If you are a first-time book author, getting your book published is a daunting task. In 2009, the global economy is a mess and the book publishing business is struggling. Some major publishers have announced they are acquiring a lot fewer new titles this year; some are going so far as to freeze new title acquisitions.
Retail book selling in America and Canada has been consolidating for years: a few large retail chains have come to dominate the landscape. These chains manage their book buying and inventory tightly: if a book does not sell a predetermined number of copies in a store in a short period of time, unsold copies are returned to the publisher and that book has effectively had its "time in the sun" — the chances of retail store buyers stocking the book again are very slim.
Fiction suffers more than non-fiction in the big-store retail environment: works of fiction need to prove thet belong on the shelf by making the number-crunchers happy right away, or their life on the retail shelf is counted in a small number of months. Non-fiction fares only slightly better in this new retail world where "turns" (sales per stock keeping item over time) are the all-important measure.
In a depressed econonomic climate the big chains have become more cautious than ever, placing smaller initial orders for new books and keeping their inventory levels very tight -- they would rather be out of copies of a book for a few days, than find themselves carrying more copies than they can sell in a short time period.
As an aside: the tight inventory approach can be bad for everyone. Example: one copy of your book is all that a store carries. That copy gets stolen. The chain computer says the book is still there, so the stolen copy is not replaced and after a while the computer may call for a chain-wide return of that title to the publisher because in aggregate the retail turns the computer looks for were not achieved.
What to do
Now we have made you depressed, how do you, the author, get the attention of a publisher in this tough environment?
You could do the equivalent of spam, and send letters to every publisher whose address you can find. Bluntly, the chances of that working, and a genuine publisher getting back to you, are a lot worse than the chance you will be struck by lightening the next time you walk outside.
Writing a book takes a lot of time and effort. Put similar energy into finding a publisher. The first step is to do some research — look for publishers who publish the kind of book you are writing. Your local library probably carries a copy of the latest "Writers Market" guide from Publishers Weekly. The 2009 edition is a massive 1,184 pages. Other guides to publishers are likely also to be found in the reference section of your library. Ask a librariarn for help — remember, they too care about books. Or search the web, using phrases like "writers markets".
Once your research has given you a list of publishers who sound like they might be interested in your book proposal, visit their websites. Look at the kinds of books the publisher is selling. Check to see if the publisher has a place on their website where they explain how to submit your book idea to them — read it!
Publishers are always looking for good, interesting new titles. Some years we may acquire fewer than other years, but if you have a book idea which fits with the kinds of books we publish, we will pay attention to your proposal.
If I already have a book in print that is highly similar to the one you are thinking of writing, chances are good that I do not want to publish your book. I have invested in the book I am already selling, so unless you have a really compelling argument for your book (telling me you think yours is better is not a compelling argument), I am probably not the first publisher you should contact.
Every publisher I know gets a huge number of book proposals every year. We get an average or about five every working day of the year, and we are a fairly small house. It takes us time to sort the "possibles" from the "not-so-possibles" that arrive in our in-trays. A quick response is rare — in most publishing houses, the "possibles" are looked at by more than one person before we respond.
I never cease to be amazed when I receive an interesting book proposal, and the only option for a reply is a cellphone number on the other side of the continent, or a mail drop at one of those mailbox companies. Give the publishers you approach lots of ways to contact you!
If a publisher expresses interest, respond! In the non-fiction arena, we tend to get lots of proposals for pretty similar books. It seems a lot of authors have more or less the same idea at about the same time. So if we like your idea and respond to your proposal, you are our preferred author at that moment. If we hear nothing in return, we will move on to another of the authors, assuming you have changed your mind, or got an offer elsewhere.
Different publishers approach book proposals from new authors differently; there is no one "standard" way to do it. We describe on our website what we want in a book proposal; most publishers have similar guidelines on their websites. Look at what each publisher wants, and try to tailor your proposal to their submission requirements, even if you happen to think the publisher's requirements are odd. Sending an entire manuscript when a publisher wants a summary, for example, is not a good idea.
Conclusion Getting published by a professional publishing house is not easy. You can improve your chances a lot by researching who would be likely to publish your book, and then sending in proposal materials that follow each company's submission guidelines. Good luck!