Ready to publish your first book? Here's how to find a publisher

Invisible Publishing's Leigh Nash kicks off our new series designed to help writers navigate the publishing process.
CBC Books' Publishing 101 series will help writers navigate each step of the book publishing process. (Ben Shannon, CBC)

Have you written a book — or just have the seeds of an idea? CBC Books' new Publishing 101 series will help emerging writers navigate the publishing industry. We will take you through the whole process — from approaching an agent to getting your work on bookshelves — with answers from Canadian pros.

We begin with how to find a publisher with Leigh Nash, the publisher of Invisible Publishing. She also serves as chair for eBOUND Canada and sits on the board of directors for the Association of Canadian Publishers. Invisible published Michelle Winters's debut novel I Am a Truck, which made the 2017 Scotiabank Giller Prize shortlist.

1. Find publishing houses that are a good fit

Nash says working with the right team to publish your book is critical. Do you think your book is like the work of a favourite author? Look up their publisher. Think your work is comparable with a number of bestselling books in your genre? Find the publisher behind those successes.

While the internet is a good starting place, Nash suggests getting out to meet and network with publishers.

"Go to book events and festivals like the Word On the Street where you can meet with publishers or people that work there. Ask them about their books and buy a copy. That's really the best way to get a sense of what a publisher does."

Nash also says that social media is a good tool to get insight into a company's philosophy and culture. "It's just as important for authors to consider the personality of a publisher as well. What are they tweeting? What are they interested in? Do their values align with yours?"

Get to know the right connections in the publishing world and identify the best ones to pitch.

2. Know what to submit

Leigh Nash is the publisher of Invisible Publishing. (Johnny C.Y. Lam)

You can find the submission guidelines for most publishing houses on their websites. That's where you can confirm whether they accept unsolicited material and the genres they accept.

While every publisher has unique requirements, the most common materials you'll be asked for are a summary of your story, an updated CV and a query letter.

Do your research and submit exactly what is requested of each publishing house you are interested in. It's a tough market out there so don't waste your time — or theirs — by failing to review and follow the guidelines.

3. Write a good query letter

A query letter is your first chance to get an agent or publisher excited about your work. Your letter should not only describe what your book is about, it should — particularly in the case of nonfiction — explain why you're the right person to write about the subject. For the synopsis part of your letter, stick to the main highlights. No one expects you to condense hundreds of pages into a paragraph, so think about the main theme or a central event in your story.

"It's always interesting to see people be able to talk about their work. I think that it's really helpful from a marketing perspective when people can really articulate what they're doing," Nash said.

Know your strengths and show publishers why they should invest time and money in you. For example, mentioning that you have a large social media following can also be helpful in your pitch. 

Your letter is your big audition. Get it right. Check your spelling. Convince them you're the one.

4. Be patient

It could take as long as two and a half years to get your book published — and in that time your work might sit undiscovered from six months to a year. Michelle Winters's book I Am a Truck, which went on to become a finalist for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, sat in a slush pile for six months before it was unearthed. (A slush pile is where unsolicited manuscripts go until they have time to be reviewed.) Nash says that there are exceptions, but that duration is fairly common. 

"I always try to leave a couple of slots [in our publishing calendar] open so if something fun comes up I can slot it in. But it's getting harder and harder to do now with the long lead times we need for good promotion."

5. Be open to feedback even before you sign

Even before you sign on the dotted line, you should be prepared to receive some feedback. Whether you pitch to an agent or publisher, both will offer you advice on how they think your first draft can be improved.

"I try to get a sense of writers when I'm seriously considering their manuscript. I'll often speak with them in advance of giving a contract and offer them editorial suggestions just to get a sense of how we might work together and how that editorial experience might go. My feeling is that when I take on a book for Invisible I'm accepting it, but the author still has final say on all changes — because it's their manuscript, it's their work," Nash says.

6. Don't take it personally

If a publisher doesn't make you an offer, don't take it personally. Every publishing house might have an informal checklist of things they are looking for like a hook or originality, but it really comes down to whether they feel like you're a good fit.

You might have written a great story, but according to Nash there's no magic formula.

"It's really a gut instinct, which is terrifying to say out loud. I have editors and people that help read manuscripts. They offer feedback and help point me in the right direction since I can't read everything on my own. It's a careful balance of what we think would work with our list and our mandate of publishing first-time writers or projects that might not find homes elsewhere. We have that mandate and we do try and stick with it, but it's totally about what I like to read," she says.

CBC Books' Publishing 101 series features interviews with Canadian publishing professionals to help writers become published authors. Next up: How to find an agent.