"I'm sure lots of publishers will want to publish my book," the novice author said to me over the phone. I blinked hard, thankful for the 9,8713th time that Skype and FaceTime remain the exception for remote communication, not the rule, and replied in a voice that a psychologist might use to humor a madman, "Really? Why is that?"
"Because it's really good."
Sigh. I'm not bashing. She was a nice, smart woman whose idea was quite strong. But she was completely in the dark as far as what it takes to get a publishing deal these days. The ecosystem of publishing has changed so much in the past decade that it's easy to forget that even with self-published books multiplying like the weeds in my front yard (I'll have you, clover, if it's the last thing I do!) landing a contract with a publishing company is still the best way to build a career as an author. But it's never been easy, and it's harder now in some ways than ever.
First of all, you've got to understand the playing field. The world of publishing breaks down into the following categories:
- The Big Five: HarperCollins, Hachette, Penguin Random House, Macmillan, and Simon & Schuster. They're divisions of huge corporations, so the bottom line is everything. They can write the biggest checks and make books into huge bestsellers, but they're also everybody's target so they get tons of submissions.
- Smaller but still big houses, commonly more niche-based publishers like Wiley (business books) and Rodale (health and wellness books). They're good destinations for your book if you fit their requirements.
- Independent presses. There are thousands of these, often focused on literary fiction, but not always. You won't get big advance checks from small presses, but you will get more attention and more risk taking. Every so often, a small press will break loose a big book, such as "Go the F*ck to Sleep" from Akashic Press. One of my favorites: Quirk Books out of Philadelphia.
- University presses. There are hundreds of top university presses ranging from the publishing arms of Harvard and Princeton to the University of Kansas and—as you might expect from its renowned MFA program—the University of Iowa. U presses are friendly to scholarly books on history, literary analysis and the like, but many are also after prestige fiction and the like.
- Trade and pulp publishers. From Prentice-Hall to Harlequin, these are the houses that produce everything from bodice-ripper romances to textbooks and professional training manuals.
The point is, you don't just write your book and start sending it to these publishers. Even if you're dealing with the indy presses, which have always been amenable to working directly with writers as opposed to literary agents, you've got to know the likely best market for your work. EVERYBODY wants to get a $250,000 advance from a Big Five house, but unless you have a big idea and a big platform, it's probably not going to happen, especially with nonfiction. If you've written an experimental novel in the second person POV about a sexy, time-shifting, pansexual vampire hunter who speaks in ancient Middle English, don't ride your agent's ass about sending the manuscript to Random House. A daring indy press is probably a much, much better fit.
How NOT to get a publishing deal #1: Don't do any research on which category of publisher—as well as which individual publishing houses—might be best suited for your book based on their publishing history and stated needs.
Now, I'm off to work on this new thing, a novel about a time-shifting, pansexual vampire hunter who...