Updated: Aug 27, 2022
Although the most important thing a traditional publishing house is looking for is credibility on the page, there is a lot more to the business of getting published.
Publishers get hundreds of unsolicited manuscripts every day and the rejection rate is
abominably high at 95 per cent. Poorly written query letters are an obvious put off. So is a manuscript with obvious loopholes that begin showing on page one. Although the most
important thing a traditional publishing house is looking for is credible writing, there is a lot more to getting published.
To understand what a traditional publisher needs, you must try to understand the nature of the business and the vision of the publisher, if any. In Peter Ginna’s seminal anthology, Why Editors Do: The Art, Craft and Business of Book Editing, an editor succinctly describes publishing. Ginna sees it as a:
...business in which the publisher digs a grave, and puts money inside it hoping that one fine day the money will grow.
Investing in debut and midlist (well received but not bestselling) authors is a huge risk for most traditional publishers. Although until a few decades ago, publishers found it easier to invest in midlist authors, thanks to several changes in the industry, it is extremely difficult for most books to make a return on investment, forget a breakthrough. Of course, taking a risk is not merely a monetary decision but also about braving the socio-political environment. All said and done, even as it gets harder to get published and make a living as a writer, the industry is growing and there is a felt need for new and fresh talent.
In my view, there are two things most traditional publishers look for. First: work which already has a market. A good example is how the market for college fiction increased substantially after the success of one author, namely Chetan Bhagat. Before him and in fact even now, there was hardly any name in the college fiction space as well known as Bhagat. The reason publishers bet their money on a bestseller is the same reason producers hedge their money on a blockbuster film: if it works once, the idea is that the ‘formula’ will work again. Whether anyone has cracked the formula is another debate of course.
Second, most traditional publishing houses look for authors who have an excellent sales record or are well known professionals in their fields. Example: After Bhagat became a bestseller, he wrote non-fiction as well, such as his columns for the Times of India. Another example is a book by or about a known figure from politics or sports. The risks in publishing a home grown name are obviously low.
Publishing is like putting money in a grave, remember?
It is important to remember that the rejection rate for most authors submitting to traditional publishing house is extremely high. Of course, the primary reason is poor quality but sometimes even good books get rejected. One of the most well known agents in the country talks about this aspect. As an in-house editor, I often found my hands tied as I had to reject interesting book proposals and manuscripts purely out of monetary compulsions. Of course, that does not any editor can make your book a bestseller. Even publishers can’t assure which book will be the next bestseller. Publishing is like putting money in a grave, remember?
The 3Cs: what a traditional publisher looks for in a story
Imagine this and mentally fill in the blanks as you read: you are published by ___(the publishing house of your dreams), next they offer you a sky rocket advance of ___ $. You reach ___millions of readers across the world, and are hailed by the ____ (newspapers or media you value). Who wouldn’t be happy, right? This is because you would have Narayani, the measurable. While the need for social validation is universal, as an editor I find it even more important to nurture potential or Narayan so that you can grow as a writer.
Having commissioned books from all kinds of authors, be it seasoned journalists, professionals, established or beginning writers, I come with first-hand knowledge of what a trade publisher or even literary agent looks for in a book: the 3Cs. Remember the three Cs are also a mark of a good story, be it fiction or non-fiction.
In non-fiction, the reader needs to know that the author is trustworthy. This is different
from saying the reader should be able to merely verify your credentials as a writer but
instead gain a sense of why they should trust your perspective or opinion or your version
of the story. Can they gain anything from it? For instance, your writing offers reprieve
from a harsh world, provocation or comedy when they least expect it. If so, the reader is
more likely to trust your words. If it is a true story, why should the reader care for your
version of the story? If you can nail this, you are likely to be seen as a credible artist. Of
course, you can play with the credibility by questioning or lampooning it but for that, you
have to be honest. In fiction, a common misconception is that a story needs to be realistic. On the contrary, good fiction is about creating a world that is credible, or better put, resonant even if unreal.
I can’t overstate the importance of clarity. I am sure you will agree that nobody wants to
read a book that only the author can understand. Clarity, however, is not merely about the length or structure of a sentence. Whether your idea is simple or complex, new or old, big or small, you want to leave an impression on the reader and you cannot do that if your
writing lacks clarity. It is needless to say that clarity is also needed in the author’s vision.
Lack of empathy or curiosity in your world view cannot redeem even the most concisely
What does compassion have anything to do with a good book? I would say everything. At
a very fundamental level, all of us are looking to read our story in words. Any good story
will help a reader gain a compassionate view of any or all of these:
If you are wondering, is it not important that your idea should be original and have a market? Of course, those are critical but I am sure you can easily find a book that had an original idea, and had a huge or niche market but lacked any or all of the three Cs.