In the U.S. alone, there are thousands of book publishers, each turning out anywhere from one or two to dozens or even hundreds of books each year. Over 50,000 books are published in the U.S. annually.
Yet those 50,000 books represent somewhere between 1-3% of the total number of manuscripts submitted.
What, you say? Just a 1-3% chance of getting published? What is a writer to do in the face of such odds? Give up? Of course not! Cheat? Absolutely not! Send bribes? Not a chance. What the writer must do is to be smart and totally professional about submissions. Remember, writing may be an art and a craft, but it is also a business. Publishing, too, is a business, and the business of publishing is to sell books and magazines at a profit. In the eyes of the publisher, your precious manuscript is just another potential product, and the bottom line is, “Will this sell?”
So how do you find the right match between your manuscript and a publisher?
Understanding what goes on at the publisher
To avoid the most common and most embarassing mistakes when submitting, it helps to understand what happens to your manuscript after you put it in the mail. If it is addressed to a specific editor, it may go directly to that editor’s in box, especially if it is marked “requested material.” You ONLY mark it as such if it really has been requested; that is, you sent a query and the editor asked to see the manuscript.
Manuscripts that are not sent to a specific editor (and many that are, depending on the publisher), go to one common storage place known as the slush pile. Hired readers or junior editors have the grand pleasure of sorting the slush until their eyes cross, stuffing unwanted material back into their self-addressed return envelopes, discarding those that did not come with self-addressed return envelopes, and occasionally, very occasionally, finding something usable. Readers and editors have their orders. They know what kind of work their house accepts and what kind it does not. If your work is unsuitable for that house, it will be returned, no matter how good the writing might be.
At some publishers, all manuscripts are logged electronically. Even if they are not, it’s not uncommon for all manuscripts to end up in the common slush pile, so sending the same manuscript to different editors at the same publisher, or different imprints at the same publisher, only increases the slush pile — as well as the irritation of the readers.
Manuscripts that have some potential may be sent on to another editor, or may be brought before an editorial committee for further discussion. It is only after much discussion and debate that manuscripts to fill slots in the publishing schedule are finally selected.
For a much more in-depth look at the process of manuscript review and selection, read the darkly funny article on the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America site, The Sobering Saga of Myrtle the Manuscript, by Tappan King. This is required reading for the beginner! Also check out editor Harold Underdown’s article on What Happens Inside a Children’s Publishing Company?
And if you haven’t read it already, go back and read our article on 10 Common Submissions Mistakes so you can avoid the worst.
Ready? Now let’s find a publisher.
What to do
In choosing the best publishers to approach with your work, here are some questions you should be asking yourself:
Who is my audience?
Determining the best publisher for your work begins with determining who your audience is. This may sound fairly obvious — “I’m writing for children, right?” — yet the question is not that simple. No two children are alike, so we can’t expect their tastes to be alike, either. If you read the guidelines in the Writer’s Market (see left column), you’ll see that publishers produce different works for different age groups. Within specific age groups, you may also have specific audiences, and there may be publishers which cater specifically to those audiences. For example, a picture book about a family celebrating Yom Kippur would appeal to a publisher that produces books on Judaism for young children, but would probably not go over well in a publishing house that produces primarily environmental non-fiction for older children.
Who publishes this kind of work?
Go to a library or bookstore and look for books that are similar to yours. See who publishes the books that reach your target audience. Of course if you have, for example, a book of garden crafts and you see another book of garden crafts on the shelf that has been recently published, you may not want to submit to that publisher. However, other publishers that produce garden books or craft books for kids may be interested, especially if you can tell them why your book is different from the ones that are already on the shelf.
Another excellent source of potential publishers is the trade journal Publisher’s Weekly. The subscription is expensive, but if you can find the Spring and Fall Children’s Book Editions at a bookstore or at your library (university libraries often subscribe to this journal), get them and study them. Publishers take out large, colorful advertisements and you can see and compare dozens of publishers in each issue. You can also read the book announcements to see what new books are being published or are in production.
If you have an article for a magazine, see if your library carries that magazine and read through several issues. Each magazine has its own “feel,” so writing a science article for, say, Boy’s Life will require a different approach that writing a science article for Dolphin Log or American Girl.
What are the publisher’s terms?
Book publishers generally pay an advance and royalties. An advance is money paid to you ahead of time for publishing your work. It is called an “advance” because it is an “advance against royalties.” Once your book has earned back the advance, you get paid royalties. Publishers’ listings usually do not state the size of the advance, since that is negotiated individually. They will, however, give you the royalty rates. It’s best if these are calculated according to the cover price (gross) rather than the profits (net) on the book, since calculating actual profit is a tangled process, and a publisher may not claim a profit on a book for months or years.
Some publishers, especially magazines and school and library publishers, pay a flat fee for your work and buy all rights. This means that once you accept payment, the work is no longer yours. In situations of work-for-hire, where you are hired to write a specific book, this may be appropriate (see our article, “The Work-for-hire question,” for more information). However, if you have created the work yourself from the start, you would probably be reluctant to sign away all rights to it. While flat-fee terms are less common in book publishing, they are becoming more and more common in magazine publishing.
If you are submitting to magazines, the best terms are “First North American Serial Rights.” This means that the magazine pays you a fee for the right to be the first to publish your work in North America. You still retain all other rights to the work, including the right to resell it to other magazines that do reprints. You will also get paid if the magazine you sold it to puts together an anthology that includes your work. First North American Serial Rights are becoming increasingly rare in the magazine publishing world as more and more magazines are now buying all rights. Buying all rights is good for the magazine, because they don’t have to track down authors if someone asks to reprint an article, and they can take the reprint fee for themselves. Clearly, though, it’s bad for authors — though some magazines that buy all rights will contact authors if the article is reprinted and offer them part or all of the reprint fee.
What does the publisher want me to do?
Read the publisher’s guidelines carefully, either in the Writer’s Market or on the publisher’s website (not all publishers have online guidelines, but more and more have been adding them). Follow their instructions to the letter. If the publisher wants sample chapters and a synopsis, then send exactly that. Don’t send the whole manuscript. Likewise, if the publisher wants the whole manuscript, don’t send a few sample chapters. While you may get away with following your own rules once in a while with some publishers, other publishers are not amused. Remember the Myrtle the Manuscript scenario: all those editors sorting through all that slush. They’re looking for reasons to reject your manuscript. Don’t give them one up front by failing to follow their rules.
Once you have your list of potential publishers and have read their guidelines, and you have your manuscript, query, and synopsis ready if requested, you’re ready to start submitting your work.