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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.