instead, I learned about myself, and God started healing my broken heart. I wrote this essay about it, and then came home. Six weeks later (almost four months after sending my queries), in one weekend, I heard from the acquisitions editor at a small publishing house and from the agent who received the prayed-over envelope, wondering if the book was still available.
A while later I signed a contract to be represented by that agent, Blythe Daniel. She helped me improve my book proposal and sent it to seven publishers. I got an offer on the book from the small publishing house I mentioned earlier, and then got one from Tyndale. Eventually I signed the contract, agreed to a pub date almost two years away, and got to work writing the rest of the book. (For most nonfiction that is not memoir, potential publishers only see a proposal and sample chapters up front, and you write the bulk of the book after you’ve accepted an offer.) After a year or so of writing, and several months of editing, and numerous hours building my platform (developing my blog and increasing subscribers, establishing a presence on Facebook and Twitter, reaching out to writers I’d met over the years at conferences, and so forth), and a few more months of waiting, Praying Upside Down came out in May of 2015.
It sounds fairly easy. It isn’t always. I was fortunate—it’s unusual to get an agent and publishing offers so quickly. But in a way it wasn’t quick—I had attended workshops for years to improve my writing and I didn’t send anything out until it was the best I could make it. I had worked hard to polish my query letter and book proposal, and I was deliberate about where I sent it. Later, I found out that I hadn’t quite followed the rules. I wrote each of the chapter summaries in my “voice,” and they were too long. (Ideally, they want a utilitarian, short paragraph explaining the content, not a beautifully-crafted, ultra-condensed chapter.) I did a terrible job of selecting comparable titles. My overall proposal was way longer than anyone really wanted. The agents and publishers didn’t get back to me in the timeframe I expected.
But it worked. And I have some ideas about why. My background is in marketing, and I had lots of ideas about ways to promote the book, ways to merchandise it and extend it into a line of books. I also had a quirky, catchy title and an unusual approach. And it just so happened that I had chosen to write about a topic which interests a lot of people and answers a “felt need”—in other words, even if they hadn’t articulated it to themselves, people want to know how to pray. How to do it better. Why they should do it. Because so many people feel inadequately equipped to pray.
But even if I’d done absolutely everything else right, I wouldn’t be here without Him. This book wouldn’t exist if He hadn’t wanted it to. Because one thing I can tell you for sure: this book wasn’t just about prayer. It was prayer. It was my act of worship and sacrifice and thanksgiving. My whole life’s story. A love letter to God. My church prayed over it at every stage. Friends “took” a chapter apiece to pray over as I revised. I enlisted people to be involved in a prayer campaign leading up to the release. My pastors and friends (and even some near-strangers) prayed that God would inhabit my words, that He would prepare hearts, that He would make Himself visible in the process and in the product.
Whether or not anyone else ever thinks the book was in any way divinely inspired, I know He was with me as I wrote. Because He changed me, taught me, and molded me as I wrote. Maybe He did all of this just for me, and having the book published is just a bonus. The book has opened up conversations with family and friends; built relationships with people I’ve never met who live all across the country (and even overseas); and made me stronger and bolder in my faith. I have no idea what God will do with that book, or with the next one coming out next year, but I’m absolutely giddy that I get to write.
I guess it all comes down to one final piece of advice, then. Ask God to inhabit what you do. Ask Him to use you, teach you, and prepare you for whatever He wants to do. And if you think He wants you to write, then by all means, write—with all of your passion and ability and heart. And if He doesn’t want you to write, that’s OK, too. Whatever He has in mind for you is the right thing. Our part isn’t to decide how God should use us. It’s to be open to exploring the opportunities He gives us…and then to give it all you’ve got. What you get back in return is so much better than what you had to offer in the beginning.