Q: I haven’t had any luck finding a publisher for my book. What’s the secret to getting in the door?
A: Here’s my advice on how you can beat the odds and overcome the biggest reasons most books get rejected.
But first, I’d like to give you an idea of what it’s like behind the scenes at a publishing house, and how acquiring editors go about the business of signing up books.
The reality: Editors are desperate to find books!
Writers often don’t realize that editors are strongly motivated, in fact desperate, to find authors and their books. Editors wake up in the morning with acquisition anxiety! We’re all under tremendous pressure to find promising new books that will sell.
That’s why we’re out there hounding literary agents, scouring newspapers, magazines and journals, cornering college professors, the local city councilwoman and the 16-year-old tech head from next door – because who knows, just maybe they have a great idea or brilliant new manuscript ready to go.
Given this nervous reality, why do acquiring editors reject so many of the dozens of ideas, proposals, and manuscripts they see each week, often after only a 30-second glance at the first few pages? Here’s why, and what you can do about it.
The 5 best ways to improve your chances
#1 Bulk up your concept
The concept is the core idea of any book project. So we’re disappointed when an author or agent sends us a project with a concept that is weak or inappropriate.
We see too many memoirs, for example, that are motivated by hurt and resentment. Or books that are clearly calculated efforts to climb on the bandwagon of a perceived hot trend, like cross-over vampire love stories, and terrorist infiltrations of suburban St. Louis. Or quick and easy programs for financial success, satisfying marriage and perfect kids based on no research or track record. No thanks.
Some concepts reveal a writer who thinks he can make a quick killing in the book business. Now that’s funny.
Here’s what we’re actually hoping for:
We want to see a concept with a strong premise that has energy, intensity, utility, focus and vision. We want books that will grab readers by the throat, quicken their pulses, and resonate for their own lives.
We want authors who have something new to say about an important subject or story, who bring a fresh voice or unusual perspective on a topic of concern to many people. Authors who are passionate about their ideas and stories, who bring to their work a maturity, expertise, and a visceral compulsion to write that comes from their hearts.
An editor can usually tell right away if a concept has a new idea or point of view.
It’s also helpful for you or your agent to know as much as possible about any given editor’s special interests or personal biases.
#2 Submit a complete and convincing proposal
I can tell pretty quickly when a submission is canned or formulaic. Beware of clearing your throat with digressive warm up sentences, or hyperbolic claims of grandiose brilliance. Too many proposals appear to reinvent the wheel without acknowledging the competition. Too many authors are uninformed about the importance of self-marketing. Not enough writers hold themselves to a high enough standard of good writing.
The bare-boned essentials of any book proposal I’d like to receive should include:
• A two or three sentence hook that tells me what the book is about and why you’re the best person to write it.
• If it’s non-fiction, include a chapter outline with a few paragraphs for each, a total of no more than two or three pages. Same thing if it’s fiction: Give me a thorough synopsis of the story.
• Then write about your platform, including education, career status, track record as a writer, past or present appearances in print or broadcast media, current or future plans for websites, blogs, or internet marketing. I also like to see a DVD that shows you talking about the book with no script, either on local TV, at some community event, or even just in your living room.
• A good proposal requires a serious and honest analysis of the competition. Too many submissions dismiss all other books and claim a presumptuous kind of superiority. We prefer respect and acknowledgment of similar books, since it proves there’s a market. What you need to tell us is how your work is different.
• Finally, whether it’s non-fiction or fiction, I want a sparkling example of your writing. Usually the first chapter is best, but if it’s a first novel, send in the entire manuscript. I know conventional rules say start with a query letter, but with a novel, I recommend that you be more assertive and send the whole thing. It’s the best way for us to see what you can do, beginning to end.
For a more thorough discussion, have a look at this earlier post, The book proposal: what publishers want.
#3 Come in with an agent
You’ve probably heard that unrepresented, unsolicited proposals and manuscripts don’t get the same attention, and it’s true. They end up in the slush pile.
Editors at most publishing houses won’t even open the email or package from someone they don’t know. They want to see a project a respected agent recommends — rather than spend hours going through literally hundreds of emails and packages.
Finding the right agent for your book is crucial. It’s your job to find the best one specifically for you, an agent who knows which editor at what publisher might be interested in what you’re doing. That agent’s relationship with the editor is also essential for negotiating the best financial terms, since it’s the acquiring editor’s job to pay as little as possible.
It may not be easy to find the right agent, but remember, they’re also looking for you. So go to writers conferences where agents appear, search their websites, find their names in the acknowledgment pages of books you like, find a friend who has a good agent, and subscribe to Publisher’s Marketplace for the latest inside information about which agents have sold what project to which editors.
And beware of any so-called agent who charges you for reading the book. That’s a scam.
#4 Polish your writing to the highest standard
Your proposal, sample pages, or complete manuscript must be held to a high literary standard. Some common problems I see are proposals with disorganized thinking that jumps from idea to idea with no apparent logic or linear sequence. Or the same idea is repeated over and over. Or the writer makes unwarranted assumptions that I’ll be able to understand prose that twists and turns with bewildering shifts in time and place. Or I see characters who are two-dimensional and all speak in the same voice.
And surprisingly, I see proposals replete with typos and poor grammar. Sure that stuff can be fixed, but it indicates a lack of care and professionalism.
Remember that writing is rewriting. Some fine authors I’ve worked with – Toni Morrison, Tom Robbins, Hunter Thompson – each labor over every word, and are actually never quite satisfied, always feeling it can be better. And it can.
Compare yourself to the best and see how good you can make it. Raise the bar. Be tougher on yourself. Seek feedback beyond family and friends. Here are some suggestions:
• Take a writing class that provides discipline and high standards
• Hire a freelance developmental editor (not for spelling or punctuation but content, style, organization) with a track record of published authors. Here are some tips from an earlier post, Choosing a freelance editor: what you need to know
• Be prepared to take the time needed to produce well-organized, highly polished prose. Yes, I know Dan Brown can get away with clunky prose, but he’s a master of cliff-hanging and page-turners, despite his writing.
#5 Come with a platform and plan for self-marketing
I’ve seen proposals from writers who say their book will sell itself or that they’re too busy or shy to participate in publicity or marketing.
Ouch. We depend on authors to cooperate and participate in a big way on selling their books. For more specifics, take a look at this earlier post on Building the author platform: 10 tips from a pro
That doesn’t mean every writer who submits a proposal already needs to have a celebrity status platform. Not many new authors have a national TV show or a website that gets a million page views every day.
But your proposal should demonstrate a willingness to understand and be effective at self-marketing. There’s so much an author can do these days to reach their readers directly. Even writers who are intrinsically shy are able to enter an online community that relates to their book and present their information, ideas, and stories.
To give your book the best chance of success these days you must provide your prospective agent or publisher with your own self-marketing plan for the book.
That means starting a website and blog before you even go for the agent or book contract. Get that URL based on your preliminary title, build your website with expert help, and start blogging, commenting on other sites and blogs, and social networking. Welcome to the 21st century!
Conventional self-marketing is also still important. Learn to stand on your feet and speak extemporaneously about your book. Seek invitations to appear at professional and community events. Approach local print and broadcast journalists as an expert in your field, or with a great story to tell about your novel. Hire a publicity agent if you can afford it, publishers love to see that kind of commitment. And get to know the owner of your local independent bookstore. They may be interested if you can pull in 75 people on your personal list for a reading when the time comes.
I know some of you may prefer to remain at home writing, but do it anyway — it works, and it can be fun.
Motivated writers can navigate the changes in publishing
There’s never been a better time for a writer to navigate the big changes in book publishing. Agents and editors are tearing down old conventions and experimenting with new ideas. No one in the book business knows what the digital revolution or downturn in the economy will bring next.
Everyone realizes that they need creative authors who believe in what they’re doing, hold themselves to a high standard, and are able to reach their readers directly.
Dive in and you’ll have a much better chance of success.
Any questions or tips?
Have questions about any of this? Tips and suggestions to pass along to fellow writers? Please post them here in comments.