A writer asked me, "What are publishers looking for?" Which is an excellent question. And kind of a weird one for me to answer since I've never been on that side of the business, but I'll pass on what little I know.
First off, many frustrated writers who have seen rejection letter after rejection letter after rejection letter fall into the trap of thinking "Editors and agents enjoy saying 'no.'" But I've heard many agents and editors say just the opposite, that every time they pull out a submission, they're hoping to fall in love with it. When I first heard that, during a season of rejection, I didn't quite believe them.
Then, after I was published, I started judging the occasional contest, the type where writers can submit their first chapter and a synopsis. It's always a mixed bag of entries that feel like "real books" and entries that feel like they were written by someone who still has a lot to learn. There's nothing wrong with that, and I'm happy to read and provide feedback for those who are new to writing. But one time I read about 7 entries in a row that did very little for me, that I wasn't even sure should be classified as "YA fiction." They needed a lot of work, and I tried to provide constructive feedback, but it started to wear me out. And every time I opened a new entry, I would think, "Please be good. Please be something I want to read."
Agents and editors read, read, read. Much of it is likely mediocre, especially for agents. So I think the first thing they're looking for is a manuscript they want to read. They want to get lost in your characters, your story world, your plot. But secondly they need it to be something that fits their publishing house. Your medieval fantasy may be in excellent condition. The editor may love it. But if the editor's publishing house only publishes romances, it's not worth his/her time.
Say the editor loves your book and it fits the publishing house, now the focus turns toward you. Here's where that "platform" word is going to come into play. Publishing is a business, and publishing houses want to make money. One of the ways they do that is by publishing writers who are in a position to sell book. That's what they mean when they ask about your platform.
If you're involved in public speaking, that's part of your platform. If you run a successful blog, that's part of your platform. If you're the head chair of the Planet Definition Committee and your book book takes place on Saturn, that's part of your platform. (If, however, you're the head chair of the Planet Definition Committee and you write prairie romances set in the 1900s, then that does not count toward your platform.)
However, no platform does not = no contract. I am living proof of that since when Revell bought The Reinvention of Skylar Hoyt series, I had nothing to recommend me. No website. No blog. No articles published. No writing contests won. I wasn't even on Facebook. It was such a shock that my agent, during the THEY MADE AN OFFER!!!! call, kept saying, "I just can't believe this happened so fast! You have no platform! Of course it's an excellent book, and I loved it, but still! You have no platform!"
While at the time that felt like a "woo-woo" for me, I still had to build a platform because I still needed to sell books; I was ridiculously naive to think otherwise. So while you may groan and grumble about stupid publishing houses and their stupid obsessions with platforms and how you don't want to do any of that stupid marketing stuff, to be a successful novelist, you're going to need a platform.
So, as far as I can tell, what editors want when considering a new author is:
A book they love
A book that fits their publishing house and its needs
An author who has a way to sell books (aka, a platform)
Questions? Comments? Rantings?
Check back here tomorrow when the lovely Elizabeth Camden will be talking to us about how she got her first novel, The Lady of Bolton Hill, published. Other than writing a wonderful book, that is.