Chip MacGregor

August 18, 2014

Ask the Agent: How does a book get selected by a publisher?


Several people have written to ask, “What is the process of getting your proposal selected by a publishing house?”

Okay. First, think of a publishing house as being an actual building. Your proposal probably isn’t walking in the front door. More than likely it’s sliding into the building by way of a window known as an acquisitions editor (often an acquaintance of your agent, sometimes a person you met at a conference, or maybe a guy who lost a bet). He or she will read through it, make some suggestions, talk it over with your agent, and eventually make a decision on whether or not they think it’s worth pursuing.

Most publishers are relying on agents to do the initial filtering of junk, so the slush pile has sort of moved from the publishing house to the agent’s office…which means you’re probably going to have to sell it to an agent first, therefore adding one more step to this process.

Once it’s actually in the building, if the acquisitions editor likes it he or she will take it to some sort of editorial committee, where they sit around grousing about their pay and making editorial jokes. (“I’m having a DICKENS of a time with this one!” “Yeah, let’s catch a TWAIN out of town!” Editorial types love this sort of humor. That’s why they’re editors and not writers.) Eventually they’ll run out of bad puns and be forced to discuss the merits of your proposal. If it’s a non-fiction book, is it unique? Does it answer a question people are asking? Is there a perceived market for it? Does the writing feel fresh and offer genuine solutions to the question that’s posed? If it’s a novel, does the story have a clear hook? Is there a well-defined audience for it? Does it feel new, or as though it’s a story that’s been told a million times? (The fact is, it probably HAS been told a million times. There are only so many stories. The question is really if the author can make it feel as though he or she has a fresh take on the story.) Most importantly does it have Amish people, zombies, or a spunky girl with a heart of gold? If the whole package passes muster, it moves to the next step…

The Publishing Committee, which is a group generally made up of folks from editorial, marketing, sales, accounting, and administration. They’ll meet somewhere between once a week to once a month, depending on the house, and they’ll have an agenda of books to talk through each time, with the various representatives offering their own perspectives — the editors will talk about the merits of the words; the accountants will figure out the costs and potential dollars in play; the sales guys will begin discussing who they can sell copies to; and the marketing people will sit around trying to think up reasons why they shouldn’t work on THIS one, since they’ve got so many OTHER things to do. The group will talk about the market for the book, if it fits with the rest of the books on their list, what the author’s platform offers, what it would cost to print the book, what the marketing costs would be, and how many sales they think they could generate. This is the group that will explore the feasibility of doing your book. They may send it back to the acquisitions editor to do some more work.

At that point, the editor has to run a Profit & Loss sheet or pro forma, in which they’ll take wild surmises as to how many copies they can expect to sell in the first year, what the hard costs of ink/paper/binding will be, what they’ll spend on marketing, and how much money they’ll have to throw at the money-grubbing author, who, if she really loved words, would write her damn books for free, since we all know the publishers are only in it for the joy of reading and to serve humanity. The editor will take all this information back to the publishing committee, who by now has had all sorts of time to think up NEW reasons why they shouldn’t do the book. They’ll talk about it again, this time with hard numbers attached. Eventually the pub board will be forced to make an actual decision, so they’ll probably throw the Urim and Thummim, maybe pull out an Ouija board, and decide on your book.

I’ve heard people say there are a series of “sales” to get to this point. The author sells the agent. The agent sells the editor. The editor sells the editorial team. The editorial team sells the pub board. Once that group makes a decision to contract the book, they have to negotiate a deal, then put it on a list and make it part of the process — because the sales guys are going to have to sell it to retail accounts, who in turn will attempt to sell it to the reading public. It’s a lot of work. And all of that points to one thing: It’s tough to get published. Each step along the way is an investment, so even the books they say “no” to have had dollars spent on them.

A publishing house has all those filters in place so that they can do the easy thing and say “no” to you. (Really. That’s the reason they exist.) The purpose of the process is to say “no” to most everything. Therefore, if you want to be published, create proposals they can’t say “no” to. Of course, that’s easier said than done, but that’s the basic idea — work on your proposal so that it piques their interest, provides a clear hook, and answers any objections. If you do that, your proposal is much more apt to be selected by a publishing house.

Does that make sense to you? What question would YOU like to ask a literary agent? 

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  • Your post made me laugh out loud. Reminded me of Dave Barry. I love it when that happens.

    • chipmacgregor

      Thanks very much, Renee.

  • Elaine Stock

    Thanks for the laugh and the insight to why my past novels never made it: no Amish or zombies. On a serious note–thanks for this information.

    • chipmacgregor

      Amish zombies — the key to a good novel, Elaine.

  • Chip, thanks for your accurate (although somewhat tongue-in-cheek) description of the process. The take-home message for me–one I’ve heard often since embarking on my own road to writing–remains “Don’t give the people involved a reason to say ‘no.'” Thanks for sharing.

    • chipmacgregor

      You bet, Richard. And yes, that’s still the goal, though I’ll admit it can be hard to get there.

  • Carol Mcclain

    You should be an author, Chip. You are funny! Loved the post.

    • chipmacgregor

      Appreciate that, Carol.

  • Thank you for this humorous description of the process. (Love the Dickens and Twain joke!)

    It sounds like it’s important for the acquisitions editor to have a good rapport with the people in marketing department and the publishing committee. Does all this happen before the acquisitions editor lets you know whether she likes the project? How long does that typically take?

    My books are all about Amish… at least I’ve got that one going for me. And a spunky girl. No zombies, though.

    • chipmacgregor

      It all depends on the editor, Saloma. Some like to share information with the agent and author, others are more secretive. But normally you’ll know early in the process if the publishing house is actually interested. As for how long it takes… long, and it’s getting longer. The fact is, any good editor will want to read you manuscript, and that takes time. I’ve noticed the decision time has been stretching out the past couple of years. And right now it’s summer, which is always a slow decision-making time, since the people making decisions are all taking vacations. So be patient.

      • Thank you for your answer. I’m not actually in that process. I was just curious.

  • Lynn Leissler

    What a cheerful read this lovely Monday morning, sigh. 🙂 But I know you speak truth. Perhaps I’ll write about a kind and spunky Amish girl who’s in love with a zombie…

  • Lord above, Chip, how you can take something so nerve-wracking and painful and make it so funny is a rare skill. I’m glad you have it. *G*

    ETA: right now I’m finishing a novel that features a monstrous ape who has a thing for a spunky Amish zombie girl. Their love is doomed, however, and in the end he’s taken down by unsmiling men brandishing buggy whips. I can haz a contract? *G*

    • chipmacgregor

      Love the idea of a spunky Amish zombie girl, John. Have your people call my people…

  • Great information, Chip. Looks like writers need to have sales skills in their arsenal as well, especially while writing proposals.

    • chipmacgregor

      That’s a good comment, Preslaysa. Yes, it helps for a writer to have sales skills, since the business side of publishing is all about making a series of sales. That sort of salesmanship can be reflected in the proposal.