What publishers want – invaluable advice from an industry insider

Sonja Jefferson

If you want your book to be published by a commercial publisher, the critical thing you need to do is make it easy for them to say ‘yes’. But what is the publisher really looking for from a business author? What can you do to make your book proposal stand out from all the hundreds of others in their overcrowded inbox?

We thought you might like to hear some answers from the publisher’s perspective. In this article super-helpful business book publisher Liz Gooster gives you the inside scoop – 10 invaluable tips to make sure that your book proposal stands out from the crowd.

10 insider tips to get a publisher’s attention

Liz: “I’m a publisher of professional business books, so I sift through hundreds of proposals from hopeful authors. Over the years I’ve given a lot of thought to what makes a successful pitch. These are my tips for making it into print with a traditional publishing house.

1)      Do your research. Look at a publisher’s list before you approach them, to check they publish the kind of book you want to write. Getting the genre right is a basic requirement: you might have written the next Harry Potter, but if I’m a business publisher, I can’t publish it. More subtly, try to get a sense of whether your book’s style, approach and market are in tune with the other titles on a publisher’s list. Scour their website, amazon and bookshop shelves.

2)      Be polite. It’s just common sense: if you want an editor to champion your book and opt into a working relationship with you, the best strategy is to present yourself as someone who’s good to work with. If you can, find out the editor’s name before you approach them. But if you can’t, don’t use ‘Dear Sir’ – your target editor might be a woman! Do be professional, courteous and interesting. Don’t be pushy, rude and domineering. If you haven’t had a response to your proposal, a gentle reminder is fine (editors are busy, so leave 4-6 weeks after your initial approach), but don’t chase too much because you risk making a nuisance of yourself. No one wants to work with a nuisance.

3)      Define your market. Who is your target reader? Saying ‘Everyone needs this book’ is unhelpful. An editor has to categorise your book to pitch it, the sales team have to tell the bookstores which section to shelve it in, the marketing team need to know who their customers are. Think carefully about the characteristics of your readers. Who are they? What do they do? What are their problems? Write a profile of your typical reader.

4)      Think about your reader. After defining your reader, think about what they really want. Publishers are commercial beasts. We want to sell books, so we need to know why people would buy yours. Bluntly, we care about what people want to read, not what you want to write. Writing a book is a big, important project for you and a good publisher will ask you why you want to write and what you want to achieve. However, their main concern is to publish a book that sells, so it has to offer something readers want to buy. Your book shouldn’t be the answer to a question nobody will ever ask.

As you write your proposal, put yourself in your reader’s shoes. Ask:

  • Why should they read your book?
  • What can you offer to justify them spending their time, money and attention on your content?
  • What new tools, techniques or thinking will they get from your book?
  • What will they be able to do better, more easily or differently, having read it?
  • What specific problems does it solve or challenges does it address?

This is a long tip! I make no apologies for that, because it’s the most important one.

5)      Be original. Easier said than done, but try to make the publisher curious about you and your book. Most people will email in their idea and while a subject heading of ‘book proposal’ is accurate, it’s not very unique or inspiring. Aim to do something a little different, something that gets you noticed and makes the editor want to open your email. A clever title can grab their attention. If you make your proposal sound like a compelling business opportunity, a publisher will want to know more. Don’t be afraid to show a little personality: editors are real people and they like working with other real people!

6)      Submit a proposal, not a manuscript. By all means send a sample chapter to demonstrate your writing ability. A full manuscript is too much. It takes too long to read and it’s largely too late for the editor to help you shape it into something that fits their market. A killer proposal outlining your book’s promise and selling points will whet the editor’s appetite and is more effective.

7)      Give the publisher what they need. Most publishers have proposal guidelines, which you should follow. If not, make sure you include:

  • The target market
  • A persuasive elevator pitch
  • A summary of the benefits to the reader
  • A Table of Contents, with a summary of each chapter
  • A review of the competition. Editors need benchmark books in the same market space to get a sense of your book’s positioning, so don’t say ‘there’s no competition’.
  • A brief biography demonstrating your credibility as the author
  • A statement of your objectives and expectations

8)      Be an expert with a marketing platform. Offer to market to your contacts. Authors never think publishers market their books enough, but the most commercially successful titles are those which combine a strong sales effort by the publisher with a more targeted, authentic campaign to the author’s own network and community. Show willing.

9)      Be lucky. Your proposal might land on the editor’s desk at exactly the right time: they’re looking for a book in just your area. They’ll still want a well-written proposal and an author with credibility, so all the tips above apply. But never overlook serendipity, because publishing is an art, not a science.

10)  Think about your reader. Remember: it’s all about the reader. I can’t stress this enough, so tip 10 is the same as tip 4.

Good luck!”


Thanks Liz. That is incredibly useful advice for any business author looking for a publishing deal. Hope you guys appreciate it.

Do follow Liz Gooster on Twitter www.twitter.com/publishingcynic and read her blogs at  http://goosterontheloose.wordpress.com and www.businessclasscoach.com.

Further reading:

If you want objective help to craft your business book proposal (I know how hard this is to do by yourself) do get in touch for a chat. Contact me at sonja@valuablecontent.co.uk.

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5 Comments

  1. Thanks Liz and Sonja for bringing these great tips on how to approach a publisher.

    I am a huge believer in taking the time to try to stand in the other person’s shoes and asking

    What does he or she want?
    What makes life easier and better?
    How can I make things easier?

    It’s even better when you get the inside track from a publisher herself.

    Reply
  2. Hi Sonja – really helpful.

    In terms of point 1 – researching the publisher. Is it worth looking for a gap in the publisher’s portfolio? For example, if they’re a business publisher but don’t have anything on finance, for example. Or is it best to go for publishers who already have some similar books in the sub-niche?

    Ian

    Reply
  3. Hi Ian.

    It all depends on that publisher’s list.

    There will be some publishers who specialise in finance publications who would be worth talking to if you are thinking of a book in a particular niche. Check to see if they have published a similar book to the one you are proposing – if they have, it is still worth looking to see how recently that book was published – things change in business fast and it may be that your book has a new spin.

    There are others whose list may purposefully include all aspects of business – if they have a finance gap it may well be worth pitching to help them fill it.

    The key is to find out as much as you can about that publisher’s list to see if your book is in tune.

    Does that help? Sounds as if you are considering this seriously Ian – the very best of luck and do shout if I can be of any further assistance. Sonja

    Reply
  4. Great tips from Liz, who I was lucky to have as my publisher at Pearson Education.

    I’d add one more thing. Once you have identified the right publisher for your book and put your book proposal together, look to your network to find out who might have a contact at your desired publisher. They will respond far more positively to a strong recommendation than a cold email from someone they’ve never heard of.

    Reply
  5. That’s very true Andy and a great point. Thanks for the comment.

    Reply

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