Finding the right publisher: Tales from the trenches

I recently became the founding editor-in-chief of a new academic journal.  Although this might not seem all that exciting to the average writer, it has opened my wide eyes even further on the topic of the “right fit” between writers and publishers.  I am stupefied by the astounding lack of research that prospective writers do about the theme and focus of the journal and our manuscript requirements.  Do writers who want to be published – regardless of whether they are writing an academic article or a fantasy novel – not have the intellectual capacity to grasp the concept of editorial fit, and that they need to do at least a modicum of information-gathering to check this out?

The truth is that I’ve had a surprising number of submissions to the journal that are (in no particular order of importance): longer than the maximum length for our manuscripts (and I’m not talking about a few hundred words; I’m talking about three to four times longer than our editorial guidelines clearly state); only peripherally related to the focus and objectives of the journal and then only if you really squint at the manuscript;  not formatted in any way that resembles the guidelines that are clearly posted on the front page of the journal’s web site.  I don’t think I need to go on.

If you are a writer (like me) and you want to be published (like me) there are lessons to be learned about finding the right publisher – the one with the right fit.  Because if you don’t, the publisher will simply send you a rejection slip and that’s so hard on the ego and a waste of your time!  I’ve been published by a variety of publishers – types, sizes and countries (USA, Canada, UK), and along the way, I’ve learned a few things about finding that important right fit.  The first two steps I recommend are as follows:

  • Find a publisher that actually publishes in the genre that you want to sell to them.  This seems like a no-brainer to me.  The very first time I wanted to sell a book to a publisher, I knew that it would be pointless to send it to a publisher with no interest in books about health-related topics.  Publishers usually do make a statement on their web site (on the prospective author page) about what they do and do not publish.
  • Find a publisher whose books are targeted toward the same reader that yours is.  And forget about writing to the publisher’s needs rather than the audience you intend for the book.  When I first started writing, I was clearly focused on health-themed trade books for that nebulous “general public.”  I had an idealized notion that I would “educate” the masses about health issues, so I had to find a publisher whose books reflected that.  I had to examine their current and back-list to see what they’d done before – because publishers are not likely to see your book as the one that pushes them toward a different audience.  If they only publish children’s books, then forget about your romance novel!

    life without end
    My first-ever book published by a now-defunct Toronto publisher. I had to do research to find the right fit.

Now that you’ve narrowed your search and have a list of publishers whose list reflects the type and readership of your own material, you still have a few more steps before you can submit your work.

  • Research their submission requirements.  This is very important.  (who knew writers were so lax about this!)  It is the packaging of your ideas, and if it doesn’t conform to their particular guidelines, it means that they are likely to reject your work. If you’re submitting non-fiction, you’ll need to determine exactly what they’re looking for in terms of a book proposal – the format, content & length.  Not all publishers want the same things, but all of them cover some important bases:  Can you succinctly state the purpose and market for your book?  What is it about?  Why are you the right one to write it?  How is it structured?  What’s in each chapter?  When will it be finished?  How long will it be?  If you’re submitting fiction, do they actually accept unagented books?  How much of the novel do they want to see?  If you send too much, they might not read it. 
  • Make sure that your query conforms exactly to their requirements.  This is a non-negotiable issue for unpublished writers.  And, frankly, why would you not follow their guidelines in preparing your submission?  It shows that you are professional, you are smart and you are interested enough in them as your potential publisher that you took the time to educate yourself about them.
  • Submit the query in precisely the method they prefer.  Do they accept email submissions?  If so, should it be an attachment or a query in the body of the email?  Or must you fill out an online form? Must you send a hard copy?  How many copies do they need?  Do they want a self-addressed, stamped envelope for a response and/or return of the materials?  When I first started writing and sending materials out to publishers, this latter approach was the only way they could be submitted, and some publishers actually continue this antiquated approach.  That meant making photocopies and sending large envelopes with folded pre-addressed and stamped envelopes inside, and waiting months for a response in the mail.  (Truth is you might still wait months even with an emailed submission.)
  • Send your query to the right person if at all possible.  Do a little research and find out which of the editors actually acquires (and therefore presumably enjoys) the kind of material you are sending.  Then you can address your query to the right individual which is far preferable to sending it to the info@ email address on the web site.
  • Keep meticulous records of where and to whom you send a query.  This will really help you to see a pattern of publishers and their needs, and it will ensure that you do not look unprofessional by sending a query to a publisher who has already rejected you.  Very embarrassing.

After following all of these rules, I still get responses from publishers that say things like:  “This is a very interesting proposal.  It just doesn’t seem to fit in with our publishing program at this time.”  B**s***.  What the editor is really saying is that they just don’t like it.  Their “publishing program” as such doesn’t really change much.  So, don’t let verbiage like this fool you into thinking that “at this time” might mean “perhaps another time.” It doesn’t.  You just move one.  And when that email comes saying, “We like this proposal very much.  We’d like to consider publishing your book,” you know that your prep work has paid off!

I actually sent out a book proposal this past week myself.  It’s one of those books that I’ve been mulling over and keeping notes about for a few years.  When I sent it in, the publisher replied asking me where I had learned of this publisher.  I had done my homework.  I was alerted to this particular niche publisher through a group I belong to on the business network site LinkedInwhich I’ve recently begun to see as a serious contender for writing leads.  Then I did my homework.  I researched the publisher, the books they’ve published, their authors (a number whom are people whose work I admire), and the publisher himself.  I wanted to know his background.  I told him all this – including the part about researching him.

His response was that I seemed to have the ideal credentials to be writing the book I proposed.  We’ll see.  I’ll let you know how the road to this one progresses.

Writing your first book proposal

The moment my first publisher said “Yes” she was interested in seeing more about my book with a view to possible publication was the moment I knew I’d have to learn to write a dynamite book proposal.  I’d done enough research by then to know that I’d need to have that “pitch” to send before anyone would agree to publish my first non-fiction book.  Now I needed to learn the elements of a great book proposal and be able to execute it – and fast – before she lost interest.

I’ve held tightly to a personal belief for many years: I believe that you can learn just about anything short of brain surgery from a well-crafted book.  So, I immediately rushed out and bought anything I could find on writing book proposals.  These days, all a would-be author has to do is visit one of the online mega-bookstores, search “How to write book proposals” and voila! Hundreds to choose from.  Back in the day…I had to go to a bookstore and see what was around.

But over the years, I’ve learned a thing or two about book proposals to the point where a couple of years ago, one of my publishers  (who said “Yes” again) told me I should teach other writers to write proposals – mine were so well crafted.  I was flattered, of course, so here are my personal pointers that I have honed since that first proposal.

Book proposals are essential to any non-fiction (and sometimes fiction) writers who want to be published by “traditional” publishers.  What I mean by traditional publishers is publishers who themselves take on the financial risks associated with publishing your book (they edit, design, market etc).  In fact, they might even give you money upfront (an advance against royalties).  If you want to publish it yourself, then you don’t need a proposal – you’d be the only one who would read it!  Of course, we’ll talk about self-publishing versus other-publishing later on in this blog.  For now, we’re going the route of the traditional publisher which is the route I’ve been taking.  This route requires you to understand that you have to be able to sell your book three times:

  • First, you have to sell it to a publisher through an editor.  The editor might even become very excited about your book.  When this happens, he or she will then have to sell it to the marketing department (publishing is the only industry on the planet where the marketing department has so much sway over the products.  In other industries, marketers are given products and told to use all of their considerable marketing skills to find a way to create a market – but not so in publishing – don’t get me started!).  I was going to have to persuade this editor to whom I had spoken on the phone that she should take the next step with me.
  • Second, you have to sell the book to the book retailers.  Make no mistake, both you and your publisher will eventually have a role to play here.
  • Finally, you have to sell the book to your readers.

But, we are going to concentrate for a bit on the first time you have to sell a book because that’s what your proposal is for: to sell it to a publisher. That said, the other aspects of selling are important to the development of this book proposal.

I had an idea that I’d use my experience in the transplant and organ procurement business to write a book that would ask a lot of questions.  It wouldn’t necessarily go so far as to answer them – since many of them were up until then unasked.  I wanted to make people think about the way organ transplantation was approached. So, I had to ask myself a few important questions:

  1. What was the real purpose of this book?  What did I want to accomplish?
  2. How would I approach the topic?  Did I have a theme?
  3. How would I organize the book?  Would it have sections? Chapters? Stories?
  4. What kind of voice & style would I use? Would I use first person?  Third?  What reading level would I use?
  5. Why was I the best person to write this book?  Would I have any credibility?
  6. What other books would be competitors?
  7. Who would actually read this book when it got to the book stores?
  8. How could this kind of a book be promoted to readers?

If I could answer those questions, I could write a detailed proposal whose purpose would be to persuade the editor (the acquisitions editor to be precise) that this was a terrific book that I could write well and that readers would buy.  Here’s what my proposal looked like:

PJP's book proposal elements

Then I wrote a description of every chapter I planned.  It was ready to go to the publisher.  Would she buy it based on the proposal?  Would she ask to see the completed manuscript on spec?  I had no idea.  I just knew that I’d have to do a lot of work before I had an answer.