What Publishers Wish Authors Knew
Are you hoping to land a contract with a traditional publishing house? Do you find it initimidating? There is so much conflicting information out there, and so many times I remember feeling like it was this giant wall I just didn’t know how to scale. But after years in the industry, as both a writer, editor, and publisher, I can tell you that while it is difficult, there are some guidelines too. These are tips and tricks…these are things to remember about who YOU are, what YOU’RE doing, and how YOU are approaching both the companies and the goal.
So what do publishers wish authors knew?
That guidelines are there for a reason.
I well remember the frustration of taking notes on what every editor and agent wanted to see in a proposal and realizing that they’re all just a little bit different. But each company or agency has fine-tuned their requirements to fit the needs of their group, and when things aren’t done in the right order or with the right material, it often means they can’t put it properly through their system. So while each may be slightly different, they rarely ever ask for something that no one else does. Take the time to gather what each one wants before you query, and then definitely double-check your query letter to make sure it’s delivering all that was asked for!
Also, take a few minutes to make sure you’ve tailored your query SPECIFICALLY to each person you’re sending it to. I can’t tell you how many times I get emails that talk about my “agency” and how they want me to “represent them.” I get that you’re reusing material…but it would literally take two minutes to read through your query and fix it for that sort of thing. I know editors who will just hit delete if it’s addressed to the wrong person or references the company incorrectly.
That begrudging isn’t good enough.
A book proposal involves a lot of pieces. Authors tend to be very enthusiastic about the story section, but the other parts…meh, not so much, right? How would you expect an editor to react if you sat down across from them at a conference, they asked you about your book, and you said, “Well, it’s not that great, I’ll be honest. I mean, everyone said I should pitch it, so here I am. But I don’t really want to be here.”
That editor would just end the meeting, and you wouldn’t blame them. Well you can come off the same way in your proposal. I cannot tell you how many times I receive a proposal that, in the marketing section, says something like, “Everyone said I needed to join Facebook, so I guess I will” or “I don’t see the point, but I did it.”
DO NOT sound so begrudging about ANY part of the publishing process, but especially about marketing! It’s actually ironic, if you think about it. Marketing is SOLELY about how you interact with others…so why are you interacting this way with the people you hope will be your team? Your job is to be enthusiastic about your project and about getting it into people’s hands. Because if you’re not, why should we be?
Begrudging attitudes tell us up front that you’re not going to do the work it takes to make your book successful. If you can’t engender any enthusiasm for it, no one else will either, and that goes for ALL the parts of publishing a book—the writing, the editing, the marketing.
That YOU are just as important as your project.
Publishers want to build a relationship with authors. We don’t just want one project—we want to work with you forever, ideally. Which means we need to know we CAN work with you.
When we’re talking about a project in our acquisitions committee, we never just talk about the book. We talk about how the author behaves on social media, how often they update their website, how responsive they are to emails. If we’d asked for revisions, we talk about how long they took, how receptive the author was, how well they integrated our suggestions. If we’ve already worked with them before and this is a subsequent project, you can bet we’ll be talking about how they responded to editors’ suggestions, whether they asked for extension after extension, and whether they could deliver the quality. We’ll talk about how their previous launch went, what efforts they put out, and whether we enjoyed working with them.
Because it’s not just about one story. It’s about how much fun we all have traveling through that story with you for a year or more.
That has some interesting ramifications when it comes to second or third or fourteenth proposals you send in. Frankly, sometimes you’ll pitch something that a team just isn’t wild about. But if we like working with you, we’ll help you work through it or come up with something better. At this point in my career, I literally send my editor a list of possible story ideas and ask them which ones they’re excited about. Some of them that I loved get a pass from them…but they never just say, “Yeah, if that was your idea, then b-bye.” No, they instead say, “What else are you thinking? What about something like this? Have you considered exploring that?”
Just be sure you’re paying as much attention to who you are as author—are you easy to work with? Do you answer emails promptly? Do you whine about the process on social media? Are you a prima donna? Are you all talk and no follow-through?—as to the book you turn in.
I talk a lot more about this in my class called Choose Your Own Writer Adventure.
That everything we do is for the good of the book.
We’ve all heard the horror stories about editors.
“They ruined my book!”
“It’s not mine anymore!”
“They’re total morons! Why would they do that?”
I’ve heard authors lash out at routine edits … bemoan the wretchedness of the editorial process … say how much they hate their covers … dismiss all suggestions for marketing, or just ignore the thought of doing it altogether. And I get it. I do.
This book is precious to you. You’ve spent months or even years on it.
But the publisher is coming not just from the perspective of your story, but from marketing and sales. The company watches trends from other books, other covers, all across the market and has at least what they think is the best idea of what will help your book sell. You may not always love it—but they will always have good intentions.
No editor or designer or marketer wants your book to fail. Every single one of them wants it to succeed and surpass expectations. If you don’t agree with their decisions, then have an open and honest conversation with them…but that means YOU are open too, and willing to listen to their reasons. Publishing is a partnership between quite a lot of people, and to be an effective team, you have to trust each person to do his or her job, and to do it well. (What does each person do? What’s their role? Why are they important? I explore all these things in my class The Insider’s View of Publishing.)
Still, the goal is not nor should never be to make it anything other than your book. If it feels like that, then something should change. Sometimes that something is on their side, but sometimes it’s in your attitude.
I’ve personally found that what editorial process does really is like cutting a gemstone. There are multiple options for how to cut it—but the purpose of the team and their working with you is to chose the cut that will best showcase the jewel’s natural beauty and make it shine. To polish it. To put it in a setting.
By the time my books come out, I without fail look at the finished product, at all the changes, and think, “Wow. They made it more my story. They cut away the distractions to showcase the heart, and then they put it in a package that will make it appeal to the people who will most enjoy it and benefit from it.”
That’s what a good team does. Which leads me to my next point.
That being a team player can make all the difference.
WhiteFire Publishing, the company my husband and I own, is a smaller company, so we don’t have a huge staff of marketers and publicist and social media experts. We have a handful of dedicated staff pulling double duty, and we have our authors. It’s so important that we’re all working together toward the same stated goal. What should that goal be? Well, I talk a lot about it in my marketing classes, like Building a Bookish Community, How to Build a Marketing Plan that Sells, and Identity Marketing. The goal is ultimately to build a readership who views you as “their author.” The goal is not simply to create a good book. Creating it doesn’t get it read! So we all need to work together to get that great book actually out into the world and into readers’ hands.
But there’s another aspect to being a team player too, and that’s when authors cooperate with each other. When our authors make themselves into a team, this is AWESOME. And part of the beauty of the Christian publishing world! Work together. Support each other. Make everything not just about YOU and your book, but about the readers and the community and how you can help each other. This goes such a long way!
That you can ask questions!
Don’t ever be afraid to check in and ask your questions! Especially after you’ve signed with a company. When you’re still in the query stage those questions may not rise to the top, but once you’ve signed with an agent or publishing house, you’re part of the family and your voice will be heard. Don’t just wallow in fears or let yourself think you’re being ignored, chime in with questions or concerns—or ideas! We LOVE when an author comes with good ideas!
That story is king, writing is queen, but marketing may just be emperor.
I know I talk about this a lot, but that’s because it is SO IMPORTANT, and so often ignored by writers. The book is only one part of being a writer! Arguably just as important is getting that book OUT THERE, otherwise what good is it doing?
Dan from the Steve Laube blog had an awesome article a while ago: https://stevelaube.com/what-if-platform-is-the-goal/ In this article, he talks about a lot of the same things I talk about in my marketing classes–that if our goal is only ever the next book, we’re missing a big part of what it means to be a writer. The “platform”–the audience–should be who it’s all about and why we do this thing to begin with. So if we stop treating it (and hence them) as a chore and start viewing it as our purpose, that changes so much!
This rubs authors wrong, but it is SO true. Why? Because you are more than just one story. You are more than your writing style. You are a person to whom God has given this idea and others for HIS purposes, His glory. And His glory involves getting it into the hands of others and reaching them, ALWAYS. So yes, you get our attention with a good book and with writing that shines…but you know what? We can fix plot holes or missing commas. What we can’t do is make you interact with anyone.
That we love fresh ideas!
This also goes for all parts of publishing! We love fresh story ideas. We love fresh marketing ideas. We love fresh team-building ideas. You are creative, or you wouldn’t be in this industry—so let that creativity shine in all facets of the journey!
I love this article for so many reasons. I’ve had to overcome my introverted tendencies and put myself out there. I joined a self-publishing Facebook group as I took a course with these people. People from all walks of life, some believers, some unusual characters, but that’s the audience I hope will be my readers. I want my writing to be winsome for unbelievers and encouraging for believers. I began to see marketing as a way to reach both groups, which transformed my attitude about marketing! Even going the self-publishing route, I’m part of a team of advanced readers, my editor and cover designer (ahem), proofreader, etc. Being influenced by their input has sharpened and polished my novel.
This is really helpful! I’ve just reached the querying and pitching part of my writing journey and this tells me so many good things I need to know.