Secrets of success in dealing with Publishers (Episode 1)

October 17, 2009

This is the first in a series of posts centering on my experience as a Publisher at Macmillan. I am proposing to deal with the following over the series, focusing on what actually happens inside the castle of old-money publishing.

1. Proposals meetings
2. How to be a career author
3. Planning a brand vs planning one book

If you have something else you would like to hear instead or further to this list please comment.


2364722127_6bb6b1c867 Proposals Meetings run monthly or quarterly in most Publishing Houses. At these meetings the whole interdepartmental assembly (sometimes fondly called the “team”) comes together to choose future projects. These meetings look at proposals with:

A. One eye on the past and
B. One eye on the sandwich plate in the middle of the table.

The eye on the past is to measure your proposal against past failures and successes. For this reason your proposal must be across the detail of the other key players in your space. The eye on the sandwiches is due to the fact that in publishing, most of us work very hard for wages not commensurate with the other occupants of town’s big end. Most of us need very strong proof that taking on a book is going to help us continue to eat.

For the proposing author, the dual challenge here is to ensure you know your category’s history and have developed a fresh twist to help make its future look like the newest, sexiest model of a favourite automobile. If you are writing speculative fiction, you must know that beyond Rowling’s dazzling monuments tower Philip Pullman and Garth Nix in their own citadels. You must tip your hat, do your training and be prepared to run an original race along the very same track as those who went before you. The same applies whether you write fiction, non-fiction or textbooks.

Your proposal must have already sold itself to the Publisher you or your agent submitted it to, so at the point of the Proposals Meeting, they are your Sales Representative. The key to keeping all available eyes off the sandwich plate and on your very best assets, is to have your Publisher emotionally connected to your work. This means:

– Writing your precious heart out in the cold, dark and lonely hours and leaving nothing in reserve
– Being prepared to walk away and start again
– Trusting the Publisher will judge the work by:

(1) The current opportunity afforded by the category
(2) Your own platform as a professional person, and
(3) The intrinsic strengths of the work

– Trusting the Publisher will get every nuance you left for them
– Following the Publisher up in brief, polite, well worded emails sent between 8-9am, and finally, a phone call

So, over to you. Can I answer a question for you? Help explain an experience you’ve had with a Publishing House? / CC BY-SA 2.0

8 Responses to “Secrets of success in dealing with Publishers (Episode 1)”

  1. Super series, Ben

    These insights are ‘gold dust’ for anyone aspiring to publish.

    Best, Robin

  2. Great article. I think that modern publishing involves everyone understanding this is a business. Even for fiction and other artistic endeavors. Authors, publishers are business partners and when it all works the way it is supposed to the partnership works together to make sure that the product is the best it can be, that the word is spread and the consumer comes back wanting more.

    • Ben Dawe Says:

      Thanks for your thoughtful response Jean. I agree, publishers have an author’s best commercial interests at heart.

      • rachelhestondavis Says:

        Thanks for the informative article! It brought up a question I’ve had for a long time.

        You mentioned knowing the big-name authors who have gone before you in your genre. In my research on fiction proposals, I’ve always been under the impression that your proposal should only mention recently published success novels in your genre, not necessarily the “history” of the big-name authors. (Though obviously you need to know the history in your own head, else how can you walk their well-trodden path and still be original?) Also, I’ve heard conflicting information on how many titles to list in the proposal–an exhaustive resource of everything that is remotely like your book, or, say, the most popular five or six?

        This subject is something I have difficulty getting a straight answer on. Perhaps it would be a good subject for a post?


        Rachel Heston Davis
        Up and Writing

      • Ben Dawe Says:

        Hi Rachel
        Great to hear from you.
        I’m not sure there’s a rule here that will apply equally to all the buyers of content, but I’d say
        keep the documentation on competing/genre titles to the “cherries”. I think more important
        than this though is just being yourself and trusting that what moved you will move other people.
        Stay in that moment and all the pieces of the proposal will start to ring true to the Publisher.
        Take care

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