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  • [TIPS OF THE TRADE]: Searching for a Publisher: Seven Tips and a Slice of Apple Cake
[TIPS OF THE TRADE]: Searching for a Publisher: Seven Tips and a Slice of Apple Cake
Written by
Ellen Cassedy
June 2014
Written by
Ellen Cassedy
June 2014

The other day, at our neighborhood café, I got together with a woman who has just finished writing a memoir about her girlhood in war-torn Europe. It’s time to look for a publisher.  Do I have any advice?


I do. (But first we decide to share a slice of apple cake.) 


Then we get into the subject. At first, I can tell that what I’m saying is pretty much along the lines of what my companion expected. Before long, though, I find myself digging deeper into my own experience. I realize I feel passionately – even philosophically – about what it means to publish a book. And I make some suggestions she hasn’t anticipated.    


My first piece of advice is to take her time in developing a list of prospective publishers. Don’t rush it.  


Find out who publishes books like yours. Comb the catalog and the shelves at the local library; ask the librarian for help. Do the same at your local bookstore. Troll through the website of that giant online bookseller we’re all familiar with.   


Read acknowledgments pages to find names of agents and editors. (If you don’t have the book in hand, you can often find acknowledgments pages on Google Books.)


Carefully study websites of publishers and agents. Don’t forget to consider She Writes Press and self-publishing.


Group your list in order of preference: Tier One (your dream publishers), Tier Two, etc.


Follow instructions to the letter when submitting your work.   


With those logistics behind us, we get into the heart of the matter. What is it like to search for a publisher? How do you stay (relatively) sane, fulfilled, and on top of what can often be a grueling process? My accumulated wisdom boils down to seven tips:  


1) Be prepared for finding a publisher to take longer than you can imagine. (In my case, it took years.)


2) Think of having a book published as a privilege, not a right. Do you really need to expend energy complaining about the injustices and disappointments? (Unless you’re organizing for change – see Vida, Authors Guild, etc.)


3) Know that much about finding a publisher is out of your control. You can influence some aspects of the process, though. Focus on those.  


4) Expect to rewrite and rewrite and rewrite. Even after you think you’ve finished your manuscript, the writing process is probably far from over. When the first rejections roll in (as they will), give yourself time to look over your query letter or proposal and revise if necessary.


5) Keep in mind that writing the book itself is only one part of being an author. Don’t succumb to the notion that the writing itself is the only good, true part, and everything else is something you wish you didn’t have to do. Look for a range of enjoyable ways to engage with your material.   


6) Find ways to reach out before the book is published. Doing so will help you figure out where the heart of your book lies and become articulate about it, build your confidence and commitment, and demonstrate to publishers that you know how to reach your audience. Some ideas:   Invite friends to a reading in your living room. Find a library, community center, or organization to host your talk, perhaps with PowerPoint images such as photos and maps. Write a short piece for a blog or local newspaper.


7) Reach out to experts or other “validators” who can check facts and perhaps write a brief endorsement that you can use to approach publishers and speaking venues and eventually put on your book cover and promotional materials. As you connect with such people, you’ll build a community for yourself that will enrich your life in ways you can’t foresee.  


By now our coffee cups are empty and only crumbs of apple cake remain. 


My companion sums up what she’s heard. 


“In order to grow into the best advocate for my memoir,” she concludes, “I should begin to talk about the book now, rather than wait until after it’s published. And after I do get it published, its success will depend on what I do.”





Do you have experience with searching for a publisher? Share what’s worked for you.



Ellen Cassedy’s book is We Are Here: Memories of the Lithuanian Holocaust (Univ. of Nebraska Press, 2012), which has won four national awards, including the Grub Street National Book Prize, and the Towson Prize for Literature awarded annually to a resident of Maryland.  It has just been shortlisted for the Saroyan Prize.  Ellen’s first post for SheWrites was “Who Cares about Your Family Story? Ten Tips to Ensure Readers Will ...” Her [TIPS OF THE TRADE] series appears monthly.  See all of Ellen's Tips for Writers.


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  • Ellen Cassedy

    Good luck with your search for agents, Kathleen! 

  • Thank you, Ellen. I am in the midst of querying agents for my first book, and your advice gives me sane perspective.

  • Ellen Cassedy

    Thanks, Melanie, for sharing your experience, and kudos to you for sticking with the long and bumpy road.  Melanie writes: "My book was pitched too soon; I needed to go deeper...before approaching a publisher."  This happens to many of us -- and it can be a problem if the subject of our book has (or seems to have) a short shelf life.  In the case of my "We Are Here: Memories of the Lithuanian Holocaust"  (about how a post-Holocaust country is wrestling with its past), I was aware that history was marching on as I was making my way through the search for a publisher.  An epilogue was one thing that helped.

  • Melanie Holmes

    My path has been long and bumpy.  2 agents and a long list of major publishers later (who all passed), what I've learned is that my book was pitched too soon; I needed to go deeper, but by then the major publishers had passed me by.  Now I'm looking at a few indie publishers. In the end, I'll probably self publish. My book is nonfiction and I'm well aware of the "expiration of a fact." Thus, I don't have the luxury of "years" of waiting to publish.  The saliency of what I've written ebbs with each month that passes.  The moral of my story: if you're writing nonfiction, go long & deep before approaching a publisher.  I wish I'd been a member of SheWrites a year ago.  Such a wealth of support & information.