Advice to First-Time Authors

As the former Chairman and CEO of Thomas Nelson, I receive a lot of email from would-be authors who are trying to get published. Because I make my email address public, it’s pretty easy to get to me.

Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/dougallg, Image #5182627

Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/dougallg

However, by the time I hear from people, they are usually frustrated. They can’t get anyone in the book publishing world to respond, and they are convinced that they have a killer-idea. “If only someone would just read my manuscript,” they plead.The problem is that most publishers will not review unsolicited proposals or manuscripts. When I worked at Thomas Nelson, I personally received hundreds of proposals each year; my staff received thousands. Publishers simply don’t have the resources to review these. It’s like looking for a needle in a haystack.

So as an author, what do you do? Here’s what I recommend:

  1. Educate yourself. If you want to publish with a general market publisher, read 2012 Writer’s Market by Robert Lee Brewer. If you want to write for the Christian Market, read The Christian Writers’ Market Guide 2012 by Jerry Jenkins. Both books include writer’s guidelines and submission procedures for publishing houses. These books will give you a good overview of the literary marketplace.
  2. Follow publishing blogs. You can get some incredibly helpful advice and straight-talk from people who work in the industry. I recommend you start with these four:

    There are other blogs, but I have found these to be the most useful.

  3. Write a killer book proposal. If you want to write (or have written) a book, I recommend you read one of my e-Books, Writing a Winning Non-Fiction Book Proposal or Writing a Winning Fiction Book Proposal. These eBooks will tell you exactly what publishers want in a proposal. They are used by numerous literary agents and publishers alike.
  4. Have someone review your proposal. If you have a friend who teaches English or is a professional editor, ask them to review your proposal. You might even barter something with them. In addition, the Editorial Services section of 2012 Writer’s Market, lists over 500 entries, many of which provide some kind of critique service.
  5. Find a literary agent to represent you. This is usually the only way to get in the door with a publishing company. Most publishers do not accept unsolicited proposals or manuscripts. Instead, publishers let the literary agents do the filtering. If you want a list of general market agents, you can buy 2012 Guide to Literary Agents. I have also compiled a list of agents who represent Christian authors. This is the only list of Christian agents I have been able to find. (This list does not constitute an endorsement, nor do I recommend specific agents.)
  6. Consider self-publishing. It’s not right for everyone, but it no longer has the stigma it once had. It can be a legitimate—and strategically smart—decision for some authors. It all depends on your goals, your circumstances, and your resources. I wrote a post about this when Thomas Nelson launched WestBow Press, its self-publishing division.

Finally, don’t lose heart. This is probably the most important thing I can say to you. Yes, you will be rejected. I had over 29 publishers reject my first book proposal. However, it went on to be a New York Times bestseller. I know scores of authors with similar stories.

Like many things in life, nothing worthwhile comes easily. But if you have a great idea and are persistent, you will eventually succeed.

By the way, I have just published by new audio course, Everything You Need to Know to Get Published. It consists of twenty-one audio sessions on every aspect of publishing. It is literally everything I have learned about publishing in thirty years. It is a great “next step” in your publishing journey.

Question: What advice do you have for first-time authors? You can leave a comment by clicking here.
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Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are snarky, offensive, or off-topic. If in doubt, read My Comments Policy.

  • http://lovinthearts.blogspot.com/ LauraLee@Selah

    I really appreciate this advice and the insights that follow in the comments. Thank you.

  • http://www.forrestlongart.com/ Forrest long

    Getting published today can be discouraging. For my first book published I had sent proposals to over twenty publishers before I got published. Now I am ready with two more manuscripts and it seems like I have to go through the process again, unless I want to build a platform and self-publish. It seems that the writing is the easy part of the whole process.

  • http://www.forrestlongart.com/ Forrest long

    Getting published today can be discouraging. For my first book published I had sent proposals to over twenty publishers before I got published. Now I am ready with two more manuscripts and it seems like I have to go through the process again, unless I want to build a platform and self-publish. It seems that the writing is the easy part of the whole process.

  • http://www.davesterrett.com/ Dave Sterrett

    Dear Michael,
    Thank you for your advice. I have used your "Writing a Winning Book Proposal" and received two contracts, "O" God (WND Books, October 6, 2009) and Why Trust Jesus? (Moody Publishers, March 1, 2010). I will have to start reading your blog more. It looks like some very helpful information. Thank you again!
    Sincerely,
    Dave Sterrett
    <a href="http://www.davesterrett.com” target=”_blank”>www.davesterrett.com

  • http://www.davesterrett.com Dave Sterrett

    Dear Michael,
    Thank you for your advice. I have used your "Writing a Winning Book Proposal" and received two contracts, "O" God (WND Books, October 6, 2009) and Why Trust Jesus? (Moody Publishers, March 1, 2010). I will have to start reading your blog more. It looks like some very helpful information. Thank you again!
    Sincerely,
    Dave Sterrett
    http://www.davesterrett.com

  • Pingback: Advice to First Time Authors – Michael Hyatt « Annette Dunlea Literary Blog

  • http://redeemedfromthepit.blogspot.com/ Marie Notcheva

    Hi Mike,

    Thanks for your e-mail of earlier today. Actually, I had read this entry and comments earlier, but as I've been unable to hire an agent figured it couldn't hurt to send you a query directly. (See? You didn't hurt me. :)

    A few months ago, after completing my manuscript and proposal, one of the first things I did was submit it to Christian Manscript Submissions.com. However, the only company to contact me was a self-publishing firm that wanted me to buy 1000 books. More recently, I've read on a Christian Writers' Guild and other blogs that publishers have admitted – at writers' conferences – that they never pull proposals from that site. Some responded with blank stares when asked. I'm wondering if I didn't just waste the $98 – an agent who represents a few Zondervan authors even told me he doesn't believe it's very useful. Of course, I don't know any of this for a fact, but have heard from a few sources.

  • http://redeemedfromthepit.blogspot.com/ Marie Notcheva

    Hi Mike,

    Thanks for your e-mail of earlier today. Actually, I had read this entry and comments earlier, but as I've been unable to hire an agent figured it couldn't hurt to send you a query directly. (See? You didn't hurt me. :)

    A few months ago, after completing my manuscript and proposal, one of the first things I did was submit it to Christian Manscript Submissions.com. However, the only company to contact me was a self-publishing firm that wanted me to buy 1000 books. More recently, I've read on a Christian Writers' Guild and other blogs that publishers have admitted – at writers' conferences – that they never pull proposals from that site. Some responded with blank stares when asked. I'm wondering if I didn't just waste the $98 – an agent who represents a few Zondervan authors even told me he doesn't believe it's very useful. Of course, I don't know any of this for a fact, but have heard from a few sources.

  • http://redeemedfromthepit.blogspot.com/ Marie Notcheva

    (contnuation)

    What is frustrating is finding that publishers won't even look at a proposal unless it comes through an agent, but agents won't work with authors who haven't previously published books. (Kind of like applying for a first credit card and being turned down because you have no established credit history!). It's a viscious circle.

    One (very nice) agent gave me two helpful pieces of information: 1) My proposal and chapter summary were very thorough and extremely well-written (I used your online proposal guide, so you get credit for that); and 2) while my project is very niched (which he considered a good thing), it would be a hard sell because I don't have "name recognition". Therefore, I should work on expanding a ministry in order to build a platform – which makes sense from a publisher's business perspective, but it is much harder to "build a platform" if you're a writer and your book hasn't been published.

  • http://redeemedfromthepit.blogspot.com/ Marie Notcheva

    (contnuation)

    What is frustrating is finding that publishers won't even look at a proposal unless it comes through an agent, but agents won't work with authors who haven't previously published books. (Kind of like applying for a first credit card and being turned down because you have no established credit history!). It's a viscious circle.

    One (very nice) agent gave me two helpful pieces of information: 1) My proposal and chapter summary were very thorough and extremely well-written (I used your online proposal guide, so you get credit for that); and 2) while my project is very niched (which he considered a good thing), it would be a hard sell because I don't have "name recognition". Therefore, I should work on expanding a ministry in order to build a platform – which makes sense from a publisher's business perspective, but it is much harder to "build a platform" if you're a writer and your book hasn't been published.

  • http://redeemedfromthepit.blogspot.com/ Marie Notcheva

    (last part of comment)

    I had no delusions about breaking into the publishing world being easy, but I didn't expect it to be THIS hard. It has long been my conviction that if a piece of writing is good quality, serves a legitimate need, and is doctrinally sound, the publishing playing field would be level. Evidently, it's not that straight-forward. Certainly, I am not yet ready to give up and don't mean to sound cynical, but after so much work researching, studying, and pouring myself into the actual writing I am a bit dismayed (especially when I see the volume of aberrational literature currently being sold in Christian bookstores). Fortunately, there are more Christian self-publishers that offer POD if I ever get to the point of giving up.

    Thanks for posting the list of literary agents – this is very helpful, and not something I could find in The Writer's Market Guide. The information on this blog is quite useful, and I appreciate your devoting your time to help us struggling authors out!

    ~Marie

  • http://redeemedfromthepit.blogspot.com/ Marie Notcheva

    (last part of comment)

    I had no delusions about breaking into the publishing world being easy, but I didn't expect it to be THIS hard. It has long been my conviction that if a piece of writing is good quality, serves a legitimate need, and is doctrinally sound, the publishing playing field would be level. Evidently, it's not that straight-forward. Certainly, I am not yet ready to give up and don't mean to sound cynical, but after so much work researching, studying, and pouring myself into the actual writing I am a bit dismayed (especially when I see the volume of aberrational literature currently being sold in Christian bookstores). Fortunately, there are more Christian self-publishers that offer POD if I ever get to the point of giving up.

    Thanks for posting the list of literary agents – this is very helpful, and not something I could find in The Writer's Market Guide. The information on this blog is quite useful, and I appreciate your devoting your time to help us struggling authors out!

    ~Marie

  • Devin

    Hi Michael,
    I'm 11 years old and I just found your blog. I'm looking to write a book. I have a few ideas for my story, but other than that I have done nothing. Do you know any books that will help me get started? Do you have any advise for me?

    Thanks for your time!
    Devin

  • Devin

    Hi Michael,
    I'm 11 years old and I just found your blog. I'm looking to write a book. I have a few ideas for my story, but other than that I have done nothing. Do you know any books that will help me get started? Do you have any advise for me?

    Thanks for your time!
    Devin

  • Mark Fynewever

    Michael, I have written my first childrens book for prek-4th grade, 24 pgs in length. I have not had anyone illustrate the book yet. Should I write a book proposal and find an agent before looking for an illustrator. What would you advise. Thanks!

  • Mark Fynewever

    Michael, I have written my first childrens book for prek-4th grade, 24 pgs in length. I have not had anyone illustrate the book yet. Should I write a book proposal and find an agent before looking for an illustrator. What would you advise. Thanks!

  • http://www.facebook.com/chuck.gerchow Chuck Gerchow

    Michael,

    Since Thomas Nelson publishes Dave Ramsey's materials I was turned on to your site. I have a couple children's style projects that can I say do not exist.
    After scouring Amazon's site for hours and have checked out the big box retailers Barnes and noble,borders.
    I am not one to re-invent the wheel. Actually After listening to Dave Ramsey for so long he gave me the partial inspiration for one of the books.
    However I know he has his own kids materials. This is a complete departure. After listening to "Inventing like Edison" by Michael J. Gelb
    Edison and Ford both marketed their products as "Simple and to the Masses. That Got me thinking.

    Anyhow Just saw your site and thought I would drop you a line.

    Chuck Gerchow

  • http://www.facebook.com/chuck.gerchow Chuck Gerchow

    Michael,

    Since Thomas Nelson publishes Dave Ramsey's materials I was turned on to your site. I have a couple children's style projects that can I say do not exist.
    After scouring Amazon's site for hours and have checked out the big box retailers Barnes and noble,borders.
    I am not one to re-invent the wheel. Actually After listening to Dave Ramsey for so long he gave me the partial inspiration for one of the books.
    However I know he has his own kids materials. This is a complete departure. After listening to "Inventing like Edison" by Michael J. Gelb
    Edison and Ford both marketed their products as "Simple and to the Masses. That Got me thinking.

    Anyhow Just saw your site and thought I would drop you a line.

    Chuck Gerchow

  • http://www.thehahnhuntinglodge.com/ Nikole Hahn

    Amen! Thank you for this encouraging blog. Rejections are a part of the life of a writer. I've learned to find the gems of encouragement in each one. I'm enjoying the journey, the little bright spots where a small press accepts my short story, and I am enjoy this new journey of actually writing a book series. I'm building my platform with twitter and my blog and enjoying how much my stories seem to encourage people. Keep up the good work! I've never met a CEO whose blog seems more other-centered.

  • http://www.thehahnhuntinglodge.com/ Nikole Hahn

    Amen! Thank you for this encouraging blog. Rejections are a part of the life of a writer. I've learned to find the gems of encouragement in each one. I'm enjoying the journey, the little bright spots where a small press accepts my short story, and I am enjoy this new journey of actually writing a book series. I'm building my platform with twitter and my blog and enjoying how much my stories seem to encourage people. Keep up the good work! I've never met a CEO whose blog seems more other-centered.

  • http://www.facebook.com/johanan.rakkav John Wheeler

    Michael, both in concept and in execution your page here is excellent. I've developed my fiction writing and editing skills about as far as I think I can do without professional help – and I certainly won't get into legitimte print without the kind of advice you and other respondents give here. I've made submissions to publishers before and happily, they seem to agree I'm one of those needles in a haystack as a writer – it's just taken this long to figure out how to create a plot that hangs together fully, which was the basic reason for rejection! And it seems very probable that only a Christian publisher with a taste for eclectic blends of allegory, science fiction, fantasy, romance, and psychology will want my work without extensive reworking of the very core that makes it worth writing in the first place.

  • http://www.facebook.com/johanan.rakkav John Wheeler

    Michael, both in concept and in execution your page here is excellent. I've developed my fiction writing and editing skills about as far as I think I can do without professional help – and I certainly won't get into legitimte print without the kind of advice you and other respondents give here. I've made submissions to publishers before and happily, they seem to agree I'm one of those needles in a haystack as a writer – it's just taken this long to figure out how to create a plot that hangs together fully, which was the basic reason for rejection! And it seems very probable that only a Christian publisher with a taste for eclectic blends of allegory, science fiction, fantasy, romance, and psychology will want my work without extensive reworking of the very core that makes it worth writing in the first place.

  • http://www.citygospel.net/ Steve Wilson

    Hi Michael,

    I'm from Australia and have recently completed co-producing a DVD teaching series on issues of justice and mercy.

    We self-published it and are now trying to get it distributed. A Christian bookstore chain in Australia has taken it up, but I'm finding it more difficult to get into the US & UK markets.

    I'm approaching distributors (would you suggest approaching several simultaneously?), and I'm also wondering whether we should seek an agent. Would the literary agents you list also do DVDs? Any advice you have would be appreciated.

  • http://www.citygospel.net/ Steve Wilson

    Hi Michael,

    I’m from Australia and have recently completed co-producing a DVD teaching series on issues of justice and mercy.

    We self-published it and are now trying to get it distributed. A Christian bookstore chain in Australia has taken it up, but I’m finding it more difficult to get into the US & UK markets.

    I’m approaching distributors (would you suggest approaching several simultaneously?), and I’m also wondering whether we should seek an agent. Would the literary agents you list also do DVDs? Any advice you have would be appreciated.

  • Tracy

    Hello my name is Tracy Conrad, I just wanted to say thank you for all of your wondeful articles. I actually stumbled upon them by accident. I love to write as a new found hobby since divorce. I began writing blogs on myspace as a way to vent through some of the darkest hours of my life after a divorce and the snowball effect of hardships that followed. At some point someone asked me, "why are you not writing blogs anymore?" I laughed at them because I thought no one read them. I never read other myspacer's blogs. In eight months I had over 2000 views of my blogs which astonished me and still makes me laugh. They were simply rantings from the heart. Thanks to the encouragement of those people I have come to realize how much I do enjoy writing. I have put a bit on facebook too but I do it because I love it. I hope to one day be able to share thoughts in writing of how God has brought me through having it all, to losing it all, at a young age of 26 with other young women. Until then I will enjoy learning from you and others who have inspired or helped me to follow this path in my life. Thank You very much!

  • Tracy

    Hello my name is Tracy Conrad, I just wanted to say thank you for all of your wondeful articles. I actually stumbled upon them by accident. I love to write as a new found hobby since divorce. I began writing blogs on myspace as a way to vent through some of the darkest hours of my life after a divorce and the snowball effect of hardships that followed. At some point someone asked me, "why are you not writing blogs anymore?" I laughed at them because I thought no one read them. I never read other myspacer's blogs. In eight months I had over 2000 views of my blogs which astonished me and still makes me laugh. They were simply rantings from the heart. Thanks to the encouragement of those people I have come to realize how much I do enjoy writing. I have put a bit on facebook too but I do it because I love it. I hope to one day be able to share thoughts in writing of how God has brought me through having it all, to losing it all, at a young age of 26 with other young women. Until then I will enjoy learning from you and others who have inspired or helped me to follow this path in my life. Thank You very much!

  • Aaron williams

    i am only thirteen and i am trying to figure out what to do with my story. but will any publishers really take me seriously?

  • Aaron williams

    i am only thirteen and i am trying to figure out what to do with my story. but will any publishers really take me seriously?

  • Martin

    I have a contract and my first book will be published in about 4 or 5 months, a book on American history. I know I can do book signings and talks, but what else is out there? How do I take advantage of the situation to advance my career?

  • Martin

    I have a contract and my first book will be published in about 4 or 5 months, a book on American history. I know I can do book signings and talks, but what else is out there? How do I take advantage of the situation to advance my career?

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  • Kirsten

    Hi there Michael,
    I bought your on-line 'Writing a winning book proposal'. I'm writing a Christian children's book (ages 4 – 7).
    What should I submit instead of chapter-by-chapter synopsis and two sample chapters? The manuscript is only about one and a half pages of single-line text.
    Kind regards,
    Kirsten Rossiter

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      With a children’s book, you should submit the entire manuscript. Thanks.
      My recent post Top Ten Posts of November 2009

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      With a children’s book, you should submit the entire manuscript. Thanks.
      My recent post Top Ten Posts of November 2009

  • Kirsten

    Hi there Michael,
    I bought your on-line 'Writing a winning book proposal'. I'm writing a Christian children's book (ages 4 – 7).
    What should I submit instead of chapter-by-chapter synopsis and two sample chapters? The manuscript is only about one and a half pages of single-line text.
    Kind regards,
    Kirsten Rossiter

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      With a children’s book, you should submit the entire manuscript. Thanks.
      My recent post Top Ten Posts of November 2009

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      With a children’s book, you should submit the entire manuscript. Thanks.
      My recent post Top Ten Posts of November 2009

  • Robert Pollick

    I have had a Christian book Published called (Dawn of Revelation) . I don’t have any way of knowing how my book is doing. Because of this I would like to republish my book myself. I don’t have any agreement written with my publisher. Since publishing my book I have much Biblical information of future events which are to take place shortly. I have been a Bible scholar for over 40 years. What I have found are Bible secrets that have been overlooked by many.
    With out taking much more of your time, what suggestion would you be able to give me. A Christian in Christ. Thank you much for your time in reading this. Robert Pollick.

  • Robert Pollick

    I have had a Christian book Published called (Dawn of Revelation) . I don't have any way of knowing how my book is doing. Because of this I would like to republish my book myself. I don't have any agreement written with my publisher. Since publishing my book I have much Biblical information of future events which are to take place shortly. I have been a Bible scholar for over 40 years. What I have found are Bible secrets that have been overlooked by many.

    With out taking much more of your time, what suggestion would you be able to give me. A Christian in Christ. Thank you much for your time in reading this. Robert Pollick.

  • http://literaryteapot.blogspot.com Jan

    And don't forget The Association of Christian Writers – a non-profit-making organisation with a magazine and a website, full of helpful tips for Christian writers (and mjeetings where you get the opportunity for a one-to-ne meeting with Christian publishers and editors!
    My recent post Hallmark goes mad

  • http://literaryteapot.blogspot.com Jan

    And don't forget The Association of Christian Writers – a non-profit-making organisation with a magazine and a website, full of helpful tips for Christian writers (and mjeetings where you get the opportunity for a one-to-ne meeting with Christian publishers and editors!
    My recent post Hallmark goes mad

  • http://literaryteapot.blogspot.com/ Jan

    And don't forget The Association of Christian Writers – a non-profit-making organisation with a magazine and a website, full of helpful tips for Christian writers (and mjeetings where you get the opportunity for a one-to-ne meeting with Christian publishers and editors!
    My recent post Hallmark goes mad

  • http://literaryteapot.blogspot.com/ Jan

    And don't forget The Association of Christian Writers – a non-profit-making organisation with a magazine and a website, full of helpful tips for Christian writers (and mjeetings where you get the opportunity for a one-to-ne meeting with Christian publishers and editors!
    My recent post Hallmark goes mad

  • jb@jillybean.org

    Thank you MH. I have been working on a project for quite some time now and hope to see it someday in print. I've been in children's ministry for 25 years and know to keep doing what works. I appreciate all I've read and especially the don't give up part. Merry Christmas, Love Jillybean

  • jb@jillybean.org

    Thank you MH. I have been working on a project for quite some time now and hope to see it someday in print. I've been in children's ministry for 25 years and know to keep doing what works. I appreciate all I've read and especially the don't give up part. Merry Christmas, Love Jillybean

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/Jonathanj Jonathan

    Thanks for the suggestions. I find this pretty helpful. I am working on a book right now, where I have a few more chapters to edit. It's a short read, but I think the resources you mention here will be helpful. What do you think about offering it as a free PDF download for the first few days on my website?

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/Jonathanj Jonathan

    Thanks for the suggestions. I find this pretty helpful. I am working on a book right now, where I have a few more chapters to edit. It's a short read, but I think the resources you mention here will be helpful. What do you think about offering it as a free PDF download for the first few days on my website?

  • http://www.fallenandflawed.com/ Demian Farnworth

    My advice to first time writers? Listen to what Michael Hyatt says. :-)
    My recent post Five Posts You Haven’t Seen–But Should

  • http://www.fallenandflawed.com/ Demian Farnworth

    My advice to first time writers? Listen to what Michael Hyatt says. :-)
    My recent post Five Posts You Haven’t Seen–But Should

  • http://twitter.com/PDelupio @PDelupio

    I've never written a book or proposal in my life. I do freelance write for local fashion magazines, definitely just starting out. But would love to write a book for tweens and have a few ideas. Does anyone recommend taking classes and seminars? I've taken a couple with MediaBistro that gave good advice. Any other good seminars out there for beginners? I do like MediaBisrto a lot!

  • http://twitter.com/PDelupio @PDelupio

    I've never written a book or proposal in my life. I do freelance write for local fashion magazines, definitely just starting out. But would love to write a book for tweens and have a few ideas. Does anyone recommend taking classes and seminars? I've taken a couple with MediaBistro that gave good advice. Any other good seminars out there for beginners? I do like MediaBisrto a lot!

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  • http://reformedandreforming.org Jesse Wisnewski

    @ Michael:

    Thank you for this helpful post. At the moment I have two projects sitting on the back burner while I'm slowly cooking through my Master of Divinity at Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary with full-time family and work. When I'm wrapped up with my degree, what you provided here will be of tremendous help.

    Cheers, Jesse
    My recent post #*@!: Profanity and the Bible

  • http://reformedandreforming.org/ Jesse Wisnewski

    @ Michael:

    Thank you for this helpful post. At the moment I have two projects sitting on the back burner while I'm slowly cooking through my Master of Divinity at Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary with full-time family and work. When I'm wrapped up with my degree, what you provided here will be of tremendous help.

    Cheers, Jesse
    My recent post #*@!: Profanity and the Bible