Yesterday I asked for blogging suggestions and there were a number of good responses. In fact, I’ll answer several over the course of the next few blogs. The one I’m picking today is Michael Reynolds’ question: ”What are the top five reasons books get shut down in pub committee?”
First, for those just learning the ropes in publishing, “pub committee” is a publisher’s committee that decides which books to publish. Editors alone cannot make those decisions. Instead, when we editors see something we like and we believe is a good fit for our publishing house, we present it to the publisher’s committee and hope they’ll agree with our judgment and vote yes to publish the book. Right now, my batting average is about .600. That is, for every ten projects I pitch, approximately six get a yes and four get a no vote. Although it might vary a bit from publisher to publisher, the members of the committee include at least one person each from editorial, marketing, and sales. In our case, the president of the company is also on the committee.
Instead of the five reasons Michael asked for, I’m going to offer seven. They are, by the way, not in order. They all pretty much carry equal weight.
1. The author is unknown and the book will probably not make him or her known. Face it, most book buyers purchase books from authors they already know and like. Why will they want to try your book—if you’re unknown to them? Similarly, the retailer has only a certain number of inventory dollars with which to purchase his stock. If, say, this September new books are being released by Max Lucado, Karen Kingsbury, Joyce Meyer, Stormie Omartian, and you—what reason will the store owner have to order your book when he would be safer spending inventory dollars on the well-known authors? This is where the very worn term “platform” comes in. A platform is your way to promote your book, thus sending people to bookstores to ask for it. Are you on the radio? TV? Do you hold workshops and seminars about your topic? In short, how will your potential readers hear about you and know if you’re writing for them? By the way, this is an area where I, as a writer, am challenged. I don’t have a platform and in my book proposals, I have to find a way to overcome my lack of a platform. Next week at the Mount Hermon Christian Writer’s Conference, one of my workshops is “When You Don’t Have a Platform.” (Come if you can. It’s a great conference!)
2. The topic is not of interest in the current market. I see some fine proposals for books that are not presently selling in our market. Twenty years ago, it may have been hard to sell an Amish-themed novel. Now it is not all that hard (if well-written). Currently, contemporary suspense does not sell for us, though apparently some other publishers are finding some success with that genre. Fantasy does not do well. In non-fiction, personal stories don’t fare very well. Related to this is when a book’s potential market is too small. A good example is a well-written proposal I saw a few years ago. The proposed book was for Christian grandparents who were raising their grandchildren because their own adult children had defaulted on parenthood. I’m sure there are many grandparents doing that, but not enough for us to reach effectively through our channels of distribution.
3. The proposed book is not a good fit for our publishing house. This follows perfectly from point two. We’ve had success in areas where other publishers have not. Others have had success where we’ve failed. This is why I often stress the importance of sending a proposal to not just any publisher, but to the publishing house that is successfully publishing what you write. Do your research. [I’m editing this point to add that a book may not be a good fit for us at this time. We may have recently released a similar book and must regretfully say no for now. More than once, I’ve waited and re-presented a good proposal to the committee at a later time and had the book accepted.]
4. Poor writing. Although ideally editors such as myself, only take proposals to committee we believe in, that should mean that poor writing is not a reason the committee would turn it down. After all, why would I take something to the committee that was poorly written? The truth is that I might indeed take a proposal from someone who has a platform and is writing on a strong topic, but whose writing is weak. (With the knowledge that as his or her editor, I can help “fix” the manuscript). But often the committee will just say no in such a case.
5. Sometimes the perception is that the author might not be a good fit for us. One of our core values at Harvest House is: Develop and maintain long-term relationships. If you look at our bestselling authors, you’ll notice that many of them have been with us for a long time. Few of our authors venture elsewhere. That’s because of our commitment to having a relationship that’s not purely business. We’re friends with most of our authors. We pray for them when they need prayer, we encourage them when necessary, and we try to produce the best book we can from their manuscript. But sometimes that’s not what an author really wants. Another reason an author might not fit is that we’re looking for authors who will build a writing career, not just publish one or two books and then call it quits. If you’re a one-book author, you will have a hard time finding a publishing home.
6. Sometimes an otherwise fine book is rejected because of the lack of spiritual value. In addition to our list of core values, we also have a mission statement: To glorify God by providing high-quality books and products that affirm biblical values, help people grow spiritually strong, and proclaim Jesus Christ as the answer to every human need. One good question to ask when you’re looking for a publisher is: What is their mission statement and does my proposal fit that mission? If it does, it wouldn’t hurt to point that out in your cover letter or as part of your proposal.
7. Number seven can only be described as “for unknown reasons.” Publishing committees, like editors and like readers, are subjective. Sometimes they pass on really great projects that go on to be very successfully published elsewhere. Sometimes we read success into a proposal that really isn’t there…and the book fails to live up to our hopes. Sometimes I never find out exactly why I got a no. Usually, though, the committee’s judgment is eventually confirmed. One time I presented a well-known author to the committee and I thought for sure it would be a slam-dunk yes. The proposal was on a topic that was popular in the marketplace, it was well-written, and the author seemed personable. For reasons I never knew or have now forgotten, the committee said no. When I emailed the author’s agent about the results, I received nothing in the way of a “thanks anyway” or “gosh, it would have been great to work with you,” or some sort of acknowledgement that I had championed this author. But I never again heard a peep from either that author or her agent. So in retrospect, I doubt she would have fit in at Harvest House anyway.
Let me add a final word that, just like there are unknown reasons why a book may be rejected, there are sometimes exceptions to a couple of the above reasons for rejection. We have published books when the author had very little or no platform because we felt it was an important book that needed to be published in spite of the possibility of low sales. We have taken books where the writing was less than stellar, but which we were able to edit into excellent books. We have also taken a novel from a “one-book author.” Those are rare exceptions, however.
There you go, Michael. Two reasons more than you asked for. I think maybe next time I’ll offer a couple of reasons proposals never get past my desk to make it to the committee level.