With the new year comes resolutions, and for a lot of us writin’ folk, that means pursuing our publishing goals. We tweak our manuscripts, we polish our synopses, we refine our book proposals. We research literary agents and send them our best pitches. We target editors at various houses. And then we wait. And wait. And wait. And receive rejection form letters—or no response at all.
Publishing isn’t an easy business. And each year it becomes more difficult to succeed in this business—as an agent, author, editor, or publisher. That said, more and more books are published every year (by some counts about one thousand books are published for every citizen of the United States). How do they do it? Why are other authors getting published but you’re not?
They understand the rules. And a lot of those rules haven’t changed since Harper Bros. was founded in 1817. As 2020 begins, I’ve assembled ten tropes most commonly trotted out that remain true today:
1. Platform Prevails
Back in 1840, George Palmer Putnam founded what today is known simply as Putnam (now a division of Penguin Random House). Putnam inherently understood the power of platform, even though it wasn’t called that back then. Putnam published Washington Irving, Teddy Roosevelt, Norman Mailer, and other household names. Platform still matters—and always will. But our view of platform evolves over time. Although having eleventy gazillion Twitter and Instagram followers is great, what matters even more is having a robust community of loyal readers who can’t wait to get their hands on your book. Publishers want to know that you have deep reach into your collection of followers and that those loyal readers will buy your book—ideally placing advance orders before it’s even published. Your job isn’t to amass a bunch of nondescript anonymous followers; it is to build robust, loyal connections among the members of your community.
2. New New Never Dies
Slightly tweaked iterations of old ideas isn’t going to sell your book, whether fiction or nonfiction. There has to be a hook—a fresh, new, unique hook that intrigues and excites editors, marketers, publicists, sales teams, and publishers, whether small niche house or one of the Big Five. For novels, that might be a new genre-buster based in an unusual place or an overlooked era; a quirky new character fit for a compelling series; or a new voice from an underpublished group, such as the LGBTQ community. For nonfiction, that might be a wholly new proprietary method of doing, evaluating, or improving something; a never-before-told history; or an attention-grabbing attitude that has proven to resonate with readers. Your job as a writer isn’t to breathe new life into an old story; it is to create an entirely new life.
3. A Book for Everyone Is Still a Book for No One
No publisher wants to hear that “everyone will love this book” or that “this book will appeal to just about anyone.” The story you tell should be targeted at a particular audience: readers who love political thrillers or cozies or coming-of-age stories or readers who want to learn how to be better managers or leaders or how to cook organic vegan ketogenic meals or how to better understand current events or history. Your book should fill a gap in the literature, regardless of subject or genre. Your job isn’t to write a familiar story geared for the masses; it is to write a fresh, new story geared toward an audience of devoted enthusiasts.
4. Nichy Can Be Scary
Just as you shouldn’t be writing a plain vanilla book for a generic audience, you should be careful about pitching a book that is so nichy it will never sell because the audience is simply too small. With that, though, a caveat: Some niche publishers love this kind of stuff; the challenge is to find the house that is just killing to publish your book extolling the benefits of growing organic dandelions or your time-bending steampunk thriller based in an alternate world. The trick is to be focused without being so specialized that there just aren’t enough readers out there willing to shell-out thirty bucks for your book. Your job isn’t to write the quirkiest book about the strangest topic ever; it is to write a book that readers want about a subject or topic that is overlooked and underpublished.
5. Write About What You Know
A lot of pitches that come my way are for books written by folks who would be better off writing about something else. If, say, you are the leading researcher in the field of astrobiology, don’t come to me with a book about bagpiping—unless you’re also an award-winning, Grammy-bound bagpiper. If you’ve made your writing career publishing short stories and flash fiction about protagonists haunted by ghosts real or imagined, don’t pitch me a full-length fantasy about dog-eating hornets living in Urbstopolis. Play to your skills. That doesn’t mean you can never research and write about a new topic or branch-out into a new genre, but it does mean that publishers tend to prefer to publish books by authors who are writing to and for their community of loyal followers. Your job isn’t to try to wow a publisher by writing outside your area of expertise; it is to write the best book you can in the field or genre that you know best.
6. Know Why You’re Writing the Book You’re Writing
You’d think it would be an easy question: Why are you writing this book? But the truth is that a lot of would-be authors I speak with really can’t explain why they’re writing the book they’re writing. They have no idea one way or the other whether the subject is popular. They don’t know whether there’s an audience for their book. They don’t know what they want to accomplish with their book. They don’t know what they want readers to get out of the book. Few publishers will read beyond your synopsis or book proposal if you can’t articulate why you’re writing the book and why readers should buy it. You can’t assume that just because the story you’re telling is interesting to you it also will be of interest to anyone else. Your job isn’t to write a book that you think is cool and might resonate with a few other readers; it is to write a book that is a must-have page-turner that readers can’t put down.
7. Convince Publishers That Your Book Is What the Market Needs Right Now
Why would a publisher want to publish what you claim to be the next Cold Mountain more than two decades after it was a bestseller at a time when psychological thrillers and dark narratives are trending? What publisher will want to publish yet another pro-Trump or anti-Trump tome when many thousands of books about Donald Trump already pack the shelves? Publishers like to capitalize on trends—sometimes to a fault (e.g., Gone Girl, The Girls Are Gone, Girl Gone Viral, The Girl on the Train, The Girl Who Lived, Last Girl Gone, Girl Last Seen …)—but they don’t necessarily want to republish the same book by a different author again and again. Your job isn’t to pitch the umpteenth memoir sharing your story of a poverty-stricken childhood that miraculously turned into a lifetime of success and riches; it is to convince publishers that your book is needed right now because it fills a gap that no one else can fill.
8. Know Your Competition
Not every book is going to be the next Where the Crawdads Sing or Girl, Wash Your Face. It can be comforting and even exhilarating to think that you are the next James Patterson or Danielle Steele or Malcolm Gladwell or Ben Macintyre. Not to be harsh, but chances are that you are not the next Patterson, Steele, Gladwell, or Macintyre. These authors consistently publish bestsellers. They are global phenomenons. They are the rock stars of the publishing world. Please don’t compare your book to theirs. Be realistic. When pitching your book, whether fiction or nonfiction, include comparative titles that truly are similar to what you hope to publish—i.e., a like level of writing, of topic, of page count, of author platform. Show publishers not only that you are a subject-matter expert in your field but also that you are well-read in your genre as well. Your job isn’t to position your book against a bunch of bestselling phenomenons; it is to pitch your book as one that not only can compete against similar titles but also can best related books.
9. Boast But Don’t Brag
When pitching literary agents and publishers, it’s okay to share your writing-related accomplishments with them. If you won a flash fiction contest in a well-respected literary journal, say so. If you are an award-winning biologist whose work as been well reviewed by Nobel prize winners, say so. Your synopsis or book proposal should list those achievements, awards, and honors that are related to the project in question. Don’t be humble, but watch the hyperbole. Bragging that you won your second-grade writing contest or that you have more left-handed followers on Instagram than any other sci-fi writer or that your work has been praised by more top bloggers than any other writer who focuses on the benefits of eating congealed salads likely won’t impress any agent, editor, or publisher—and could make you sound like an arrogant egomaniac. Don’t oversell yourself or your book. No one wants to spend eighteen months working with a writer whose ego is bigger than Hunter S. Thompson’s. Your job isn’t to puff yourself up to outsized proportions; it is to show publishers that your work speaks for itself.
10. Challenge Agents, Editors, and Publishers at Your Peril
As a writer myself, I know how deflating it is to be declined over and over again. As an agent, I also know what it’s like when writers who have been rejected keep pushing, arguing their case: It’s annoying. And here’s the thing: Publishing is a global business, but it is a small world. Don’t follow-up a rejection letter with anything but a “Thanks for reviewing. I appreciate your feedback!” No agent, editor, or publisher wants to get a string of emails from you essentially arguing that you are wrong or stupid or elitist or any other -ist. The last thing you want is to piss off the people you hope to publish with. Word gets around. Editors talk to other editors. Agents talk to other agents. Do you really want them to be talking about you in the worst way? Do you really want to be known as that would-be author who fights back at every turn? No. No, you do not. Your job isn’t to vent your frustrations on everyone who rejects your book; it is to be thankful that someone even took the time to read your pitch, to consider any feedback that is given to you, and to keep pitching to other folks.
Publishing is continually evolving. Trends come and go. But some of the rules never change. As you pursue your 2020 publishing goals, consider these ten points. Learn how to play the game so you can better position yourself to get your book from manuscript to bookshelf.