Cheryl wrote to ask, "What is the process of getting your proposal selected by a publishing house?"
Think of a publishing house as being an actual building. Your proposal probably isn't walking in the front door. More than likely it's sliding into the building by way of a window known as an acquisitions editor (often an acquaintance of your agent, sometimes a person you met at a conference, or maybe a guy who lost a bet). He or she will read through it, make some suggestions, talk it over with your agent, and eventually make a decision on whether or not they think it's worth pursuing.
Most publishers are relying on agents to do the initial filtering of junk, so the slush pile has sort of moved from the publishing house to the agent's office…which means you're going to have to sell it to an agent first, therefore adding one more step to this process.
Once it's in the building, if the acquisitions editor likes it he or she will take it to some sort of editorial committee, where they sit around grousing about their pay and making editorial jokes. ("I'm having a DICKENS of a time with this one!" "Yeah, let's catch a TWAIN out of town!" Editorial types love this sort of humor. That's why they're editors and not writers.) Eventually they'll run out of bad puns and be forced to discuss the merits of your proposal. If it's a non-fiction book, is it unique? Does it answer a question people are asking? Is there a perceived market for it? Does the writing feel fresh and offer genuine solutions to the question that's posed? If it's a novel, does the story have a clear hook? Is there a well-defined audience for it? Does it feel new, or as though it's a story that's been told a million times? (The fact is, it probably HAS been told a million times. There are only so many stories. The question is really if the author can make it feel as though he or she has a fresh take on the story.) If the whole package passes muster, it moves to the next step…
The Publishing Committee, which is a group generally made up of folks from editorial, marketing, sales, accounting, and administration. They'll meet somewhere between once a week to once a month, and they'll have an agenda of books to talk through each time, with the various representatives offering their own perspectives — the editors will talk about the merits of the words; the accountants will figure out the costs and potential dollars in play; the sales guys will begin discussing who they can sell copies to; and the marketing people will sit around trying to think of how to cover their sorry hind ends. They'll talk about the market for the book, if it fits with the rest of the books on their list, the author's platform, what it would cost to print the book, what the marketing costs would be, and how many sales they think they could generate. This is the group that will explore the feasibility of doing your book. They may send it back to the acquisitions editor to do some work.
At that point, the editor has to run a Profit & Loss sheet or pro forma, in which they'll take wild surmises as to how many copies they can expect to sell in the first year, what the hard costs of ink/paper/binding will be, how much money they'll have to throw at the money-grubbing author, who, if she really loved words, would write her damn books for free, since we all know the publishers are only in it for the joy of reading and to serve humanity. The editor will take all this information back to the publishing committee, who by now has had all sorts of time to think up new reasons why they shouldn't do the book. They'll talk about it again, this time with hard numbers attached. Eventually the pub board will be forced to make an actual decision, so they'll probably throw the Urim and Thummim, maybe pull out an Ouija board, and make a decision.
I've heard people say there are a series of "sales" to get to this point. The author sells the agent. The agent sells the editor. The editor sells the editorial team. The editorial team sells the pub board. Once they make a decision to actually contract the book, they have to negotiate a deal, then put it on a list and make it part of the process — because the sales guys are going to have to sell it to retail accounts, who will attempt to sell it to the reading public. It's a lot of work. And all of that points to one thing: It's tough to get published. Each step along the way is an investment, so even the books they say "no" to have had dollars spent on them.
A publishing house has all those filters in place so that they can do the easy thing and say "no" to you. (Really.) The purpose of the process is to say "no" to most everything. Therefore create proposals they can't say "no" to. Yes, that's easier said than done, and we're going to start talking about creating great proposals in the next few weeks, but that's the basic mindset — work on your proposal so that it piques their interest, provides a clear hook, and answers any objections. If you do that, your proposal is much more apt to be selected by a publishing house.