What Publishers Look for in an Author
WHAT PUBLISHERS LOOK FOR IN AN AUTHOR
You’ve done it. You’ve finished your nonfiction book—or worked with a qualified ghostwriter to create one—and now you’re ready to find the right publisher to bring your ideas to the world.
But what can you do to make yourself as sellable as possible—not your work, but you as an author?
This advice comes straight from the pros—editors, publishers, and successful nonfiction authors who have made a living in the industry.
The suggestions provided here are not a guarantee of publishing success, nor is it an automatic deal-breaker if you don’t check every box.
As Brian Farrey-Latz, editor at Paradigm Educational Solutions and formerly at Free Spirit Publishing explains in an interview with The Writers for Hire, “These are things I’ve seen writers do that make publishing and promoting easier. This is not a list of things you must do if you want to succeed in publishing. I’m just saying that with these things, our partnership went a little smoother.”
There is no magic bullet that will make publishers line up to sign you, but being a dream author can only help you maintain your career and set expectations.
With that in mind, there are three major things that publishers and editors look for in an author: knowledge, personality, and platform. Let’s look at each of these characteristics.
Knowledge is king. Almost every publishing pro we found brought up the importance of expertise for a nonfiction author. When evaluating your own expertise, look for these three key elements:
- Subject matter knowledge
- Publisher knowledge
- Market knowledge
Subject Matter Knowledge
“What makes me attractive to publishers is my background as a science writer. For 20 plus years, I broke down difficult concepts for training or public info purposes. (Plus I have a science degree!) I wrote about environmental science, space, technology, and so forth. And that’s what I tell publishers.” – Angie Smibert, nonfiction author of more than 30 science titles, in an interview with The Writers for Hire
Knowledge of your subject matter is the one non-negotiable when it comes to publishing nonfiction.
Publishers are looking for authors with a deep understanding of their subject and the credentials to back it up. They want new insights into difficult topics or a novel way to look at a familiar subject.
Subject matter expertise trumps just about every other item on this list in terms of importance.
Editors told us that expertise combined with a great idea can sometimes even make them overlook negatives like poor writing skills or a lacking social media presence. Those things can be fixed with ghostwriting or marketing help, but knowledge and credentials are irreplaceable.
Your credentials and background are sometimes referred to as part of your platform, which is defined by publishing expert Jane Friedman as your ability to sell books because of who you are or who you can reach.
Some people use the term platform to refer to background and social media presence combined. We’re breaking them out here into two items since our professionals did so. They specifically said that credentials and knowledge were more important than marketing presence.
Evaluate your credentials with a list of everything you’ve done that can be related to the topic of your book. This list can include:
- Degrees or training in your subject matter
- Prestigious positions or long-time experience in your field
- Relationships with key influencers in your subject
- Publications or speaking engagements about your topic
If your list is long and distinguished, you can use this to attract publishers’ attention and potentially strike a deal with a major publisher.
However, a weak background doesn’t mean that your book is doomed.
The good news is that background is scalable. A smaller list of credentials may mean that you’ll have better luck with smaller publishers. Or perhaps you might be served by building up your background through networking and publications before you submit your proposal.
“Researching books published by the house that relate to the proposal is a good way to reassure the editor that the author has made an informed choice in sending along the proposal. The more the author can show that he understands the interests and direction of the house, the better the outcome is likely to be.” – Tad Crawford, editor, Skyhorse Publishing
No one expects a new author to know the ins and outs of the publishing industry, but taking the time to research publishers to submit to can only help your cause.
Many of our publishing pros mentioned receiving a lot of manuscripts that just didn’t fit their lists. Correctly targeting your submissions will greatly increase your likelihood of getting a yes while showing your prospects that you take the business—and their time—seriously.
Evaluating a potential publisher is easier than you might think. Look at your favorite books in your subject area. Their publishers might be interested in your manuscript, provided that it provides a new spin on the material.
Once you’ve created a list of possibilities, take a look at the books they publish. Do they produce high quality books? Does your book fit with their usual style and tone? Do their authors have backgrounds similar to your own, or are you over or under-qualified in comparison?
Through process of elimination, you should be able to create a ranked list of publishers that would be the best fit for your manuscript—and you!
“Understand the market and where your manuscript fits. New writers often focus on: ‘My book is JUST LIKE THIS.’ I feel it’s more important to be able to explain how your manuscript stands out from the rest. (This tip is also called ‘do your research.’)” – Brian Farrey-Latz, editor at Paradigm Educational Solutions and formerly at Free Spirit Publishing in an interview with The Writers for Hire
Writing an interesting and informative book won’t do you much good if there’s something on the market that looks just like it.
A keen understanding of the marketplace can help you write a book that will sell and convince publishers to take a chance on it. If you’re not able to articulate what makes your book special, you’re less likely to get their attention.
With this in mind, it’s easy to see that it’s essential to read in your topic area if you want to write nonfiction. You need to know what’s out there and what sells well in order to find a niche you can fill. This information will be an essential part of your book proposal.
Publishers want books that fill a need in the marketplace. By making a clear argument about why people need your expertise, you could convince a publisher to take a chance on you.
In a marketplace that increasingly relies on authors to promote themselves, showing potential publishers that you know how to situate yourself in the marketplace can only help your cause.
While editors are willing to work with difficult personalities to get that perfect book, they do say that their dream author is a pleasure to work with. So while you won’t automatically close publishing doors by being difficult, you may find that some doors will open to you by ensuring that you meet the following set of characteristics:
- Good communicator
“Publishing is indeed a tough business. One thing that’s often overlooked is that it requires a business acumen, not just a literary acumen. It takes a lot more than just loving the book to make it successful.” – Dominique Raccah, Publisher, Sourcebooks
Many of our publishing professionals brought up the fact that publishing is a business. They prefer to work with authors who approach the book-making process as they would any other business venture. These authors take the time to learn about the industry and what to expect. Rather than expecting their busy editors to spoon-feed them basic information, they come to conversations with background research and specific questions.
For example, an author who didn’t do their homework might ask a general question like, “How do authors market their books?” whereas a prepared one might say, “I know that speaking engagements are one good way to market books, and I have this list of conventions I’ll be appearing at this year. Can I offer the book for sale at these appearances, or can we create marketing collateral to hand out to the attendees?”
As a new nonfiction author, you might not know much about the industry at the moment, but there are many resources available to help you understand the basics such as the Dummies book series and cheat sheet and the free resources available from the Nonfiction Authors Association.
“Honestly, though, the most important thing authors and designers have done is to engage the development and editing process with an open mind. The most effective sales tool for any creative work of any kind — book, game, movie, whatever — is an excellent work. An author who’s legitimately open to collaboration, and the surfacing and enactment of the best ideas, is the most crucial thing.” – Jeff Tidball, COO of Atlas Games and nonfiction author in an interview with The Writers for Hire
As with professionalism, publishers want authors who are willing to work with them. Multiple publishing pros brought up the fact that they are on the same side as their authors; you both want the book to succeed. They’re looking for partners, and at its core, a good partnership is about working together toward the same goal.
Authors who fight their editors every step of the way can make this process difficult.
Sometimes, new authors dig their heels in when confronted with edits or other requests outside of their comfort zone. But there is a reason behind every editorial request, and understanding that and being willing to compromise when appropriate can help you establish a positive working relationship with your editor—and potentially lead to working on more books together long term.
Ask questions. Publishers have the best intentions in the world, but like anyone who’s been doing their job for a while, we assume a lot of prior knowledge, which we shouldn’t do, but we just do. If you can’t understand why something is happening, or why there’s a delay, or why you haven’t heard from someone in a while, just email or get on the phone. I think we underestimate the importance of just picking up the phone and talking to each other.-Bernadette Foley, editor and instructor of the What Publishers Want course
Publishers want authors who communicate with them. Most editors are juggling multiple books, each with their own deadlines and needs. Overtime is common, especially when a book approaches its deadlines.
With that in mind, your publisher might not have the time to reach out and see if you have questions or are dissatisfied with some part of the process. By being proactive with your communication, you’re making your editor’s job easier.
Come to conversations or draft emails with specific questions. If you have a question about setting up marketing campaigns, you’ll get more information if you take the time to research and then formulate questions that make it easy for your publisher to help you.
With overbooked schedules, your editor’s time is at a premium, and you are more likely to get results you’ll both be happy with if you do the legwork in advance to ensure productive conversation.
“Writing equals waiting…Even if you’re offered a contract, there’s still going to be times when you’re just waiting and waiting. It can feel like nothing is happening, whereas madly a whole lot of things are happening in the publishing company that you don’t know about.” – Bernadette Foley, editor and instructor of the What Publishers Want course
The publishing industry is incredibly slow-moving. The process of signing a contract alone can take months, and then your book will likely be added to the publishing schedule about a year away. The one exception is for books that are time-specific, such as exposes of current political figures or books tied to specific events that would benefit from an accelerated timeline.
Generally, the author’s publishing experience is a lot of hurry-up-and-wait. It may take months before your first edit letter arrives. You’ll rush to complete the edits on time, and then wait for months while the book makes its way back through the system.
The lag frustrates some authors, who worry that their editor has lost interest or their book has fallen to the bottom of the priority list. This isn’t the case. Remember: Each editor juggles multiple books. Perhaps your book got bumped down the priority list because a late manuscript just came in, and it needs to go to the printer next week. Patience, combined with communication and flexibility, will help you deal with these delays.
Your ability to reach an audience, whether it’s via social media or extensive personal appearances, can make or break your publishing dreams. However, it’s not the size of the audience as much as the quality of the engagement that counts. Our publishing pros brought up two key things they look for in terms of platform:
- An engaged audience
- An up-to-date presence
An Engaged Audience
“In terms of their platform and their market reach and their audience and the community that they have, that can be a combination of things. It could be a great presence on social media and a huge number of followers, but I want to be able to get onto social media and see that their followers are engaged. I don’t want to see 35,000 Twitter followers, but nobody is doing anything on that feed.” – Kristen Hammond, Senior Commissioning Editor, Wiley Australia
In interviews, publishers repeatedly pointed out that audience engagement means more to them than huge numbers of silent followers on social media. They recommend picking and choosing a few promotional platforms—either online or off—that you would enjoy rather than doing everything and phoning it in.
There’s a certain amount of pressure for authors to do everything they can to promote their books.
It’s easy to look at one bestselling author who has 500,000 Twitter followers and think you need to do that, and then find another author who blogs every day and think that’s necessary too. But as Brian Farrey-Latz says, you need to keep your eyes on your own paper.
Publishers don’t expect you to do everything—after all, when would you write? But whatever you do promotion-wise, do it well. Interact with your audience instead of talking at them. They’re looking for ways to connect with you rather than a constant stream of sales pitches. When done well, social media marketing can increase your platform, but when it’s done poorly, you might as well not put in the effort at all.
Leverage your knowledge of your topic to make your presence online or in person as engaging as possible. Talk about the things you can offer that aren’t found elsewhere. Offer resources that are of interest to people in the field. Research social media engagement and employ tactics that will inspire your audience to interact with you.
An Up-to-date Presence
“It sounds simple but I am surprised by how often I click on a writer’s profile only to find that a link to their page doesn’t work or their bio information is woefully old. I update my profiles as new projects are published or because I’ve moved or started a new job. I’d like to think that curating my online presence is a signal to editors that I take my work and reputation seriously.” – Susan Dalzell, nonfiction author, in an interview with The Writers for Hire
To put it quite simply, the work you put in to develop your platform won’t accomplish anything if no one knows about it.
When you publish a new article or appear at a convention, take the time to add this experience to your CV and/or promote it via social media.
This simple act helps you to solidify your identity as an expert in the field. Although it might feel like you’re tooting your own horn, you’re simply notifying people who are interested in your topic that you have information to share.
Without this step, only the people who have stumbled upon your article or saw your talk will know that it exists. Potential fans won’t know about it, and neither will your publishing partners.
As a part of a balanced platform, timely self-promotion can be highly effective. Just make sure to balance it out with informational and entertaining content that engages your audience in addition to promoting yourself as an expert.
Evaluating Your Publishing Prospects
You can make yourself attractive to publishers by checking off as many of the above elements as possible and combining them with a stellar manuscript. This article assumes that your book is ready for the marketplace. If you’re looking for advice on the writing itself, you might be interested in our blog posts on Finding the Right Angle for Your Nonfiction Book or Essential Questions to Ask Before Starting Your Nonfiction Book.
But assuming that you have a handle on the writing itself, now that you have a firm idea of what publishers are looking for, you can evaluate whether traditional publishing is the right fit for you.
But what if the above description doesn’t appeal to you at all?
Consider whether you can farm out the work for the elements that don’t appeal to you. For example, if you’ve got the knowledge, personality, and platform but not the writing skills, a skilled ghostwriter can help you distill your ideas into a terrific manuscript. If you’re lacking in platform, you can take the time to develop one. Write articles for blogs or journals. Take on speaking engagements. Create compelling online content. Or, if that doesn’t appeal, hire a marketing consultant to assist you in building an audience.
If the entire process isn’t to your liking, you have multiple publishing options, each with its own set of characteristics.
Self-publishing allows you to retain full control over your book without the need to prove your credentials to anyone. Smaller publishers may have more time to work with you directly since they have a smaller list of authors to juggle. Larger traditional houses offer wider distribution and prestige.
By taking the time to research the pros and cons of each, you’ll easily be able to select the option that best suits your skillset and preferences.
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