Ten Easy Steps
It's amazing how
many writers are completely in the dark
about how publishers work--and don't work
by D. J. Herda
As a working editor, I learned long ago how to distinguish between
manuscripts that had some merit to them and those that were destined for the
slush pile. Usually, a quick glance at the first two or three pages
was enough to tell whether or not a closer look was in order. Occasionally,
I never made it even that far. The cover letter did the trick.
That led me to start thinking about a list of sure-fire ways to get your
manuscript rejected. I call it my Top Ten Kisses of Death.
And, while none of these perennial literary no-no's are new, they bear
repeating. Follow each and every one of them to the letter, and you’ll
be absolutely assured of never coming close to a publishing contract.
State in your cover letter that your book is unique. After all, editors
don’t want to publish something they’ve seen a dozen times before, do they?
Well, actually, yes they do, especially if those previous titles were money
makers. Why would an editor risk his time, reputation, and possibly even his
career by pursuing an unknown commodity when there are so many safer, more
dependable venues for him to follow?
By claiming that your book is unique, not only do you scare an editor away
from reading further, but also you announce your ignorance of the publishing
industry in general.
All publishers know that they have specific customers. Some readers
want mysteries, some want romances, and still others want Westerns. By
approaching a publisher with the “unique” ploy, you’re in effect telling him
that you don’t understand this very basic principle of publishing or, if you
do, you don’t give a rat’s behind. Publishers don’t like dealing with
loose canons, and they don’t like taking risks. They like dealing with
seasoned professionals with tried-and-true formulas where the odds are in their favor.
Tell the editor up front that your book is universal in its appeal.
Let him know that it’s equally suitable for professional audiences as well
as the general reading public. Say that it’s a sure-fire best seller
on college campuses as well as in bookstores and discount centers,
automatically widening its scope and making the book far more
valuable to the publisher economically.
Uh-huh. It also informs the publisher that you’re a rank amateur who
not only doesn’t understand the difference between different types of books,
but also that you don’t care. Textbooks, for example, rely on certain
characteristics that trade books (books meant for the general reading
public) don’t, and vice-versa. These characteristics include
questions, review points, straight-forward rhetoric, and other things that
trade books nearly never have. Similarly, scholarly tomes are
heavily laced with footnotes, indexes, and source notes that other books
In addition, a publisher’s marketing approach for selling different types of
books varies greatly. Textbooks are marketed differently than trade
books, which are marketed differently than teachers’ manuals, which are
marketed differently than scholarly works. By claiming that your book
is universal in appeal, you’re simply cutting your own throat.
Send your manuscript or proposal to as many different publishers as
possible. In that way, you multiply your chances for success.
Remember the points I made above? They’re reason enough to select your
target publishers carefully. If you send a book of poetry to a house
that publishes only fiction or send your scholarly biography of Abraham Lincoln to a
publisher that specializes in trade books, you send up a red flag that tells
an editor, “I’m an idiot, and I don’t care.”
Well, neither will the publisher as he deposits your work in the nearest
Submit a complete manuscript, no matter what the publisher’s market
listing states. After all, no one can get the full impact of your work
until he reads it in its entirety.
No, no, no, no, no! Editors are busy people. Sending someone a
package roughly the size of New Jersey is bound to get it pushed to one side
while the editor tends to those shorter, snappier proposals. In time,
your History of the Universe Part One will simply fade from his mind, and
you’ll be opening a package with a cover letter that reads, “Sorry, not
right for us.”
Instead, send along a simple one-page proposal that sums up your project in
a nutshell. Not only will the editor at the other end be grateful, but
also you’ll have a better shot at hearing those oh-so-desirable words, “Send
me the first three chapters, please.”
In those rare cases where a publisher requests the complete manuscript, of
course, don't waste his time with teasers. In other words, know what
the publisher wants in the way of submissions, and give it to him—no more
and no less.
In lieu of submitting a complete manuscript, sending a publisher your
book's Table of Contents will give him a more complete picture of what
you’ve written. If your book doesn’t have a TOC, send him a
Do that, and you're digging your own grave. If you can’t convince a
hard-noised editor to take a look at your book based upon a short, punchy
proposal, nothing else you send along will do the trick.
Provide a publisher with only as much information as is absolutely
necessary and no more in order to prevent him from stealing your idea or
sharing it with another writer.
This is a remarkably common misunderstanding of who publishers are and how they
operate. For starters, publishers don’t steal ideas. If they did, a
single copyright infringement suit would have put them out of business years
So, if you have a book that offers proof positive that JFK's assassination
was a wide-flung conspiracy, you’re going to have to present your case right
up front--your entire case. Otherwise, the publisher will write you off as just another
crackpot conspiracy nut.
Let the publisher know that, while your manuscript may contain some
misspellings and grammatical errors, you plan on hiring a professional
editor to spruce it up before publication.
Sure, and while you’re at it, mention that you have an estate in Spain where
the editor can stay while working on your book. Editors are not idiots.
If a manuscript looks sloppy or is poorly written, the writer is a hack, and
the editor will want nothing to do with him.
If you have something important to say but aren’t a skilled writer, hire an
editor to spruce up your package before sending it out on its rounds.
State in your cover letter that your book has been accepted by another
publisher, but that you would prefer for his house to produce it.
Right. And while you’re at it, why not ask for open bidding with the
publication rights going to whomever coughs up the largest advance? A
seasoned editor will see through this ploy in a heartbeat. So, save
everyone a little time and cut to the chase. Insulting an editor’s
intelligence is the surest way to a pre-printed rejection slip.
Tell a publisher that he is the first to receive your proposal, the
implication being that you think more highly of him than of anyone else in
Editors have heard this one before and doubt its veracity from the start.
Even if it were true, what difference would it make? Remember, editors
like work that catches their attention and fits their needs. Period.
Let a publisher know that you have self-published a work that has been so
well received, you want to turn it over to a “real” publisher. Be sure
to mention the fact that it has sold thousands of copies off your Web site,
Do that, and you’re on Auto Pilot to the slush pile. Editors don’t
care if you’ve paid some vanity publisher hundreds or even thousands of
dollars to produce your book. Obviously, if you could have found a
legitimate publisher from the beginning, you wouldn’t have needed to
self-publish your book. Admitting that you couldn’t will only convince
an editor of what he suspected when he first opened your package: that it’s
not worth publishing.
There, now. Are you sufficiently depressed? If so, you’re guilty
of routinely violating one or more of the Top Ten Kisses of Death.
If not, congratulations. You’ve been doing something right, and you
have a solid grasp of the publishing industry, its needs, and its workings.
Just remember that publishers aren’t interested in hype, and they’re not
interested in pitches. They’re interested in making money.
Toward that end, follow their submission requirements, produce the very best
manuscript you can, and put together a first-rate proposal. The rest
might not come easily...but it will come.