Capturing the attention of a book publisher

library books

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.

Are good books the ones being published?

book - Alejandro Escamilla
Photo courtesy of Alejandro Escamilla

T.T. Thomas and I recently discussed the role of literary agents. T.T., who’s been represented by one in the past, claimed that being able to recognize talent is a fraction of the skill a good agent must possess. She said:

Being able to judge what’s good and what’s great is only half of the half—gotta know what will sell. The pedestrian minds in this country are the majority, I fear, but hope springs eternal.

Having been assigned to a project team for two weeks earlier this year, T.T. and I know each other only through written correspondence. When asked if she would mind being quoted, she added:

By the way, knowing what will sell is only half of the half, too. An agent, one who is truly well-rounded, will know how to sell. I know agents, usually the more literate and conceptually sophisticated, who can spot a winner from the sales point of view, but they blanch and freeze when it’s time to ask for the sale.

I also know agents who can sell paper to a tree, but they have no idea if the book is good, great or screamingly bad—and it doesn’t matter to that type of agent. Whatever it is, he or she has no problems trying to sell it. The dynamics of the sale do not frighten this type of person, however inadequate his or her appreciation of good literature might be.

On balance, then, a good agent, with a good or great book, might sell it; a great agent, with a good or great book, will sell it. The book will get published; the author will have been represented.

Our conversation was inspired by the June 4 issue of New York magazine, which devotes some space to both new and under-appreciated authors. It includes profiles of six promising creative writing students, nominated by their instructors, along with the magazine’s sheepish request that readers vote for the young writers whose story excerpts they prefer. The vote gathering is not such a bad idea, but there’s no mention of a prize (such as a book contract) for the beleaguered winner.

In any case, I wanted to see if my pedestrian tastes encompassed not only wine but literature. What do you know? I picked the author with yesterday’s highest vote tally, proving I’m ordinary to the core.

You, too, can read and vote for “The Stars of Tomorrow.”

The adjacent magazine article mollified me. It lists 61 professional critics’ picks for the best underrated books of the past decade, including a slim volume sitting on my bookshelf—Achilles by Elizabeth Cook.