For the past 10 years, I have worked with some of the world’s top publishing houses. I’ve worked as an editor, writer, project manager, and business analyst. I’ve worked on print and digital titles, and on publishing and commercial strategy, and am lucky enough to have worked with the teams behind some of the world’s best-loved authors.
Along the way, I’ve picked up a whole bunch of experience about how to get a book published, and as several people have asked me recently how to find good editors or publishers, or if I could read their manuscript, I thought these notes would be of interest to any aspiring authors out there.
Right now, I’m going to share some insights about how to get your book published by a traditional publishing house, but please bear in mind that that’s just one possibility. Today, there are many options for publishing your work, including self-publishing. I’ll cover those in future posts – watch this space.
1. Write a proposal
For the biggest publishers out there, a proposal is essential to get an editor’s attention. You should write this before you start contacting any editors, as it will be the first thing they ask you for. If you have one ready and waiting, and it looks professional, they’re more likely to take you seriously.
The proposal should be around 10-20 pages, and should say something about you. It should include details of your book concept, a chapter breakdown, perhaps a full chapter or introduction, information on your blog (assuming you have one), your audience, any stats on existing readership, and plans for the future of your brand. It will also be important to include information on how your proposed book compares to other books on the market; how it’s different from what’s out there and what it competes with.
Even if you’ve already written in its entirety the book you want to publish, you should still create a formal proposal document so that the editor or publisher has a clear overview of what it is you’re aiming to achieve with your book, and why you’ve written it. There’s no harm in submitting the full manuscript if you choose to do so, but you shouldn’t expect a publisher to have time to read every manuscript that crosses their desk. That’s why the proposal document is important.
Big publishers will only be looking to take on authors who have already created a personal ‘brand’ for themselves, and who are on a mission to change the world. The bigger the ambition, the better. Smaller publishers will be looking for niche ideas that follow existing trends or pick up on new ones.
2. Decide whether you need an agent
A lot of big publishers say on their company websites that you need an agent for your manuscript to be considered. I know for a fact that this isn’t always true; I’ve had editors tell me that they actually prefer a personal approach or recommendation from someone in their network. Personal recommendations from inside the company carry a lot of weight, even if people don’t work in the same department.
Having said that, agents are incredibly well-connected in the publishing world and know how to get the attention of publishing houses and negotiate publishing contacts to maximize the benefit to the author. Often, they negotiate hard for things like film rights, which, if you’re a first-time author, although exciting, can be a little scary, and may not be something you’d consider important at that point in time. An agent can help you to stand your ground when you might not realize that something is important. They may also secure a higher fee and royalty with a major publisher. The downside to this is, of course, is that you’ll have to pay them, often a percentage of your earnings. You’ll need to figure out whether you think their input is worth the fee.
3. Research your publishers
Before ever approaching a publisher, make sure you thoroughly understand their ‘list.’ A ‘list’ is the word publishers and editors use to refer to their back catalog, i.e. all the books they publish in a particular category or imprint.
Make sure you know exactly which publishing house an imprint belongs to. You should be able to find this out through looking at their company website. Look at which books they have on their list.
Think hard about whether or not your book is a good match for a particular imprint. If you’re writing a business book, and the imprint you’re looking at is to do with personal development and spirituality, chances are it won’t be a good match. Similarly, if you notice a book on a publisher’s list that is very similar to the one you are writing, they may decide it’s too similar to go with, or may in fact specialize in that niche area, meaning your title will fit perfectly. Either way, make sure you have made an attempt to understand their publishing strategy before you approach them.
4. Research your contacts
Once you’ve figured out which imprints/publishers your book best fits with, reach out to your network and see if anyone you know has any contacts at all at those companies. It doesn’t matter whether that person works in Technology, Facilities or Management; the fact that they’re in the building is sometimes enough to get you the introduction you need. Ask them for their help, whether it be in contacting an editor, or finding out the process for new authors. You’ll be surprised how much people will want to help.
If you can’t find a contact within the company, try searching on Twitter and LinkedIn for contacts at the company. If you find a relevant contact, ask anyone connected to them who is already in your network for a warm introduction. If you don’t have any direct or indirect connections, write a tailored introduction asking them if they’d be prepared to connect. Make sure you show awareness of their work.
5. Make contact, and be personal
Once you’ve fully researched your publisher and their imprint, and have your proposal ready to send to them, the initial approach you make is important. When sharing your proposal for the first time – whether that be in writing or in conversation – make sure you make the approach as personal, and as tailored for your audience (i.e. your publisher) as possible. I’m not suggesting you stalk them on Facebook and find out the name of their dog, in order to drop it into casual conversation! I mean be aware of who you are talking to and imagine how your approach will appear from their perspective, with all their expertise, prejudice and experience. Editors and publishers will remember you if they believe you have a good understanding of their company and their list, and are more likely to take you seriously.
Don’t be afraid to pitch your idea to multiple publishers, or even to different imprints within the same publishing house. Follow the advice above and don’t send out scattergun or unresearched proposals to any editor you can find. The more good approaches to relevant and high quality publishers you make, the better your chances of success.
7. Practice rejection therapy
As we all know, JK Rowling’s Harry Potter manuscript was rejected by numerous publishing houses before it was accepted. And even after she became mega-famous, her manuscript written under the name of R Galbraith was rejected 12 times.
Of course, all of these points are guidelines for how to proceed and no guarantee of success. Even if you’ve written a great book, found a great agent and pitched your awesome proposal to the perfect publisher, and they love the manuscript, it doesn’t mean your book will be published. There are all kinds of things that are out of your – and sometimes even their – control. Here are a few examples:
- The publisher may have used up all of their budget for the year
- They may have already reached their commissioning targets
- The in-house team may not have capacity to take anything else on right now
- Their priorities may be changing due to a company restructure
- The publisher may be be overhauling their strategy
- They may have just signed another author with a very similar title
- They may be ‘concentrating on their backlist’ this year (you can often understand this as ‘their budget has been cut’)
- There may be a different team within the same company that is better suited to publishing their manuscript
- The publisher may simply be too busy to follow up with you properly.
All of these things can mean that publishers miss out on great books, and authors miss out on publishing deals.
So you need to get used to rejection. It isn’t personal, and you mustn’t allow yourself to get disheartened by it. You may very well have a great book on your hands. You just have to keep on looking until you find the best publisher for it.
The difference between a good book getting published and not getting published is very often dependent on the tenacity of the author.
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