Getting Your Christian Speculative Fiction Published

All right, so you've got your idea, you've honed your craft, you've gotten whatever help you may've needed, and now you're ready for the standard rich and famous contract. Right?

Unfortunately, it doesn't usually work that way. There are probably fewer than twenty mid-sized to large publishing companies in the CBA (CBA stands for "Christian Booksellers' Association" and it is the shorthand way people in the Christian publishing industry refer to, well, the Christian publishing industry) putting out a combined total of, I don't know, two thousand books a year.

Sounds like a lot, I know, but consider that not all of that is fiction. Probably 65-75% of those books are nonfiction, children's, Bibles, etc. So the number of novels produced by CBA publishers is probably somewhere around 250-500 per year.

That still sounds like a lot, I suppose. And if you're on the outside looking in it sure seems that within that number there ought to be plenty of room for you. Well, there may be room for you, but not because publishers have a shortage of books to choose from.

Remember, most of the fiction being produced every year is coming from established novelists with recognizable names. So cut the number in half again to get closer to the number of novels produced every year by first-time authors. Smaller publishing companies tend to go with the new voice (because, frankly, they usually don't want to pay what it will take to get the established voices) and the larger houses go with the surefire box office winners.

So cut the number down again to get a fix on how many Christian novels a year are produced by first-time authors. I'm going to guess somewhere in the neighborhood of 30-80.

Now the numbers aren't so nice, are they?

One more blow for you: of those 30-80, how many do you think are what we would call Christian speculative fiction? I'm guessing on the order of 10-15, if that many. If you were to add in the smallest CBA publishers, some of whom are more willing to take chances on this kind of fiction, I'd guess that a given year in the first decade of the 21st century would see the release of fewer than 40 Christian speculative novels.

Sobering, isn't it?

Does it mean there's no hope? Absolutely not. It just means it's not an easy thing we're contemplating, getting new Christian speculative fiction published.

This section of WhereTheMapEnds is designed to help you understand this crazy thing called Christian publishing. This page, and the pages the link from it, will tell you:

  • The ins and outs of agents
  • How the acquisitions process works
  • What goes into a good proposal
  • How to write a synopsis (for the synopsis-challenged)
  • How contracts and advances work
  • How covers are designed
  • How advances and royalties work
  • What the marketing and publicity folks do
  • How the editorial process works

From Twinkle in Your Eye to Book on the ShelfThe Publishing Process Explained

How does a book get published? More pointedly, how does a Christian speculative novel from a first-time author get published in the CBA publishing world in the first decade of the 21st century?

Let's say you've got your story idea. It's incredible. Your mom even thinks so. Should you contact a publishing company and tell them your idea and wait for the money to come rolling in? Um, not so much.

The first task before an aspiring Christian novelist is to get his or her idea in front of an acquisitions editor at a CBA publishing house. How do you do that? Get names and addresses and track 'em down? Get a visitor tag to the publishing company and then slide your manuscript between stalls in the bathroom? No.

Almost every mid-sized to large publishing company in the CBA is closed to what are called unsolicited manuscripts. That's a fancy way of saying that if you don't have an agent or don't otherwise have a professional relationship with the acquisitions editor, you're not welcome to submit your idea. You can't even get an editor to look at it.

Sounds cruel, doesn't it? Those meanies. Here's why it's actually a good idea. For one, even by restricting themselves to proposals that come in from agents, the typical acquisitions editor will receive between 500 and 1,000+ proposals per year. Those are supposedly the best ones, because theoretically an agent wouldn't agree to represent just anything but will have weeded out all but the very finest. Imagine how many proposals an editor would get if just anybody and their mother could send in a proposal. They would be doing nothing but reading proposals all day, every day.

And the cruel truth is that most of what was coming in without agents, back in the day when publishers were still open to unsolicited manuscripts, was pretty awful. Maybe the ideas were good, but there was very little professionalism to be found. How many years of digging through that kind of stuff would it take you before you decided there had to be a better way?

The better way the industry has come up with is to not take anything that doesn't come through an agent. Agents will help you put your proposal together in a professional and consistent way. This makes the acquisitions editors happy, which does good things for your chances.

So you've got your idea but you can't get in to a publishing house because you don't have an agent. Is it the Catch-22 that it feels like? Not really.

Here's a talk about when, why, and if you should consider getting an agent.

There is, actually, one way of getting around the need to have an agent. It's called the Christian writer's conference. If you go to one of the major conferences, the editors themselves will be there and you can pitch your idea directly to them. If one or more asks to see your proposal, you're in. No agent required.

A Thousand Rejections

Okay, so you've secured a good agent and either your agent or you, by going to a writer's conference, have piqued the interest of an editor at a Christian publishing company, and the e-mail comes in: "Please send me your proposal."

Here's a talk about what goes into a professional proposal (now available). Here's a talk about writing a good synopsis, designed especially for those brilliant creative types among us who can write amazing alternate worlds but couldn't write a good synopsis to save their lives. And here are my thoughts about whether or not you should have your manuscript completed before you attempt to get the interest of an agent and/or editor.

Let's say you manage to survive the shock of that message or phone call and you restrain yourself from going ahead and buying the yacht just yet. What happens? Either you or your agent will send the proposal to the editor (99% of the time, via e-mail), and you commence your excruciating period of waiting.

What is she doing? The thing was only 40 pages total—what could be taking so long? It's strange, I know, but you have to realize that your proposal is not the only thing on the acquisitions editor's desk. Hardly. Probably yours has become item #62 on the list of things that need to be read ASAP. The editor isn't taking two months (or six, or nine) to fully ponder your proposal. The editor is taking that long to get to your proposal, and then an hour to read it.

So try not to hover over you e-mail in box every moment of every day after the day you send it in.

Most things an editor requests, he or she will ultimately decline. Why? Because maybe your idea sounded good in the query or in the agent's pitch but the proposal revealed that it wasn't what the editor was hoping for. Maybe because your writing wasn't yet up to the standards the editor looks for. Maybe because, since then, the editor has found another, very similar, proposal from a bestselling author and the publishing company can't do both projects. Maybe the editor just didn't like it. There are thousands of reasons why an editor first requests, then rejects, a fiction manuscript.

The thing you have to do is not let the rejection kill you. Acquisitions editors love fiction and fiction authors. They're not trying to make you miserable or brandish their power. They're under orders to find the best fiction they can that meets a whole slew of prerequisites, most of which you could never guess at, and this time yours wasn't what was needed. Take the opportunity to learn from it.

And if you happen to receive a rejection letter from an editor who has taken the time to tell you exactly why he or she declined your book, be sure to praise God in heaven for that person. A thank you note would be welcome, too. To have someone give you specific reasons for the rejectioneven if you disagree with them—is a treasure most novelists go their whole careers without receiving.

But let's say the editor decides he or she does like your idea based on the proposal. If you're a first-time (i.e., previously unpublished in adult, full-length fiction) novelist, the editor will probably want to see the full manuscript.

Don't have the full manuscript written? Oopth. Better go back and read this. If you're a first-time novelist then you're basically an unproven commodity. The editor may like what he or she has seen so far, but lots of writers can create good proposals but can't pull of a full manuscript. If you're thinking the choice is between getting your idea out there fast before someone else takes it or wasting time writing the whole book when an editor's just going to want to change it anyway, you're mistaken.

Unless you have a full manuscript that an editor—and, usually, several folks at the publishing company—can read from start to finish, you're just whistlin' Dixie. When you've got three or more published novels under your belt, you won't have to go through this drill. Indeed, you won't have time to write a novel "on spec." But before you're published, you simply have to do it. No publisher is going to throw money at you on the basis of 20 pages and a synopsis.

If honing your idea is the first step and learning your craft is the second, the third step has to be writing your manuscript.

It's true that, if you do get a contract, an editor will probably have a few things (maybe many) for you to do on your manuscript before it's ready for print. But those will be changes you do to your finished first draft, not changes the editor makes to your synopsis and then you go off and write the book. For a first-time author, the manuscript comes first. Then, if God and the publishing company so will, comes the contract.

So let's say you've got your full manuscript and an editor has requested it. Here again many promising ideas are ultimately rejected by the publisher. Why? Same reasons as before. Maybe the idea sounded great in the proposal but in the full manuscript you didn't pull it off as the editor had hoped. Maybe it's too much like another novel by another author. Maybe the editor just didn't like it after all. It happens all the time.

Once again, don't let the rejection kill you. Go back to your craft. Go back to your critique groups. Consider paying someone to do an editorial review on your full manuscript. Consider consulting a book doctor.

If you're very, very blessed, the acquisitions editor may have given you some hints as to why he or she made the decision to decline. If not, you can try to ask for reasons (or have your agent ask). Tell the editor to go ahead and be blunt. Then, if he or she complies, you thank that editor from the bottom of your heart—even if what he or she has said stings, and even if you don't agree with it. You wanted to know why this editor rejected it, and now you know. Use it to make the book stronger.

Form a Committee

The phone rings. It's a day like any other. You don't even get the phone. Your spouse does. "Honey," your spouse says, handing the phone to you, "it's for you. Some guy who says he's with some kind of publishing company or something. Maybe it's the sweepstakes."

You snatch the phone away, your heart suddenly beating in triple time. "Hello?"

It's...The Call. The acquisitions editor (or your agent) is on the phone telling you that the editor really likes your manuscript and is going to take it to committee.

What does that mean? Is it some kind of star chamber thing? Maybe "the committee" is a council formed from members of the Federation of Unified Planets. Maybe it's some black ops part of the CIA. Better, does it mean the publisher is ready to offer you a contract?

Well, maybe. It is something to set your heart aflutter. But it's just a step. What it probably means is that the acquisitions editor (and possibly a few others he or she has chosen) has read your complete manuscript and thinks it is strong enough that he or she would like to take it to the first phase of the approval process at that publishing house.

This first phase is often the editorial committee, which is a fancy way of saying that it's all the editors who work there. The acquisitions editor, who has become your champion and New Best Friend, will put together a packet for your book. This will usually include things you or your agent has sent in the proposal: synopsis, bio, sample chapters. Editorial committees don't have time to read full manuscripts, especially if they're considering up to 10 projects per week. This part of the process works on proposals—though you had to have a completed manuscript to even get to this part of the process.

Here's what will happen. The editor will produce a packet. It will go with the other packets that this editor and the other editors have identified as prospects that week. The combined set of packets will be distributed to the whole editorial department, who will make time to read through them all before the editorial meeting.

At the editorial meeting, the group will get together and go through the prospects, one by one. Editorial meetings are wonderful times when the publishing company's brain trust gets together to think lofty editorial thoughts. About books, their favorite things. So the group will discuss the merits of each proposal in the stack until they've all been discussed.

The result of each discussion will be one of these:

  • Yes, we love it. Send it on up to the next committee.
  • No, we don't think it's ready or right for us. Decline it.
  • Well, we kind of like it, but it's just not quite right. Ask if the author will make the following changes. If he or she will, great. When the changes are implemented we'll look at this one again at a subsequent editorial committee meeting (or, rarely, at the higher/final committee).

Pretty mysterious, eh? Ah, the counsels of the mighty amidst the halls of power.

If it's option 2, it's back to the drawing board. Hopefully they will give you things to work on. And hopefully you will see it as a major victory that you got as far into the process as you did. Most novels never make it that far. Use that to fuel your determination to make the next one the one they can't refuse.

If it's option 3, there's still hope. If you feel comfortable making the changes they recommend (and you may not, so don't panic if you don't), then by all means do them. Posthaste. Forthwith, even. Get the thing back to the editor with the revisions made. See if you can get it through this time.

The Publishing Board

Every Christian publishing company has its own name for the final deciding body in the acquisitions process. Some call it PubCo (short for Publishing Committee); others call it PubBoard (Publishing Board); and others call it something else, like PAC or PAT or PDT or Exec.

By any other name, it smells as sweet: When your project gets to this group, you're just one thumbs-up away from publication.

This group is composed of the honchos at the publishing company. The publisher and/or executive publisher will always be included, as will the heads of sales, marketing, and editorial, and sometimes production. Very often lowly editors will not be allowed into the councils of power, or will be allowed in only if they are personally championing a project that is being discussed.

The idea of these boards is to get everyone's input from the main perspectives of the company. Hopefully, if you have the heads of the whole publishing company taking part in the decision, everyone will buy in to the projects that get approved and no one can say, "I never would've published that." Also, the more opinions and eyes and minds you can bring to the decision, the more likely you are to make a good decision. Something about the multitude of counselors...

As with the editorial committee, the PubBoard will receive packets of the proposals being discussed at the upcoming meeting, and all members will have read the packets before the meeting. As with the editorial committee, the decisions of PubBoard will be one of these three: 1) yes, 2) no, or 3) maybe, especially if the author will do X, Y, and/or Z, in which case we'll either say yes or review it again in the future.

Getting a Contract

Let's say your book (or books, as many publishers are moving away from single-book contracts and leaning toward 2-4-book contracts even with previously unpublished novelists) has gotten approved by the PubBoard. You'll get "The Call: The Sequel," either from the acquisitions editor or from your agent, giving the good news.

Often in this call, or in a subsequent e-mail from the editor, you'll hear the terms of the contract as they're offering it. Will it be a 1-book deal or a multi-book deal? (Publishers like multi-book deals because they can get more marketing mileage out of series, the stores like them, and it allows them to hang on to such a great author for at least three books!) What will the advance be for each one?

Here's an article explaining advances

Now, most people in your situation will be doing back flips, interspersed with bouts of hyperventilation, at this point. You'll be tempted to say, "Yes, yes, YES" on the spot. In most cases you should. Most Christian publishing companies will offer you a fair deal that is right for an author just starting out in the biz.

If you have an agent, he or she may want to talk with you about the specifics of the offer before telling the publisher yes or no. Don't worry about the publisher getting impatient and moving on to the next person. You can take a few days at the least to think it over. It's quite common for it to take weeks and even months to go from offer to signed contract.

Your agent will have an opinion on whether or not the advance sounds right and all other aspects of the offer. This, in my view, is when agents pay for themselves. They speak the language of contracts. I've seen unagented authors take proffered contracts to family lawyers or other people unfamiliar with publishing contracts, and end up causing all manner of grief for the publishing company.

What you need to know about contracts is that some things are negotiable, some are not, and some might be negotiable but why bother. It's when inexperienced authors haggle over the latter category that publishers can begin wishing they'd said no instead of yes at PubBoard. An agent with experience in the Christian publishing industry will know which things are negotiable and which things are worth fighting for. In those areas publishers are often quite willing to give.

That doesn't mean that if they originally offered you an $8,000 advance per book that they'll suddenly be willing to add a zero to the end. But it does mean that if you want to hold onto motion picture rights, for instance, or electronic rights, they'll probably be willing to give you that.

And I maintain that the author has more power at this phase than publishers like to let on. All publishing contracts are completely structured to favor the publisher. That's normal and as it should be, so don't be offended. But it's possible for an author to read it and feel like a felon or something, like he or she has no rights. That's not true. You can ask for just about anything in a contract. You might just get it.

If you wanted to stipulate that your book be edited by someone you know, you can ask for that to be put in the contract. If it's someone the publisher is comfortable with, you might just get your wish. If you'd like the publisher to furnish you with a marketing plan before you turn in your final draft, you can ask for it. If you want to have veto rights over cover designs, you can ask for it. You can ask for whatever you want. You probably won't get it all, but you might get some, and you might get a compromise on the ones you feel strongest about.

So you and your agent have talked. You've gone back to the publisher with requests for revisions to the contract. Those have been discussed and resolved. Now you're ready to sign.

What are you waiting for? Sign it, you fool!  [Sorry; went into arch-villain mode for a moment; feeling better now.]

As soon as the publisher receives your signed copies, signs them as well, mails you the fully executed versions, and delivers the first advance payment, you're officially in. You're part of the family. You're not a published author yet, but you're a contracted author, which is something 99% of earth's population can never boast.

What Happens Next?

After all that activity, the lull that follows may be disconcerting. From the publisher's point of view, nothing may need to happen for a few months. If your manuscript is not finished, you'll be plenty busy doing that by deadline, but if it is finished you may experience the lull, too.

If the editor is savvy, he or she will have you working on marketing materials (a document explaining what your book is, in ways that marketing can use to go begin designing ads, etc.) and/or back matter, if any. Some publishers like to include "bonus content" at the rear of their novels, like author interviews, book group questions, sample chapter of the next book, etc. If your publisher does that, now is a good time to have you working on it.

At some point early on the acquisitions editor will need to make a presentation to the marketing department. This is when the marketing materials document is handed over. They'll need to know what the book is about, what it's like, what the style and mood and genre are, and so forth. They're fishing for the angle they'll want to take in their marketing plans.

Here's an article discussing what the marketing and publicity department does for a novel. 

The cover design process begins early on, too. The cover designer or design manager will need to know all the above things, as well, to know what feeling the book cover should convey.

Here's an article discussing the cover design process

If your book is going to be edited by someone other than the acquisitions person you've been dealing with up to now, you'll be introduced to that person during this period. It will be another staff editor or, more likely these days, a freelance editor. There a number of wonderful, gifted, and even legendary freelancers out there, so don't be anxious if your novel gets handed off like this.

Once a book is contracted, it goes on the publisher's production schedule. This document controls us, penetrates us, and binds the universe together. Every date of importance for that book, everything from contract date to street date, and about 35 dates in between, is on that document. There are one or more production schedule masters (usually female) who ride herd on that thing and make sure every date is met and, if not, finds out why not and when it can be fixed.

Every department in the company works from that document. Sales consults it to see when the warehouse date is, to know when to promise the book to stores. Marketing consults it to see when an edited manuscript is supposed to be completed so they can produce advance reader copies. Editorial consults it to see when the developmental edit is due. Production consults it to see when the copyedit and typeset and cover and to-printer due dates are. A delay at any phase in the process has a ripple effect throughout the company.

Miss deadlines at your own peril.

The Editorial Process

When you receive your contract you should also receive your deadline for having your manuscript in to the editor. That date may be moot because you've already sent in your manuscript. That's fine.

Another date you'll receive, or which the editor at least will be working with, is when the developmental edit is due. In other words, the date on or before which the editorial process must be complete so the book can be handed off to the next person in the assembly line.

So you and your editor go to work on the book. Revisions, thoughts, new ideas, deleted scenes, added chapters...the works. It's a wonderful phase when your editor is trying to help you better do with your novel what it is you're trying to do.

Here's how I work. Let's say I'm your editor.

I'll do a read-through early on, identifying anything I'd like to suggest you work on before we really get started. I might want you to think about clarifying a certain theme or setting up expectation for something earlier on or modifying the ending to make it more satisfying. Those are more writer-side changes that I'll have you go off and do, or at least consider doing.

When you've done whatever revisions you think sound good, you'll deliver to me a modified rough draft, which I consider a first draft. That's the version I'll do my work on.

When you turn that over to me I’ll go through it on my main editorial pass. In this phase I’ll be reviewing what you did in your revisions, seeing if you fixed the problems we'd identified previously.

I'll also go through the whole ms. word by word mainly just reading what you’ve written. Occasionally I may see punctuation errors or word duplications or other obvious errors that I’ll just fix. I’ll also be looking for sentences that seem confusing or convoluted. Those I’ll either mark/highlight, suggest a revision for, or insert a [bracketed note to you] asking that you look at it.

This phase is called a line edit. But since I'm combining a line edit with the substantive (i.e., developmental) edit, it's kind of a hybrid thing, at least in my style. Every editor is different.

In this phase I’ll also be looking for questions that arise, like “How did she know this?” or “I thought she was wearing blue just a minute ago” and stuff like that. I’ll be looking for logical errors, like “Wait a minute, before she was a woman and now she’s a chimpanzee.” (You’d be surprised how often that one comes up.) I might ask for transition sentences, beats, better place or character descriptions, or minor clarifications.

And of course I’ll be looking for larger, more structural problems or opportunities, like characters who serve the same purpose or loose ends that aren’t tied off or missing descriptions or too much exposition (though I don’t expect many large issues—those usually come up in the first read, which we’re already past).

I mark everything with “track changes” turned on so you can see what I’ve touched.

This main phase takes a few weeks. If your editor is a freelancer, it might take only one week to do the main editorial pass. Staff editors have to deal with meetings, multiple projects, phone calls, acquisitions reading, and an array of brushfires, so the main editorial pass can take them 2-6 weeks. 

When I’m done with that phase I’ll send the revised ms. back to you. Then it will be your turn again. You’ll review what I’ve done, answer the questions I’ve raised, fill in any gaps, and basically mourn the fact that you ever met me.

After a magnificently brief turnaround time (like 1 week) you’ll send your revised version back to me. I’ll look at your changes then make a quick polish pass on all or key parts of the ms. All that before the deadline to hand the project off to copyediting.

From Here to the Shelf

The copyeditors are the real punctuation and grammar mavens. They make us both look good. The best ones understand fiction. They won’t be undoing contractions or correcting dialogue into perfect English.

When they’re done they’ll hand it off to the typesetter, who lays it out into the format it needs to be in to be a book: designing chapter headings, picking the font, paginating the ms., etc.

At various points in this process the ms. will go out to proofreaders, who will catch other errors missed or introduced during the process. When the typeset version (called “galleys” or “first proofs”) is ready, a copy will go to you, a copy will come to me, and a copy will go to a proofer. After another wondrously short turnaround time (like 4 days) we’ll return our versions to the copyeditors, who will implement our changes or corrections.

Then the thing goes to the printer and all of us collapse in exultation (or exhaustion, one).

After a number of weeks the printer will send out sample copies. I always like to call an author when I'm holding the first advance copy of his or her novel, so excited for the author and also aware that I'm making him or her green with envy! Soon the author will receive a box of books, and the real partying begins.

A week or two after that the book will appear on bookstore shelves, and even your Aunt Maurine will have to admit that you might amount to something in life, after all.

If the marketing and publicity folks have arranged radio interviews or book signings or the mythical multi-city book tour, that activity will begin now. Hopefully various magazines and newspapers will have reviewed your book, and those reviews will start hitting now, too.

After that, there's nothing but fame, glamour, and Ophrah in your future. Halleluiah! Oh, and writing your next novel by the deadline...

And that, my friend, is how a bill becomes a law. Er, how an idea becomes a published novel. Wondrous and frightful, is it not? Behold and despair!  [Ack, another arch-villain moment; sorry.]