Capturing the attention of a book publisher

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The economics of traditional book publishing indicate new authors should make a strong effort to publicize their writing or establish their own brand before approaching a literary agent or, when warranted, an editor at a publishing house. The investment made by the publisher is a gamble that initial expenses will be offset by a book’s sales. Today, publishers seem a little more interested in banking on a first-time author who has already developed a marketable identity and an appreciable following, which can help reduce the possibility the publishing house will lose money on the deal.

Self-publishing can give book authors some insight into the labor and expense—not to mention the expertise—required to deliver a finished product to retail booksellers the way it’s been done in the past. Not many aspiring authors own a style manual, such as the Chicago Manual of Style. Few fully anticipate the effort involved in editing, graphic design, page layout, obtaining the ISBN and bar code, proofreading, printing, binding, distribution, and marketing. However, one stab at self-publishing makes it all painfully clear. It’s a lot of work.

Enterprising writers of fiction and non-fiction are employing a variety of new tactics to appeal to readers. They may not yet have agents or publishers. They may not even be ready to engage a print-on-demand publisher in order to go it on their own, but a few have already garnered attention by making their books available for free in installments on the Web. Some writers—like Clotilde Dusoulier, who started the blog Chocolate & Zucchini in 2003—attract book publishers by building an online community that then becomes part of the market for their books.

T.T. Thomas, who commented earlier this week on the qualities of a good literary agent, offered her perspective of the self-publishing process:

I’m not against self-publishing, but I am passionately against self-editing as one’s only gesture of editing. Another set of eyes, another mind, another couple ears—this is what a good editor offers a writer. This is no less true for fiction than journalism.

Most of the self-published books I’ve read are so poorly written, one has to hope the author has a big family with a whole bunch of generous-hearted members who will want autographed copies. One self-published book that I bought, based on reading the first chapter, was a wonderful story, very well told, and very moving. It was called Escape Into Darkness: The True Story of a Young Woman’s Survival During World War II, by Sonia Games.

I found a snippet of the book on, one of several Web destinations for self-published authors. Despite the overly long title, I was intrigued, so I sent for it. Within the first few pages, I found typos, some printing justification and alignment problems, and many paragraphs that would have been better extended to two or three. A good, impartial editor would have caught this before the print run. Also, this book should not have been self published—it should have been published by a major imprint, assigned a good editor and sent to Spielberg for movie rights. It would not have ended up as quite the book I read, perhaps, but because the author had such a strong voice, it would only have benefited dramatically from some good editing. Still and all, it was a diamond in the (slightly) rough and certainly far better than most of the self-published books I’ve read.

The half-dozen or so major book publishing conglomerates in the U.S. are anticipating only modest increases in book sales. First-time authors who hope their manuscripts will be purchased by publishers need to make themselves stand out in a crowd of thousands. Gaining a measure of publicity in advance won’t transform mediocre writing, but it will make a good writer easier to notice.

4 Replies to “Capturing the attention of a book publisher”

  1. Three words: Strunk and White. They wrote The Elements of Style, and it should be the required ‘driver’s license,’ as it were, for people who say they want to write. It’s cheap, my 40-year-old copy is a mere 71 pages, and some of the dry humor is priceless.

    I also liked Words That Make a Difference and How to Use Them in a Masterly Way by Robert Greenman, who, it could be argued, needs a book title editor. But it’s a great reference book.

    Naturally, in my opinion, too many people have no hardbound dictionaries. I say several are de rigeur and not at all overdoing it. Yes, of course there is the Internet, and we all use it, but the only way, I suggest, to really, really ‘get’ a word and how to use it is to have more than a nodding acquaintance with a dictionary. I have seven, and frankly, I think I’m underdressed for the event of writing with so few.

    Then too, I suggest reading The Denial of Death by Ernest Becker, although you may decide to keep your day job because writing, it turns out, requires utter, abject—pathetic, really—passion, dedication, talent, skill and perseverance. Plumbing is actually easier and pays more.

  2. This exercise demands your wry sense of humor, T.T. This week, I purchased The Elements of Typographic Style, titled in homage to Strunk and White. The book’s Web version is a work in progress. Becoming acquainted with all of these resources makes me feel perpetually late to the party. It also reinforces my admiration for the acknowledged experts in each specialty.

    One of my favorite media critics, Jeff Jarvis, points to journalist Tim Dowling’s new novel, from which five extracts were published in the Guardian. The book is about a freelance journalist who discovers an online discussion group devoted to disparaging his writing. Dowling’s satire manages to convey in a digestible piece of entertainment the same information I try too earnestly and fail to impart. Clients and friends: Read it, laugh, and learn.

  3. I have self-published a gorgeous teacher resource book full of ideas to engage kids across the curriculum! I have begun to sell it on my website,, and to teachers for whom I’ve done workshops. I work full-time as a teacher interventionist but often do faculty presentations and have developed a following at High Schools That Work conferences held every summer. Any advice on how to further market my book would be appreciated!

  4. Hi, Cary:

    On a static page titled “Publicity tips for book authors,” I’ve linked to most of my posts on the subject of publicity for book authors. Beyond that, check out the other topics listed under “Resources for writers” in the right column of the blog’s homepage. A Google search using the term “book marketing” should return many more good suggestions. You might form a cooperative with other educational book authors. Have fun with it!

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