How Do You Get Books Published?

Charlotte Ashlock Posted by Charlotte Ashlock, Executive Editor, Berrett-Koehler Publishers Inc.

Charlotte Ashlock is a crazy idealist trying to make the world a better place! 

How Do You Get Books Published?

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Try Smarter, Not Harder

We’ve all been inspired by tales of famous authors like Steven King wallpapering their rooms with rejection slips. The problem with such stories, is that they imply the secret to getting published is just to try over and over again. But trust me, mindlessly carpet-bombing the publishing industry with your manuscript is unlikely to get you anywhere. The secret to getting published is not trying harder, but trying smarter. Here’s how.

Don’t submit it anywhere and everywhere. Target the publisher that’s right for you. Not all publishers are the same. For instance, Berrett-Koehler only publishes nonfiction that makes the world a better place. Bigger publishing houses like Penguin and Simon & Schuster may publish almost all topics and genres. But your book is more likely to get attention if you submit it to a niche publisher that’s a perfect match for your message. Click here for a list of niche publishers and the genres they specialize in.

Don’t submit it “To Whom It May Concern.” Target the editor that’s right for you. “But what?” you say, “I don’t know any editors!” Let me suggest a very simple yet very sneaky strategy for staying out of slushpile hell. Find books that are as similar as possible to your book, with recent publication dates (not more than five years ago.) Look at the Acknowledgements page and find the part where they thank their editor. Then address your envelope and cover letter to that editor’s name (you’ll know the publisher’s name from the copyright page, so a little internet research will usually suffice to find the right address.) That way you’ll be submitting your book to someone who liked and supported a book just like yours. What could be better? “BUT WAIT,” you say, “What if the author doesn’t mention the editor on his Acknowledgements page?” Well, do you really want an editor that was so bad the author didn’t even bother to thank him?

Don’t mail the same proposal to everyone! Tailor your proposal to the audience. Every publishing house will have “Submissions Guidelines,” somewhere on their website, and the guidelines vary a lot from house to house. That’s why doing identical mass mailings is a really, really, bad idea. When I was an intern reading unsolicited submissions, MORE THAN HALF of the proposals submitted did not follow our Submissions Guidelines in any way. There is no bigger black mark against aspiring authors. It’s a sign of disrespect (or incompetence) that bodes very ill for a future working relationship.

In your supporting materials, find ways to compare your book to successful books. Have you noticed how after Harry Potter became popular, there were a slew of “me too” wizard school books? Publishing is a nerve-wracking business, where you can lose many thousands of dollars if you make the wrong call about a book’s future popularity. Publishing books that resemble recent successes is one way to mitigate risk. “BUT!” you cry. “I thought good writing was supposed to be original!” Yes, yes, it is. You need to make that case, too. Arguing that your book is simultaneously completely original and completely similar to [insert well-known book] will require amazing levels of Orwellian double-speak, but it’s what editors want to hear. If you really want to impress them, include the Amazon best-seller rank of comparative titles. It’s on every book’s Amazon product page, at the bottom of “Product Details.” Four-digit rankings are decent, two and three digit rankings are pretty amazing. Try not to compare yourself to anything with a five-digit ranking or more.

It’s like dating. If you wanted to find your soulmate, would you get out the phone book and start calling every number until you got a date? You’d end up calling a bunch of people who were too old, too young, the wrong gender, or in other ways totally inappropriate for you. Also, they don’t feel special or valued because they know you’re just working your way through the alphabet. That’s why sending identical copies of your manuscript to every publishing house in the country is a bad strategy. We always pay more attention to proposals from people who believe our publishing house is special. The best way to find a soulmate is to seek out a community that shares your interests, set your sights on a very specific kind of person, and do what you can to make yourself look attractive. So seek out a publisher that shares your interests, set your sights on an editor who loves what you love, and follow my advice to write a cover letter that makes you impossible to resist.

In closing…. Whether you’re writing a job application or a book proposal, it’s easy to feel like you’re being judged before a panel of cruel, uncaring judges. Just remember, they’re not the only ones doing the choosing. You also have a choice. And someone you pick out and judge to be the best, is much more likely to pick you in return. Seek out kindred spirits. And if they just don’t get you, we have a book to help with that.