What do publishers want?

What do publishers want?

What Do Publishers Want?


An LJ visitor from the UK (hi, Liz!) got me thinking in one her replies to a recent post. Basically she was wondering, What do publishers want?

It’s a frequently asked question, often prompted by feelings of frustration, confusion and despair. Now, I’m not a publisher (obviously) but I thought I’d weigh in with a few thoughts anyhow, since I’ve been a writer struggling with that thorny question … and doubtless will be that writer again, at some point.

There’s an obvious answer to this deceptively difficult question: Publishers want books that will sell like hotcakes.

D’oh. But what does that mean, exactly? What kind of a book sells like the proverbial hotcakes? And how do you know if your book is that kind of book? How do you convince an editor – or before that, an agent – that your book is most definitely of the hotcake variety?

A lot of writers make the mistake of trying to write from the outside in. In other words, they take a look at what’s currently hot in the marketplace, or always hot (for example, romance) and try to write a book that will fit those parameters. Even if they don’t enjoy romance, they figure – eh, how hard can it be? And they write a story and then find they can’t sell it. Or they look at those vampire paranormal suspense titles flying off the shelves and they figure, Ha! That’s what publishers want! So they try to write one of those, even though they think vampires are really stupid and not at all sexy … and they find they can’t sell it.

Never try writing from the outside in. In the end, it’s really just a cynical exercise that’s disrespectful to your own literary preferences and the readership you’re supposedly aiming to please, and your lack of passion will show in the work. Trust me, readers can spot a phoney a mile away … and so can editors (and agents).

The biggest problem is that there’s no such thing as ‘publishers’. Not as a unified entity. Each publishing house has its own agenda, its own character, and beyond the  goal of wanting a book that will sell like those hotcakes, they often don’t have much in common. Nor is there such an entity as ‘readers’, although it’s usually a given that the common thread there is a desire to be entertained and/or informed. But since what works for one reader leaves the next one cold, there’s no easy answer there, either.

At the end of the day, it’s impossible for a writer to know what publishers want, beyond a few basic universal tenets. So let’s get those out of the way first.

Publishers want well-presented manuscripts that are professional in their execution. That means clean white A4 paper, crisp black ink, in a plain font (like Courier) at 12 point. They want double line spacing (or sometimes one-and-a-half), and page numbers at the top right hand side of the header, which contains the book title and your surname for easy identification. They want a manuscript free of typos, spelling and grammatical errors because if you’re writing in English it’s always exciting to find someone who’s got a clue about pesky things like punctuation and clauses. Reading is, after all, an exercise in communication.

In short, publishers want to see a manuscript that takes them seriously, (so nothing cute, it reeks of amateur) and shows that you take yourself seriously too – which also means you’ve done your homework and you’re not submitting a paranormal thriller adventure to an editor who handles literary fiction.

But say you’ve done all that? You’ve researched how to present a  manuscript, you’ve worked out the publishing houses (or agents) who handle your kind of story. You’re not sending your rollicking space pirate science fiction novel to a company that publishes poetry, or Virginia Woolf.

What then?

Well, once you’ve demonstrated that you’ve mastered the basics, publishers are looking for a story that won’t let them stop reading. A page-turner. A story that screams ‘buy me or spend the rest of your life regretting it and, quite possibly, unemployed!’ One that neatly fits the definition of the kind of story (women’s fiction, literary, crime etc) you say yours is. When you’re writing genre, in particular, you need to show you understand its rules … especially if you intend to bend or break them.

But how can you tell if you’ve written that kind of book?

A good question, that brings us to the thorny issue of what floats an editor’s (or agent’s) boat. What gets them all excited about a story? What is it in a manuscript that makes them believe they’ve found the hotcakes, the page-turner, the Next Big Thing?

And the answer is: I don’t know. Not unless I know that editor (or agent) personally, and even then there’s a good chance I’ll be wrong. And you don’t know either. Because what lights one person’s candle plunges the next person into a blackout. Several people turned down JK Rowling before she found a sympatico agent and editor, remember? So even when, on balance, a manuscript is well-written and well-presented that still doesn’t mean the editor (or agent) you submit to is going to fall in love with it. Or at least, not deeply enough to go to bat for it in an acquisitions meeting. It’s a personal thing, reading. It taps into our secret dreams. Our hopes and fears. A story speaks to us … and either we listen, or we tune it out.

And that’s why I say this, when it comes to the tricky question of working out what a publisher wants. You can’t. So you have to please yourself. You have to write the story that gets you all excited about reading, and trust that somewhere out there is an editor (or an agent) who gets excited about the same stories you do.

In other words, write from the inside out. From first to last, you must love your own story. You must be writing from the heart, with passion, with absolute and unswerving commitment to your characters and their adventures. Because that kind of passion comes through in the writing. You can’t fake that love. It shines like a beacon. And readers will respond to it, if they love the kind of story you’re telling.

Which would be the nub of it. As that Shakespeare fellah said, To thine own self be true. Without apology or misplaced self-deprecation, embrace the kind of story you love to read, and write the kind of story you’d read if you weren’t writing it. Because you know what? And I’m sorry to say this, but there’s no getting around it. There’s nothing else in the process that you can control. You can’t control the next megahit from another writer. You can’t control which junior editor or slushpile denizen will read your manuscript. You can’t control the mood they’re in or how they’re feeling physically when they read it. You can’t control the content of the last five manuscripts an editor (or agent) read before yours. You can’t control their personal tastes. If they don’t like your story, or if they don’t believe in its commercial potential, nothing else matters. And you can’t control that.

Beyond the business-side of the game (manuscript presentation and market research so you’re choosing the right editor (or agent) to receive your work) all you can control is the truth and quality of your writing. The passion of your commitment. The love you have for your story and your characters. That’s it. That’s your bailiwick. Everything else is beyond your control. And that sucks. It’s big sucky part of being a writer. But the sooner you deal with it, the happier you’ll be.

However, if things go your way, your manuscript will land on the desk of an editor (or agent) who’s sympatico with you, loves your writing and your story, and who’s in a position to offer you a contract.

But you can’t control that, either.

Which is why perseverance is so important in this game. Getting rejected isn’t always about the quality of the work. Sometimes it’s just a matter of tastes not coinciding. Sometimes an editor loves it but they can’t make a good enough case to marketing. Sometimes they’ve just bought something that’s too close to what you’ve done. Sometimes Saturn is in Pisces and there’s a bad moon on the rise.

And if you’ve been rejected for one of those reasons, then you say ‘ouch’ and ‘damn’ and you send the story out again. The literary world is full of tales about rejected authors eventually striking it big. Again I say to you, JK Rowling. The only way you can guarantee never getting published is if you give up. While there’s life, there’s hope.

But …  what if it turns out some part of being rejected is your fault? You’ve got a great idea, but the execution isn’t working. Your grammar sucks. Or the plot structure is flawed. Or the dialogue’s stilted. The characters seem fake. Or the pacing drags. And while the work shows promise, there’s too much to do for an editor to take a chance on you yet.

Then you need to roll up your sleeves and face some hard facts. You’ve probably sent the work out too soon. Chances are you haven’t received enough of the right kind of critical feedback on the manuscript prior to submitting it. It’s a common mistake. I made it myself more than once. So how can you fix it?

I’m going to leave that answer for next time. Because it deserves an entire post of its own.