How to Land a Publishing Deal
Pollsters report that as many as 80 percent of all Americans say they want to write a book, in excess of 200 million people. And while options for bringing a book to market are expanding, only a small percentage of authors ultimately land a publishing deal.
Given that enormous group of aspiring writers, I decided to sit down with an acquiring editor and attempt to demystify the process.
Neal Maillet has enjoyed a 30-year career in book publishing, working at publishing companies as diverse as Bantam/Bertelsmann, John Wiley & Sons, Timber Press/Workman Publishing, and Berrett-Koehler. He is currently Editorial Director at Berrett-Koehler, which is located in Oakland, California. He was previously publisher of Timber Press, a subsidiary of Workman. He received his BA in English Literature from Columbia University and proved his dedication to book publishing when he took a 50 percent pay cut from waiting tables in Greenwich Village to take his first job as an editorial assistant.
Here’s what he had to say:
Q: Tell us a bit about what you do as Editorial Director of Berrett-Koehler. Do you acquire titles? Do you run the editorial process?
Neal: My main responsibility is the acquisition of approximately half the list of books we publish each year, roughly 16 to 20 titles. Our founder, Steve Piersanti, also works full-time as the “other” editor despite his additional roles as publisher and chairman, not to mention his leadership of our foundation. After book acquisition, I become the author’s primary coach and advisor. My editing role is a little different from that at other publishers in that we rely heavily on reviewers (four for each book) for line edits, so I’m often more of a facilitator than a primary source of edits. This gives the author more than one point of view, but it also frees me up to spend the considerable time we invest in choosing titles, which can be a multi-week process for most books. I also help present our books to our sales and marketing team, as well as our field sales force at offsite sales conferences.
Q: What is the biggest misconception that first-time authors have about the publishing process itself?
Neal: In order to be published by a mainstream publisher, authors have to accept that their creative work will become more of a team effort than a lonely pursuit. Literally, dozens of specialists, from copy editors, to copywriters, to salespeople, to publicists will have feedback and input on the author’s creation. We give the author final say in almost all matters, but I find that authors who are unable to allow the publisher’s team to “adopt the baby” will struggle to find an audience or connect with others. Hillary Clinton’s motto also applies to launching a book: “It takes a village.”
Q: What do you think about the publishing landscape today, one that gives authors more choice and more options to bring their work to market?
Neal: Well, in light of my comment above, I’m thrilled there are good outlets for authors to try it “their way” and publish directly using various electronic and self-publishing methods. Plenty of authors have been successful this way. One aspect that authors miss, however, is that any book only has one chance to be the “new, new thing,” so it’s not always an option to try a standard publisher with a manuscript after one has tried to go it alone and struggled. I really would advise newer authors to try to work with a publisher if they can at first—why not learn the ropes from industry insiders before going it alone? Maybe think of being published by a traditional press as free training and mentoring!
Q: Tell us what you think makes a book a good fit for Berrett-Koehler.
Neal: We always ask a slightly weird question about each book we publish: “What is the unit of change?” We publish nonfiction books for individuals, organizations (usually businesses), and society at large, so we want to know the scale of change we’re talking about. We really won’t publish a book unless there is some positive shift embedded in the book that is a “big idea.” Even though we publish books in current affairs, we tend not to publish works of pure journalism. We always want authors to provide solutions to problems. Of course, our core mission is “Creating a World that Works for All,” so books that emphasize profits, winning, and beating the competition don’t fit our business list either. A plurality of our business titles cover “soft skills” that leaders can use to make workplaces more humane, or sustainable, etc. Finally, we far prefer a book to say one big thing forcefully than 20 little things. Many authors like to collect interviews, or tips, or multiple viewpoints in a book, but we generally advise authors to stick to one idea like glue. I’d say this is the toughest thing for authors to hear. Many authors feel a book should be about lots of ideas. We think the best books say one thing so incredibly well that you’ll never forget it.
Q: What qualities does the ideal author have?
Neal: An ideal author will know his or her audience and already have strong support in this audience—something we normally call a “platform.” We like authors to make a book the central focus of their business, speaking, and organizational lives for a good time after publication. I’m always dismayed when I hear an author lecture a few weeks after publishing her book and she never mentions it! Authors need to understand that a pure message is wonderful, but a book has to have an audience to have impact—authors who can reach an audience will always get the nod over an author who doesn’t have a clue about book promotion. This may sound a little callous, but I actually believe authors who know they are writing for their “followers” are just better at writing for the reader, not for themselves. I’m always impressed when an author tells me she has shared a manuscript with a half-dozen colleagues, or clients, etc., before sending it to me. This tells that the author understands that books are for readers, not authors! Ideally, an author is very open to feedback and sees the book as an opportunity to learn and adapt, not to lecture. Readers want a confidante and a conversation with an author, not a sermon. So I love authors who write in a conversational voice.
Q: If authors could do just one thing to improve their chances of being published, what would it be?
Neal: My advice will apply mostly to prescriptive nonfiction books, but I think it will surprise most people: Speak. Authors who find audiences who want to hear them speak about their topic will write the most compelling books. They can try out their best lines on a live beta audience, and gauge in real time whether they are connecting with or befuddling people. Join Toastmasters, go to the National Speakers Association, hire a speaking coach. Try to do a TedX talk or find a speaker’s bureau. Authors who have a dozen or so speaking engagements a year automatically go to the top of the submissions pile. They have a following. But more than that, they know, really know, what an audience wants from them. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been persuaded to do a book, even an unlikely one, because an author can prove she is getting speaking requests for the idea. This kind of “proof of concept” will convince almost any editor.
Q: What’s your favorite thing about what you do?
Neal: I am genuinely filled with joy when I see an author’s cherished book idea finally become a reality and succeed. Even in our digital age, publishing that first book will be a key life event for any writer. I am completely addicted to the feeling I have when I see that finished book come in from the printer, and then to write an email to the author boasting about sales and positive reviews—people will actually open their wallets for the right to spend some time with that author’s words! I just emailed a first-time author yesterday to tell him a national chain just ordered 1,000 additional copies after the first week and extended a table promotion for a month. Suddenly, all the butterflies and anxieties of that author (and boy, did he have them) are a memory. The market spoke and confirmed that he deserved a permanent spot in hundreds of bookstores. He’ll never ask again, “Can I be a successful author?” What could be better?