Wednesday, August 24, 2011

What are publishers looking for?

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.


  1. Lovely post!
    Glad that I have my own blog before sending my manuscript!
    I've got one small question. What's the best way to submit a manuscript? Through an agent or directly to a publisher?
    Please reply!
    I blog here;

  2. Faseeha, you're ahead of where I was, certainly! The best way to submit a manuscript is to follow the rules. Most publishers - and I think ALl the major ones - require a literary agent. Every agency web site (that I've seen) has specifications about their submission process. This is a link to an example:

  3. Does having a Facebook account qualify as having a platform? Well, with only like say, a few dozen friends?

  4. Facebook is a good place to start, but a publisher would want to see higher numbers than that. Same goes for Twitter.

  5. This was very helpful; thank you!

    In case anybody else is interested, the Christian Writers Guild is offering a *free* webinar on building your online platform tomorrow night (the 25th). You can sign up here
    (Ignore the pricing info on the side bar; that's for their other webinars.)

    I already signed up, and am hoping to learn a lot...I was originally just doing it because it's free, but now after reading this post, I see that it's something very important that I need to work on! :-)

  6. Would a little over 100 friends be enough?? Though I don't have any followers on twitter really... friend wise. I just kind of have it. I have like 112 friends or something on facebook.
    And then my blog. :)
    Do you think that'd be enough? Because I don't do anything writy type things besides the GTW contests.

  7. This is great advice! Am I the only one who finds it hard to get stuck into writing draft 2 of the novel? I mean, I know that, now that I've gone it all down the first time, I sort of have to, well... plan. But I am so not a planner. I still like to be surprised on every page.:P I'll go back over the writing process, but I was just wondering -- am I the only one who sits here with a minimized word document?

    And another thing. I want to change things in my novel -- but I seem to always go back to the same boring conversations, and even the unusual circumstance my character is in is beginning to feel old!

  8. Jazmine, even over 100 is low in a publisher's eyes. A blog helps, and they would expect you to have one, but they'll need to see consistent posting and comments.

    Emii, you might be the rare writer to whom I would suggest making edits as you write. Some writers really love the first draft process, the creating, and struggle with the other stuff.

    Also, I think it's really normal to question your story. Especially after you've been working on it for awhile. That's when writing friends can be really helpful. They can provide some perspective on if what you've written is boring, or if it just feels that way to you because you're so close to it.

  9. Wonderful post (what's new?) that kept me nodding my head.

    To your last comment, Stephanie, in response to Emii, boy, oh, boy, do I ever think some things I write fall into the "boring" category. It's usually then that I need to take a break. :)