By now, I’m sure you’ve read “Stop Thinking Like a Creative; Start Thinking Like an Entrepreneur”. If you haven’t, I highly recommend that you do. You’ll be able to gain a better perspective on what book pitches look like in the eyes of a publisher.
Especially the big ones who receive thousands in their inboxes on a daily basis. Insight on how publishers see your pitch will help to understand what can help you to get published.
However, I’ll still retouch and expand on some points made within it for the sake of this article.
How Traditional Publishers Choose Whom to Invest In
In short, traditional publishers want to make sure that they’ll get a return on their investment.
Choosing no-name authors that think they’re rising stars, yet have no tangible proof to show that they’d be a good investment, ward off traditional publishers. That’s because they can’t show to the publisher that they already have accrued a following. And they can’t guarantee that with a little financial support they can rake in the dollars with their work.
Traditional publishers get so many proposals that the likelihood of them even opening your e-mail is low. Instead, many of them have realized that it’s smarter to just find the independent authors who’ve already established a fan base of their own with their own marketing efforts. Then, they reach out to those authors because they would likely yield a much higher return on their investment (ROI).
When I first started writing with the intent to get published, I self-published with a vanity press. I also hired a professional editor on the side to give me both constructive criticism and to polish my work.
Long story short, that winded up becoming a disastrous experience because no publisher, especially a vanity publisher, can guarantee success.
I knew that ahead of time. I had read the countless recommendations online telling me never to pay for getting your work published. But I decided to take the risk anyway because I wanted to find out for myself.
However, you know what I discovered after much deliberation and introspection?
Ego Is the Writer’s Greatest Weakness
The vanity publisher had nothing to do with me failing.
That’s right. I said it.
The hard truth is, so many writers have the dream that they can become the next J.K. Rowling, Stephen King, or Tom Clancy (the next blockbusting bestselling author). They are so sure that their writing is the best in the world.
And, when they find themselves getting rejected by all of the traditional publishers (or lack the courage to even try), they rationalize their immediate failures by comparing themselves to other greats who didn’t get discovered until after their deaths.
Instead of just taking responsibility for the fact that their writing just may not be good enough. That they need to work even harder to attain the level that they want.
It’s theoretically possible for anyone. But, if it was so easy as to simply write a book and put it on the market, everybody would be bestsellers.
My world came crashing down when I used a vanity publisher to put my work on the market. I paid in exchange for the lack of knowledge that I had about the industry.
To put my book in someone else’s hands to take care of all that for me. To cut the line of other writers seeking to get traditionally published. Because I was so sure that the world was wrong. That I was a genius, and that the world would someday know its mistake in rejecting my work.
…at least, until the initial reviews came back from actual readers who had bought my work. I realized, the hard way, that the free market doesn’t lie.
Embrace Criticism and Learn From It
Usually, most writers crawl up into a little ball and never write again. They make excuses for their failure, and thus, stunt their growth. Other writers ignore the criticism and keep producing trash, wondering why they are not going anywhere or getting new results.
After much psychological suffering and pride swallowing, I decided to listen to what my harshest critics were saying. I pulled my book off of the market and persistently worked on bettering it.
Then, I re-released the same book, different editorial revisions of the same story, over and over again. About four times.
It was through this long and grueling process that I became aware of the varying perspectives of different demographic audiences. That you can’t please everyone and what having a “target audience” really means.
I changed nothing about my story, Fighting for Redemption, in order to maintain credibility. But I changed everything about my narrative voice, how I told the story, keeping my target audience in mind. I predicted what target audiences were not going to like my work, and allowed it to happen anyway. Criticism was finally and actually under my control.
It wasn’t until after all of the trial and error that I started receiving back-to-back positive reviews. That happened because I understood my target audience, and thus, marketed to them—the right way. I also eventually attracted a small press that contracted me for my book. They came to me, not the other way around.
Don’t Let Your Ego Blind You
So my failure was not the vanity publisher’s fault. What killed me, in the beginning, was both a lack of writing skill and a lack of marketing skill.
I mean, analyze, for a moment, if you will, the very words “vanity” and “publisher”, how they go together.
Oxford English Dictionary defines the word, “vanity”, as: “excessive pride in or admiration of one’s own appearance or achievements.”
It defines the word, “publisher”, as: “a person or company that prepares and issues books, journals, music, or other works for sale.”
So, considering the fact that self-publishing is always an option, writers tend to use vanity publishers to be able to officially say that they’re published authors. But that doesn’t mean that they’ve accomplished something major. Because anyone can do that.
They pay money for a vanity publisher to say that a company that is not their own backs their work. Which is not untrue, but it’s not the whole truth.
Yet, it’s enough truth for some writers to feel like they’ve accomplished something great. The concept appeals to their vanity and ego.
Some writers, like I was, are able to get out of this ego trap. They are able to face themselves in the mirror and the fact that they still have a mountain to climb if they really want to be a respected author.
Other writers, on the other hand, stay within the ego trap. They never want to be told anything negative about their work, or that they have more work to do.
This prevents them from marketing well, because of their low-quality writing. They are then unable to build a loyal following, which prevents them from getting the attention of a publisher who would otherwise reach out and contact them.
How to Get Published the Right Way
You have to remember that traditional publishers are basically just investment companies. They are looking for a low-risk, high-reward ROI.
It doesn’t matter what industry you’re in, not even referring to writing, what you’re doing by writing a book is producing a product. You want someone to invest in it so that you can get it out into the world.
Whenever you watch shows like Shark Tank…
…filled with people with product and service ideas who then pitch it to possible investors…
Breaking free from The Prestige Effect, you begin to realize that the writing industry is almost exactly the same way. When you pitch your book (or book idea) to a publisher, you’re basically a person participating in a Shark Tank episode.
To you, your book is art. To them, your book is a product.
Nothing more. Nothing less.
It’s not personal; it’s just business. If your book doesn’t sell, they lose out on a lot of money.
Build It and They Will Come
Notice how the sharks on the TV show ask virtually every pitcher, questions like: “How many have you sold already?”
Publishers ask the same questions with unknown authors. If your answer is 0, then you’re viewed as a high-risk, low- (or no-) return liability, not an asset.
They’ll typically only accept it if you just so happened to have written your work in precisely the way that they know will sell with the right leverage. But that’s like hitting the lottery if you don’t have the knowledge and skill of how to do that intentionally. And hitting the lottery twice in a row if they still decide to risk it anyway.
So, whom do you think will they pay more attention to and be more likely to sign? The author who hasn’t marketed themselves at all and has no acquired audience as bargaining leverage? Or the author who already has 50,000 followers who love their work and would buy their work with a simple Facebook message?
The latter author has already proven that their product works and is appreciated by the market.
So, the goal should never be to do what I like to call “pitch and pray”. The goal should be to start off as a self-published author (being completely different and much more honorable than using a vanity press), and learn how to market yourself to the point where you develop a loyal following on your own. In such a way that puts you on the radar and makes publishers come to you.
Mike Norton is an American award-winning marketing strategist with a BA in Internet marketing from Full Sail University.
He’s also a writer, entrepreneur, and a physicist studying part-time at the University of York who is a veteran of the United States military and the 7-time winner of the USS Dwight Eisenhower award for essays about world peace and respect.
As a mostly self-educated vagabond, he gains inspiration from a myriad of experiences wrought from the adventures of his nomadic lifestyle. He prolifically writes and journals where ever he goes in the world, from one country to the next.