So, you wrote a book proposal — maybe just a quick little query. You sent it to an editor at a traditional publishing house that somebody introduced you to. And they like it! Time to celebrate, right?
Umm, no. You need to check your publisher-to-English dictionary first.
The publisher-to-English dictionary
Here are all the possible responses to your proposal and what they mean:
Response: Thanks, but not interested.
What this actually means: Not interested.
What to do: Ask where the proposal was lacking — might as well learn something. Then pitch a different publisher. Better yet, pitch an agent who can get you in front of lots of publishers.
Response: No response.
What this actually means: Not interested. (By the way, you did give them a deadline, right? Two to three weeks is about right.)
What to do: Send a final note: “Seems like you’re not interested. I’ll shop the proposal around. If you have any suggestions, let me know.” If you get a response, act on it. If not, pitch an agent or another publisher.
Response: We like this, except . . .
What this actually means: Not interested, but we could be interested if you fixed something. But no promises.
What to do: Fix the problem, pitch again with a deadline. Don’t expect a yes, because there’s no commitment from the publisher.
Response: We’ll be in touch with an offer soon.
What this actually means: An offer is possible.
What to do: Give the publisher three weeks to come back with a firm offer. Then move on.
Response: Here’s our offer . . .
What this actually means: You have an offer. It should include an advance, a description of the installments in which the advance is paid, a royalty rate after the advance is earned out, a publication date, and any other conditions (like sales you may have to guarantee). By the way, you can trust an offer. In my experience, publishers always back up an oral offer with a written deal memo, and always back up a written deal memo with a contract. They don’t fool around, because their reputation depends on being honest when they make an offer.
What to do: Negotiate. Determine whether the offer is acceptable to you. If so, accept it, otherwise, move on. Honor your commitment — a handshake is binding on you, too, unless you want a bad reputation.
Response: We like it!
What this actually means: Nothing. (More specifically, “This is not so bad that we can immediately reject it.”)
What to do: Ask what it would take to get a deal. Ask for an offer and set a deadline. Then act accordingly (see previous responses).
Why do publishers act this way?
If you are remotely interesting to a publisher, you won’t get an out-and-out rejection.
A publisher wants to leave you with a good impression, in case your proposal gets better, or in case you come back in a couple years with a new book. They’d prefer not to burn bridges.
But “I like you” is not the same as “I’m ready to pay you.” “I like you” is just a different kind of rejection. The publisher knows that a warm fuzzy from them is going to make you feel good about them — and might stop you from pitching other publishers. It leaves the publisher’s options open but costs nothing.
The only reason to reject you outright with no encouragement is if you seem like somebody they’d never want to work with. That’s a pretty low bar to clear.
Just don’t get fooled. Until there’s an offer with money amounts attached to it, you’ve got a handful of smoke. Don’t mistake it for something valuable.
The agent-to-English dictionary
If you can work with an agent, you’ll get to pitch multiple publishers. The agent knows (or ought to know) who’s buying what right now and what they need to hear. And they know how to run an auction. That’s valuable — it’s worth the 15% of the deal you’ll pay them. An agent is the way to maximize your chances to get a deal, unless you already have a publisher who loves you.
Now you have another problem: you need to pitch the agent. But agents are not like publishers: their priority is to spend time on what makes them money. They won’t spend time with you unless they see a deal on the horizon. This makes the agent-to-English dictionary much easier to understand than the publisher-to-English dictionary.
Response: Pay me first.
What it actually means: You reached a disreputable agent.
What to do: Run away. Reputable agents get paid when the publisher pays you. They don’t ask for money up front.
Response: Not interested.
What it actually means: Not interested.
What to do: Ask what’s missing. Then fix it and pitch again. Write a better proposal.
Response: No response
What it actually means: Not interested.
What to do: This response from agents is less likely than from publisher. If you had an introduction to the agent from someone, you’ll probably get an answer. Even if you didn’t, you’ll often get an answer. You’ll have to retool the proposal and find another agent, but if you get no response, you’re not going to get much guidance either, so don’t waste further time with this agent.
Response: I like this, but it needs to be better.
What it actually means: The agent has realistic suggestions on how to improve the proposal.
What to do: In this case, “I like this” is more encouraging than with the publisher, because the agent won’t waste time on you unless they see a deal coming. So see if you can take the agent’s suggestions and make it better.
Response: This is great, I can sell this.
What it actually means: The agent is ready to represent you.
What to do: Determine the agent’s timing — they’ll probably start pitching publishers in two or three weeks. Sign the agency contract. Then hang on and good luck!