So You Want To Be Published?

The market for black writers is hotter than ever. Here's your guide to landing your first book deal.

Large publishers tend to focus their marketing on sales made through chain bookstores. But a 1994 Gallup poll survey, commissioned by the American Booksellers Association (ABA), found that 26.7% of African Americans who made purchases through bookstores bought from independently owned stores–most of which cater to black culture. But this figure doesn’t even begin to account for the number of books blacks purchased through nontraditional outlets, such as churches, hair salons, street vendors, social organizations and conventions. And while there are no exact figures, industry pundits agree across-the-board that the sales are substantial enough to keep many small publishers in business.

But, what does all of this mean to an unpublished writer, and how should you go about getting published?

Within the black literary world, in particular, finding an agent and securing a publishing deal has become a much more competitive process over the past few years. The increased interest in black-authored titles among major publishers has led to the awarding of large advances to a handful of black authors. The allure of a big advance has created a rush to publish among first-time authors hoping to cash in on what has historically been a cyclical interest in black culture. In order to sway the odds in your favor, your manuscript or proposal must be properly prepared and presented.

A new writer first develops a manuscript (for a work of fiction) or book proposal (for a nonfiction work), then locates a literary agent to shop the work for a deal. Your manuscript or proposal should be professionally presented, and your query letter original, Brown stresses.

“A good letter should be written in the writer’s own voice so I’ll get a good sense of his writing style,” she says. The letter should briefly give your background, what your book is about and why you think the agent can best represent you. You should also explain briefly, with as many facts as possible, why your book idea will sell in the present market.

Works of fiction should be complete and have gone through at least two rewrites before being submitted for an agent’s consideration. Nonfiction should be submitted in the form of a well-researched proposal and an outline of the book’s potential chapters. Since nonfiction involves costly research, and is reshaped throughout the writing process, writers of nonfiction books are usually not expected to have completed the work when presenting it to an agent. However, a sample chapter or two should be included; this will show agents and editors your writing style and your approach to the subject matter.

An agent’s primary job is securing publishing deals for the writers they represent. Agents have regular contact with a range of editors and  know who is interested in a particular type of book, and which publisher can best handle your work. Finding an agent, however, can be a test of a writer’s patience. To begin with, there are only a few established African American literary agents, and they are overwhelmed with queries from writers.

Starting your search can be as simple as contacting an agent and making arrangements to submit your work. After submitting your work, Brown suggests making no more than two or three follow-up calls to insure that it has been received and reviewed. Beyond that, she suggests contacting your agent–through a note, meeting or telephone call–to discuss the agent’s feedback on your work. Even if an agent is not prepared to sign you, she may give you valuable information to improve your work and help you eventually find someone to represent you.

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