This probably sounds like a trick question: isn’t the right publisher for your book the publisher who wants to publish your book? The one (or hopefully more than one) who says yes to you after you’ve had the door slammed in your face more times than you can count? It’s true, that coveted “yes” can possibly mean that you’ve found the right publisher for your book. But you should still pay due diligence. Here’s how to find not just any publisher, but the right publisher for your book.
Land the right literary agent
It may sound obvious, but if you don’t have the right literary agent, it’s less likely that you’ll find the right publisher for your book. Literary agents are more than just publishing gatekeepers; they act as matchmakers, pairing you and your manuscript with perfect editor. Agents spend years fostering relationships with editors at publishing houses and imprints, understanding their tastes and ensuring they deliver manuscripts to the best possible person (since they can only submit to one per imprint). Even when they sign you, they’ll be thinking about who they can pair you up with. So much comes down to chemistry in this industry, and that intangible feeling of “love” for a project.
Researching for the right publisher for your book
You can help out your literary agent by conducting your own research. I highly recommend a subscription to Publishers Marketplace, where you can search by publisher, imprint, and editor, checking out their latest deals, the genres they acquire in, the number of six-figure book publishing deals and so on. While your agent will compile a list of suitable editors to submit your manuscript to, it doesn’t hurt to help her out with your own research. You never know, you might find someone who you think is absolutely perfect for your book that your agent hadn’t thought of.
What many aspiring authors whose books are on submission to publishers don’t realize is: you have a choice. Yes, being out “on sub” is totally out of your control in many ways. You don’t get to control the passes, the silences, the ghosts, or the offer(s). However, if you do get that coveted offer, you aren’t obligated to say yes. You still have a choice; nobody’s forcing you to work with a publisher. You also have the option to target small presses and indies yourself, as well as self-publish. Or not publish at all! There is always a choice.
Big Five vs. indie publishers
I’ve written in detail about the differences between these two, but the TL;DR is that while a Big Five may give you more money and clout, an indie publisher could lean more literary and will almost certainly be quicker and nimbler. You might not even need an agent to submit to an indie publisher. Choosing between the two can be very genre driven. If you’ve written a collection of short stories, you’re more likely to find a friendlier home at a well-respected indie. Or, if you have a commercial thriller on your hands, a thriller imprint at a Big Five may feel like a better fit. It comes down to several factors: genre, in-house support, dedication, and passion. There’s nothing worse than ending up with a publisher—regardless of size—who is indifferent to or who doesn’t have time to support your book. Think about the time, care, and attention you want from your publisher, and use that expectation to inform your decision.
Questions to ask on the editor call
Just like the literary agent call you took when deciding if you and your agent were the right fit, you should also take an editor call. Some publishers go straight in there with an offer, and that’s perfectly fine, but you should still ask for a call. An acquiring editor should be thrilled to talk to you. You’re going to be working with this person (or multiple people) on this novel, and potentially many more down the road. Take the time to get to know each other! Here are some questions you can ask:
- What’s your vision for my book?
- What do you love about it?
- How do you see us working together?
- What kind of changes or revisions are needed?
- Where do you see this book sitting on bookshelves?
- What promotional activities do you have planned?
- Will it be just you, or will I have an editorial, marketing, and/or PR team?
It might feel awkward asking how much they love it, or listening to them gush about your writing, but it’s very important. Editors have to love books. And publishers have to know how to sell them to readers who will be equally passionate about them.
It’s not (all) about the money
A good book deal or a large advance does not necessarily equate to publishing success. Many books with huge advances never “earn out” or make back that advance in sales. While a big fat check can seem alluring at the start of the process, it doesn’t guarantee you time or attention from the publisher (although it can help). It also doesn’t cement an aligned vision. Ultimately, in buying your book, the publisher owns it. They can change your title, cover, source material, positioning, format (hardcover, paperback, digital, audio), marketing, distribution and more without warning, even after the publishing contract’s been signed. Nerve-wracking, right? You want to feel confident that you are working with a team you can trust.
Be mindful of multi-book deals
You might be offered a two- or multi-book deal, which locks you into that specific imprint. While this sounds great in theory, and is ideal for “job security,” it usually results in a lower advance per book when you do the math. Plus, you could have a really bad experience publishing your first one, but you’re legally obliged to write a second for the house. On the other hand: you’re guaranteed to have multiple published books. Just be mindful of multi-book deals, as they lock you into a publisher without a get-out clause.
Choosing the right publisher for your book
If you are in the enviable position of a multi-house auction, or if you have more than one offer on the table, congrats! But also, think hard. This is a huge decision. Who do you feel the happiest representing you? Remember, readers really don’t pay attention to publishers (when’s the last time you looked at a book and made a note of the publisher?) so it’s really comes down to who you feel the happiest with. Remember, you are looking for:
- Editor passion and compatibility
- Team size, type, and dedication
- Speed and flexibility
- Proven success in your genre
- Dedicated marketing dollars
- Connections, mainstream media opportunities, marketing, and press
- Distribution and bookstore/retail placement
Publishing is a business
While there is some heart that goes into it, there’s a lot of head. Publishing is a business; publishers aren’t doing you a favor. They want to make money from you! And you need them to make money yourself. Don’t lose sight of the fact that you are choosing a business partner. Think of all the factors you’d look for if this were any other business: professionalism, responsiveness, business acumen, industry knowledge, connections…the list goes on. Remember, a Big Five is more likely to have all of these, simply through company age, reputation, and clout, but you may not get the time you deserve as a small fish in a big pond.
Trust your gut
Only you know the right publisher for your book. And hey, you might get it wrong. Many authors switch publishers over the course of their careers. Not every book is destined to be published by a New York publishing house, or can be positioned as commercial, or will win high-brow literary awards. You already know what your book represents, so ensure it has the best representation. Trust your gut, listen to an editor’s love language, and go with the right publisher for your book.