What Are Publishers Looking For In Your Manuscript?

What are Publishers Looking for

What do publishers look for in a book?

Let’s assume you’re good, great even! Plenty of famous writers lived for years at a time on a steady diet of rejection letters. So what are publishers looking for in a world where being good isn’t good enough?

Exceptions always exist to prove the rule, but below I’ll list some of the qualities that acquisitions editors and publishers want to see in a new manuscript. It should be said, though, that the mystery person on the other end of those rejection letters is probably judging your book based on a gut feeling, rather than some standardized criteria. All the same, keep these things in mind if you want to increase your chances of having a book published:

1. Marketability

Hmmm. What the hell does that mean? Well, will your book sell? To how many people? Maybe you’ve written the definitive volume on mass-produced pre-war clocks. While that may be exactly what a niche press is looking for, it probably doesn’t have the makings of the next Da Vinci Code. To get a deal with one of the major houses, you’ll need to write a book that can sell, and sell big. The broader the appeal, the better your chances.

2. Uniqueness

Having broad appeal does not mean you need to pander. It shouldn’t be a cookie-cutter book. You should provide new perspectives on a relatable theme or twist expectations in pleasing ways. Can you make the familiar new? You’ve upped your chances of getting a deal.

3. Clear demographic

This is part of marketing, of course, but you want to be sure your book has a target audience and an obvious place on bookstore’s shelves. While you SHOULD be unique, you don’t want your book to be so complex or multi-faceted that people don’t know what to do with it. By now, we’re all familiar with the popularity of teen romance/vampire stories. Combining racy YA with supernatural horror gave fresh blood (excuse the awful pun) to both genres. But the mixture wasn’t so convoluted that readers were confused. Publishers knew where and how to promote the book. Stores knew what section to put it in. Good luck trying to pitch “a story about a vegan vampire ballplayer who can only attend night games that also involves an impending alien invasion, ancient Egyptian mythology, evil French wine-connoisseurs, a retired NASA janitor who’s now a dog-walker, and an online romance between a Jihadist and a middle-aged feeder-fetishist.” Actually, on second thought, that book actually sounds kinda rad. I’m claiming dibs on that plot synopsis. Hands off!

Along these lines, if someone asked you what your book was all about, could you pitch it to them in two sentences or less? Could you convey something about the plot, characters, attitude, AND style, all in a matter of seconds? If so, agents, editors, and publishers will appreciate the effort to keep things succinct! Plus, if your pitch is concise and descriptive, they probably will assume your writing is equally crisp and focused.

4. Something memorable

The people you want to impress most are the hardest people to impress. They have a hundred other manuscripts on their desk right now. At the end of the day, did you leave them with a feeling they can’t shake? Did you make them laugh the loudest? Think the hardest? Uncap their deepest reservoir of sorrow? With so much competition, your book needs to be worth a second thought.

5. A polished product

You can have a rough tone and a gruff style, but make sure the prose is polished. Does your book read like a finished work of art? Ask friends to read it and point out any flaws they find (grammar, syntax, character development, continuity, etc.) The less work an editor has to do, the more they’ll like you.

So, those are my thoughts. What has your experience been like pitching books to publishers?


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Chris Robley is an award-winning poet, songwriter, performer, and music producer who now lives in Portland, Maine after more than a decade in Portland, Oregon. His music has been praised by NPR, the LA Times, the Boston Globe, and others. Skyscraper Magazine said he is “one of the best short-story musicians to come along in quite some time.” Robley’s poetry has been published or is forthcoming in POETRY, Prairie Schooner, Poetry Northwest, Beloit Poetry Journal, RHINO, Magma Poetry, and more. He is the 2013 winner of Boulevard's Poetry Prize for Emerging Writers and the 2014 recipient of a Maine Literary Award in the category of "Short Works Poetry."



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