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Can you explain the process a publishing board goes through in deciding to publish a book?

Okay, let me give you the big picture. I’m going to assume you mean the author and agent have already worked to get the proposal in shape, so that they already have a salable idea, strong writing, and a clear sense of the author’s platform.

The first hoop to jump through is always that of finding an editor who actually likes your proposal. The editor will then generally bring the idea to an editorial group meeting, just to bat it around with other editors and get ideas for improving it (or to be told nobody else likes the idea or the writing).

The next step is to refine the proposal and bring it back to the editor or group so as to get recommendations from people in both sales and marketing. Assuming it gets past that group, the proposal is then brought to a Publishing Board—the final authority on which books are chosen to publish. Generally a PubBoard is a broad group—a handful of key sales people, some representatives from marketing and advertising division, the business manager, publisher, perhaps even the president of the company. They come together to discuss the viability of the projects that have come this far.

Everybody has read the proposal beforehand and done research on the author and the idea, so they all come ready to discuss it. The editor who has worked with the author and agent presents the book, introduces everyone to the author, and talks a bit about the unique strengths of the project. Sales makes their projections, marketing talks about the promotional opportunities, and they basically try to come to agreement—Can we publish this book successfully? Does it fit our publishing program? Is it a big idea? Do we like the writing? Does the author have a track record? Is there a built-in market for the project? Who will buy it? How will we market it? In the end, the decision is largely made on group enthusiasm based on our research and discussion.

In the huge majority of cases, the bulk of the team are in agreement, whether it is thumbs up or thumbs down. Normally the PubBoard makes the decision then and there. After that it’s up to the editor to either share the bad news or negotiate a deal with the agent.

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Besides stellar writing, what can an author do to increase their chances of getting a book contracted?

I hate this question. It makes it sound like there is a trick, and if the potential writer learns the trick, he or she can also get published. In my view, that’s incorrect. Every book proposal needs three things: a great idea, great writing, and a great author platform. Rarely will a publisher agree to do a book based on just one of those factors (for example, a celebrity book based solely on the fact that the author is well known), but they will often make the decision based on two factors.

So if you’ve got a great idea, by all means begin working to build a great platform, and spend time working on the craft in order to become a better writer. I have often seen good book ideas attached to terrible writing by unknown authors. And the fact is, I can’t sell your book based on the fact that you woke up with a good idea. In my experience, good ideas occur all the time. The rare event is when a writer with a good idea determines to put in the time required and express that idea in a coherent and entertaining manner.

So this question actually skips over an important point: the easiest thing for an author to do in order to get published is to improve the craft of his or her writing. There are a million venues for doing that: critique groups, writer conferences, mentors, books, classes, etc. Again, I feel as though the reason most wannabe authors remain unpublished is because they just aren’t willing to put in the time, do the hard work, and become better at the craft of writing. In other words, laziness will keep you from being a great writer. Given the chance, inertia will dominate. And then you can make yourself feel better by saying, “I COULD have been a great writer, if only I’d put my mind to it.” It reminds me of the high school student who waits to write his paper until the night before it is due. Then he stays up all night, bangs it out, gets a C+, but tells himself, “That’s because I waited. If I would have started earlier, I’d have gotten an A.” It’s a gentle way of lying to ourselves.

If you want to get published, the BEST thing you can do it to become a better writer. As I’ve said a million times, greatness will win out. I don’t know of any great writer who goes unpublished.

Okay, but your question was what will improve the odds aside from becoming a better writer…and the answer is simply, “Work on those other two areas.” I hate saying that. Why? Because I don’t like telling people, “Come up with better ideas.” It just seems lame, like telling me to dunk a basketball or suggesting that I try to look more like Brad Pitt. Some things are simply out of my range.

Truth be told, I don’t really know where good ideas come from. Sometimes they come from research (“we found that 47% of readers at Borders wanted to see someone use science-based murder investigation procedures on the Waco incident”), other times from looking at the culture (“we saw all the interest in American Idol, so we decided to do a novel based on that storyline”). Often great ideas come from our own needs (“I never knew how to study my Bible, so I researched and came up with a great plan for teaching yourself Bible study methods”), and sometimes you can just look at classic books and realize our culture needs it’s own voice on the topic (“no 25-year-old mom wants to hear what a 70-year-old grandpa has to say about raising little kids—we decided to find a young, fresh parenting expert”). But I don’t have some secret for generating great ideas. They just come, and they’re not all equal. Perhaps the best thing that happens to a mature writer isn’t just the ability to write with more clarity, but to evaluate the worth of all the ideas they come up with and focus on the real winners.

I’m also not a huge fan of talking to authors about their platform. It’s just not my area of expertise, and I feel pretty pathetic saying to people, “Become famous. Go get yourself your own TV show or establish yourself as an expert speaker.” There are plenty of other people who do a great job of explaining this, so I’ll leave it to the platform experts.

If the idea is weak or trite or unclear, if the writing is elementary or pedantic or flowery, if the author has no platform and no plans to get one . . . it will be hard to find a publishing deal. Compare writing to playing the piano—you wouldn’t sit down at a piano one morning, plunk out some notes, and expect that by the afternoon somebody should be paying to hear you play. You probably wouldn’t assume that your first attempt at composing a melody line will have much depth or be musical genius.

To create something good enough that people will pay money to hear you play it will require a huge investment on your part. Hours of practice, every day, for years. Experienced teachers. A broad array of musical influences. Even then, there is no guarantee you’re any good; innate talent plays a role in your career choices. Using that as a contrast, why would we expect a newbie writer to be any good? Why would you assume that, because you thought up a plot line, it has some element of quality to it? Do yourself a favor by doing some self-editing (not all your ideas are great) and by getting some perspective (listening to others tell you that not all your ideas are great). Writers should stop looking for “the secret that will get you published” and start treating this like any other art form.

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Do you think a new author should start by writing the easier-to-place books (like sweet romances, etc.) even if it’s their heart’s desire to write a gothic thriller or whatever?

I do. In fact, I’d suggest a new author start with something much shorter: articles, reviews, short stories. Every new writer needs to learn the craft and needs a place to be bad. That’s one of the biggest problems newer writers face today—they have heard all these wonderful stories about writers getting published, and they assume it happened overnight, so it could happen to them. It’s the curse of the internet, or maybe the curse of McDonalds telling them “You can have it now, without waiting!”

Unfortunately, good things take time.

I’m a ballroom dancer. I sometimes teach swing dancing. If you’re a total clod out there on the floor, I can help you get the basic movements in less than an hour. You won’t be Fred Astaire, but you won’t be Frankenstein either. I can teach just about anybody how to survive on a dance floor. Still, you can expect it’ll be awhile before you’re replacing the lead in 42nd Street.

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