Friday, May 1, 2009

Romancing the Publisher - How to Hook Your Future Book Editor

Alright, so here comes an honest post from the slush pile trenches. Everyday I get new proposals, some of which slingshot into my inbox from literary agents, and many others that come straight from authors themselves. So I see dozens of new proposals and manuscripts every week.

I recently posted on the topic of writing to hook the reader, but it struck me that most writers won't get the chance to do that if they don't hook the editor first. So the question I want to tackle briefly here is, how do you hook the book editor?

Whether you're working with an agent or not, before signing that all-important book contract you must nab an editor's attention, and frankly, his or her affections! So let's take a second and put ourselves in your future editor's shoes.

In order to sign a contract with you, the editor - let's call him John - must risk his reputation and his valuable time on you and your book. John will have to pitch your book to his editorial and executive teams, generate marketing ideas for his marketing colleagues who might be skeptical to begin with, write copy about you and your book, help identify cover design ideas and he'll have to "sell" your book to his sales colleagues, giving them smart hooks and amazing sample pieces of writing that will in turn help them win over the book buyer at Barnes & Noble, Amazon, Books-a-Million and Borders.

You can help John to feel confident about this process by arming him with as much good information about your book as possible. And that starts with these three primary issues:

(1) Book Concept or Story
(2) Writing Quality or Authorial Voice
, and finally,
(3) Author Platform, Name Recognition, Endorsements or Marketing Potential

If the proposal doesn't meet John's needs on at least two (though preferably all three) of these levels, he will probably not review much beyond the proposal and the first five pages of the manuscript.

Book Concept. Your book's concept should be clear, intriguing and unique, and it should come with several accompanying one-liners that set your book apart from your competition. And provide an evaluation the competition for John. Tell him why your book is better than the other three books already sitting on the shelf at the bookstore. If there are 10 bestselling books on your topic, find a new angle for your book or present a distinct hook that will appeal to your reader. Finally, identify your target audience, but make sure that audience is big enough to be a significant market. Please don't write a book for twenty-something basket weavers in Alaska, though I have nothing against basket weaving or the five Alaskans who practice it.

For fiction writers, your book concept is your story, and writing a succinct and compelling summary is where it all begins. Your paragraph or couple of page long summary will determine if editor will even read (or request) your manuscript, or move on.

Writing. Your prose, whether you send John a couple chapters or the entire manuscript, should inspire him to dedicate the next year of his life working on your book! Polish your prose (especially your first few pages and chapters) until it shines. At worst, the writing must clearly present your hot concept so that the reader won't fall asleep along the way. Finally, remove all possible hurdles for the editor and make it hard for him to put your manuscript down: Proofread your proposal and manuscript, get friends to proofread it for you. Print it on clean paper, and format it professionally. If you read it over once more and find an error, take the time correct it before you send it out.

The Author's Marketing Potential. Now that your book's concept or story has made John's heart flutter with excitement and your writing has forced John's breath to catch in his throat, why not make it three for three? Tell the editor how you will help him sell this book.

For nonfiction writers, this is a *critical* piece of the proposal and is as important as the book itself, though for fiction writers this is admittedly more difficult. But these days every writer can build up a community of friends, followers and readers by starting a blog, connecting with others on Twitter, Facebook, Myspace and elsewhere. Mike Hyatt recently posted a few good tips on this topic, as did literary agent Rachelle Gardner. For the record, I highly recommend getting yourself a blog, a Twitter account and a Facebook page as a beginning step. However, platform goes far beyond this. The author who speaks regularly to large groups of people in person or through another medium is an author with "platform". The author with "platform" writes a newspaper column, a syndicated article or short story series, hosts a radio show, TV show or popular Internet site, or speaks far and wide to large audiences. Remember that every time John signs a new book contract, he is taking a risk on that author, and his job is to mitigate that risk by doing his best to ensure that the book will sell in large numbers.

Finally, don't give up. Most rejections aren't personal in the least, or have much of anything to do with the author's talent or potential. Don't get me wrong, some rejections certainly do. But often times, editors are forced to reject a book because they are already publishing another book in that category, their list is full, they simply didn't resonate with the title or the concept, they had a bad day and the list goes on. Recall that many a bestselling book was first rejected by EVERY editor and publisher (but these days editors seem to change jobs constantly), before somehow, the proposal fell into the hands of just the right person who fell in love with the book.

So with that, I wish you best of luck romancing your future editor!

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Wendy said...

Great tips & insight! Thank you!
~ Wendy

Samuel D. Smith said...

Excellent stuff. You can see from both sides and it is kind of you to draw down the curtain and take us for a tour.

But I want publishers to read my mind. :)

Alexander Field said...

As a writer, sometimes I feel the same way Sam. : )

Keanan Brand said...

As a fiction writer, I have drafted I-don't-know-how-many query letters that I've never sent, being pickier about one page of text than about entire manuscripts.

For a couple of years, I've had "Find an agent" at the top of the "to do" list, but the writing I've been doing lately is direct-to-editors. Still, I have yet to compose a letter that I like.

Robert Treskillard said...


When you wrote: "Your prose ... should inspire him to dedicate the next year of his life working on your book!", I thought it very insightful.

I had never thought of it that way. And for a fiction series, the editor may actually be considering whether to dedicate the next five to six years.


No wonder it's hard to get published!

Thanks for the insight.


Alexander Field said...

Keanan, I suppose writing for an agent is similar in many ways, though the editor will end up working with an author's material for a much longer period of time. However, the agent will benefit financially from any work he sells, so some agents spend a good amount of time working on their author's work.

Robert, you're exactly right! For a fiction series, that editor could be signing on for a long-term gig! No small decision!

: )

Pink Ink said...

How wonderful for you to be on both sides of the fence. Do you find you have more compassion for the querying writers??

Alexander Field said...

I think I do have compassion for the querying writers I hear from...and as a querying writer myself I have some idea of what the editor is feeling (so I feel some compassion for them as well)!