Updated: Nov 21, 2022
A one-size-fits-most cheat sheet that cuts to the chase
This article is part of a series that adapts and excerpts my entire book, Pitch What’s True: A Publisher’s Tools for Navigating Your Best Path to a Published Nonfiction Book (Everything Goes Media, 2019). Find an index to the series here.
Here’s my overall one-size-fits-most, best approach to locating a publisher that’s a terrific match for you and your project, if 1) you’re not self-publishing, or 2) your book is not a likely candidate for one of the big New York publishing houses (meaning, an agent is much less likely to take it on). Among the remaining 10,000 small- to mid-sized publishers or remaining 80,000 micro-publishers, there may be a handful of houses ready to make you an offer.
1. Spend a few hours on Amazon researching existing books on your topic and any topic, really, that is aimed at your book’s likely audience.
Take in all you can about these titles — such things as sales rankings, reviews (what do readers like about the books? dislike? want more or less of? what do they care about? what are their hot buttons?), their packaging and marketing (what can you infer about how they’re titled, designed, and promoted?), what books customers also purchased. Finally, you want to know…who is publishing books such as yours?
2. Visit the biggest bookseller near you and see which companies are publishing books on your topic and closely-related topics.
Note those publishers whose approach, style, design, vibe, etc. you like and are a good fit for your book and its intended audience. Where Amazon can give you breadth, depth, and near-instant information, there is also much to be gleaned from holding physical books and assessing their properties and the decision-making that went into them.
3. As you go about the above two activities, create a list of desirable and suitable publishers.
Aim for a list of 50 to at least 100 publishers — seriously. Consider any press that might be a match: micro, small, independent, niche, regional, academic, nonprofit, organizational, religious.
4. Consult the Literary Marketplace guide found in the reference section of most libraries to see which publishers are looking for books on your topic.
This hefty annual contains detailed entries on publishers that include such information at publishing specialties, submission policies, acquisitions practices, etc., along with useful articles for aspiring authors. Add the most interesting and relevant publishers to the list you’ve started. (LMP is available online for subscribers — the annual fee is $459.50 US if you’re feeling spendy, but the $24.95 US for a week’s access serves just as well for the diligent and organized.)
There are various other directories and listings of publishers online, but in my experience, they are mostly redundant (if you’ve done the above steps) and/or heavy on teeny-tiny, out-of-business, scamming, or self-publishing (pay-to-play) operations.
5. Visit the websites of companies on your list and spend time getting a sense of who they are.
While on those websites, read the company’s submission guidelines (nearly 100% of publishers’ websites now contain this information and you usually don’t have to dig around too much for it either). If you learn your book is not a good fit for them, remove them from your list and move on.
As you go, prioritize your list of potential publishers based on a combination of your book’s right fit for them and their desirability for you.
6. Submit your book proposal package per the instructions (to a tee) on their websites to the publishers on your list, starting at the top and working down.
Think big from the start…don’t “work up” to them! Simultaneous submissions are okay unless stated otherwise. Divide up the work as makes sense to you, but I’d advise sending them out in batches of 2 to 10 each day in a steady stream until you either reach the end or have a contract. Commit to the project and concentrate your efforts. Don’t drag it out.
Publishing takes a long time! You either want to find a publisher in a reasonable amount of time or move on to considering self-publishing or hybrid options.
If a publisher’s submission guidelines aren’t specific, think of a book proposal as a “business plan” for your book, and a publishing contract as a “business agreement” between you and the publisher, and it will be hard to go wrong.
Keeping in mind the restrictions the publisher lets you know about in advance and the publishing process from the publisher’s perspective, give them your best, savviest shot, knowing that you are essentially competing — even at the smallest presses — against hundreds or thousands of others for only a few coveted spots. Use your passion and imagination to catch their attention, pique their interest, impress them, persuade them…whatever won’t cause them to immediately know your proposal’s a “no.”
7. Plan to check in with every publisher you’ve contacted and not heard back from 30 to 45 days after your initial contact (unless they’ve requested that you don’t).
Use every aspect of your initial contact(s) with a publisher to show your professionalism, your attention to detail, your work ethic, your understanding of their business and their point of view. All other things being equal, they’ll almost always choose the author who’s more professional and easier to work with.
If anyone takes the time to jot you a few notes about your book (with their rejection), see what you can learn from the experience and take steps to use that knowledge to your benefit. Tweak future submissions as necessary.
8. Don’t give up.
Periodically review your proposal with fresh eyes and upgrade it as necessary. Get advice from others (preferably those with some knowledge of the process). Keep sending it out. Keep your brain trained on new ways to pitch your book, on new opportunities to get it published, and on ways to improve your book in the meantime.
9. Create and know your contingency plan.
Create a schedule around it. How long will you devote to finding a publisher? If you don’t find a publisher in that amount of time, will or won’t you pursue self-publishing? What self-publishing options are out there, how and when will you learn about them, and how will you assess them?
 Both of these numbers, which are estimates of U.S.-based publishers only, now include some amount of hybrid publishers.