Publishing is a club. Here’s how to get published if you’re not in it.

Photo: ActuaLitté

I hear it all the time. I don’t know anybody in publishing. How am I going to get anybody to look at my (nonfiction) book idea?

The editors I know are most likely to consider books from people they’ve published before. They’ll review a book represented by a reputable book agent. Outside of that, your chances of getting a good look are worse. And the agents are no more receptive to unsolicited pitches than publishers are.

It sounds like a private club, and it is. Wail and scream all you want about how unfair this is, but you have to understand why it is the way it is: the density of publishable proposals coming in unsolicited (into the “slush pile”) is very low. Editors and agents are protecting their time by focusing on the projects most likely to be worth publishing. They’ll look at other proposals, but it’s going to be tough to get their attention.

So what can you do if you’re a previously unpublished author? Here are some suggestions to improve your odds.

Network like a demon.

My agent confirms that she’s far more likely to review a project that comes in from an author she’s already worked with. My past publishers — and even people I’ve pitched, but never published with — will give serious consideration to any proposal I send their way. The upshot is clear: you’re a lot better off if you make friends with authors.

Go to their speeches, make friends at their events, ask their advice, interact with them on Twitter. And here’s a counterintuitive insight — you’re better off making friends with authors who aren’t in the top tier. Malcolm Gladwell, Daniel Pink, and Adam Grant are deluged with sycophants; they’re even harder to impress than a book editor. But the guy who just published a moderately-selling book with McGraw Hill? He’s more likely to become friends with you if you’re both working in a similar space.

Tap the old-boy/old-girl network.

If you’re a graduate of a business school like Harvard, Wharton, or Stanford, some of your classmates and all of your professors have probably been published. If you worked at a think tank like Forrester, McKinsey, or the Brookings Institution, the same applies. Those connections can get your work looked at, and those credentials will set your proposal apart from the slush. This is how privilege looks, but if you’ve got it, you may as well use it.

Get visible.

If you have your own TV show, you don’t need my help. But assuming you don’t, there are other ways to make your name stand out. Blog. Podcast. Publish op-eds. Contribute to trade publications. Get quoted in the paper. Develop a speaking career. For lord’s sake, you could even do a publicity stunt that gets everybody looking at you. Getting known this way is work; it takes years. But it pays off when an editor recognizes your name (and is impressed with your promotional channels, too).

Make your title, proposal, and promotion pop.

A great title and subtitle will give you an edge in the five seconds you have to get an editor or agent hooked. It helps to have a powerful idea. And it sure makes a difference to an editor if you have a potent promotional platform to get people to buy books.

Publish a book yourself.

Hybrid publishers are far more likely to work with you; after all, you’re paying them. (But don’t get too cocky — hybrids also reject many applicants whose ideas and platforms are weak.) You can also can self-publish. I’m not saying that those are your only channels. However, if you can prove you can succeed as an author in those channels, a traditional publisher is far more likely to give your next book a serious look.

Be different.

There are lots of old, white men who want to write a book. There are fewer women and people of color. There aren’t a whole lot of young people, disabled people, and transgender people. You still need to have a solid idea, a good promotional platform, and a great title — but if you do, publishers are very interested in publishing people that don’t look exactly like every other author out there.

Don’t half-ass the proposal.

You’re already at a disadvantage relative to already published authors. Why would you imagine you can succeed with anything other than a stellar proposal?

Everything, from the title to your reputation to the sample chapter to the table of contents has to be meaty and spot-on. If your idea is weak, you don’t have a chance. If you’re not original, same thing. If your platform is pallid, ditto. Every element of the proposal has to be awesome.

Here’s a link to the proposal I wrote for Writing Without Bullshit. It sold. Is yours this good? It has to be.

Get help.

You’ve never written a book before. What makes you think the one you’re imagining is any good?

Get help from someone who has been there. Could be me, could be somebody else, but get some help. We know how it’s done. You don’t (yet). And we know publishers and agents.

You still might not get a traditional publisher to bite. But at least you’ll up your chances.

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One Comment

  1. hmmm so a talented young writer should spend 2 or 3 years laboring and sweating blood in isolation over a manuscript then to get it printed has to go brown nose some English major with the title editor or go out and try to manufacture some kind of publicity stunt to get this simple person to look at his manuscript. A decent editor should be able to recognize a real writer in 30 seconds– forget it, most of these folks could not recognize a Steinbeck or Hemingway even if you hit them over the head with the manuscript. No wonder American writing is what it is these days, a great tradition mediocratized.