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6 Secrets to Reading Like a Publisher

Publishing is a competitive business. Can you recall a writing conference that did not include overcrowded sessions on how to pitch an editor? 

Neither can I.​

As Stephen King once said...

"Talent is cheaper than table salt. What separates the talented individual from the successful one is a lot of hard work."

While conference speakers expound on the editor as "champion for your book," they pay scant attention to an editor's process of reading a manuscript. Granted, every editor is different; but, every editor is also responsible for turning a profit on the books they acquire for publication. Successful editors have a process for reading manuscripts with business acumen and efficiency.

A major part of the "hard work" King refers to means that you, the writer, must broaden your reading skills in order to think like an editor who acquires manuscripts. 

In this post, I share my 15-years of experience reading and buying nonfiction books for publishers such as HarperCollins, Van Nostrand Reinhold, Routledge, and McGraw-Hill International.

Talent is cheaper than table salt

Reading Like a Publisher 

Secret #1: The writer's voice is obvious in a 90-second cold read​.

I love an amazing first sentence as much as the next editor. However, I like to pick a manuscript page at random in order to start reading wherever my eye lands on the text. I do this because I know you've been trained at workshops to make the first page sing like an opera star. But can you sustain your voice throughout the manuscript? That is the question I turnover in my mind while I read on. 

Secret #2: From reading the manuscript, what other medium could showcase the writer's voice and story?

​In my General Interest Books (trade publishing) course at Pace University, I required the graduate students to read Another Life: A Memoir of Other People by Michael Korda, now retired editor-in-chief at Simon & Schuster. These students represent the future of publishing. One day soon, these new editors will evaluate your manuscripts. When I opened our class discussion by asking about their first impressions of Korda's book, the first student said, "it would be a great book if it had pictures."  The rest of the class agreed.

This soon-to-be editor knows by instinct that the future of storytelling is visual. And, a good agent knows that the greatest earning potential comes from the myriad of licensing opportunities in multiple mediums for your work. The more licenses sold, the more opportunities for the publisher to sell books.

Today's editor reads manuscripts while thinking about tomorrow's new revenue sources.  

Secret #3: The market for this manuscript is ....

A book's category must be clear to the editor, the marketing and sales teams, and, most important, to readers. Editors understand the market dynamics in their list category, including the nuanced differences among authors. 

While reading a manuscript, even now as a consultant, I jot notes while making comparisons based on the subject, the market, your brand, platform, and how your book compares and contrasts to other titles. To learn more about specific categories, I recommend that you review the BISC codes. Published by the Book Industry Study Group, these codes are used by publishers and booksellers to place your title in the appropriate category on the bookshelf and to appear in reader search queries on Amazon. Like the editor, your job is to be confident where your book fits in its category. 

Secret​ #4: What is different in this manuscript and what makes this difference significant? 

Here's where your title and subtitle are critical. The main title represents the book's promise to the reader. The subtitle explains how you deliver the promise to the reader. In marketing parlance, this is your value proposition. To illustrate this point, here are three nonfiction books I'm in the process of reading.

1. ​Silence and Beauty: Hidden Faith Born of Suffering by Makoto Fujimura. The main title marries two evocative concepts: silence and beauty. The subtitle sends me off on a challenging journey. Suffering is a necessary catalyst in order for me to uncover, feel, accept, and transform my personal understanding of faith. 

2. Blockchain Revolution: How the Technology Behind Bitcoin Is Changing Money, Business, and the World by Don Tapscott and Alex Tapscott. Revolution is a powerful word. What kind of revolution am I going to learn about? The Blockchain Revolution. What do these authors promise to explain to me? They are going to show me why they believe the technology behind Bitcoin is going to transform how people conduct all business and social financial transactions. 

3. Scratch: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living by Manjula Martin​. Love it! The main title is slang for money. The subtitle explains who needs the money (writers) and what writers want most (after readers, of course) to make a living from their writing. Hallelujah.  

Secret #5: How has the manuscript changed and/or deepened my perspective?

It is often said that Joseph Campbell, the preeminent American mythologist and author of Hero with a Thousand Faces, stood on the shoulders of C.G. Jung, father of analytical psychology and author of The Undiscovered Self: The Dilemma of the Individual in Modern Society (a must read now more than ever!). In other words, no writer is an island. We all stand on the shoulders of our teachers, mentors, and the people who inspire us to pursue our passions and to share them. 

I believe this question of how the proposed manuscript is advancing ideas and conversations is a critical factor for an editor to consider when making a publishing decision. Every editor wants to believe that his or her publishing decision contributes to making the lives of people better. Another way to think of this secret is: why does the world need your book? 

Secret #6: I would recommend this book to ....​

This is the best part. After I've read the book proposal, sample chapters and/or the manuscript, I make a list of 10 people that I believe will like the book too. Within a publishing context, I consider booksellers, bloggers, reviewers, the sales reps, other authors, friends. Who would enjoy and/or benefit from the book?  Enthusiasm is contagious.

Publishing is a networking business. If 10 people do not flow easily from my pen in a stream of consciousness, ​I know I have an interesting book, but not necessarily a marketable one. This why I pass on interesting books. The standard is interesting + marketable. 

Read On and Rock On

So, we know you are talented. Now, you have a process for doing the hard work. With this knowledge, you will be able to put yourself in the editor's shoes while reading your manuscript. Raise your game and compete to win in the publishing arena. 

3 Universal Truths of Authorship

The writer's life is ruled by three universal truths of authorship. During my book publishing career, I've seen these truths play out for dozens of authors. May these tidbits help you in those moments of doubt about why you wrote a book in the first place!

​1. The Book Never Feels "Done."

Writing is your internal world.

You started with an idea. Developing the idea, you fall in love with the concept, whether fiction or nonfiction. The story is incredible and you want to share it with the world. 

Publishing is your external world.

The path to publisher is circuitous. Once there, though, the steps in the publishing production process are the same: copyediting, design, proofreading. You participate in a back and forth over many details. Finally, the book files go to press. 

The Taunting of "Perfect"

Shortly before the final copy of your book arrives, you awake in the middle of the night, sweating. You've composed the PERFECT SENTENCE that would make all the difference in chapter two, if you could just revise it one more time! But, you can't.

Your inner critic takes over. You start to doubt the entire process. Happy anticipation morphs into a gooey dread. The cure, here, is to prepare for "done."

How to Prepare for "Done"

Define what "done" means and looks like for you. Write, by hand, a paragraph about the future of your book and how your life will be different as a result of publishing it. 

Manuscript Never Feels Done

TIP: Create your own "Done" checklist. This is a great way to hold yourself accountable. It becomes much easier to let go of the final manuscript when you know you've met your own expectations. Inevitably, your editor will ask for revisions. Your checklist gives you a baseline for considering her revision suggestions. 

2. The Book is Out of Your Control

From the time you conceived the idea through the final proofread, you maintained a measure of control over the book. During the process, you may not have liked some of the decisions the publisher made. For example, almost every author I know has a horror story about how they felt dismissed about the cover choice. Trust me, you were not dismissed. Nine times out of ten, the publisher does know best. It's their business. 

When the book arrives in your hands, it is a real, physical thing. My all-time favorite example comes from the final scene of Julie & Julia. Julia Child, played by Meryl Streep, is at the stove when Paul Child, played by Stanley Tucci, walks through the door carrying the mail. Among the letters, there is a package. Julia opens it. It's the book. She looks at it and clutches to her chest. She is so happy. Paul is thrilled. It is a beautiful, private moment.

 Mastering the Art of French Cooking, just as the caterpillar becomes the butterfly, transformed from a writing and publishing exercise to a new book in the world. At moment of publication, the editor "lets go." Readers judge books. Word of mouth is the primary mechanism for selling books. Your editor moves on to the books for the next season. 

You, on the other hand, might be feeling naked and afraid. ​The reader is a book browser you don't know personally. Think of your readers as the 10,000 people you will never meet in person. It is precisely at this moment when you need to let go and resist the temptation to "correct" readers about what you intended for the book.  

Julie and Julia Book Cover

TipJulie and Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously by Julie Powell is an excellent example of a blog to book project, plus movie deal!

3. The Irresistible Urge to Correct Reviewers

Once upon a time, one of my authors contacted a book reviewer for The New York Times and told her how she obviously did not understand the book. Another author accused the host of not reading the book at all, during a live, national news show broadcast. 

In both cases, these authors were using what Albert J. Bernstein calls their dinosaur brains. According to Bernstein, ​people's irrational and emotional acts are based on primitive flight, fight, and freight responses. 

Of course, it is natural to feel you need to defend your book. You are human. But what is even more important, you are writing other books. Your career path is ahead of you. ​

As you might image, the publisher gets very angry when authors contact reviewers. Why? It is unprofessional, reflecting badly on you and your publisher.

What to do instead​

Be thankful for every review, especially the harsh reviews. It is better to have a review with a strong reaction than a tepid one.

Step back, read reviews for consistency. Are reviewers commenting on the same issues or different issues? What are you learning from the reviews? Learning is key to your future success. 

Irresistible Urge to Correct Reviewers

Tip: It's a challenging transition: moving from the publishing process to finished book. Suddenly, the 10,000 people you will never meet are talking about your book. Resist the temptation to "correct" their points of view in reviews. 

Try This Exercise to Prepare for Your Book's Publication

Make a list of the ten questions you want to be asked. Then, make a list of the 10 questions that terrify you. These are the questions you fear you will be asked in an interview or at a book signing event. From this exercise, authors discover that the questions they most fear yield some of the best stories about how the book came into existence. Facing your fears is an act of courage. Readers connect with authenticity.  

​So, no dinosaur brains. Go forward to express the best of who you are. Find your own universal truth.  

"So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing." -- T.S. Eliot #amwriting #bookpublishing

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