Burning Questions About Book Publishing: What are editors thinking about when they want to buy a manuscript?

By Ruta Rimas

Thank you to those of you who submitted questions about book publishing. My two previous posts address the most common question – agents and what they do! (Post 1 here, Post 2 here)

The next question I was asked delves into the business of book publishing:

What are editors thinking about when they want to buy a manuscript?

(For the purposes of this post, assume that I am speaking about the big New York City houses that publish fiction and nonfiction, like HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, Hachette, and Penguin Random House.)

As readers, we know that a book is a wonderful and complex piece of art, cherished and held on high. Every person who works in book publishing feels this same way – it’s an industry of book nerds, basically.

Book nerds work at the above publishers.

Books tend to be held to different standards, and are oftentimes considered more dignified than other forms of art or entertainment. As writers, we need to remember that though this is a creative industry, publishing houses are also profit-driven entertainment businesses, and many are part of a larger media conglomerate. A book is also a product. It’s consumed. It’s for sale, a piece of merchandise created to generate money.

So, what are things that editors might consider? There’s a multitude of factors, including but not limited to:

  • The overall idea: Is this manuscript compelling and fresh? What comparative titles are out there already and how will yours stand out?
  • The type of writing and the publisher’s aesthetic: What is the writing quality? Is the writing literary, beautiful, contemplative, meandering? Is the writing more commercial, accessible, easy-to-digest? A pop-culture imprint may be great for a biography about Beyoncé, but not the place for your Civil War-era romance, for example.
  • The marketplace: Do we see this book as making a huge commercial splash, is this book an award-winner, is this book quiet and niche? Who are the readers, where do we see this shelved at our accounts? Is this book regionally focused? How are other books like this one selling? How can we use those book sales to our advantage?
  • Sales expectations: How many copies do we think we can sell in hardcover? In paperback? In ebook? Are there subsidiary rights that we think we can exploit, like a sale into the UK or other foreign territories?
  • The advance: How do we balance our market-expectations with what we think we can afford to pay the writer? If we overpay, that’s bad for us and very bad for the author – it can kill their career if their book doesn’t earn out its advance. Are multiple houses interested? If so, how can we be competitive with our offer?
  • Marketing and publicity: Will this book require a significant investment in marketing and publicity? Does the author have a pre-existing platform or network that we can leverage in this regard?

This list of factors is not all inclusive but will give you a good idea of what editors are thinking about when they want to buy your manuscript. At the end of the day, for the big publishers, the best type of book balances the beauty of words and ideas with commercial success and wide appeal. For a book to be both literary and commercial is an editor’s dream.

Burning Questions About Book Publishing: Literary Agents, Part Two

by Ruta Rimas

Thank you to those who submitted questions for me to answer about book publishing at the Get Lit Salon on May 20th. There was one common theme  – agents!

In this post, I will tackle PART TWO of the agent-related questions. You can check out PART ONE here.

PART TWO:

How do I find the agent who is right for me?

There are many online resources to help you find the right agent for you, but you might want to start by picking up your favorite book – or a book similar to the one you are writing — and flipping to the acknowledgements, where many writers choose to thank their agents. Then, hop on the computer and dig deep. Who else does the agent represent and what type of books do they take on? Where have they sold books? When was their last sale? If they are active on social media, particularly Twitter, which is a hotbed of literary discourse, have a look at what they talk about as it pertains to books. Your best tool is knowledge.

This “Acknowledgements” page is included at the end of AMERICANAH by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

The research stage is hard work. Here are a couple of online resources that can help:

You may want to keep a running list of those agents and agencies who you are interested in querying, and then, when you are ready to submit, cull the list to a handful so that you take a targeted approach. Be professional, polite, and show that you’ve done your research when you send out your query. You shouldn’t, for instance, send a cookbook proposal to someone who represents mostly literary fiction. Be sure to follow the agent’s submission guidelines.

When should I submit my query to an agent?

You should begin researching and compiling names of those who you think might be a good fit when start to feel ready to sell your work! Once you are happy with your full manuscript, draft a query letter (here’s a great resource for that process). And once you draft your letter, have a trusted friend read it before you send it out. Then send out the letter, usually via email, to your curated agent list.

If you are a nonfiction writer, the timeline might be slightly different: many agents will accept a proposal and sample chapters for nonfiction.

ALWAYS check submission policies. Most are posted online. And, patience is going to be key. It’s hard to send out that query without falling into the trap of the over-eager. Be professional, patient, and kind in any communication you may have.

The next column in the Burning Questions about Book Publishing will address what happens when an editor wants to buy your book and takes the project to their acquisitions team. Stay tuned!

Burning Questions About Book Publishing: Literary Agents, Part One

By Ruta Rimas

Thank you to those who submitted questions for me to answer about book publishing at the Get Lit Salon on May 20th. There was one common theme – agents! At my day job, I regularly work with literary agents, so I’m excited to offer insight into the work that these publishing professionals do.

To keep this post short, I will break the column into two parts with the second part posting in late June.

PART ONE

Do I need an agent?
If you want to traditionally publish your book, it is in your best interest to find good representation. Many publishing houses are closed houses, which means that the acquiring editors are only able to evaluate projects submitted via an agent. Some smaller houses accept unsolicited (unagented) projects, though policies are shifting all the time. Thankfully, many publishers share their submission policies online.

This book is a great resource for learning more about agents.

What makes a good agent?
A good literary agent is a business partner. A good agent considers you a long-term client and will invest in your career. Some agents help you edit and refine your work, polishing it for submission. A good agent writes a great pitch for your project and then, using their network of editors, curates a list of editors to submit and who they think will be a good fit for your book. The commission an agent receives – generally 15% of the advance, royalties, and subsidiary rights deals – is well worth it.

A good agent tailors their strategy to your project’s needs. For example, a good agent will be able to evaluate which publishing house and what size house might best support your work. Not all houses publish every book the same way, and a good agent will help you navigate that terrain. Sometimes a regional publisher or small press is best for your work, and a good agent will know that.

A good agent negotiates the best terms for your (complicated) book contract including the basics: advance, royalties, territory, and subsidiary rights. The guest speaker for the Get Lit May salon, Diane Lapis, spoke about how her agent was able to push for better terms for her book, Cocktails Across America.

A good agent knows the ins-and-outs of the business of publishing, and advocates for you with your editor when it comes to things like marketing, publicity, distribution channels, and more. A good agent knows how to manage pie-in-the-sky dreams while being realistic with you about how your project fits into the overall literary landscape.

Stay tuned for part two of this post, which will address: How do I find an agent who is right for me? When should I submit a query to an agent?