So You Want to Write a Book...

If you want to publish your book, you need access to an editor—not just any editor, but an acquisitions editor. (Publishing has all kinds of editors--copy, developmental, photo--you name one, we have it.) For authors trying to break into publishing, the hardest thing to do is find an acquiring editor who will listen and read. This is especially true if you want to write fiction or a trade book. With tens of thousands of people convinced they are destined to be the next John Grisham, you can imagine the chaos if all their ideas, proposals, and final manuscripts were allowed to flow into publishing houses. Who would sort through it all?

There was a time when a neatly typed manuscript, with a stamped, self-addressed return envelope, was sufficient to send off to a publishing house. You might have received an acknowledgement—even a letter.  There was actually some human contact. Up until ten or fifteen years ago, some junior editor might actually sift through the week’s mail looking for something promising. Now you need an agent; you need access; you need a reputation. It’s like getting your first job out of college: you couldn’t get one because you had no experience, and you couldn’t get experience because you had no job!

As difficult as it is to get an editor’s attention, getting an agent to read, listen and think about your book proposal or idea is never easy.  Agents earn their cut of the royalties (say 10%) because they can and do help develop projects, and they know what acquiring editors and publishing houses are looking for. Just as important, they have contacts. They can pick up the phone or send an e-mail and get answers. In some cases, they find multiple interested publishers and can set up the exciting and potentially lucrative Dutch auction.

Why has the publishing game become so difficult, so complicated? Part of the reason stems from the consolidation of publishers over the last 25 years. There are simply fewer independent houses that are willing to risk taking on new names. Further, the entire industry has been under great financial pressure—and not just recently. With consolidation has come expectations of ever high earnings, and most editors are judged (and paid) according to their ability to produce high-income books. Marketing, too, has a much stronger influence. The traditional model in which editors ran things is disappearing; marketing has taken over with a bottom-line perspective.

So what is a humble and struggling author to do? For one, find an agent; second find out what is selling and what kinds of books publishers sell. (The worst mistake is not doing research and trying to sell your great American novel to a house that does not publish fiction.) But there are other, interesting alternatives. Lulu and Amazon, among others, have made it possible to self-publish a book—an alternative that even established writers are increasingly considering. (And, of course, there are books on how to do it.) But let’s be honest: It is not easy to make a name or get your-self-published book in the retail stores, thus the luring attraction of an established publisher.

Before self-publishing became the rage, vanity publishing houses existed (and still do).  These publishers can take your manuscript, edit it, make pages and eventually create cover art and bound books. The only problem is that you have to pay for all of this and these houses typically have little or no marketing assistance. They can store them, for a fee, so that you don’t have to fill the basement with boxes of books. But you have to get make the rounds to bookstores, get on sites, and generate orders.

If your goal isn’t to write a best seller there are many small and specialized houses that are very approachable. Often they are professional organizations who publish for their members, such as ALA Editions. We are very open to submissions, proposals, and inquiries. But this is equally true for smaller houses that specialized in everything from poetry to wellness. The most important action to take is to research the respective publisher’s website and find out how and if they take unsolicited manuscripts and in what form. For example, Skyhorse, a New York-based independent, publishes in a variety of areas. They offer very specific advice when submitting a proposal; they especially encourage you to look through their site to make sure what you are proposing matches their publishing program.

So, join the fun and publish your book…