The Business Side Of Getting Published

by limebirdsally

When it comes to writing an agent’s submission, amongst other things your cover letter will need to include the following key information:

– The genre and target audience for your book

– A concise summary of what this book is about – its overall theme and the central plotline i.e. why is your target audience going to love this book!

If you have one, think about your current work-in-progress. Imagine by some strange chance you find yourself sitting next to an agent actively looking to take on new writers in your genre (and as this is make-believe of course they’d be happy to wait until you’ve finished it). You’re two minutes away from the train’s final destination (eurgh after those nasty films that sounds so ominous, but I’m just talking about Kings Cross, or your main terminal here!) and this is your big chance to pitch your work.

Nervousness aside, how well-equipped are you to give them exactly the information they need to be able to identify the one piece of information all agents are looking for – is this book marketable?

A few years ago when I worked as a commercial market researcher I did a lot of research for a partwork publisher who’d set up a new venture to create children’s book series. They knew it was series that made money rather than stand-alone books so that was their start point. We did a research mapping exercise for them, exploring children’s reading habits and what they found engaging in books. They then did workshops with professional writers to collaboratively create a number of concepts for new book series. We researched these with children using depths and discussion groups and fed back which concepts had appeal, and options for developing them. Following the first wave of research they developed a book series, paid the writers freelance rates to write it, put a young handsome face to it as ‘the author’ (one of their execs) and launched it. It won two awards and was long listed for another in its first year. Since then they have placed more than a dozen children’s book series with children’s publishers.

I loved the research; I absolutely despised them for what they were doing! All the while I was doing their research, in my free time I was labouring on my writing – taking an idea and developing it into a plot, setting, characters. Writing for the love of literature. Writing a book is a creative exercise, not a mercenary business pursuit! I’d just finished my adult contemporary literature novel and I sent it out to three agents, two of whom requested a full submission. One rejected with a “Not for me, but best of luck,” the other rejected with the suggestion that I re-write it for young adults. Since then I’ve re-written it for YA and I’ve changed the protagonist from boy to girl…and back to boy again but it doesn’t get over the fundamental issue that the concept underpinning the novel is intriguing and the first third of the book is great, but then it stagnates as the plot can’t carry the concept. I don’t know if I’ll ever re-finish it. I’ve worked on numerous things since, none of which have made it to market.

Out of sheer stubbornness I refused to apply what I’d learnt doing this research to my own writing. You do not write by numbers … but you can’t argue that they’ve had huge success while I’m still just an aspiring writer! Okay so they have the huge advantage of existing publishing links, but rather than taking a labour of love to publishers (warts and all – and you have to admit, us writers do make a lot of mistakes in our work that we’re just too close to the novel to recognise) they’re taking a viable, appealing business plan.

I’m tempted to be mischievous and suggest we follow the principals of the partwork venture just to see the outraged comments and abuse that you throw my way in response! But in all seriousness, there is a business to publishing and being conscious of this from the start can only be an advantage. An agent isn’t going to want to take on a book that has no clear target audience or ‘hook’. I know it’s tempting to leave all the detail until you’ve finished (which is what I always do!), but thinking about this from the onset could have a huge impact on the resulting book.

This doesn’t mean curb your creativity or make the book’s marketing your start point. Of course not! As a writer your novel has to come from the creative space inside your head and your heart that tells you about the world and its characters you’re about to create, a world that unfolds piece by piece into your final novel. But if you do want to be businesslike about this, why not pause after that initial creative spark and think about the end result? Why not force yourself to think about who this book is for? What are my readers’ needs? How would I pitch this book to an agent? When I recently wrote about planning on my personal blog, limebird friend Kourtney Heintz had the great idea of writing your agent submission (cover letter and synopsis) at the start to really focus your mind on what you’re trying to do with your novel (and noooooooooo I don’t mean, “This is going to be the next Hunger Games!”). Of course that will change and need completely re-writing at the end, but it does help you identify what your core themes are.

It may well be you hate this suggestion and don’t even want to think about how to position your book until you’ve finished with the creativity of writing it. That’s fair enough and I should think this is how the majority of writers of first-time authors have completed their work! But at the same time when it came to pitching their books they must have been able to identify a clear target audience and engaging premise. I hope that all of you will be able to do that regardless of when you shape your thinking on these issue, but for me, I think with my next novel I’m going to think about this fairly early on in the process. What harm can it do!


24 Responses to “The Business Side Of Getting Published”

  1. Interesting to think that – “There were more books published this week than there were in all of 1950,” – David Houle.
    Even if published the author has an on-going battle to reach readers in a crowded market place – The issues you raise are very relevant.

  2. It’s good advice to think about how you’d pitch your novel once finished but be careful you don’t block all your creativity as you’re too worried about how to market it. It’s a fine line I guess.

    • Marketing aside, it’s just as useful for me to be thinking about what my book is about, much more than the vague concept and, ‘let’s see where it goes and work out all the details later,’ that I usually start out with! There’s nothing like bringing an idea to life so it’s the creativity of the process that’s the only reason I do it!

  3. I’ve seen a couple of other posts about this very thing – creating your pitch at the onset – and I have to say that there is a part of me that considers the exercise worthwhile. However, I very much like and support your point that we don’t have to stick to whatever hook line first inspires us…because, of course, a novel is a near-living thing, and it can often grow beyond our initial ideas!

    The snag that a lot of us seem to fall into is that we have NO IDEA how to sell a book when we first start writing. I don’t think that’s a bad thing, necessarily. It’s a wonderful feeling to be swept up and carried away by the story. But you bring up lots of points that are important to remember if we want to *sell* the book. Even if many of us decide we want to self-publish, that’s no reason to cut corners on the public side of things.

    Thanks for the post!

    • Thanks Mayumi! I imagine most writers would love to be able to just focus on writing their book and then hand it over to a waiting group of readers, but sadly it takes a lot of work, luck and business sense to achieve that – whether the writer’s own, or if they’re lucky a publishing house that wants to invest in the book.

  4. Reblogged this on Amber Kelly-Anderson and commented:
    One of the questions I think all writers need to consider is who am I writing for? Limebird Sally is talking more demographic, which is also pertinent, but I like to have a specific person in mind when I write anything. To me it keeps writing from being completely self-indulgent (or masturbatory as I usually say). That is what journals and some blogs are for.

    • Thanks for reblogging Amber. I completely agree on the self-indulgence (and I like your term for it!) and journals / blogging being a more appropriate form for that. For example I recently read a YA book (although in my view this one was too childish for adults) where the teen character constantly made references to literature that didn’t develop the plot or our understanding of the character at all and seemed to be more an indulgence of the author wanting to tell us the books she loves. It’s not a good sign when your thoughts go to what the writer is trying to get across about his or herself while you’re reading a book. I also agree that understanding your reader is much more than simply describing their demographic. Thanks for calling by!

  5. Interesting post, although writing a cover letter at the onset, ayee! Since I write without an outline and often with but a teeny seed of an idea, I’d be doomed. Sue Monk Kidd wrote in Travelling with Pomegranates of how she submitted The Secret Life of Bees to an agent after writing the first seven chapters. Two publishers asked for a synopsis of the remainder, and Sue, also a fly by the seat of her pants writer, had no idea.

    • Ha-ha, yes that’s always been my approach to date – start with a seed and see what happens, but I keep on writing a whole draft only to discover a fundamental mistake that needs a complete re-write so I’m forcing myself to hold off until I’ve actually planned it this time!

  6. The business end of things is often a foreign concept—not just to writers! I think it’s just as hard for the tinkerer or inventor in his garage who’s working on something that could be exactly what we’re all looking for to make our lives easier. If you’re not a business person, you’re not likely to think about marketing, production, advertising, target audiences, or any of those things.

    But it’s something we should try to understand—or at least grasp enough of the basics so that we can launch our books (or labor-saving invention or whatever) successfully into the world. Now if you could find a foolproof method for getting our characters to work with us toward that goal, I’d pay you serious money for it!

    • I actually work in a professional where I need to have good business sense, but I’ve only ever approached writing from the creative side so it’s a bit of an experiment to think about the business side of writing, but it seems logical.

      I’m afraid there’s no magic formula for controlling your characters though – that’s one you’re going to have to deal with yourself!

  7. Great info! Thanks so much. I’m filing this for later reference…

  8. I’m backlogged with my blog reading, so no long commentary here. Interesting, and something I’ve considered to get me over a bit of a stumbling block I’ve hit. Not sure if I want to go that way yet… Nice post.

  9. On October 31st 2010 I found out (very late!) about NaNoWriMo, and jumped straight in the next day without an outline, plot, characters, anything!

    The novel started to form and, about 4 or 5 days in, I happened to read about a new publisher that was looking for science fiction novels that included characters from ‘ethnic minorities’. That got me thinking, and created a spark somewhere which lead to me revising the start of my novel, re-naming it Talatu after the main character, and, later, the idea of racial memory and storytelling (in the alien JanchuaCrax) grew out of Talatu’s experience of West African folktales told to her by her father.

    So my knowledge of a particular market did inform some of my decisions, but more in an opening-up-new-ideas way rather than a write-by-numbers-for-the-market way.

    I am planning on sending the completed novel (well the first chapter, synopsis etc.) to the publisher that I read about back in 2010 and see if it fits. If it doesn’t, I have still ended up with a novel that I’m proud of.

  10. Interesting post. As a writer who has gone through countless revisions of one manuscript I can tell you that my original pitch/logline/hook changed. Not a huge change, but enough to know that if I’d planned marketing at the beginning of my project I’d have wasted precious time.

    I know this is all because I was still learning how to write a book. I have heard that writing a pitch beforehand (or some sort of marketing tool) is a good idea, but I think it probably works better for authors who have a solid idea of their books from the get-go. As well as a solid idea of what marketing is really all about–which as you said–is a completely different animal.

    • Oh yes, I’ve always ended up writing something completely different to the book I started, but I’ve also made enough mistakes in my novels to think that this kind of focus at the start might help me – it’s just something I’m going to experiment with this time round, along with the detailed planning.

      You make a good point that it certainly isn’t for everyone though and who knows, I may well find it doesn’t work for me either!

  11. I’m making an effort to learn about the business right from the start, mainly so that if something grand does happen (read: contract), I’m prepared. A recent article from Writer’s Digest also got me thinking about my target reader and how to answer that all important question when an agent or a publisher asks. The business side can be just as creative and fun as when we spend time with the page, if we let it. Here’s the WD article

    • Thank you for the link. I know it makes some writers uncomfortable to think about these kinds of things as if it’s a comment on their creative ability, but personally I think this is just good sense!


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