On Writing Books and Getting Published

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It’s one of the questions I get asked most frequently: “I want to write a book and get published. What advice do you have?”

Sometimes the questioners are just looking for an in, as in, “Can you send this to your friends and get me a deal?” But usually the questioners are genuinely looking for any insights they can glean from others. I understand the question. I asked it of my published friends before I wrote my first book. It was always a dream of mine to write and—maybe, just maybe, someday before I die—get published by a real publisher. I never imagined the open doors the Lord would provide.

Although I didn’t get published because an insider greased the wheels, my friends certainly helped me along the way with good counsel and realistic advice. Let me try to do the same for the good folks out there with good book ideas rattling around in their heads or on their computers.

Writing

We’ll start with writing and then move to publishing. There is no one right way to get a book written. I’ve known pastors who write from 10 p.m. to midnight, and others who get up at 4 a.m. and write for several hours in the morning. Some authors crank out books in months or weeks (or days!). Others labor for years, struggling over every word.

This is what works for me: I don’t do well writing books in fits and starts, or a couple hours at a time. I did that with the homosexuality book and found it the least enjoyable of the books I’ve written (the difficult subject matter and the tedious review process were also partly to blame). I much prefer to write a book from start to finish during an extended study leave. Most of my books have been written in this way.

Whether it was the book on holiness or busyness or the mission of the church, I started 6 to 12 months out by reading everything I could on the subject. By “everything” I don’t mean exhaustive academic research. I mean everything I can easily get my hands on. That usually amounts to 15 to 20 books over the course of a year and a smattering of articles and blog posts.

During the reading process I’m constantly playing with the shape of the manuscript in my mind. I underline, jot down notes, and begin sketching out chapter titles. After 6 to 12 months of reading (which I squeeze into whatever time I can find—on a plane, before bed, waiting in line), I usually have a good working outline of my chapters and some subheadings within those chapters.

When I come to my four-week study leave, I’ve done most of the research and a lot of the heavy thinking already. That means I’m ready to write on day one. I’m typically a pretty fast writer once I know where I’m going and what I want to say. I may write 1,000 to 2,000 words a day, which amounts to a short book (25,000) or a medium-sized book (40,000+ words) in a month. That may sound like a lot, but I’m not doing academic research, I’m not cramming in tons of footnotes, and I already know (fairly well) where I’m going when I first sit down at the keyboard.

How can you improve as a writer? That’s a tough question. There are good books out there that can help with the craft. But without a doubt the best advice is to simply write and read a lot. You need both. You’ll never learn new words, discover new arguments, and adopt new forms if you don’t read. And you won’t get better at writing without lots of writing.

And not just any writing, deliberate writing. You already write texts and emails and Facebook updates and tweets and Christmas cards, so why not do these things excellently? Force yourself to use correct punctuation. Give yourself a word limit. Be punchy and succinct.

The other piece of advice is to read your own writing out loud. As often as I tell students to do this, they must still skip over this step, because they make so many mistakes they would easily catch if they had to verbally speak their own sentences.

Publishing

Okay, you’ve got a great book already written. You just need a publisher. Now what?

  1. Find an honest friend. I’ve met many people over the years who want me to see their amazing book idea. They try to tell me, with appropriate humility, how all their friends have raved about the material and how it obviously needs to be published. More often than not, their friends are poor judges of literary merit. Get a critical, honest friend you can trust. Don’t ask me what I think! Ask him or her whether your writing is good. Be prepared to have your feelings hurt.
  2. Don’t expect wonders from your author or publisher friends. You may have a good buddy who works with a publisher or who has written a book himself. Of course, you should feel free to ask him questions and seek his advice. But don’t look for favors. I’m wary of passing along manuscripts to people I know in the industry. It’s not because I don’t want to help, but because I want to help everyone. That means I don’t want to flood my friends with unsolicited manuscripts that they now feel obligated to read. That may sound hoity-toity, but it’s what my friends told me when I started out too. I respected them for their integrity and honesty with me.
  3. Publishers don’t stay in business unless they sell books. To be sure, this is not an excuse for publishers to care about nothing besides the bottom line. And yet, they do have to care about the bottom line, which is why they generally want to publish books that actually sell. It’s hard to get into publishing, because most publishers work with recognized authors (whom they trust to write good stuff) and/or with recognized agents (whom they trust to pass along good stuff). It’s not a perfect system. Good stuff gets left out, and bad stuff gets put out. But all those I’ve worked with at Crossway and Moody have been godly people trying to do the best they can to publish solid material that can still recoup their investment.
  4. Go ahead and submit a couple chapters. Most publishers don’t take unsolicited manuscripts, at least not officially. But publishers still have someone taking a look at the manuscripts that come in. When Ted Kluck and I were shopping around the emergent book, we got lots of no’s. It only took one person at Moody to like what we sent in and give us a chance.
  5. Be smart about your submission. Shorter is better. Don’t brag about yourself. Don’t oversell your book as the most important thing since the Ninety-five Theses. Don’t send in the whole manuscript. Do, however, include a couple endorsements from trusted authors, scholars, or leaders. I know it helped our emergent book see the light of day that we had already lined up David Wells to do the foreword. There’s other homework you can do too. Specify a target audience in your proposal (claiming that your book will bless everyone doesn’t count), and show that you know what kind of audience the publisher tries to reach.
  6. Getting a book published is like a horse race. This is the analogy my published friend told me years ago when I was still dreaming of writing a book someday. His analogy has always stuck with me. In publishing, the author is like the jockey, the topic is like the horse, and the cultural moment is like the race track. Publishers generally want at least two of the three to be in a strong position for success. Take the emergent book, for example. The jockey (me) was nothing. Ted had written some books, which helped, but no one was interested in what Kevin DeYoung had to say about anything. The topic, however, was relevant, and we were young at the time. Likewise, the cultural moment was just right; the emergent movement was at its zenith. We had two of the three factors in our favor, so Moody took a chance on some unknown jockeys.
  7. You need something unique to say, or some unique way to say it. If you’re Tim Keller, thousands of people are already eager to hear what you have to say—about almost anything. For the rest of us, we need to work hard to come up with something unique. Actually, that last sentence isn’t fair to Keller, because what he does so well is take familiar material (for example, prayer, marriage, work, justice, apologetics) and present it in a way that feels fresh and original. People are eager to hear from Keller because they know he will provoke them to think about something in a new way. Sorry to say, unless you are a world-class scholar or extremely gifted communicator, most people don’t care about the devotional you’ve written, your latest sermon transcripts, or the Bible studies you’ve done on Ezekiel. Maybe people should care, but they don’t. You need a hook that makes your work worth reading. When I pitched another “find the will of God” book to Moody, they were skeptical, but when I came up with the angle “just do something,” it became interesting. Along these lines, you should mention the “competition” in your proposal. Make the case that your book on parenting is different (a new approach, more research, more readable, personal stories, and so on) than the three dozen other books on parenting.
  8. Publishing is not a divine assessment of worth. We all know there are plenty of crummy Christian books. In fact, the bestselling books are often the worst. Conversely, there are faithful resources out there, full of truth, that never see the light of day. Publishing does not always reward great writing and profound truth. Some publishers do the best they can. Others don’t. Either way, the system will never be foolproof. Some things are out of your control. So go easy on the self-promotion. Don’t retweet commendations. Don’t do humblebrags. Don’t puff your own stuff. If you do get published, let people know about the book, point people to more information, and then move on.
  9. Self-publishing is not a failure. My first book, Freedom and Boundaries, was self-published. This wasn’t my first choice (and now the book is out of print because the publisher went belly up), but it wasn’t a bad second choice. The book got an ISBN number, it went on Amazon, I gave it to people at my church, I had something to recommend to my friends and family. No shame in any of that. Similarly, consider writing articles before you dream of writing a book. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither are the good books about Rome.
  10. If you like to write, keep writing. Whether you get published or not, if you have something true and useful to say, it will be a blessing to someone. Start a blog, get some traction, see what happens. Most books sell in the thousands, if not the hundreds. Publishers stay in business behind a few mega-hits. So even if you don’t get published, if you work hard and have an important, well-written message to convey, you may be able to get your stuff out to almost as many people. If your real passion is to get published, you’ll likely be disappointed. Check your motives. Write because you love to write.

There you go. I hope I’ve given the right mix of optimism, pessimism, and realism. Writing is good, and you can get better. Publishing is hard, and it may not happen. Don’t stop reading. Hone your craft. Learn, grow, be self-aware. And as Calvinists like to say, good luck!

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