It is almost impossible to conceive of the near-endless permutations of how different publishers expect you to submit a book proposal. There is no such thing as writing one enquiry and sending it to every publisher and his dog. Oh no! Be warned, all ye who aspire to publication: hard work lies ahead.
But you knew that already, right?
Good. In that case, we can concentrate on what there is to be learnt from the process of finding and contacting publishers. Much as we might want to start on the next new and exciting project, all the hard work is worth it – even without the guarantee of publication.
Starting the search
When the time came to send A Tour of the Indies out into the world to fend for itself, the first tentative step I took on the road to traditional publishing was the most basic web search imaginable:
publishers of books about film
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the jumble of results it returned was mostly unhelpful. Some of that was due to my lack of Google prowess, for I don’t refine searches and often veer dangerously close to an open-ended ‘Ask Jeeves’ style of query (no, really).
Another problem was the results for big name publishers. In other words, companies who would only be interested in my book had my career been spent at the forefront of film journalism. Ever hopeful, I had already checked the website of Mark Kermode’s publisher (Kermode is a film critic, and there is the slightest of overlaps between A Tour of the Indies and the theme of his book, The Good, The Bad and The Multiplex) but they were clear about not wanting to hear from the likes of me.
While there can be a case for speculation and earnest hope – in life generally, but in publishing specifically – sometimes the best use of your time is to take five minutes to rant about the fact that unknown authors aren’t given a chance, then move on.
Beneath the surface of Google’s results, some focussed digging unearthed three genuine possibilities. All were small independent publishers. Publishers 1 and 2 welcomed writing about film and cinema, though Publisher 1 also appeared to have been undergoing a year-long relaunch that didn’t fill me with hope for a reply.
Publisher 3 didn’t focus on film, but A Tour of the Indies just about qualified as memoir and appeared to slot into a catalogue of books whose common theme was the lack of a common theme.
Three publishers wasn’t the yield I had hoped for though. Which meant, for the first time in my life as a writer, that I needed The Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook. In years gone by I’d often considered buying a copy, but only because I thought it would help justify calling myself a writer. Thankfully, I refrained from spending the money because, deep down, I knew that it would only sit on my shelf, unread. Its unmarked pages would be nothing more than a symbol of failure; a testament to my lack of achievement.
This time was different and, with great delight, I thumbed the pages of my pristine 2014 edition. Some of the companies listed as publishing film-related books were the big names and, just to make sure I really wasn’t going to get in touch, their entries generally said:
No unsolicited manuscripts
Others only wanted educational volumes or books of theory and criticism, but that still left another six publishers who sounded like a potential fit for the book. Still not a great hit rate, but I had written the book I’d written and I wasn’t about to start turning it into an academic exercise.
You might be luckier and find that the subject matter of your book fits with the output of many more publishers. Which means you get to write even more query letters and outlines!
Know your work
One task remained before contacting anyone: writing a synopsis. Here, again, the Yearbook came into its own, with an excellent guide that offered just enough information to be clear what a synopsis should be, without resorting to explaining exactly how to write one.
Working out how to tell the story of the book in as few words as possible helped clarify the true place of each chapter in the overall picture and, as a result, I knew my book a whole lot better than before I started.
Like any aspect of writing and publishing, there are plenty of websites and blogs claiming to tell you how a synopsis should be written. TheWritingMan.com is not one of those places, and even if I wanted it to be, why would I try to compete with The Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook for authority?
WLTM: friendly publisher
Publishers 1, 2 and 3 all had detailed submission guidelines on their websites. I got to work putting together the necessary information – including the freshly written synopsis, which was as short as I dared make it but still longer than a 35,500-word book perhaps merited – and sent them off. Some two months later, I had only heard back from Publisher 2.
Their response, however, was promising – suggesting that the Yearbook’s guide to synopsis writing was as reliable as I hoped. That didn’t stop me doing extra research online, and this article by Patrick Ness also proved useful (especially as he advocates use of the Yearbook). Having followed his suggestion of ending the query email with the gloriously simple:
May I send you the complete manuscript?
…the email I got from Publisher 2, contained the beautifully concise:
Yes, we’d like to see the complete manuscript.
The next time I got an email from Publisher 2, the news was less good. Feedback on the book itself was very positive. Much more positive, in fact, than I expected any publisher to be, and with some helpful advice thrown in for good measure. To cut a long story short, though: they couldn’t make an offer for the book.
How you interpret such an email depends on your level of expectation. For my first formal response from the publishing industry, I was delighted with the reaction! And I was willing to accept their explanation that it is difficult to promote a book without being a ‘name’. Having a well-written book to offer gave me hope that someone would want to take it on.
Go your own way
Taking the opposite view is not difficult, however:
What does good writing count for if a publisher can’t sell it? Who do unknown writers approach if small publishing houses have adopted the same approach as the big ones? Why do publishers even accept submissions, or would something of exceptional quality be enough for them to take a chance? And who is the audience that needs the reassurance of a famous name over the promise of an interesting concept or entertaining story?
There is one obvious, if not simple, answer to all of those questions. In the words of The Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook itself:
Have patience and persevere. If the conventional route doesn’t produce the results you were hoping for, consider the self-publishing route. Good luck!
I am no sceptic of self-publishing; quite the opposite, in fact. But the Yearbook continues to be printed year-on-year for a reason, and it isn’t because self-publishing is the only option. Hard work is required both ways, so why not see if there is a small, friendly publisher willing to work with your book?
Do your research, follow a publisher’s guidelines, make your work the very best it can be, and a chance exists, however slim, that they will be willing to take it on. Because otherwise, why did Publisher 2 ask to read the complete A Tour of the Indies?
Part Two looks at how pursuing traditional publishing can influence our attitude to self-publishing.