What Do Publishers Want?

Photo by Jeffrey Abrahams

Jumping Through Hoops

By Ross Howell

Recently my mother-in-law’s neighbor phoned me after he learned that I had studied at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He had completed a first novel, had gotten a response from an agent, and wanted to know what to do next.

“There seem to be so many hoops to jump through,” he said. “Is it really worth it?”

I never handle metaphysical questions well, so I employed the defiant-student-to-high-school-principal rhetorical device. I answered his question with a question.

“What are you up against?” I asked.

“The agency agreed to read my manuscript,” he said. “But they want me to fill out a questionnaire. I don’t know who else today writes like me—I thought I was original. And I don’t know who my market is. Book readers, I guess.”

My experience differs from most writers in that I founded and ran a small publishing house for 20 years. We didn’t publish any literary fiction, but at least I’ve spent some time on the other side of the desk.

“Publishers don’t want to think,” I said. “The agent’s job is to convince them they won’t have to if they take your book.”

“You’re kidding, right?” he said.

“Your agent is asking for your genre, your market, the writers you’d compare yourself with, because the agency needs to know the right publisher to submit your book to, where it fits in the market, and how they can sell it at a profit. Your agent will want to make the publisher believe they don’t have to think about that. Your book can be marketed just like Smith’s was, the one they published two seasons ago that reprinted three times before they sold mass market paperback rights. If the publisher has to think about how they’re going to sell a book, then they probably won’t take it.”

“But I wasn’t thinking about how to market it when I wrote it. I was just trying to be creative, to get the writing right.”

“Just think about it now. Be concise and candid. It’s a hoop.”

“Yeah,” he said.

“You’re ahead of me,” I said. “I sent a query to an agent I know personally from when I was a publisher getting manuscripts he represented. I got a form letter back from his assistant. She put a note at the bottom that she was embarrassed he didn’t have time to write a personal letter. He told her to tell me he had to spend all his time on the successful writers he already has in house.”

“Wow,” he said.

“Which he does,” I said. “I can’t take it personally. You can’t take it personally, either. You have to be more determined than an insurance salesman. You’re going to get ignored or told ‘No’ way more times than a salesman.”

“Humph,” he said. I could hear him scratching his chin.

“You’ve jumped through an important hoop,” I said. “You’ve got a quality agent who’s going to read your manuscript. That’s very important. Fill out the form as best you can, be as convincing as you can, and then think what the next hoop will be when the agency tells you ‘No.’ Because they probably will.”

“So why do you do it?” he said.

“Because for years I did a lot of other things,” I said. “And they were fine—sometimes great. But all along writing was what I wanted to do. My family thinks it’s a character flaw. Some friends think it’s an obsession. My wife, thank God, thinks it’s normal.”