I've been fortunate enough to have books of mine creep into print without much fanfare or exertion. I had arranged for those earlier books to have a publisher lined up as I did my work. I didn't even need an agent. But my new book on Henry Wadsworth Longfellow took shape after my teaching career ended, so publication was far less urgent this time around--and I therefore didn't bother lining up a publisher before beginning the work. Maybe not such a good idea.
The book is finished now, except for the notes and index, so I got a copy of Writer's Market 2017 and settled in to see what was what in book publishing these days. It isn't a pretty picture.
At first I was heartened because there were more than 900 book publishers listed on 230 double-columned pages. And there was a ton of helpful information--email addresses, names, favorite subjects, and something called "tips." And each press listed exactly what it was looking for in the nonfiction area--if they were looking for nonfiction at all.
The first disappointment was that none of the major, commercial publishing houses in New York take "unsolicited manuscripts" and insist instead on what they call "agented submissions." (After a few dozen inquiries, I soon learned that it was harder to line up an agent than to find a publisher. Catch 22.) In effect, that ruled out every good publisher with money enough to pay me, do a good job on book production, and then pursue an active marketing campaign.
The other publishing avenue that made sense was a university press, but the problem with them is that they uniformly produce what is called a "scholarly monologue," and the book I wrote is not one of those. I did give it a dependable, scholarly treatment, but I wrote in a readable, unacademic style, something on the border between what is known as a trade book and an academic one. In other words, the new book isn't suitable for university presses.
And so I was glad finally to dig into the 900 entries in the Writer's Market. The gladness faded quickly, however, when I saw how few of them actually published the sort of book I wrote.
There were publishers who were interested in musicology, curriculum development, horticulture, quilting, plastics, gay/lesbian, vampire folklore, woodworking, and "the finest in geek entertainment." Others wanted manuscripts on astrology, home brewing, civil engineering, and metal working. One publisher favored books on "our emerging planetary citizenship"; another was hoping for manuscripts on "transpersonal psychology and spirituality." A third was looking for "romantic stories involving spanking."
Probably a third of the publishers were after children's books or uplifting Christian testimonies.
In the end there were only fifteen publishers out of nine hundred, who may by their entries in Writer's Market be interested in my new book, The Dark Lady and the Mad Man: Longfellow in Love. I contacted all fifteen and am waiting to hear--although publishers think nothing of announcing that they get too many submissions to acknowledge all the queries and book proposals that cross their desks. So most of them will simply delete my e-mail or throw out my snail mail--and never bother to say thanks but no thanks. I am not what you'd call encouraged.
I'll let you know how this turns out.