By Sophie Flores
A comprehensive guide to making it through the acquisitions process and landing a traditional publisher.
In the midst of competition, the manuscript submissions process can be discouraging. There are too many factors that could bring a rejection letter to your inbox. But finding someone who is willing to publish your book is just a matter of persistence and knowing exactly what it is the publishers are seeing.
While the publishing industry seems like quite a mess to untangle, the submissions process is fairly straightforward. There are specific hurdles your submission has to jump over in order to get a publishing contract. There are really three filters that separate the publishable from the not, three gates your book has to be worthy to pass through. Before it can be acquired, your book will be evaluated for: the pitch, the manuscript, and the marketability.
Let’s say you’ve sent in a manuscript, determined the publisher is a fit for you, know who you’re pitching to, and have followed the submission instructions exactly; snail-mailed or emailed through submissions, by yourself or through an agent. Here’s one scenario of what happens when your query joins the slush pile: the email has to get an acquisitions editor to request more, the first manuscript partial has to make it past a group of editorial interns, the manuscript has to win over the editor you sent it to, and the marketable characteristics have to deem it publishable in an editorial meeting.
The pitch has to be crafted to, first, not turn the editor away and, second, give the editor a reason to pick the book up or request more pages. Then the manuscript has to speak for itself, and speak directly to the editor reading it. Finally, your book has to stand on its own in a business meeting while an editorial team decides whether it’s something they can sell.
I’m going to outline the best way to go about each of these, but, before you do anything, research and know who you are submitting to. You will waste time if you submit to the wrong people. Know who you’re submitting to and why. Know which publishers accept unsolicited and un-agented manuscripts. If you’re not prepared to do all the work involved in securing the best book deal, submitting to literary agents might be the better option.
The Pitch: Getting into the solicited slush-pile
The slush pile is the inevitable first step for authors who want to get a good traditional publishing deal. The first test within that is the initial email filter. The purpose of the query letter is establishing trust with an acquisitions editor/editorial assistant.
Don’t get so caught up in your vision of the competitive publishing industry that you base your query off of what you think they want to hear. No judgements are being passed yet because the editors usually make a point to give every manuscript a chance. You don’t have to work too hard to capture their attention. Just show your credibility and give them a reason to ask for more.
You will need:
- Query Letter
The one thing you need to worry about here is appeal . And that appeal needs to be real. It needs to have nothing to do with you or why you like the book and everything to do with the editor, the publisher, and the readership. Condense to the points with the most substance. Make sure it’s meaningful and no fluff or ego is involved.
- Address the agent/editor in a way that shows them what you know about who they are and what they like to publish.
- Include the technical stuff like the title, genre, word count.
- Have a hook. But know that any remote synonym of, “This book is really great,” will be an empty claim to them. You don’t want to make high claims about your book. You want to give them the raw facts about it. Be aware of the number of hooks they read. It’s a lot. You don’t want to give them something they’ve seen before. A unique concept or question is usually the best way to go.
- Include a bio with any publishing creds you have and major accomplishments in your writing career. But again, your writing bio will be stacked up against hundreds of other writing bios, so only include the stuff that’s going to count.
- And, in the midst of all these technicalities, allow your own voice to show through. Probably the most important thing besides the hook itself is to not forget that you and your potential agent/editor are real people.
This should include only the necessary information while still being compelling. A typical synopsis is one page, single-spaced, third person, present tense, and gives away the ending of the book. Don’t attempt to dramatize or sell anything with the synopsis. It’s just for the editors to review the story arc to make sure there aren’t any glaring holes. So this is an opportunity for you to check that the book has a fresh quality, the structure is sound, the conflict is believable, the plot is tightly woven, the characters are motivated and take action. More on this in the Manuscript section.
- Requested Material
Make sure you only send the amount of material specified by the agent/editor. You’ll want to make sure that certain sections — the first page, first five pages, first chapter, first fifty pages — are an excellent representation of your manuscript, or that they alone will without a doubt make the reader want more. Editors are aware that that no one can tell much about the book by the first five pages. What they’re looking for here is the voice. They want to see if the interesting synopsis is backed up with a voice they like and trust to tell them the story. This is the weeding-out process. There is a good chance that this portion of your manuscript will have to be plucked out among others by a group of editorial interns, if the place you’re sending to gets a lot of submissions.
For the non-fiction book proposal :
Here it’s not just about getting the publisher interested, but about proving to them that there are a lot of people out there who are already interested. What catches their eye in this pitch are not plot and character and concept but topic and marketability. So the components for the nonfiction book will look different, including a description of audience, marketing plan, competing titles (an analysis of books that people might buy instead of your book, describing their approach and what they lack that creates a need for your book). Instead of the synopsis mentioned above, there will be a chapter outline including all the points you are trying to make. The author bio holds more importance here because you are selling yourself as much as you are selling your manuscript (whereas fiction is mostly about the manuscript). You have to convince agents and editors you’re the perfect author for this particular book.
Give them exactly what they ask for…
Make sure your pitch looks exactly the way the particular editor prefers it to look. Send each of them the right type of story and genre, with only impeccable grammar and in their stated preferred format. If they don’t take unagented manuscripts, don’t query them. Query an agent.
Don’t fool yourself into thinking that publishers request the manuscripts that sound to them like glittering gems. The routine for them is actually to request the things that it just makes sense for them to request. This means you just need to prove yourself as a credible author with a story to tell.
…and one thing they didn’t.
That said, you probably will get a little head start if something in your pitch sets the book apart. The key here is to make your book different, not best, because “best” is really no different from any other book proposal out there. It tells editors nothing. You can accomplish what you need to accomplish without ever talking about the quality of your own work.
The Manuscript: Getting out of the slush-pile
This is where it is purely about the quality of the book itself, in all its facets. For fiction, this is ultimately all that matters.
You will need:
- A voice people want to keep listening to
- A story that makes them want to see what happens next
- Characters that are either loveable or hateable
- A little bit of magic
Your book is not alone…
One of the biggest mistakes you can make when submitting a manuscript is acting like your book stands alone. Because it doesn’t. Your book should, of course, be a somewhat incomparable work, but you won’t be doing yourself any favors by thinking like it is the only book in the world. Think of all the books that get published by publishers who get hundreds of queries from agents who get hundreds of queries from authors. Your aim should be to show that your book is worthy to add to a list.
There’s the slushpile reality, but there’s another list people often forget that their book is being compared to, and that is the acquisitions list of the publisher, as well as the publisher’s backlist. Your book has got to fit somewhere in with the rest of them. Often when a manuscript is acquired, it is being added to an existing acquisitions list after being considered in an editorial meeting with a bunch of other books.
So what you don’t want to do when giving editors reasons to publish your book is to say the same things that everyone else is saying. You’ll probably be saying the same things anyway because what is valuable in one book is often valuable to another. But since these things can be said about a lot of books, you want to give the most concrete evidence you can that your book is worthy.
You have to think like an editor. Envision yourself in your New York office where acquisitions editors have weekly meetings with an editorial team and biweekly meetings with associate publishers. In a place where your book, your baby, is just another. Like the newborn room in the hospital, where the beautiful individual life forms, when all lined up next to each other, look a lot alike.
Besides being well-crafted (it’s pretty much guaranteed you’ll have to make revisions anyway, but the editor has to be able to work with it), the manuscript has to have that subtle magic that can’t be replicated. If it doesn’t have this, not much can be done. In other words, the editor has to want to work with it, specifically, and bring it, specifically, into the world.
…but the editor is.
This is the real trick to getting your book published. It has nothing to do with your audience or hype or salability. It’s only your book and the editor. You have to make one real human being — who happens to read a lot of books — like your book. That’s all there is to it. When submitting, authors are thinking about getting lots of people to read their book. That is a mistake. You are winning over one person. Getting published is all about winning over the right person.
The Platform: Getting on the publisher’s list
The platform comes into play when getting your submission past an editorial team. This is mostly for non-fiction. If you’re a debut fiction author, you’re more or less off the hook. Most editors would be thrilled to publish a debut author if her manuscript stands out. Publishers take into account your previous success. You can’t have a stain on your record if you’ve never been published before.
You will need (some combination of the following):
- Email list
- Social media presence
- Speaking of teaching engagements
- Connections and memberships
- Regular publication or media contributions
- Community events
Platform takes persistence
Your author platform is just a measure of your visibility to an audience. This includes your following online and offline, your participation and publication in various public forums, and your previous sales record.
It’s something you build over the course of your career — by engaging with people in meaningful ways and taking action that attracts people to you, not just calling for attention.
But for the most part, you don’t have to worry about it
At the point of submitting, you either have a platform, or you don’t. Whereas you can make immediate changes to your pitch and manuscript, efforts on your platform have to be incremental and long-term.
Funnily enough, the best thing you can do for your platform and this point is to write great work. The frustrating loop of “can’t be published without having a platform, can’t have a platform without being published” is broken by your original, attention-worthy writing.
In her blog, publishing expert Jane Friedman said, “It’s not a mystery why building a platform is so confusing when you may not yet know who you are as a writer.”
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