5 tips for finding a publisher that’s right for you

Hello, friends!

I thought this week I’d chat a bit about finding a publisher (if you decide to go that route rather than self-publish) and pass along some tips for doing so.

“Look! Yonder! A potential publishing house!”

I’ve been on both sides of this fence in that I spent a few years as an acquiring editor at a “mainstream” house. I’m also operating in that capacity at my own publishing venture, Dirt Road Books.

But I’m also a published author, and I, too, have had to deal with finding a publisher for my work.

Newsflash: I have indeed been rejected by publishing houses. In the F/F publishing world, I’ve been rejected by three.

I’ll talk a bit about rejection in the publishing world in a future blog. What you need to know now about it is that it happens to everyone and don’t take it as a personal rejection of you. That’s something you need to acquire in a writing life, is a very thick skin.

Before I get into this, my years as an acquiring editor and gate-keeping editor, essentially, allowed me to learn a whole lot about different publishing houses, something I made sure to do so that I could send an author to a house whose list was a better match for their manuscript. I continue that practice today, and I also try to offer some constructive critique to authors about their projects.

Newsflash two: this is not the norm. Most rejections from publishing houses are short and to the point: “sorry, we’re not pursuing this project kthxbai.”

I’m an exception, though I know there are other acquiring editors out there who try to take a few extra minutes to offer something to an author beyond that, but when your inbox is overflowing with submissions and submission queries and you’ve got other business to deal with, I understand where they’re coming from.

So you’ve got your novel written, beta-read, re-written, edited, cleaned up, and ready to go. YAY, you! You’re interested in working with a traditional publisher, so now it’s time to go forth and find one.

NOTE: We’re going to focus on finding a publisher that doesn’t require an agent (i.e. smaller, indie houses). That’s a whole other basket of cray, is trying to land an agent.

Okay. Onward!

1. What are your goals? Author, know thyself! We’ve talked about this here on this blog thingie, but it’s important to keep it in mind.

Think about why you want to work with a publishing house, and what you’re looking to get out of it. I work with houses because I have a day job that requires a bunch of travel and I just don’t have the time to really devote to self-publishing (though I do have self-published titles). So for me, a traditional house has worked. Be aware, though, that there are some trade-offs. You make lower royalties with a traditional house (which is totally fine, since houses have overhead and salaries and the like to pay), but you also get the backing of an established brand (ideally).

So think about your current time constraints, what your life circumstances are, and why working with a traditional house fits those. You can always try self-publishing if you work with a trad house (just make sure you’re not stepping on clauses in your trad house contracts), and maybe after you’ve worked with a trad house for a while you’ll move on to completely self-publishing. That’s fine, too. Just make sure you’re realistic about your goals as a writer and what exactly you’re looking for.

2. Get some materials in order first. It’s always good to have these at the ready. Those are: short synopsis (200-300); longer synopsis (500-ish words); and a description of your project for yourself. With regard to the latter, make a list that includes these elements: word count of your manuscript; the genres of your novel; the audience to whom it’s directed. You’ll be adding to your list as you go through this process.

Remember how we talked about thinking about your author brand and the audience you’re looking for a few weeks back, even before your first book is even written? Well, if you’ve done that, then you’re ready to address those issues with a potential publisher and that kind of info can go into your submissions cover letter. The better you know your project and who you’re planning to reach, the better off you’ll be in looking for a publisher that matches.

3. DO YOUR RESEARCH. As an acquiring editor, the majority of manuscripts I reject are subjects that aren’t a match for our list. That is, they weren’t subjects/genres we published.

Make sure the genre you’ve written is a match for a house’s list.

Get out your list from number 2, above. Add 3-5 of your fave books that you recently read whose genres are a match to yours. For example, if you’ve written an urban fantasy with a strong female protagonist and you read a lot of urban fantasy, write down the most recent titles you’ve read in that genre with strong female protagonists and similar themes to your book.

Next step: who are the publishers? Add that info to your list and go check out those publishers. You want to make sure that the house has been publishing in that genre for a while and has a solid backlist in it, which indicates that it’s a genre they regularly acquire and publish. Which means, friends, that they have built an audience that expects this house to publish in that genre. So your urban fantasy with a strong female protagonist will probably appeal to segments of that built-in audience.

TIP: Publishers want to sell books. They would like that to be as easy as possible, so they build a backlist in particular genres, which in turn builds an audience that comes to expect those genres from them.

Don’t, for example, take your gothic mystery/thriller with a shape-shifting Victorian steampunk tea merchant to a house that publishes primarily contemporary romance.

4. What to look for on a publisher’s website. Suppose you’ve found a house that has similar titles/genres to yours on it and you’re thinking this might be the one. Time to do a deeper dive.

  • What’s your first impression of the website? Is it clean? Well-organized? Does it look professional? Do the links all work? Attention to details like this on the part of a publishing house means they don’t skimp on the little things, and try to put their best foot forward. If the website looks like 2003 time-jumped and designed it, that might be a red flag. The house may not have the time, resources, or staff for basic upkeep like that. Or they just don’t care how their site looks. All of those could be problematic. If they don’t care about that, then what else don’t they care about? Hmmm…
  • Check the publisher’s “about” page. That gives you a feel for how they operate. What’s the tone? Do they seem approachable? Fun? Professional? All of the above? Do they also seem transparent? That is, do they provide information about who they are, what their mission is, and why they’re doing this publishing stuff? Do they have readily available contact info?
  • Check the list of authors. Who’s on board (beyond the authors you’ve read and have on your list)? Are you familiar with them? Click on some of them to find out how many books they have with the house.
  • Check the house’s reach. What social media platforms are they using and do they post regularly? What kinds of posts? If all they’re doing is posting announcements about book releases and nothing else — no engagement beyond that — that could be a red flag. You want a house that engages with people on social media platforms, that offers sales, contests, fun writing prompts, links to blogs by their authors, links to articles written about them and to positive reviews of their books.
  • Does the house have a regularly updated blog? Go check it out and see what they’re posting about and if they’re including their authors. Does that house have a regular podcast? Check it out, and get a sense of who the publishing staff is.
  • Do a basic search on the house in a couple of search engines and see what comes up. Who’s talking about the house and what are they talking about? You also want to see if the house’s website comes up readily in your search engine results. That whole SEO thing, friends. 🙂
  • Do they have a newsletter? If you haven’t already, subscribe. That gives you info about the kinds of things they promote and the approach they use with readers and potential authors.

5. And now, have a look at their submissions page. Read it a couple of times before you actually start doing anything. Then FOLLOW THEIR INSTRUCTIONS EXACTLY to put your packet together.

Print a copy of them out so you can check each item off as you complete it. That helps keep you organized.

Y’all, you might think that you can hedge on some of the submissions details, but guess what? Houses have explicit instructions for a reason. It helps streamline their process, saves time, and it’s set up to their specs for how they work. If you don’t follow them, the person who screens those submissions is going to think that you don’t pay attention to instructions, that you ignore instructions, and that you’re probably going to be difficult to work with. Whether it’s true or not, your submissions packet is the first impression you’re giving to the house.

So take the time to make it a good one.

All rightie! Thanks for hanging out with me.

Happy writing, happy publishing!

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