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Wednesday 19 August 2009


This evening, in the Edinburgh Book Fest, I'm doing my talk on "how to make a publisher say yes". And I decided to put the bare bones of it below, or at least to try to decipher my notes and then turn them into something that will make sense to you.

I've done the apparently same talk for four years now, but each time I say it differently. Each time, I guess I've learnt more in the meantime. Each year, I throw my notes away because I know I'll do it differently next time.

So, this was how I structured my talk for this evening. I'm sorry you're not there, but you at least have the luxury of being able to relax with wine / chocolate while you're reading it. On the other hand, you don't get to experience my shoes. And, writing this as I am a week ago, I can't predict which shoes they'll be, so spontaneous am I.

WHY DOES CRAP GET PUBLISHED? (I won't use the word crap, because you can't do that in front of a captive audience, some of whom have only come in out of the rain and weren't expect the crabbit old bat to be so rude).

This is the question that frustrated aspiring authors ask. Understandably. The answer is simple: crap sells. Every published book is a book the publisher thought would sell. And, since crap sells in shedloads, you have to admit they were very often right.

Getting angry about why crap sells will get you nowhere. Besides, you're not here because you write crap and want to sell it. You're here because you think you've written something damned good and you're wondering what on earth you have to do to sell it.

I can't (or not here) teach you how to write, but I can show you the most common things people do wrong.

The awfulness of the slush pile is reassuring - it means that good stuff shines. When an agent or publisher sees a jewel in a pile of crap, he will leap on it with enthusiasm and is quite happy to get his hands dirty in his efforts to retrieve that shiny jewel and clean it up so that the world can see its beauty.

Because the second comforting thought is: publishers and agents are desperate to find good books, great books, books that readers will love. If your book is good, they want you.

It's easy to get published: you just have to write the right book at the right time and send it to the right publisher at ther ight time in the right way.

BUT, in order to do that
  • you must understand what makes a right book
  • you must understand how publishing works, how commercial decisions are made
  • you must know (and obey) the rules for submitting your work

"How to make a publisher say yes" is not the best question.
The best question is "why do publishers usually say no?"

One reason only: they think they can't sell it. (If your rejected book goes on to be published elsewhere and even be a huge success, that does not mean that the rejectors were wrong. They may well not have been able to sell it, for reasons which you'll find below.)

Before we proceed, you need to understand about the ACQUISITIONS MEETING (AM). (Blog-readers, go here; people in audience, sit back and listen.)

These fall in two categories.
  1. Publisher-related - not in your power to fix
  2. Book / author-related - your job to fix
1. PUBLISHER-RELATED (If even one of these three things applies to your book, it will not get through the AM.
  1. book doesn't fit their list or their publishing schedule is genuinely too full. It might not fit their list because they've already contracted something too similar; or they've decided not to handle fairy books any more (thank the Lord). If it doesn't fit the list because they don't handle this stuff, that's your silly fault for not researching, but there are many other reasons that you had no way of knowing
  2. the necessary investment is too great. Publishers have to pay a load of money months and years before they have a chance of recouping it. They have to budget and if your fabulous wizard series comes along when they don't have the required budget to invest in it over many years, they should not take it on and you would not (should not) want them too
  3. the editor is not in love with your book. This may be because the book isn't good enough (in which case it's your problem) but it may be simply personal taste. Don't underestimate the importance of that. Liking or admiring a book is not an exact science. Hell, it's not even a science at all. And the editor must love your book otherwise she/he won't fight for it.
  1. The writing is not good enough - punctuation, grammar and basic techniques mark you as someone in control of words or not; you cannot expect the editor to overlook these; voice, pace and structure are essential to powerful story-telling and readable non-fiction; are you thinking of your reader at all times and have you avoided over-writing? (Those are the commonest faults which will make the publisher / agent say no)
  2. Book is not marketable, even though the writing may be good enough - publishers have to make money (they may make mistakes but they are doing it with their money); you need a HOOK - the hook needs to grab the Sales and Marketing team at the AM; you must understand the current market - read current successes in your genre and read them analytically. This does not mean selling out; it does not mean putting commericality before art: it means thinking of your readers
  3. Your submission is faulty - (there are loads of posts on this blog about submissions, so I won't go on about it here too much but here are the absolute bare bones and most common errors:
  • obey guidelines for each individual agent / publisher
  • write the perfect covering letter (a new post is coming up on 22nd August, during my workshop on The Perfect Approach) - you have 15 seconds to sell yourself
  • don't do anything wacky or cool
  • don't boast; don't say your kids / friends love it
  • show knowledge of the market and willingness to work hard for long term career
  1. every sentence counts and every word within that sentence must earn its place
  2. think of your reader
  3. read within your genre - but read like a writer
  4. miss no opportunity to improve your knowledge of the industry
  5. be very careful whose feedback you believe and whose you ignore. Believe experts before friends and writing group members
Instead of believing that you are hard-done-by and wrongly ignored or that publishers are stupid, accept that the likely reason is that you haven't yet written the right book well enough. Yet ...

FINALLY - regard the rejection of your book as the rejection of your book. Not the rejection of you. Write another one. Because if you can't write another one, you can't be a writer anyway.

(And then, after illuminating questions from the audience, the event chairperson thanks me for being so interesting and everyone flocks to the signing tent where they buy copious quantities of my book and we staying signing and chatting and generally bonding for about half an hour. Then, the chairperson escorts me across the summer evening grass towards the calming cavern of the Yurt, where I strengthen myself with a glass of wine and some dinky sandwiches and pastries. I then go out to dinner with my husband, older daughter and her French boyfriend and younger daughter who is working in the bookshop [putting my books face-out] and I tell them how a very kind blog-reader brought me chocolate and that three people commented on my shoes.)

I'll tell you if it happens like that.