Red Flags for Big Publishing Houses

By James Batchelor on November 28th, 2014

The world of Publishing has changed dramatically over the last decade. There is no doubt about it. We live in a time when anyone, regardless of subject matter or talent, can publish their work to the world with the investment of nothing more than time. And though there are often many reasons–and even benefits–to going the self-published route, let’s face it, the big publishing houses still lend credibility to any novel. Especially a new novel from a relatively unknown author. Though the big houses may not be as important as they once were, a reader knows that any book that comes from a publishing house has been professionally edited, proofread, and reviewed by any number of industry professionals. And while it may be argued that this can have a watering-down effect as publishers try to force novels into rigidly formulaic parameters, the level of investment and professionalism that comes from the big boys is something that a self-published author very often do not have the resources or understanding to give to his or her own work.

This is important information for writers. Even if you are not interested in soliciting the big houses, this is a fiercely competitive industry with literally millions of other books vying for a reader’s time and money. It is important to know what will help your novel rise with the cream and what will sink it into the sludge of the hundreds of thousands of self-published novels which never sell more than a few copies. With that in mind, I offer the following red flags that will count against your manuscript the moment it hits the acquisition editor’s desk. These are tips from Brandon Sanderson himself on what the big houses do not want to see in a manuscript.

1. Series: Publishers are not buying series right now. What they are looking for is satisfying, self-contained novels with series potential. I was with Brandon at Comic Con this past summer, and he put it like this (I’m paraphrasing here): It requires so much of a reader to learn a new world, new characters, and new magic systems, that if a book is successful, the publisher wants to capitalize on the work the reader already did in the first book with additional books. But, the publishing houses are not willing to commit to a series of books from an unknown author which may never even pay for itself.

2. Length: Publishers don’t want to see anything over 150,000 words. But often much shorter is better. Shorter books are cheaper to edit, cheaper to print, can get to market much faster, and take up less space on a retail shelf, so more of them can be fit in a given space, thereby potentially making more money for both the publisher and the store.

Another aspect to consider is the psychological factor of book length. Editors and agents are no different than you or me as a reader. If they have two manuscripts sitting in front of them from two unknown authors, one is short and one is long, they are naturally going to gravitate toward the short one first. It is less of a gamble to invest their time in a shorter book. As Sanderson put it, “if you can tell the same story in 80,000 words as you do in 140,000, then do it.”

3. Switching points of view too fast or too frequently: This is jarring for a reader. As one beta reader put it in a review of one of my books, “each time it changes perspective, it is like putting on the brakes for just a minute until I come up to speed with the new scene.”

That said, however, let me share with you a contradictory story from my own experience which made a big impression on me. Years ago, I was traveling across the country for the umpteenth time. I went to the library to find some audiobooks for the trip and ended up with, among other things, a Margaret Truman book. I knew nothing about Ms. Truman except that she has a million books out and was the daughter of former President Harry S. Truman. As such, I did not know what to expect when I started on the first CD.

The tracks were very short, only two or three minutes each. This is significant because when I began listening, I did not realize my CD player was set to skip tracks randomly rather than playing them in order. As I listened the book began to skip around and show me a piece of a scene here, and a hint of a conspiracy there. Since I was not familiar with this author, I did not realize this was not normal and I listened for about 15 minutes this way, completely captivated before I picked up on the fact that something was amiss. But here is the point: I was totally engaged in the experience. I was titillated by the hints of all the different plots and subplots that were being alluded to. I was far more engrossed for those fifteen minutes than I ever was for the rest of the book, which turned out to be a fairly bland murder mystery with a bunch of characters I did not care about.

So for me, the rapid changing of perspective was not a negative. But I do agree with the publishers that it does demand more of a reader. And a new author may not have the credibility with the readers to earn that level of effort.

4. Cliffhanger endings: It makes sense that a publisher would not want a book with a cliffhanger ending when they are not interested in purchasing series. But even if a follow-up book is guranteed, cliffhanger endings can also be frustrating for a reader who then has to wait a year or two for the next book.

On that note, I cannot tell you how many people have told me over the years that they do not begin a series if it is not already complete. In truth, I tend to fall into this camp myself. So, I definitely understand the sentiment.

Now, fans of my books will notice that I violate most of the above items, which brings me to the last and most important principle:

5. Be true to your work: If you can incorporate the above items without compromising the integrity of the work, it probably makes sense to do so. But if you can’t, so be it. It is what it is. It is far better to put out a book or submit a manuscript that you truly believe in, rather than one you feel has been compromised. You are the one who has to live with that work. You are the one who has to speak about, talk to fans about it, and endure potentially scathing reviews because of it. It can be a brutal, exhausting process. Make sure your book is worth it.

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