Five Things to Do Before You Submit Your Proposal or Book to a Publisher

The changes in the publishing industry have led to new and varied options for authors who want their works available via traditional publishers, e-platforms, hybrid publishers, and self-publishers.

Of course, the appeal of traditional publishers remains strong and many authors return to these companies after they have self-published one or more titles. Having a completed book and a sales history can be advantageous in getting a literary agent’s attention or consideration by an editor. However, simply having a self-published book doesn’t guarantee acceptance by another publisher or agent.

The book business still has rules and if you follow the rules, your chances for success are greater. Having worked on all sides of the publishing world:  as an editor acquiring business books at a large publisher, a freelance writer, author coach, and polishing many, many book proposals – I know what works.  Here’s my guide to the five strategies that will increase the odds your proposal or book will get noticed – in a positive way.

1.    Do your homework

It sounds obvious but too many people just “wing it” when they submit a project. Virtually every publisher and agent has a website listing submission guidelines. Use this information. The guidelines specify whether you should send a query or the entire proposal.  Areas of interest are usually spelled out. You may believe your novel is as compelling as Gone With the Wind but sending it to an agent who doesn’t handle fiction is a waste.  If a publisher includes a questionnaire, fill it out. You may have already spent time and effort following other proposal guidelines but editors want certain details in a particular format. Provide your material in the format the agent or publisher wants. Why? Well, if you can’t follow basic submission instructions, an editor or agent may think you won’t listen to editorial suggestions or other substantive advice. If you have a referral to an agent – say you met the agent at a writer’s conference – put that information in the subject line of the email. Then in your email, briefly remind the person that you spoke to him or her and you discussed….

2.    Be honest

You printed 500 copies of your book and you have distributed all of them. That’s great…so wouldn’t Random House or Simon & Schuster want to publish your book? Of those 500 copies, how many books were sold? How many did you give away to family, friends and clients? Were your books priced at $1.99? There’s a huge difference between sales success for a self-published title and a book from a traditional publisher.

It’s easy for publishers to check sales figures, so don’t try to exaggerate them. If you chose Print-on-Demand (POD) as a way to get your book out quickly or test the market, say so in your proposal. If you are an active speaker and give the book out, so you haven’t focused on getting buyers to purchase it online, say that as well.  In your pitch to find an agent or secure a publisher, say how long your book has been available for purchase and in what channels it has sold. You should also state whether the book has sold only in the U.S. and in what formats (i.e. hardcover, paperback, e-book, etc.). If your book has been wildly successful and its sales ranking online has been strong, that can certainly help you. Conversely, some publishers may not want to acquire a self-published title that has already sold well. They may think you have already reached your core readership.

3.    Never claim there is no competition

If I had a dollar for every time an author says this, I’d be sitting at the beach in Hawaii! Seriously! Every book is unique but if you’re trying to persuade agents or publishers that your work deserves a larger readership, then you need to show that there is real interest in the subject of your book. Virtually every book has some competition and it is incredibly easy to find similar or related titles on Amazon or other sites. Amazon is particularly easy as a reference tool because you can “search inside” most books.  You should include at least four to six competitive titles in your proposal. For each one, write a short paragraph on how your book differs from these titles or what the shortcomings are of the other books. Perhaps the books are old and don’t cover the most recent practices or the books were written for a more academic audience and your book is for the general reader.  Distinguish your book from the related titles without saying that yours is the “latest and greatest.”

4.    Promotion and publicity/author platform is the most important part of your pitch

You may think a traditional publisher guarantees your book will receive extensive publicity or marketing support. Unfortunately, this is a major misconception.  For the most part, you will have to do your own publicity and marketing regardless of the size of the publisher, unless you have such a unique book that a publisher builds a campaign around you. But that’s the exception, not the norm.

In your proposal, never say, “At the book launch, I will do the following….” That sentence means that you haven’t thought about publicity or marketing and starting a campaign at book publication is too late. Your platform-building should be going on while you’re still writing the book. In describing your platform, be very specific. If you have an e-newsletter, say how many subscribers you have and whether they pay for the publication. If you blog, discuss the number of unique visitors or whether the blog is picked up by other sites.  Don’t say that you speak frequently. Include a calendar of your speaking engagements for the past six months and upcoming six months, by venue and number of attendees.

5.    Know why you want to write a book

Give some thought to why you want your book published. Marketing and selling a book takes time, effort and resources.  Instead of saying, “I want to write a book,” think about how you will use the book in relation to your job or your business.  Develop a plan for how you’re going to sell it (whether you’re publishing on your own or working with a publisher) and why you need a book. Occasionally, people step back and spend time developing their platform, creating a website or launching a blog, and postpone publication of a book until their platform is stronger.

by Debra Englander, freelance editor, writer and author coach

Debra W. Englander is a freelance editor, writer and author coach. Formerly editorial director at John Wiley, she has also written for magazines, newspapers and has ghosted several non-fiction titles. She can be reached at q_ratynaqre@lnubb.pbz.