At the many writers conferences I attend, I’m often asked, “What’s the secret to impressing big agents and publishers?” You pretty much need an agent to get your work read at a large established publisher, and with millions of submissions flowing into their inboxes each year, the struggle is to make yours stand out. If you’ve already published a book or two, it can be extra frustrating when they still won’t give you the time of day.
One of the reasons many writers focus on Big Five book publishers and their top-level agent compadres is that it seems like their best chance for “making it big” as an author. They dream of hitting a bestseller list like the New York Times’, or otherwise selling huge numbers of books. These are both things the largest publishers excel at.
Wanna Know a Secret?
But here’s the secret so many newbies miss: Your first book’s rocket to bestsellerdom isn’t necessarily the goal at this early stage of your career, nor is selling millions of books. I mean, sure, if you’ve waited to write your first book until you already have an enormous platform and high level contacts, then yeah, get that first book out there with a great big bang.
That just isn’t where most first-time authors are, though. Most new authors aren’t equipped to start their publishing careers with a Big Five house or large literary agency. Their platforms are too small. They have limited audiences. Often their books are too quiet to appeal to the masses or sufficiently hook opportunities for publicity.
Instead, if publishing at the highest levels of the industry is your dream, here’s a new concept: The immediate goal is to use your first book’s publication (and second and maybe even your third book) as an opportunity to build an impressive track record.
The Track Record That Matters Most
I really want to emphasize here that the track record I’m talking about is not a list of published books—it’s a mailing list, a social media following, a file full of positive reviews. Most important of all, it’s the history showing all of this work has translated into solid, ongoing sales figures.
Note that I didn’t say enormous, brain-boggling sales figures. Again, it’s awesome if you have the chops (or the good luck) to see huge sales right out of the gate. However, for most authors, especially those who are aiming for a deal with the Big Five down the road, what’s more important is good sales that show a steady increase over time. Just how many sales are a “good” number will depend on how many books your publisher needs to sell to make back its investment (also true if you’re self-publishing, but most industry insiders agree self-publishers need to move at least a few thousand copies per year to raise eyebrows).
Many smart authors begin their careers with smaller publishers, which is a great way to gain a positive track record of sales because these companies have lower overhead and thus lower expectations. They also tend to publish fewer titles per year, which means they can devote more resources to nurturing new authors’ careers productively. Sales don’t follow simply because a book has been published—they come from the work of building an audience and expanding a platform. When done right, self-publishing can also be a powerful way to establish a track record using similar tactics.
Don’t Make This Mistake
It’s a mistake to think that having been accepted for publication by smaller publishers is in itself enough to encourage larger publishers or agents to take notice. Consider this email I recently received from an author interested in working with The Writer’s Ally:
“I really need to get an agent. I’ve been self-published, published by an indie press, and now published by a traditional publisher. You’d think someone would feel I’m marketable and give me a chance with this new book I’m writing.”
You would think…until you learned that this author had collectively sold only about 1,000 books over the course of several years and three titles. He also had a tiny social media presence, and though they were positive, he had only a few user ratings on Amazon. In short, though his book may have been great, his track record was lackluster.
These days, the bar to getting a book in print is fairly low. Over a million books are published each year, more than half of those by micropresses, small publishers, and indie authors. The result is that simply being published before doesn’t impress top industry professionals.
So How Do I Impress Top Publishing Pros?
If you want to impress the biggest agents and publishers, you need to have a successful track record of the type I defined above. And if you don’t have one, then your number one goal is to create one. Don’t focus so much on the end goal of getting a huge book deal or selling lots of books. Focus on building a strong foundation that will grow your sales steadily and sustainably. Indeed, if you build it and build it properly, the readers will come. And you’ll prove to yourself as well as others that you have what it takes for your next book to launch at an even higher level.
What agents and larger publishers most want to see is that in publishing your early books you:
- show a level of high professionalism and dedication to learning the industry (i.e. your self-published works and online presence such as your website are polished and of professional quality)
- can prove that you’ve been steadily building an audience via social media and email lists
- attracted substantial numbers of good ratings and reviews
- have strong sales increasing with each book that show a loyal fan base and growing reach
So. How are you doing in these categories? What challenges have you faced? Leave a comment below to share your successes and struggles.