Recently, I was invited back to my high school to speak with a creative writing class about indie publishing. It was a great experience. The thing I enjoyed most was answering the students’ questions. Unfortunately, we ran out of time before I could get to them all. But one of those students contacted me through the school because they were interested in learning more about traditional publishers.
How can I reach out to publishers in general? How does [one] get into the market to get their book published, what should an author look for in publishing agencies/companies, and how should one present themselves and their book?”
These are seriously great questions. I remember asking myself the same things in high school. So I’ve written a blog post for the creative writing class I visited, as well as anyone else looking to get into the world of publishing (here’s looking at you, friends who’ve talked about that one book idea for years now).
Before you reach out to a publisher, you need to know which ones are going to be interested in your type of work. There are a few ways to accomplish this:
1) You Already Know Them
The best place to find publishers is on your bookshelf. Likely, you’ve stocked it with books and authors you love, which means you already know the houses that publish your kind of writing (assuming you emulate your favorite authors like the rest of us). For quick reference, check out the spines of your favorite books. That’s where you’ll typically find a publishing logo.
2) Google Them
If that doesn’t bear fruit, take it to the internet. Check out the publishing details of similar books on Amazon and Goodreads. When you find a publisher that you like, look for a submission page on their website, which will give you instructions on how to contact them. Unfortunately, not all publishing houses have these submission pages, in which case, your next best bet is…
3) You Don’t Contact Them. Someone Else Does
Another option is to let someone else find them for you. This is done through a literary agent, which is another blog for another time. But the gist is this: you pitch a literary agent who represents similar work as yours, and then they go out, using their own professional contacts, and find the right publishing house for you. I’ve had my own positive and negative experience with agents, which maybe I’ll write about in a future post.
Writing conferences and book festivals are bursting with vendors and publishing houses looking for new raw talent. Find a conference near you and go interact with these people in person. You might meet a small press that you didn’t know existed. This is a great way to find local publishers that might not have the google power to show up in your search results online.
How to Contact Publishers
Agents and publishing houses all have their own unique guidelines, but in general, they’re going to want the following things (at a minimum). Don’t skimp on these! You should be spending several hours crafting your pitch materials, as they each have their own hyper-specific purpose and goals. Do yourself a favor: go to a coffee shop and spend an afternoon googling and researching these things. There are numerous online resources to help new authors.
- A Query Letter
- A succinct, personalized pitch of you and your work
- Novel Synopsis
- A finely crafted synopsis of your story
- Elevator Pitch
- Verbally sell your novel in 60 seconds
- Sample of Work
- Carefully edited, impactful representation of your work (typically first 1-3 chapters)
How to Present Yourself
This is a really smart question. Your intuition is spot on. There’s a right way and wrong way to approach publishers. And the number of wrong ways to pitch your work far, far outweigh the number of right ways. When submitting online, you need to make sure you’ve followed the publisher’s submission guidelines to a T. Again, you can usually find this on their website. Keep in mind, these houses are sifting through thousands of submissions at a time, and when they find one that breaks their rules, they’re going to toss it in the trash. This is not the time for you to impress them with your creativity. This is your opportunity to show them you can play ball and follow their rules.
Think of it like this: when a publishing house signs an author, they are taking on a certain level of risk and investment to make sure your product is the best it can possibly be. Your goal as a new author is to make this as easy on them as you possibly can.
The following is a set of guidelines to keep in mind when reaching out to publishers (and agents):
- Try to submit work that is complete. It’s not unheard of for publishing houses to sign authors based on an idea or half-finished manuscript, but it’s not very common for new writers because—remember—that’s a large level of investment to put into n unknown author. It’s best to have your work as complete as possible when approaching a publishing house.
- Edit your work in advance. If possible try to invest in some editing services. It costs money, but it’s going to help your work rise to the top of the pile. Nothing turns off a publishing house or agent faster than misspelled words and bad grammar.
- Know your work. When you write a novel, you need to live and breathe your elevator pitch. The idea here is that if you get caught in an elevator with a publisher or agent, you only have a few seconds to sell them on your work. You need to know your story intimately, and you need to give them its essence. No one is going to buy another “zombie novel with a main character who kicks butt.” But they might be interested in “a post-apocalyptic novel in which the protagonist has to travel cross-country to find her family. The only thing standing in her way is a horde of flesh-eating monsters, which should be no problem for our military-trained heroine. Except for the fact that something’s changed, and lately the dead don’t quite seem so dead anymore. In fact, it almost seems as if they’re starting to communicate with each other…”
- Be professional, but not too professional. This one’s tricky. Remember earlier when I said you want to follow submission rules online? Well, that’s true. But in person, you want to sell yourself as much as you’re selling your book. And that means letting some of your personality out to play. Let the publishers see who you are as a person. But don’t go so far as to alienate them. Be fun, but professional. Be quirky, but not flaky. Be serious, but not boring. Make sense?
What to Look For in a Publishing House
You know that old saying, opposites attract? Nothing could be further from the truth when looking for publishers. Publishing houses represent a carefully curated brand. Some of these houses have been operating for decades, and if they’ve never published fantasy before, they certainly aren’t going to start with you. So research your publishers before you reach out to them. Make sure they publish the same kind of work as yours.
At the same time, publishing houses need authors, so this isn’t a one-sided relationship. If you’re going to sign with a publishing house, take the time to ask yourself if this is who you really want to represent your work. Sometimes, the answer might be no. Earlier in your career, you might not feel like you can say no to the first offer that comes your way, but just keep in mind, you’re a business. You need to make smart business decisions.
Finally, don’t discount small presses and publishing houses. Just because they aren’t Penguin Books doesn’t mean they won’t work for you. Remember, Harry Potter was rejected by numerous houses until a small publisher named Bloomsbury finally signed J.K. Rowling. How do you think Bloomsbury is doing today? And that’s not even the point, really. The point is that small publishing houses can be influential in your local community, and they can open doors for you that you didn’t even know existed.
How to Market Your Book
Here’s another question with no less than a thousand correct answers. As an indie author, you shouldn’t worry about this one too much at the start. Focus on your writing. Read, read, read, and then read some more. Write as much as you can and improve your craft. Once you’ve started to get your name out there a little bit (maybe through blogging, short stories, anthology submissions, school newspapers, etc.) then you can start to think about how you market your book. And how you market your book has a lot to do with how you market yourself. You’ll want to find out what your author platform or brand is, which will inform how you approach marketing. Ask yourself the following questions:
- What is your mission as an author?
- Who is your audience? Hint: it’s not just “readers.”
- What does your audience value?
- Where does your audience hang out online and in real space?
Once you feel comfortable with the answers to these questions, you’re going to have the tools necessary to start marketing yourself and your work.
For example: If your mission as an author is to write crime novels that always pass the Bechdel test, then your audience isn’t going to be individuals who read fantasy and historical fiction. That’s a completely different group of readers with different values. And while some of them might enjoy your work, your effort is better spent specifically approaching crime readers that support gender and characteristic equality in writing.