First, prepare yourself for rejection. It may not even be your fault—your proposal and book could be perfect, but there’s a good chance it will be read (or just discarded) by a peon who doesn’t have the time or clout to do anything with it. There’s a reason publishers include a very generic address on their “contact us” section of the website.
There are ways to up your chances of actually getting into the right hands, however. This may seem like a no-brainer, but do your research. Make sure that you very carefully read the publisher’s submission page first; this may tell you if they even accept submissions and could save you a lot of frustration in the end.
Then try to find out who the editors are, instead of sending it to the attention of the company. This could be a bit tricky, but search LinkedIn or even Facebook for employees of that particular publisher. It may seem like a small detail, but any time you can have your proposal in front of an actual editor is valuable.
This brings us to the actual content of your submission. Hire someone to review your proposal or help you pull it together, if you can. It will be money well spent. You may think you’ve caught all the airs, (*errors—you see what I did there?) but there are certain things your eyes will skip over and Word won’t flag. And an error could very well be the death of your submission.
Once you feel your proposal is grammatically clean and free of structural issues, make sure the style is appropriate for whom you’re addressing it to. I know the easiest way to feel like you’re doing all you can to be published is to send proposals out left and right. To be honest, this is a waste of time and energy. Instead, do your research and narrow your list to those who publish books that are similar in feel and/or subject. You can do this by searching Barnes & Nobles’ website for books in that genre or even going to a bookstore and reading the copyright pages of books in a section that you’d like to see your own. If you start seeing a reoccurring publisher’s name, mentally jot them down.
If your proposal is for a non-fiction, serious title, include a resume to prove your credentials, and don’t forget the summary, comparative titles, any past books you’ve written, and a couple sample chapters (or whatever the publisher specifies on their website). If your title is more whimsical, a letter and creative samples may be more appropriate. You should be familiar enough with the publisher to know what kind of proposal they would be drawn to normally.
One thing you shouldn’t do—except for in very rare cases—is include your self-published version of what you’re proposing. I say this for two reasons: first, most of what I’ve seen is not well done, so it could actually hurt your chances. Second, publishers don’t need to see how you imagine the book. Every author has an idea of how they want their book to look, but publishers don’t want an author who is controlling or too opinionated in the overall process. Seeing a finished project, they will likely question why you need a publisher at all.
I saw a couple great things come across my desk (not many, but a couple) when I was an intern. And I stuck my neck out far enough to show them to an editor. The reaction is one that I understand better now—it was a passive, “aw, that’s cute. But we already have something coming up like that with a similar feel” reaction. Which leads me to my next point.
Most publishers won’t bother with you if you don’t have an agent or a platform. While you certainly can get an agent, I know many will not to maintain their autonomy. So this makes having a platform and/or credentials incredibly important. When I say a platform, I mean a substantial platform. 300 followers on Twitter is not enough, in other words. If you don’t have an agent backing you up, publishers want to know that your audience or experience will.
One last thing you can do to up your chances of being noticed is to hire someone to assist you in the submission process, as I mentioned briefly above. And if you do, make sure you mention this in your introductory letter. There are many freelance editors who offer this service and in varying degrees, myself included. It can be valuable to have someone who has experienced the publishing side do some of the research for you and help pull together appropriate materials. Having seen many submissions, their eyes are more keen to what is intriguing and what is not. They can also help you fine-tune language and perform necessary editing.
Knowing that no matter what you do, your proposal may still be rejected, always include a self-addressed envelope (with proper postage) if you want your work to be returned. If you don’t, it doesn’t matter how much you spent printing a mock-up of your book, it will probably end up in the trash. Sad, but true. A company is not going to fork out cash to return something you mailed to them.
Most important of all, though, is that you never give up if you truly believe in what you’ve written! If things aren’t happening for you, take a step back, reevaluate, and come at it from a different angle. The magic will happen when your story crosses the right path at the right time in the right way.
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