Please welcome self-proclaimed book junkie Parul Macdonald to Writer Unboxed! Parul will be joining us 4x/year to add a new and valuable perspective to the site. Parul has been an editor at Random House, Quercus and Cornerstones, and a Literary Scout. For an editor’s view on indie-publishing and a look at publishing uncovered, follow her on Twitter @parulmac or visit her new blog, Publishing Squared.
What an Editor at a Publishing House Is Looking For: 6 Myths & Truths
Dial back a good few years, and I had just put the phone down with an agent. I had acquired the UK rights for Never Fall Down, by Patricia McCormick, a powerful, hard-hitting book about a boy escaping the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. I know, cheery stuff. But to me it was an astonishing book, and a book I felt readers in the UK needed to read.
The boss, the Publisher, walked across the room to my desk — ‘Have you already signed the contract for your book?’
I told her I had. Trouble was, they had just read another hard-hitting book, and she thought that one was more commercial. But it was too late, I’d already made my move on the book I loved, so she had to pass on the opportunity for this second book.
Who knows what we told the agent or the writer about why we rejected the second book , but the truth was we only had space for one of that type of book that year and my acquisition had taken the slot. There was nothing wrong with that second book. It had nothing to do with the author’s social media followers or her publicity plan. Nothing to do with her cover letter. Just plain bad luck and unfortunate timing.
Sometimes I wonder if authors and aspiring writers really know what’s going on in publishing houses — what motivates editors and why they say yes or no to an unpublished book.
I regularly scroll through advice given online to aspiring writers about how to approach editors and how to stand out. More often than not, I wrack my brains to remember: Did I ever care about that as an Editor at Random House, or did I hear fellow editors worry about this in editorial meetings?
Sometimes yes, the advice is spot on. Sometimes the advice doesn’t match my or my friends’ experiences at all.
The obvious thing I want to point out is that editors have two forces at play when they look at a manuscript.
- Their love for a book, or their intuition about that book’s potential to be a bestseller
- The company’s position : Are they acquiring? Is there a lockdown on a certain type of book (e.g. paranormal) because the list already has enough of that scheduled in the next year?
So here are some things I often read, and here’s what I think are myths and truths.
Myth #1: An editor is looking for an author who ‘speaks the right language’ of the genre, and has a compelling cover letter.
While it’s nice if an author can make comparisons between his/her book and other bestsellers in the market, I’ve certainly invited authors in who don’t read in their genre but have produced a page-turning book.
YES, authors who can speak the right terminology are great on festival panels, but when I read a manuscript it was because an agent had convinced me with their great description to do so—and because I trusted that agent. I never picked up a manuscript just because it was described well by an author I met at a conference or fair.
Of course, it’s helpful for an agent to see a smart cover letter that sells your book well, but smart ones will get the gist of the story and read a sample to see if they like your style and writing. My advice is not to overly worry about this till you come to submit. In the meantime, just focus on your story. Once you’re coming to submit to an agent, you can take time to hone your pitch.