A Journey of Playing the Numbers: Finding a Home for Your Fiction Manuscript

A Journey of Playing the Numbers: Finding a Home for Your Fiction Manuscript

I know you know you can self-publish your novel on Amazon with a cover bought on Fiverr, a few hours of formatting, and a couple more hours of winding your way through the megalodon’s ebook posting labyrinth. You probably also know there are other publishing options for fiction but may not know the range of options or how to process or pursue them.

Let me give you a plan. One formula you can follow no matter who you are or what your book is.

A way to play the numbers game that is publishing in a confined amount of time knowing that you gave the best options your best shot. By working the system, you will know in the end that you have—more or less—the optimal publisher for your particular book at this time. Next book? Next time? Start over at the beginning and see if you get a different outcome.

I’ve been an indie book publisher for 27 years and have counseled hundreds of would-be authors in person and thousands more through talks and workshops. In living and breathing (and surviving) the stormy ecosystem of books, I’ve landed on some rules of thumb and crafted the following one-size-fits-most approach.

We all know that a contract with one of the five big NYC publishing houses is the traditionally desired plum. You may not be aware of the scale of the other tiers though: There are roughly 10,000 small- to mid-sized houses in the U.S. that release 5 to 50 books a year, and another 80,000 or so micropublishers. Among these you’ll find professional and scholarly publishers; educational publishers; religious, nonprofit, and association publishers; and trade publishers. Trade publishers release the majority of books you find in bookstores. They are who you want to target with your fiction project. Among the trade publishers, you’ll find traditional companies, indie and alternative presses, and hybrid publishers. In books, indie often refers to any trade press that’s not a NYC behemoth. Hybrid publishers offer qualified authors who can contribute funds to the process of the structure, professionalism, production values, distribution, and imprimatur of a publishing house.

My cheat sheet rests on three fundamentals: (1) Start at the top and work your way down. Give you and your book a real shot at the big time. Don’t work your way up to it! (2) Look at that 90,000 figure. Publishing is a numbers game. Play the numbers. (3) Play the numbers on a reasonable schedule. Give yourself at least 12 months (24 if you’re a patient type) before moving on to a recourse of hybrid or self-publishing.

To land a NYC publishing contract, you’re going to need an agent. Lucky for you, I know a guy. His name is Mark Malatesta and he has a free, comprehensive, searchable directory of literary agents on his site. Go to Markmalatesta.com, click on “free membership,” and enter your name and email address to gain access. That’s it. He does not abuse his email list.

Next step: Begin searching for agents that are a good fit for your project and build a contact database. You’ll want to pitch 50–100 before you quit this route—200 if you’re an overachiever or confident you’ve got the goods. Before reaching out to dozens of agents, read up on them individually and contact only those who are a good match for your work. Their bios and submission guidelines typically get quite specific about what they’re looking for. Believe them! To the degree you can, rate the agents by desirability for you and your project. All other things being equal, I’d rank agents based in NYC and/or at bigger, older firms higher than their counterparts. When this meticulous research, note organizing, and prioritizing is out of the way, start at the top of your list and work your way down, on a contact schedule that works for you, e.g. one to five each day until you’ve finished contacting everyone in your database.

First and foremost—give yourself over to the discipline—customize each contact for each recipient. Guidelines can be fussy and particular and you should jump through those hoops to a T. To better understand their requests, jargon, and expectations, follow the advice of Jane Friedman.

Give the agent route four to six months before moving on. Simultaneous submissions are okay. If you happen to have one or more nibbles from agents, pursue those as far as you can on their timetable, not this one. If nothing promising has emerged, your next best option is to contact publishers directly. Again, you’ll start with researching optimal publishers and build a prioritized database of 50–100, 200 if you’ve got the time, stamina, and stomach for it.

How do you find these possible right houses for your masterpiece?

First, go to Amazon and look at books whose readers likely match the ones you imagine for your title. Take in what you can about these works, such things as sales rankings, reviews, packaging and marketing, what other books those customers purchased. In the end, you want to know: Who is publishing books like yours?

Then, visit the biggest bookseller near you and see which companies are publishing books like yours. Especially note those publishers whose approach, style, design, vibe you like. Where Amazon can give you breadth, depth, and near-instant information, there is much to be gathered from holding physical books and assessing their properties and the decision-making that went into them.

Finally, consult Literary Marketplace, which can be  found in the reference section of most libraries, to round out your list of publishers. This beefy annual contains detailed entries on publishers with such information at specialties, submission policies, and acquisitions practices. (LMP is available online for an annual fee of $459.50 if you’re feeling flush, or $24.95 for a week’s access if you’re motivated and diligent.)

As you go about the above, build your prioritized database.

Visit the websites of publishers on your list and get a sense of who they are. Nearly all publisher websites now contain their submission guidelines, and prominently enough that you don’t have to dig around for them. If you learn your book is not a good fit, remove them from your list and move on. As with the agents, submit your book proposal package to the specifications of their guidelines, starting at the top of your list and working down. If submission guidelines are vague, think of a book proposal as a “business plan” for your book, and a publishing contract as a “business agreement” between you and the publisher, and it will be hard to go wrong. Simultaneous submissions are okay.

Divide up the work as it makes sense to you, but I’d advise sending out one to five each day in a steady stream until you either reach the end or have a contract.

Detach emotionally, commit to the process, and persist through the numbers. Publishing takes a long time! You either want to find a publisher in a reasonable amount of time or move on to considering self-publishing or hybrid options.

Keeping in mind a publisher’s point-of-view, give each proposal your best, savviest shot, knowing that you are essentially competing—even at the smallest presses—against hundreds or thousands of others for only a few coveted spots. Use your passion and imagination to catch their attention, pique their interest, impress them, persuade them.

Check in with every publisher you’ve contacted and not heard back from 30 to 45 days after your initial contact. Take advantage of your initial contact(s) with a publisher to show your professionalism, your attention to detail, your work ethic, your understanding of their business and their point of view. All other things being equal, they’ll almost always choose the author who’s more professional and easier to work with.

If anyone takes the time to jot you a few notes about your book (with their rejection), see what you can learn from the experience and take steps to use that knowledge to your benefit. Tweak future submissions as necessary. Don’t give up. Periodically review your proposal with fresh eyes and upgrade it as necessary. Keep sending it out. Keep your brain trained on new ways to pitch your book, on new opportunities to get it published, and on ways to improve your book in the meantime. Give this portion of the journey another 6+ months.

With this method, you attempt to secure an agent, starting with your best options and working through a list of 50 to 200. If nothing materializes, you switch your focus to finding a publisher, starting with preferred houses and working through a list of 50 to 200. This is truly working the numbers. If after a year or so, nothing has taken off to your satisfaction, you can start exploring hybrid or self-publishing options knowing that you did your due diligence and gave your book a true shot at traditional publishing. A new journey begins!

*Feature photo by Negative Space (Pexels)

Sharon Woodhouse is the owner of Conspire Creative—coaching, consulting, conflict management, project management, book publishing, and editorial services for authors, solo pros, and small businesses.
More posts by Sharon Woodhouse.
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