How Publishers Decide to Publish a Book (or Not)

I recently talked to Andrea Mullins, the publisher of New Hope Publishers (who just happen to be the publisher of my acim bookstore, Abundant Gifts). Andrea outlined the process in great detail. Though this process might differ slightly from publisher to publisher, most follow the same basic process. (I know, because I have worked with at least a dozen of them, as an author, editor, and/or book coach.)

Note that many publishers do not accept unsolicited manuscripts or book proposals. That means that you usually have to have an agent, or some prior contact with an editor who has given you the go-ahead to send in your proposal. If you do not have an agent or the go-ahead from an editor, the book proposal is routinely returned with a form letter.

It will be returned only if you included a self-addressed, stamped mailer for the package to be returned, by the way. Otherwise, you can guess where it’s dumped.

If a publisher does accept unsolicited proposals, they usually have guidelines, posted on their web site. Make sure you follow these guidelines to the letter, or you’ll waste your time and your chance with that publisher.

Here’s what happens to your book proposal, once it arrives at a publishing house:

1. The proposal gets added to the pile along with a lot of other book proposals. Depending on the publisher’s submission guidelines (check these ahead), the proposal may be screened first by someone. If an agent has contacted an editor, the proposal will end up on that editor’s desk. He or she will look it over, and make an initial decision whether to bring it before others in the publishing house.

2. If the editor deems the proposal worthy of pitching, he or she will take it to the next “pub board” meeting. Usually the “pub board” consists of the publisher, an acquisitions editor (usually the one who first sees your proposal), a marketing person, a sales manager, and a “numbers cruncher.” The acquisitions editor champions your book, persuading the others as to why this book is worthy of being published. The editor will have nothing to go on but your proposal, so that’s why it has to answer any question a publisher might have about what the book is about, who the audience is, why the author is qualified to write the book, what the competition is, what kind of marketing the author will put into it.

It’s important to know that there are any number of reasons why a publisher might reject a book, even if they love the idea. They may already be publishing a book like it, or know that another publisher is going to publish a similar book. They may have done research already, and they know that “those kinds of books” don’t sell. I recently pitched a book to a publisher. They loved the idea, but their research on prior books like it told them that this particular book doesn’t sell enough to warrant publishing.

3. If the pub board thinks the book has possibilities, usually they will crunch some numbers. Often this means going to special services they have access to, that tell them exactly how many books of a similar title sold. (Regular folk don’t have access to such numbers from services like Bookscan, which tracks how many books sell per week in retail outlets including bookstores and other outlets such as Target or Wal-Mart stores.)

Publishers don’t only look at the bookstore sales, thankfully. In fact, more than half of all books sold are sold through channels other than bookstores, such as mail order, warehouse clubs, special sales to a variety of outlets such as corporations, nonprofit organizations, or associations that might buy bulk orders. If a publisher knows a book will do well in these channels, and the publisher already has inroads into these special markets, they may publish the book even though they know it won’t do well on the retail level.

This is where it pays to do your homework, both about potential non-traditional outlets you may have contacts with, and about which publishers might have such contacts so you can target them knowledgeably. For instance, one of my clients has a book with a potential market for college students. We sent the proposal to a publisher that is associated with a college campus ministry.

4. If all lights are green-the publisher loves the idea, the author has a solid platform, the numbers work out to indicate the book will sell well-the publisher tries to determine how many books will be sold in the first year. Typically, they will figure a royalty advance based on this number. Of course, they will probably shoot lower at first, figuring there will be some negotiating on the part of the agent and/or author. They will then offer the author a contract.

If the publisher decides the book won’t be profitable enough for them-for whatever reason-they reject the proposal or manuscript.

If you get a rejection from a publisher, it’s good to determine, if you can, why the book was rejected. Sometimes they’ll tell you; usually they’ll just say “it’s not right for us at this time.” If you have an agent, the agent can often find out what was wrong.

If it’s something you can fix-such as adding ballast to your platform-go ahead and take some time to lay some more ground work before moving on to another publisher. This is where an agent or book publishing coach can help you.

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