Our editor-in-chief, Penelope Jackson, writes:
I love working acquisitions, but I notice common issues with the submissions I receive. So below are a few tips on how to approach a publisher (such as us) with your brilliant idea. These ideas are pretty basic, and if you have not already considered each of these items on your own, then you are almost certainly not ready to pitch just yet.
1. Know your target audience. Imagine who you want to read your book, and think of some ways you will be able to speak to this demographic—both in your writing and through marketing channels. Be well versed in books people in that demographic have likely already read that are similar to your project, and know inside and out how your book is different (see also: item 3). Show the publisher that you understand who must read your book.
2. Seek honest feedback. Likely professional. Because here’s the unfortunate but also kind of nice truth: Your friends and family are probably never going to give you useful feedback on your manuscript. Either they’re going to love it because they love everything you do because you are lovely and they love you, or they are going to not love it, but not tell you because you are lovely and they love you.
Find yourself a cruelly frank writing group. Hire a freelance editor. Offer to trade critiques with another new writer, gloves off. I can always, always tell when a writer has been given honest feedback—the idea is finely honed, the structure is carefully mapped, the writing is clear, the voice strong.
And you know what? Not only does the work impress me more, but you impress me more, for having taken your writing seriously enough to let someone else tear it apart.
3. Read. In your pitch, you should be able to compare your book to other books. I don’t need to hear this is the next Wild (we want your amazing, original idea!), but do tell me a few books and authors that are comparable to your title. It’s shorthand that helps me easily understand what you’re envisioning in terms of subject, audience, length, format, etc.
The thing is, I sometimes feel like I’m reading pitches from people who have never actually read books. And while there are exceptions, there are people whose ideas are so incandescent that they manage to write incredible books without ever really reading…statistically, you are probably not one of them. Read the bestselling, most critically acclaimed, award-winning books about subjects similar to yours. While you’re at it, read some terrible books, too, and know what to avoid in your own writing.
4. Don’t be too…creative…in your pitch. This sounds so dour, right? Of course, we want your amazing creativity in your book project. But publishers have an enormous stack of manuscripts glowering at them from the corner of their desks at all times. And when an editor has time to work on acquisitions, she is going to power through as many as possible to minimize the glowering for another month or two. And if she gets to your cover letter and it is a limerick, or is indecipherably flowery, or full of hyperbole, she may become frustrated and judge your manuscript more harshly than she would have otherwise. Your manuscript should be creative; your cover letter should be deft and professional. Which leads me to a…
Bonus tip: Keep it professional.
Not so much a bonus as something I just reminded myself of: By submitting your manuscript, you are entering into a business relationship with a publisher, whether they accept your manuscript or not. For the love of books, be professional. Here is a helpful BONUS TIP LIST.
- research appropriate publishing companies, who have published books similar to yours or have a mandate that includes your idea, and submit only to them (see our submission guidelines here)
- write a complete cover letter
- include a CV with relevant information only
- include a synopsis and a chapter-by-chapter breakdown where applicable
- be polite in all communications with a publishing company—including receptionists (we talk to each other! and we are all worth kindness, right? AND, we promise to also be polite to you)
- be gracious and positive if declined, particularly if you were declined with more than a form letter (thoughtful critique takes time, and we’ll be gracious and positive too).
DO NOT (that sounds way harsh; maybe “PERHAPS THINK ABOUT MAYBE NOT”):
- mention how much your family loves the book (see item 2, above)
- argue with constructive criticism (feel free to ignore it! or argue with imaginary editors! but please don’t argue with actual editors)
- pester an editor you’ve submitted to. Gentle reminders/check-ins are absolutely fair; but understand that that enormous pile of glowering manuscripts is not going to get read any faster if you email every day or drop by the office unannounced. The waiting is SO HARD, I understand—but it’s part of the book publishing industry.
- get shirty after being declined. So many of the authors that I eventually work with have been turned down over and over again—their projects are not right for the publisher. But the ones who understand why I am declining and keep working at their writing and honing projects to suit the specific publisher’s mandate have proven to me that they would be excellent to work with, and I end up publishing a whole bunch of them.
Okay, that’s it for now. Good luck!