‘I never perfected an invention that I did not think about in terms of the service it might give others….I find out what the world needs, then I proceed to invent.’
The quest for a publisher should begin before you even put pen to paper, or more likely finger to keyboard. In fact, ‘What are your thoughts on publishing?’ is one of the first questions I ask all prospective authors I speak with. My purpose is to steer the conversation around to the commercial aspects of the exercise. While creating a book is one of the most satisfying endeavours, there is little point to it if no one reads it. What I am looking for is a firm indication that the idea under discussion is so compelling that a large number of people will want to buy this book and that the author who wants to write it is uniquely qualified to do so.
At some point, further down the line, this is exactly what publishers will be doing too. The number one criterion of publishing houses is sales. Publishers are looking for audiences, not authors. They want to find books that readers have to have. They also need to believe that the author behind the book is credible and has the relevant experience/credentials to be able to deliver this potential bestseller.
Your campaign to attract a publisher should begin at the same time as you start writing. It is never too early. It doesn’t matter how traditional, or old school, you see yourself as a writer, there is one fact of modern authorship you cannot ignore: social media. You need to step up your online game. Today. If a publisher gets to the stage of seriously checking out your credentials, they will look you up online to see what sort of following you have.
This is not something that can be left until you start pitching the book. Build up your online presence while you are writing your book. Choose your channels carefully, according to the ones your target customers are likely to use. If you are not quite sure whether Insta, Twitter, Facebook or LinkedIn would work best for you, try a few platforms with different campaigns and watch the response. Focus your energies on the one that works best, publishing regular, engaging content, but don’t completely neglect the rest. They may be a slow-burn source of success.
Another big, early decision is whether to try to attract an agent, or go direct to a publisher. In days gone by, publishers would only ever accept submissions via an agent, but some are a little more flexible today. If you go through their websites, you will see their submission guidelines and whether or not they will accept direct approaches from authors. As a general rule, an agent might be a better bet for a first time author, since they will guide you through the submission process. Agents know what publishers want and don’t want, and how authors can sabotage their chances of landing a deal. You might also take the attitude that if a book is not good enough to excite an agent, it is unlikely to set the world of publishing on fire.
Authors don’t need to wait until the book is fully completed before they begin approaching agents and publishers. It is possible to start part-way through the writing process, say between three to six chapters in. It’s worth it, too, because this can be a very slow process and you might as well keep yourself occupied writing the rest of the book while you wait weeks for a response.
Many agents require a one-page query letter and, if they are interested, will follow up with a request for more information and possibly even a sample of your work. Initial submissions to publishers (and some agents) can often be more complex, requiring chapter-by-chapter breakdowns of the book, marketing information, target readership and more.
They’ll also want sample chapters. Publishers and agents publish precise requirements online about what they wish to see in proposals from prospective authors. Follow them to the letter! If they say they want three chapters and a blurb, send three chapters and a blurb. Not five chapters. Or two. Accuracy is key.
As well as checking the strength of the idea, one of the key elements publishers want to get out of the proposal is an idea of potential sales. This is why they generally ask about the market the book will be pitched at and for an idea of competitive titles. You won’t have access to all the latest book statistics, but it is worth (deep breath time) making a rough calculation. Search for books in a similar genre in the Kindle store or on Amazon and note down the top ten sellers in the bestseller rankings. Plug the titles into one of the many free sales calculator tools available online, which will give an indication of the number of books sold per day. Warning: this can be quite a sobering process!
Try to be targeted in your approach. I always suggest that authors take a trip to Waterstones, or their local independent bookstore, to browse the shelves for similar titles. This is not just because this invitation would be my idea of a heavenly few hours well spent. It is a really good way to get a feel for who publishes what sort of book, which will help you identify where to pitch your title.
There is no point sending your sci fi series to a publisher that always majors on romance, or your business ‘how-to’ book to one that only publishes fiction. The identity of the publishing house is obvious, since it will be on the spine of the book. To search for the agent, look through the acknowledgements section; most authors thank their agents. (Note: You can also do this via an Amazon search and using the ‘Look Inside’ feature. It’s just not as much fun.)
Self publishing is often put forward as an idea to help get into a top publisher by the back door and is relatively easy to do, thanks to print-on-demand and digital book services. The reasoning process behind this goes; publishers want to know that this book is going to sell by the box-load, so what better way could there be to establish an engaged following and tons of data to back up that appeal?
There is evidence that this route does work. Fifty Shades, The Martian and Still Alice all have something in common, aside from being bestselling books which made it to the big screen: they were all initially self published. There is a flip-side to this though. Fifty Shades et al sold by the tens of thousands before they got the attention of a top publisher. That can take a lot of effort and dedication to marketing. Anecdotally, I have heard a mainstream publisher say they would not consider a self published book unless it had reached at least 70,000 in sales. But then, in a frustrating Goldilocks-style moment, some publishers get put off if a self published book sells too much because they wonder if there is any fuel left in the tank. It’s a tricky one.
If you do choose to go down the mainstream publishing route, you will get rejections. A lot of rejections. It can be pretty humbling and dispiriting too. However, remind yourself that it is a business decision by the publisher, not a reflection on your writing ability. If you’ve done your homework, there is every possibility that another publisher will see the merit in your idea and, most importantly, a substantial potential audience for your book.
Teena Lyons writes a regular blog about writing and ghostwriting on www.professionalghost.com