Chip MacGregor

January 4, 2017

Ask the Agent: How does a book get selected by a publisher?


As we jump into the new year, I’ve had several people write to ask, “What is the process of getting your proposal selected by a publishing house?”

Okay. First, think of a publishing house as being an actual building. Your proposal probably isn’t walking in the front door. More than likely it’s sliding into the building by way of a window known as an acquisitions editor (often an acquaintance of your agent, sometimes a person you met at a conference, or maybe a guy who lost a bet). He or she will read through it, make some suggestions, talk it over with your agent, and eventually make a decision on whether or not they think it’s worth pursuing.

Most publishers are relying on agents to do the initial filtering of junk, so the slush pile has sort of moved from the publishing house to the agent’s office…which means you’re probably going to have to sell it to an agent first, therefore adding one more step to this process.

Once it’s actually in the building, if the acquisitions editor likes it he or she will take it to some sort of editorial committee, where they sit around grousing about their pay and making editorial jokes. (“I’m having a DICKENS of a time with this one!” “Yeah, let’s catch a TWAIN out of town!” Editorial types love this sort of humor. That’s why they’re editors and not writers.) Eventually they’ll run out of bad puns and be forced to discuss the merits of your proposal. If it’s a non-fiction book, is it unique? Does it answer a question people are asking? Is there a perceived market for it? Does the writing feel fresh and offer genuine solutions to the question that’s posed? If it’s a novel, does the story have a clear hook? Is there a well-defined audience for it? Does it feel new, or as though it’s a story that’s been told a million times? (The fact is, it probably HAS been told a million times. There are only so many stories. The question is really if the author can make it feel as though he or she has a fresh take on the story.) Most importantly does it have Amish people, zombies, or a spunky girl with a heart of gold? If the whole package passes muster, it moves to the next step…

The Publishing Committee, which is a group generally made up of folks from editorial, marketing, sales, accounting, and administration. They’ll meet somewhere between once a week to once a month, depending on the house, and they’ll have an agenda of books to talk through each time, with the various representatives offering their own perspectives — the editors will talk about the merits of the words; the accountants will figure out the costs and potential dollars in play; the sales guys will begin discussing who they can sell copies to; and the marketing people will sit around trying to think up reasons why they shouldn’t work on THIS one, since they’ve got so many OTHER things to do. The group will talk about the market for the book, if it fits with the rest of the books on their list, what the author’s platform offers, what it would cost to print the book, what the marketing costs would be, and how many sales they think they could generate. This is the group that will explore the feasibility of doing your book. They may send it back to the acquisitions editor to do some more work.

At that point, the editor has to run a Profit & Loss sheet or pro forma, in which they’ll take wild surmises as to how many copies they can expect to sell in the first year, what the hard costs of ink/paper/binding will be, what they’ll spend on marketing, and how much money they’ll have to throw at the money-grubbing author, who, if she really loved words, would write her damn books for free, since we all know the publishers are only in it for the joy of reading and to serve humanity. The editor will take all this information back to the publishing committee, who by now has had all sorts of time to think up NEW reasons why they shouldn’t do the book. They’ll talk about it again, this time with hard numbers attached. Eventually the pub board will be forced to make an actual decision, so they’ll probably throw the Urim and Thummim, maybe pull out an Ouija board, and decide on your book.

I’ve heard people say there are a series of “sales” to get to this point. The author sells the agent. The agent sells the editor. The editor sells the editorial team. The editorial team sells the pub board. Once that group makes a decision to contract the book, they have to negotiate a deal, then put it on a list and make it part of the process — because the sales guys are going to have to sell it to retail accounts, who in turn will attempt to sell it to the reading public. It’s a lot of work. And all of that points to one thing: It’s tough to get published. Each step along the way is an investment, so even the books they say “no” to have had dollars spent on them.

A publishing house has all those filters in place so that they can do the easy thing and say “no” to you. (Really. That’s the reason they exist.) The purpose of the process is to say “no” to most everything. Therefore, if you want to be published, create proposals they can’t say “no” to. Of course, that’s easier said than done, but that’s the basic idea — work on your proposal so that it piques their interest, provides a clear hook, and answers any objections. If you do that, your proposal is much more apt to be selected by a publishing house.

Does that make sense to you? What question would YOU like to ask a literary agent? 

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  • M. Andrew Cockrell says:

    As a self-published author (whose tribe isn’t big enough to have a soccer scrimmage and whose platform can’t see over the front row of a little people’s convention) with an eye on being traditionally published in the future, it’s good to know that there are plenty of more opportunities to be discouraged besides those I’ve encountered thus far! I’ve never written about the Amish or zombies, but I’m reconsidering the “Lancaster Wasteland” series that I nixed during my last planning retreat.

  • David Rawlings - Author says:

    Thanks for this reality check Chip. There are more people in that process than those who decided on the invitation list for our wedding reception.

    What would your advice be in relation to following up acquisition editors on a semi-regular basis? I’ve got a manuscript in front of an acquisitions committee at the moment (recommended by an editor
    after an appointment at ACFW). Is my follow up keeping my manuscript top of mind, or is it not worth it because the wheels are now in motion and the process is out of his hands?

    • chipmacgregor says:

      I get that question a lot, David, and I tend to think it’s handled by feel. If I’m close to an editor, I can check more often, or make it very casual. But it’s tough for an author to go back to an editor and ask, “Hey! What’s the holdup?!” So I’d say (1) don’t be in a hurry, (2) give the editor adequate time to read, and (3) do so politely. Certainly if an editor has had your work for a six to eight weeks, you’re not crossing any barriers by contacting and just asking for a quick update (even if it’s just “I’m really backed up right now, so leave me alone”). Then staying in touch occasionally, but not pressing for a decision. If you push an editor, it’s too easy for them to say, “No thanks.” Does that make sense?

    • David Rawlings - Author says:

      Yes, it does. Thanks – really valuable advice and I’ll drop Tony an email. We’ve developed enough of a rapport since ACFW to touch base.

  • Kiki Hamilton says:

    LOL. How I love your unvarnished version of reality. Refreshingly real. 🙂

  • I was going to pitch you a book about a spunky, Amish zombie, but @theresalode:disqus already had a similar idea.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Does she have a drinking problem and hang out on trains? If so, I’m interested…

    • No, but she thinks she was John the Baptist in another life and has a serious scrapple addiction. (I guess in addition to the whole brain eating thing…) Also, your post didn’t scare me as much as this comment thread.

  • Chip, excellent description of a process that is often shrouded in mystery. Thanks.

  • Peggotty says:

    For some odd reason, it did me good to read this. Thanks, Chip.

  • Theresa Lode says:

    Well, damn. I was just getting ready to pitch to you a never-heard-before story about a spunky young girl named Miriam who, while milking the cow, looked up to see a pack of zombie approaching the barn. I spent hours crafting that little jewel.
    I am bereft of all publishing hope now.

  • cheryl says:

    Ouch! My optimistic goals for publishing in 2017 may have just been squelched. Lots of opportunity for a big, fat NO! Thanks for shedding some light on these publishing procedures.
    If the agent believes in your book, will they make suggestions about ways to improve your proposal before presenting it to the next committee?
    Which of the meetings does the agent attend?

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Absolutely, Cheryl. A good agent should be helping you improve your proposal. (And, if it gets rejected a few places, probably taking it back and revising it with you to better improve the chances of it getting picked up.) An agent who simply takes whatever you give them and sends it out is not doing his or her job.

    • Cheryl Spears Waugh says:

      I’m thinking this difficult publishing process is why there are so many indie authors today. Glad to know there are good agents out there who are willing to help new authors. I feel my optimism coming back! Thanks Chip.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      You’re welcome, Cheryl. So you know, my experience is that there are plenty of good agents, and plenty of crappy agents who don’t know what they’re doing. But I agree that the process is part of why so many authors turned to indie publishing.

  • Oh, man, this is a very discouraging picture. The most discouraging is this: “how much money they’ll have to throw at the money-grubbing author, who, if she really loved words, would write her damn books for free, since we all know the publishers are only in it for the joy of reading and to serve humanity.” No regard for the goose that lays golden eggs… if it weren’t for authors, their profession wouldn’t exist.

    This makes me want to give up now and publish my own memoir. And yet that is not what I’ve envisioned…

    Thanks, Chip, for this cheery view of my upcoming year :-)!

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Take heart, Saloma. If you look around, you’ll still see lots of authors who make it through this gauntlet and get published. (But as for my joke about paying authors… Publishers are in this to make money. They want to maximize their profits and minimize expenses. Never forget that. That isn’t to say they are bad people — agents, marketers, booksellers, and authors also want to make money, and all of us are in the business because we love books and words. But yeah, I’ve heard too many conversations that suggested the author was selfish for wanting a better deal, so I thought I should make sure to throw that in here.)

    • Yes, I do see authors who make it through this gauntlet, but more and more I also see those authors as being someone who already have a public persona… being a correspondent for the NYT seems to be a popular reason to allow an author through the “filters.”

      I realize that publishers want to maximize their profits and minimize expenses. Too bad so many people in the business still believe in the notion that success is finite. If the author feels she is well compensated, she is more apt to pitch in and do her part to ensure that the book does its best in the marketplace. Success begets success, and there is a lot more of it when people cooperate, rather than compete, with one another.

      Perhaps I’m still thinking with an Amish mindset.

      Thanks, Chip, for your insights.

  • Katie Powner says:

    Oh, is that all there is to it? For some reason I thought it would be complicated. 🙂

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Well, there is occasionally the goat’s-head-on-the-floor-in-the-middle-of-the-pentagram, but that’s more rare, Katie.

  • Great information, Chip. Looks like writers need to have sales skills in their arsenal as well, especially while writing proposals.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      That’s a good comment, Preslaysa. Yes, it helps for a writer to have sales skills, since the business side of publishing is all about making a series of sales. That sort of salesmanship can be reflected in the proposal.

  • Cameron Bane says:

    Lord above, Chip, how you can take something so nerve-wracking and painful and make it so funny is a rare skill. I’m glad you have it. *G*

    ETA: right now I’m finishing a novel that features a monstrous ape who has a thing for a spunky Amish zombie girl. Their love is doomed, however, and in the end he’s taken down by unsmiling men brandishing buggy whips. I can haz a contract? *G*

  • Lynn Leissler says:

    What a cheerful read this lovely Monday morning, sigh. 🙂 But I know you speak truth. Perhaps I’ll write about a kind and spunky Amish girl who’s in love with a zombie…

  • Thank you for this humorous description of the process. (Love the Dickens and Twain joke!)

    It sounds like it’s important for the acquisitions editor to have a good rapport with the people in marketing department and the publishing committee. Does all this happen before the acquisitions editor lets you know whether she likes the project? How long does that typically take?

    My books are all about Amish… at least I’ve got that one going for me. And a spunky girl. No zombies, though.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      It all depends on the editor, Saloma. Some like to share information with the agent and author, others are more secretive. But normally you’ll know early in the process if the publishing house is actually interested. As for how long it takes… long, and it’s getting longer. The fact is, any good editor will want to read you manuscript, and that takes time. I’ve noticed the decision time has been stretching out the past couple of years. And right now it’s summer, which is always a slow decision-making time, since the people making decisions are all taking vacations. So be patient.

    • Thank you for your answer. I’m not actually in that process. I was just curious.

  • Carol Mcclain says:

    You should be an author, Chip. You are funny! Loved the post.

  • Chip, thanks for your accurate (although somewhat tongue-in-cheek) description of the process. The take-home message for me–one I’ve heard often since embarking on my own road to writing–remains “Don’t give the people involved a reason to say ‘no.'” Thanks for sharing.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      You bet, Richard. And yes, that’s still the goal, though I’ll admit it can be hard to get there.

  • Elaine Stock says:

    Thanks for the laugh and the insight to why my past novels never made it: no Amish or zombies. On a serious note–thanks for this information.

  • Renee Yancy says:

    Your post made me laugh out loud. Reminded me of Dave Barry. I love it when that happens.

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