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What Do Book Publishers Want?

Entering the world of book publishing may seem like a daunting task. Should you get an agent? Aim for mainstream or small publishers? Self-publish and cut out most of the middlemen?

Yet if you take it one step at a time, your path will become clear. First, you need to accurately assess the type of book you’ve written, the subject, the target audience, how large that audience is, and so on, to help you decide how to market the book.

If your goal is simply to get published, you have a better chance with nonfiction than fiction. Yes, I know—writing fiction is a lot more fun, but churning out a few nonfiction books can become your bread and butter, tiding you over until Oprah discovers you’ve written the “World’s Greatest Novel.”

Publishers Look for the Next Trend

Major nonfiction publishing houses look for books whose topics are cutting edge today, which means that in roughly two years, masses of people will want to read them. 

Why two years? Because that’s about how long it takes a manuscript to hit the bookshelves after first being signed by an acquiring editor. In the publishing world, things often move as slowly as the shifting of the tectonic plates. Yet there are exceptions. Publishers may put a rush on topical books that would be outdated in two years--for example, those with political themes. Or they might make the publication date coincide with the release of a movie, to piggyback on the film’s ad campaign.

Book publishers that focused mainly on fiction were in the news a few years ago with horror tales of downsizing, mergers, and mass firings of employees. Compared to them, some nonfiction book publishers weathered the recent recession quite profitably. How? By addressing the public’s needs. If people are anxious about their finances, the publisher puts out books on how to deal with stress or make the most of life’s intangible rewards, instead of pursuing material success. I’ve edited lots of books like this recently, and their audience seems to be enormous. After the United States recovered from the trauma of 9/11, books on terrorism were popular for a while. Lately, many U.S. soldiers have written about their experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan, and these books have hit the market.

Do I Need an Agent?

Most large traditional book publishers will consider only agented submissions, and finding an agent is often the hardest part of getting published. If you are famous or have a track record, an agent or a publisher will probably take a chance on you before you’ve written an entire book. An outline and a chapter or two might be enough. But if you are unknown and without connections, in order to approach an agent or a publisher you will likely need a completed and professionally edited manuscript. 

Many small book publishers will accept unagented submissions, so if you think your book's target audience is more of a niche market, a small publisher might be ideal for you. A thick reference book at the library called Literary Marketplace will help you find small publishers to approach. It wouldn't hurt to call each publisher first to make sure unagented submissions are permissible.

Should I Seek a Publisher or Self-Publish?

You have several options to consider when trying to market a book. If you're reading this, I’ll assume you're not famous, and you don’t have an agent.  If you truly have a grasp of where your book lies in the grand scheme of things and can honestly say that you know it will never be popular with a mass audience, then you may want to cut to the chase right now and self-publish, without suffering through a possibly futile attempt to find a publisher.

If, however, you have hopes that your book will hit the big time, then go for it. Try the conventional route, with the aim of getting a book deal with a publisher.

How to Approach Traditional Book Publishers

Here is a simplified plan to get you started. 

Step one: I recommend reading Jeff Herman’s Writer’s Guide to Book Editors, Publishers, and Literary Agents. (Disclosure: I was the copy editor for three editions of this book, ending with the 13th edition, but I was hired through a book publisher, and I had no contact with Jeff Herman, except for writing queries to him in the books. I do not receive any financial or other remuneration for recommending his book.) He is primarily a nonfiction agent, so he explains the process of writing a query letter for agents, a book proposal, an outline, and sample chapters. His book will name names of who’s who in the publishing world: people you will seek out and try to impress. This book goes into more depth than I possibly could, and I put you safely into his hands for guidance.

Step two: If you’ve followed Jeff Herman’s advice, yet still have not found an agent to represent you and to submit your manuscript to large book publishers, you could forgo the agent and seek out small publishers. Usually, they will look at manuscripts from writers who don’t have agents. Depending on the publisher, the requirements may be either an entire completed manuscript or only a query letter with a proposal, a chapter outline, and sample chapters. Take a notebook and a pen to the library, and be prepared to sit for a couple of hours paging through a thick reference book titled Literary Marketplace, which lists every publisher in the United States, the names of staff people, how many books a year that publisher puts out, what type of books it specializes in, and much more. Find publishers that publish books in the same category as yours, and write down the contact information for either an acquiring editor (first choice) or another person whose job title seems to include looking at new submissions. (Sometimes the staff is limited to only two or three people, so there may be no one called an acquiring editor.) Also, check to see whether the publisher accepts unagented submissions. If the book publisher has a website, write down the URL and visit the site later to check for specific submission guidelines. At this point, you can follow Jeff Herman’s advice on writing a killer query letter and send it to the acquiring editor(s) whose name(s) you copied down at the library. Repeat as often as necessary until you have exhausted all avenues in the small publisher realm.

Step three: If, after submitting to small book publishers, you still have not landed a contract and you are committed to your book, you might consider self-publishing. There are enough success stories about this path to the marketplace to keep hope alive for first-time authors. (For more on this, see "Should I Self-Publish My Book?")