Copyright 2020 Melanie Spiller. All rights reserved.
Choosing a Publisher, Part 1
MelanieSpiller and Coloratura Consulting
You’ve got this brilliant idea for a book, you sat down last night and wrote an outline and a chapter, and now you feel ready to look for a publisher. There are many publishers out there, and it’s hard to know where to start. Here’s what I tell my clients to do.The first thing to do is take yourself to the local bookstore with a large section on your topic. (If there is no section for your topic, think again—if the distributors don’t know where to shelve it, they can’t sell it.) Bring a pad and pencil or your trusty computerized device, and be prepared to spend the whole afternoon.Once you’ve found your book’s future home, take a copy of each book on your subject with you to a nice table or chair, and settle in. If your subject is a product that is still in development for the first version, find a subject that is similar enough that you can draw some parallels. First, make piles of the books you’ve pulled out, sorted by publishers. On the backs (or sometimes the front) of most technical books, the publisher tells the level of audience the book is meant to please. Your own opinion may be required for accurate grouping. You may see that one publisher does only entry-level books, another only certification, and another focuses on development tools. Or it may be that some publishers’ coverage is comprehensive. Make note of what each publisher’s level seems to be. Be aware that some publishers have more than one imprint (several publishing companies that all report to the same parent company).Next, reorganize your piles by audience level. (You can mix publishers now, pile-wise.) Look for gaps and make note (there might be fifteen books at the power user level, four at the developer level, and only one introduction). It could be that your store is just out of certain books, so look on the Internet later to make sure of your findings. Again, you are trying to determine where the publisher’s focus is.If you have a good sense of the audience for whom your book is to be written, that’s great, but don’t get too fixated on it. It may be that the publisher with whom you most want to work already has some big name author doing a book at your level. Or it could be that they want you to ratchet it up or down a notch to fit into their planned line. For this research, start with the pile of the books at your same target audience. Flip through the books taking notes as you go. Document how many pages are in each book, whether the fonts are large and the leading (the space between the lines of text) is wide, and if the publisher bulked up a short book with thick paper. Books for developers, for instance, are expected to take up a certain amount of shelf space, so watch for this trick. You could take a few books with the same page count and stand them together, to see how common it is to bulk up with fat paper.Also notice whether there are icons and other features of a series that you like or don’t like. Usually, text is plopped into templates, and you don’t get to pick which series template is used on your work. Series templates prescribe cover art, fonts, graphics, and page thickness. They can also limit the number of pages per book. So you might as well target a publisher that you think is suitably solemn (or not) for your topic. Repeat this exercise with the books at other levels than your targeted audience. As you go, look for ways that your book will be different from the existing ones, assuming that publishers will revise for a new product version.Books on previously uncovered topics are easier to get distributed if they fit into an existing series. Publishers starting a new series try to bring out several books at the same time, just to get shelf placement. One reason for this is that the salespeople from the publisher get about an hour to present their whole product line—it could be a hundred books or more. The more “buckets” of information they can use to explain their product, the more products they can explain. So, as a first-time author, your best bet is to identify several existing series into which your book can fit. Once again, don’t get too married to an idea—the publisher could think your book fits into a new series idea, or perhaps a series you didn’t like. The more you know about what the publisher already produces, the more reasoned your arguments will be on this topic.Thin the pile of books, identifying books that appeal to you. Make note of the publishers whose books you’ve selected and why. Copy down Web site information, phone numbers, and, if it’s listed, the name of the Acquisitions Editor, from each of the books you’ve chosen. Also make note of the price, page count, physical size, and accompanying CD contents for each.Once you’ve identified a pile of books from various publishers whose series could accommodate your book, it’s time to start reading. Read the table of contents and make a judgement about whether the book meets the promise of the title or series description. Look at the voice by reading bits here and there, notice how much white space is in the text, and see what sorts of interruptions are offered. Take a break by watching other shoppers for a while, seeing what they read when they pick up a book. Are they heading straight for the index? Do they study the table of contents or the back cover? When they read text, do they seem to be reading figure captions and tables, maybe notes and warnings, but not actually settling into text? How much do they really look at before they tuck the book under their arm and head for the cashier? How many books do they seem to compare? Now look at your pile of books again, and see what sorts of elements you find compelling toward purchase. Go ahead and read through the index of each book in your short stack of preferred books. Do it in context of the table of contents and see if you can determine anything about the contents from only these two aspects. Compare the index from one book to those of the others. Is one longer than the others? Does one seem to go to a deeper level? Is there cross-referencing?Next, pick a subject that’s covered in each book in your preferred books pile, and read the chapter that covers it in each. (This should not be an introductory chapter, but something that develops an idea to maturity.)From this reading, you should be able to determine many things, including:Editorial quality: Do you find obvious grammar, structure, image placement, or technical mistakes? If you do, this publisher is on a tight budget. This means that not only won’t your book be top-rate but you can’t expect to earn top dollar either. A brief or vague index also indicates cost cutting. Focus: Does the author meet the promise of the title? Is the audience listed on the cover the true audience from your reading of the text? Does the author’s voice match what you expected from the headings and the cover text?Attitude: Does the author boast, goof on himself, or sneer? What kind of voice does the author have? Is there a lot of personality or is it fairly dry? How does the premise of your book fit into this?At this point, you should be able to see some trends. It would be really great if you could repeat this same study for another topic, so you could be sure to have a full-spectrum look at the books.Now it’s time to go home and look at the publisher’s Web sites. Before you do, though, please reshelf all those books. If you saw my name in any of them, please reshelf at eye-level. In Choosing a Publisher, Part 2, I’ll discuss the online portion of your research.