Ask the editor: Top 5 secrets to getting a book deal

29 11 2009

Ask the editor: The top 5 secrets to getting a book deal

Q: I haven’t had any luck finding a publisher for my book. What’s the secret to getting in the door?

A: Here’s my advice on how you can beat the odds and overcome the biggest reasons most books get rejected.

But first, I’d like to give you an idea of what it’s like behind the scenes at a publishing house, and how acquiring editors go about the business of signing up books.

The reality: Editors are desperate to find books!

Writers often don’t realize that editors are strongly motivated, in fact desperate, to find authors and their books. Editors wake up in the morning with acquisition anxiety!  We’re all under tremendous pressure to find promising new books that will sell.

That’s why we’re out there hounding literary agents, scouring newspapers, magazines and journals, cornering college professors, the local city councilwoman and the 16-year-old tech head from next door – because who knows, just maybe they have a great idea or brilliant new manuscript ready to go.

Given this nervous reality, why do acquiring editors reject so many of the dozens of ideas, proposals, and manuscripts they see each week, often after only a 30-second glance at the first few pages?  Here’s why, and what you can do about it.


The 5 best ways to improve your chances


#1  Bulk up your concept

The concept is the core idea of any book project. So we’re disappointed when an author or agent sends us a project with a concept that is weak or inappropriate.

We see too many memoirs, for example, that are motivated by hurt and resentment.  Or books that are clearly calculated efforts to climb on the bandwagon of a perceived hot trend, like cross-over vampire love stories, and terrorist infiltrations of suburban St. Louis. Or quick and easy programs for financial success, satisfying marriage and perfect kids based on no research or track record.  No thanks.

Some concepts reveal a writer who thinks he can make a quick killing in the book business.  Now that’s funny.

Here’s what we’re actually hoping for:

We want to see a concept with a strong premise that has energy, intensity, utility, focus and vision. We want books that will grab readers by the throat, quicken their pulses, and resonate for their own lives.

We want authors who have something new to say about an important subject or story, who bring a fresh voice or unusual perspective on a topic of concern to many people.  Authors who are passionate about their ideas and stories, who bring to their work a maturity, expertise, and a visceral compulsion to write that comes from their hearts.

An editor can usually tell right away if a concept has a new idea or point of view.

It’s also helpful for you or your agent to know as much as possible about any given editor’s special interests or personal biases.

#2  Submit a complete and convincing proposal

I can tell pretty quickly when a submission is canned or formulaic. Beware of clearing your throat with digressive warm up sentences, or hyperbolic claims of grandiose brilliance.  Too many proposals appear to reinvent the wheel without acknowledging the competition. Too many authors are uninformed about the importance of self-marketing. Not enough writers hold themselves to a high enough standard of good writing.

The bare-boned essentials of any book proposal I’d like to receive should include:

• A two or three sentence hook that tells me what the book is about and why you’re the best person to write it.

• If it’s non-fiction, include a chapter outline with a few paragraphs for each, a total of no more than two or three pages. Same thing if it’s fiction: Give me a thorough synopsis of the story.

• Then write about your platform, including education, career status, track record as a writer, past or present appearances in print or broadcast media, current or future plans for websites, blogs, or internet marketing. I also like to see a DVD that shows you talking about the book with no script, either on local TV, at some community event, or even just in your living room.

• A good proposal requires a serious and honest analysis of the competition. Too many submissions dismiss all other books and claim a presumptuous kind of superiority. We prefer respect and acknowledgment of similar books, since it proves there’s a market. What you need to tell us is how your work is different.

• Finally, whether it’s non-fiction or fiction, I want a sparkling example of your writing. Usually the first chapter is best, but if it’s a first novel, send in the entire manuscript. I know conventional rules say start with a query letter, but with a novel, I recommend that you be more assertive and send the whole thing. It’s the best way for us to see what you can do, beginning to end.

For a more thorough discussion, have a look at this earlier post,  The book proposal: what publishers want.

#3  Come in with an agent

You’ve probably heard that unrepresented, unsolicited proposals and manuscripts don’t get the same attention, and it’s true. They end up in the slush pile.

Editors at most publishing houses won’t even open the email or package from someone they don’t know. They want to see a project a respected agent recommends — rather than spend hours going through literally hundreds of emails and packages.

Finding the right agent for your book is crucial. It’s your job to find the best one specifically for you, an agent who knows which editor at what publisher might be interested in what you’re doing.  That agent’s relationship with the editor is also essential for negotiating the best financial terms, since it’s the acquiring editor’s job to pay as little as possible.

It may not be easy to find the right agent, but remember, they’re also looking for you. So go to writers conferences where agents appear, search their websites, find their names in the acknowledgment pages of books you like, find a friend who has a good agent, and subscribe to Publisher’s Marketplace for the latest inside information about which agents have sold what project to which editors.

And beware of any so-called agent who charges you for reading the book. That’s a scam.

#4  Polish your writing to the highest standard

Your proposal, sample pages, or complete manuscript must be held to a high literary standard. Some common problems I see are proposals with disorganized thinking that jumps from idea to idea with no apparent logic or linear sequence. Or the same idea is repeated over and over. Or the writer makes unwarranted assumptions that I’ll be able to understand prose that twists and turns with bewildering shifts in time and place.  Or I see characters who are two-dimensional and all speak in the same voice.

And surprisingly, I see proposals replete with typos and poor grammar. Sure that stuff can be fixed, but it indicates a lack of care and professionalism.

Remember that writing is rewriting. Some fine authors I’ve worked with – Toni Morrison, Tom Robbins, Hunter Thompson – each labor over every word, and are actually never quite satisfied, always feeling it can be better. And it can.

Compare yourself to the best and see how good you can make it. Raise the bar. Be tougher on yourself.  Seek feedback beyond family and friends.  Here are some suggestions:

• Take a writing class that provides discipline and high standards

• Hire a freelance developmental editor (not for spelling or punctuation but content, style, organization) with a track record of published authors.  Here are some tips from an earlier post,  Choosing a freelance editor: what you need to know

• Be prepared to take the time needed to produce well-organized, highly polished prose. Yes, I know Dan Brown can get away with clunky prose, but he’s a master of cliff-hanging and page-turners, despite his writing.

#5  Come with a platform and plan for self-marketing

I’ve seen proposals from writers who say their book will sell itself or that they’re too busy or shy to participate in publicity or marketing.

Ouch. We depend on authors to cooperate and participate in a big way on selling their books. For more specifics, take a look at this earlier post on Building the author platform: 10 tips from a pro

That doesn’t mean every writer who submits a proposal already needs to have a celebrity status platform. Not many new authors have a national TV show or a website that gets a million page views every day.

But your proposal should demonstrate a willingness to understand and be effective at self-marketing. There’s so much an author can do these days to reach their readers directly. Even writers who are intrinsically shy are able to enter an online community that relates to their book and present their information, ideas, and stories.

To give your book the best chance of success these days you must provide your prospective agent or publisher with your own self-marketing plan for the book.

That means starting a website and blog before you even go for the agent or book contract. Get that URL based on your preliminary title, build your website with expert help, and start blogging, commenting on other sites and blogs, and social networking.  Welcome to the 21st century!

Conventional self-marketing is also still important. Learn to stand on your feet and speak extemporaneously about your book. Seek invitations to appear at professional and community events. Approach local print and broadcast journalists as an expert in your field, or with a great story to tell about your novel. Hire a publicity agent if you can afford it, publishers love to see that kind of commitment. And get to know the owner of your local independent bookstore.  They may be interested if you can pull in 75 people on your personal list for a reading when the time comes.

I know some of you may prefer to remain at home writing, but do it anyway — it works, and it can be fun.


Motivated writers can navigate the changes in publishing

There’s never been a better time for a writer to navigate the big changes in book publishing. Agents and editors are tearing down old conventions and experimenting with new ideas. No one in the book business knows what the digital revolution or downturn in the economy will bring next.

Everyone realizes that they need creative authors who believe in what they’re doing, hold themselves to a high standard, and are able to reach their readers directly.

Dive in and you’ll have a much better chance of success.

Any questions or tips?

Have questions about any of this?  Tips and suggestions to pass along to fellow writers?  Please post them here in comments.

23 Responses to Ask the editor: The top 5 secrets to getting a book deal

  1. Carl Selby
    October 30th, 2009 at 12:37 am

    Wow! What a wealth of information for one blog post!

    Number 5 struck a particular chord with me. It’s so important for modern writers to acknowledge that the world is very different to even four or five years ago. If you can’t be bothered to get out there and sell your product (or idea/ms/proposal) then don’t expect anyone else to either!

    A related favour – could fellow readers/writers please take a look at and let me know what you think of my first edit Book Trailer.

    Kind regards,

    Carl Selby

  2. uberVU – social comments
    October 30th, 2009 at 6:01 am

    Social comments and analytics for this post

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by Michelle Hodkin: Awesome post from Alan Rinzler that indirectly explains why agents have to be so discriminating-

  3. Sandra
    October 30th, 2009 at 8:59 am

    Great post. What impresses me is your forward looking attitude which makes a refreshing change. “No one in the book business knows what the digital revolution or downturn in the economy will bring next.” Too true!

  4. Pierre Lehu
    October 30th, 2009 at 11:23 am


    Do you think you’re more likely to want the entire manuscript now that it can be sent electronically rather than having manuscripts of typed pages lying around your office?

    Great post, though with 650,000 books published last year you would think it would be a breeze to get a book published. Getting them sold in any quantity is another story.

    I’ve got a client whose print book I’m trying to sell who’s already sold 65,000 e-book copies. How would you treat that situation?

    Pierre Lehu

  5. Friday’s Links: book pricing controversies, m-readers, and what we mean when we talk about bad writing « Booklife
    October 30th, 2009 at 11:38 am

    […] Editor and consultant Alan Rinzler shares his top five secrets to getting a book deal. […]

  6. Alan Rinzler
    October 30th, 2009 at 12:05 pm

    Hi Pierre –

    Yes, I always request the entire manuscript as a single Word document email attachment, since it’s much faster, cheaper, and easier to handle than a stack of paper.

    Selling 65K ebooks is a very impressive accomplishment. If you’re having trouble placing the print version, perhaps the publishers are assuming everyone who wants it already has one. Your job is educational: to explain why the book isn’t focused on a specialized market and there are still plenty of new potential readers. You can also cite statistics showing that people who’ve purchased an ebook are also likely to buy a print version (see Kindle stats from Amazon.)

    If that doesn’t work, maybe the flaw is in the book itself and it needs work, a new edition, a preface from a credible famous expert in the field, or more developmental editing.

    It also helps, as you know, to guarantee buying a few hundred or more at a good discount, as back-of-the-room materials.

    Good luck,


  7. Matt
    October 31st, 2009 at 2:56 am

    A wonderfully candid and detailed post. I’ve already bookmarked it for when the time is right, although, as you hint at, the publishing industry could well be a very different place by the time I’m ready. Still, I’ve already started my self-marketing, with a website about my writing experiences, and some plans about what I’m going to do with my first book.

    A friend of mine has just got himself an agent, and helpfully wrote a blog post about it for me. Hope it helps someone:

  8. Bernard S. Jansen
    October 31st, 2009 at 3:22 am

    Thanks for sharing this. Point one spoke the loudest to me, especially the part about the desire for books that “will grab the reader by the throat, quicken their pulse, and resonate for their own lives.”

    I find this statement very challenging. You’re not just looking for a ‘good’ book, but a book that’s also an assailant, a drug and a mirror.

  9. Mimm Patterson
    November 1st, 2009 at 6:10 pm


    As ever – full of information, incredibly helpful but most of MOTIVATING. Thank you so much.

  10. Nath Jones
    November 2nd, 2009 at 5:36 am

    I just read the sentence, “Hire a publicity agent if you can afford it, publishers love to see that kind of commitment.” (I think I’m going to puke.) How do you recommend making the transition from an insulated life, writing in a room with a view, to the very real world of selling yourself and your book?

  11. Dustin Hansen
    November 2nd, 2009 at 8:13 am

    This is fantastic. I work in the video game business and the advent of smaller, cheaper, more bite sized games for the iPhone and social media sites like Facebook forced me to take a new approach 2 years ago. It is fascinating to see the same type of self promotional/direct to consumer shift happening in my other passion – literature. I just blogged about looking ahead and writing for readers that aren’t there yet. I’d love to hear your feedback.

    This is such a great post – thanks again for your honest advice.

  12. lakj f
    November 2nd, 2009 at 10:15 pm


    Cute, but the last one doesn’t make sense = ‘resonate in their own lives’ links up how with ‘mirror?’

  13. Donna McAleer
    November 4th, 2009 at 6:41 am

    Thanks for this informative piece. How do you suggest managing the relationship with an agent for a non-fiction completed work? What should be expected in terms of submissions to editors and response times?

  14. Robert
    November 4th, 2009 at 8:39 am

    Some people just aren’t this motivated…

    …It’s like trying to motivate a PFC of 4 years in the Marine Corps after he’s continuously been knocked down throughout his enlistment. After you’ve spent so much time on a project, you would think that it would be fun, full of motivation, inspiration, and enthusiasm. But to some of us writers, it’s none of the above.

    Marketing the damn thing is probably the hardest part, even after all the countless nights tossing the irrelevance and perfecting the wordsmithing. Try persuading a seventy-five year old man to begin using email and other online communication, though he refuses to rid his rotary telephone.

    Us old-timers just aren’t up for all this “contemporary” foolishness. We guide ourselves down this strict passageway of completing our story of days long past, and hope to hand it off in a single wave. Your advice tends to steam from this new world, liberal sociable array that seems boisterous; giddy, but in reality is quite frightening and straight up tumultuous.

    For those of you reading this that have any doubt in this enduring process posted above, please be rest assured there are rather more conservative approaches for your success as a writer. The modern media would rather have you flaunt yourself and boast your work over say, The president’s autobiography, when the two having nothing in common, nor are comparable on any level. This by example is an unfortunate situation, because you have then become accountable for the conflict the mainstream media is always in search of.

    If you are not the persuasive type and rather be left standing behind the curtain, there is such a team of advertisers that are of your disposal to hire/ fire at your convenience to sell your product or work, rather than selling yourself. There is a difference between you and your work. Again, the liberal base doesn’t like to differenciate the two, but there is no argument. Another common example is not being able to afford this team, so as to do it yourself. Again, it is easier said than done. But instead of selling yourself, advertise your work under the influence of other writers and stay conservative throughout the marketing journey.

    I can promise you that if you choose this route, you won’t have any problem remaining conservative as it will come natural. Which proves humbleness and passion for why you’re here and what got to where you are in the first place. Hold your spirit high. There is a way!

    –Rob USMC

  15. Meghan Ward
    November 8th, 2009 at 8:36 am

    Great post! It’s daunting as a first-time author to read how important it is to have a platform (and EVERYONE is writing about that these days), but those of us who are willing to make that happen will have an edge on those who don’t. And with the publishing industry crumbling, we all need an edge!

  16. Suzannah
    November 12th, 2009 at 1:22 pm

    Thanks for this article–really helpful. I’ll be including it in my next list of links for my readers.

    I like that publishing is changing and the internet is becoming a more valuable resource for marketing. A lot of aspiring authors use their websites as a means of gaining writing experience and finding a supportive audience, and it’s a shame not to take advantage of that if one gets published.

  17. Mark Griffith
    November 12th, 2009 at 5:09 pm

    Not meaning to be impolite, but isn’t “grab the reader by the throat, quicken their pulse, and resonate for their own lives” itself a piece of pretty formulaic writing? I’m not sure what those phrases really mean, but when I pick up a book to read, fiction or non-fiction, I certainly don’t want to be grabbed by the throat or have my pulse quickened.

    I also prefer books that don’t resonate with my own life, but show me something new. Just saying, like…

    I’ve worked as a magazine editor, a book editor, a literary translator, and a writer. On the topic of fiction, my suspicion is that most of the best novels of the 18th and 19th century would never have got past today’s editors. I think that’s because writing novels in instalment form for magazines is a much better way of getting readers interested in a story than trying to sell them a complete packaged tale the same size as months of collected episodes from a Richardson or an Austen or an Eliot or a Hardy. Equally, writing a long story without that regular reader feedback is very very hard. So it seems to me that modern editors and writers of long-form fiction are both trying to do something near impossible – explaining the drop in quality since long-fiction magazines died out around 1900.

    It’s also a bit dishonest to pretend that both sides don’t have other problems. All the would-be writers I’ve met care about “being writers” more than telling stories, and have little or nothing to say. On the other hand, all the editors I’ve met are shockingly lazy, but have found a better way of hiding the fact they also have nothing to say. Colleagues used to express frank astonishment that I – as an editor – actually read and answered all my mail each day, as if this was a weird thing to do. On one magazine I found I could work part-time and replace three full-timers – with a steep increase in quality I have to immodestly add.

    Most writers and most editors {and most agents} have in common a desire to be involved with creativity and to see themselves as creative people. They also tend to share similar character problems, psychological difficulties, and lack of talent – albeit with different strategies for hiding these shortcomings from themselves and others.

    Sorry – but this is just what I’ve seen working on both sides of the fence.

  18. Alan Rinzler
    November 13th, 2009 at 1:37 pm

    Hi Mark,

    Books don’t have to start with murders, car crashes, or terrorist bombings to get my attention. Right now I’m reading “Chronic City” by Jonathan Lethem, and the opening sentence, “I first met Perkus Tooth in an office.” is hardly formulaic. Something about the funny name and ironic flat pacing, though, led me to the next sentence, and the next, until I was hooked. Just goes to show, everybody has a different reason for not putting a book down.

    As for lazy editors, I can tell you that they won’t survive, and are quickly let go. Good editors work hard to find good books. And when it comes to lazy writers, OK, some lack talent to be sure, but others just need help.

    I can’t agree that there’s a drop in quality these days or that there were any more great books published in the 1800’s than there are today. Great books are few and far between but I keep finding new stuff, like Lethem, that holds my attention and deserves respect.

    I do confess to having a “glass half full” point of view, which I suppose some may consider naive.


  19. Larry Myler
    November 14th, 2009 at 10:11 pm


    Nice post. Thank you. If I had read it a year earlier the following probably wouldn’t have happened:

    I am a first-time author with a business book coming out in January, 2010. This may sound strange, but to get the deal I simply sent an email inquiry directly to Wiley. Ten minutes later they requested a full proposal. A month later I had a signed contract with an advance check in the mail. All this without an agent. The very idea of writing a book hadn’t even entered my head until one year ago, and the finished product will hit stores less than three months from now.

    I have a strong feeling that I am extremely fortunate, both in terms of the caliber of publisher and the quick timing. Further, I suspect that this good luck has far more to do with my book topic lining up well with current economic conditions, and less to do with my track record (non-existant), platform (still building it) or writing skills (workin’ on ‘em). Wiley is now talking about a second book contract for 2011, and I’m thinking this is pretty cool stuff.

    So, I just have to know. How rare is this scenario? Any advice on how to make the most of it?

  20. Victoria Mixon
    November 15th, 2009 at 7:50 pm

    “[Most writers and most editors {and most agents}]. . .tend to share similar character problems, psychological difficulties, and lack of talent – albeit with different strategies for hiding these shortcomings from themselves and others.”

    I have to say, Mark, this is hilarious. Just writers, editors, and agents? And most of those guys? You’re absolutely certain about that?

    Because you should hear how disgruntled computer engineers talk about their “talentless” peers. Disgruntled marketing executives. Disgruntled loggers, used-car sales reps, gas station attendants.

    Every industry has its share of deadwood, and every industry has its disgruntled complaining about them, too. I was certainly taken aback to hear a story recently on Twitter about a publisher’s editor who cavalierly altered a character’s dress and make-up to reflect her own tastes rather than the author’s. But that’s not a problem with being a writer or editor. That’s a problem with being a jerk.

    How many of us reading Alan’s blog have been or still are magazine/newspaper editors? professional writers and book editors? dreamers, agents, and published authors? I’m guessing you’re going to get some push-back, Mark, on the idea that most of us are, basically, just losers. We kind of like being us. We kind of like each other!

    We work hard, we study our craft, we love books. It’s what we do—we just love working with books.

    Alan’s advice to write something that will “grab the reader by the throat, quicken their pulse, and resonate for their own lives” is no more formulaic, really, than saying, “Write in sentences.” The world is packed to the gills with potential stories along those lines. Not everyone sees them, and not everyone knows what to do with them when they do. But they’re there.

    And you know what makes readers love them? The power of expressing something that truly matters about being alive with the written word.


  21. Malcolm
    November 16th, 2009 at 2:37 pm

    Interesting post. I really enjoyed reading some fresh advice. I had to smile over the advice “come in with an agent,” which made it sound like one can just pick up an agent like selecting a toothbrush at the five and dime. Agents are about as hard to land as a publisher. If you’re not already published, an agent probably won’t respond to your query.


  22. Alan Rinzler
    November 18th, 2009 at 11:50 am

    Hi Larry,

    That’s a great publishing success story. Congratulations! You clearly had a winning idea and made the right connection. Yes, it’s a rare scenario but who said good things can’t happen in the book business?

    To make the most of it, support your publisher in every way you can. Tell them in detail about everything you’ll be doing as an entrepreneurial author to drive sales through conventional and internet media and networking.

    Communicate with them primarily by email since that’s the least demanding and intrusive. Remain upbeat and cooperative, and have realistic expectations about the amount of time they have to devote exclusively to you.

    Enjoy yourself and best wishes for a great success.


  23. Bernard S. Jansen
    November 23rd, 2009 at 4:04 pm

    @lakj f
    Sorry for the delay, I only just checked back here and saw your comment. You are right in that my connection between, ‘resonate in their own lives’ and ‘mirror’ is a little cryptic.

    When I read a work that really resonates in my own life, it is because it has shown me something about myself. This is most powerful when it is something about myself that I’ve not seen before. In this sense, the written word becomes a mirror placed in front of me. Without that experience, I would not now see myself as I do now.

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