Big 5 Publishers and Imprints
Today’s book publishing market is tighter than ever. Ongoing consolidation within the publishing industry has meant that there are fewer major houses to submit to. Since 2013, the industry has been known for the so-called Big 5 publishers all headquartered in New York City—Penguin Random House (by far the largest), HarperCollins, Hachette Livre, Macmillan, and Simon & Schuster. All have imprints that were originally individual houses, and a strikeout at one of the subsidiaries may limit a writer’s opportunities to submit the same manuscript to the other imprints under the same corporate publishing umbrella.
Together, the Big 5 represent roughly 80% of all trade publishing in the U.S. Over the years, an increasing focus on the needs of shareholders has turned the mentality of the publishing industry into something more corporate than literary, with an eye toward blockbusters and less willingness to take chances on “midlist” books. Nevertheless, some lesser-known authors do break through. If you hope to be among them, it is essential that your book be exceptionally engaging and that it speak to a current interest or trend.
Do You Need an Agent?
The short answer is yes. If you can get one, you really do have a leg up. The Big 5 and most of the mid-sized publishers rely almost entirely on either agents or their own editors’ connections in the literary world. They don’t take direct submissions from the general public. The agents act as gate-keepers, weeding out the higher quality manuscripts from the others, and the publishers appreciate their role. So, your first task is to find an agent who falls in love with your book and/or believes it has commercial potential.
When you attempt to enter the literary world to make your pitch, it is essential that you do it right. Your query letter and your book proposal are your vehicles for making your case.
Your Query Letter as Initial Contact
In the old days, authors often sent their manuscripts to agents “over the transom,” but that is no longer the practice. Today, you send a query letter via email to introduce yourself and your book in order to find out if the agent has any interest. If so, they will ask you for a proposal and possibly for your full manuscript, usually as an attached Word document or pdf.
How to Write a Query Letter
Your query letter should be addressed to a specific person (not “To whom it may concern” or “Dear Sir/Madam”), and you should know something about this person and what he or she has done. Be sure to peruse each agency’s website, as well as the particular agent’s profile, so you can say something that shows that you know to whom you are writing. Look at the books they have represented and try to find some link to your book, if possible.
The query letter should be no more than a page long. It should give a sense of what the book is about—in one sentence, if possible—and make any relevant comparisons to what is currently popular. It should answer the question Why will this book sell? It should also say something about you as an author—your writing experience, your platform, and your ability to market the book. Keep in mind that publishers (and therefore, agents) are most interested in whether the book will sell. Publishing is about the bottom line. Sad, perhaps, but true.
Without being too cute, try to show something about your personality or the tone of your book. Provide a brief synopsis of your book and, if possible, compare it to other books that have been successful and whose audience might be attracted to your book.
It goes without saying that the query letter must be thoroughly professional and contain no mistakes. It is essential to have a professional publishing industry professional advise you on content and then have a copy editor check the letter for errors. You, as author, are much too close to it to be objective.
If you are writing directly to a publisher (many small publishers accept direct submissions), your letter should show familiarity with the press’s list and address how your manuscript is suitable for it. Be sure to read the submission instructions posted on the company website, since they might have particular requirements—for example, some take submissions only at certain times of the year.
Query Letter Example
Following is an example of a query letter from someone who is not a famous or highly experienced writer but who shows a certain level of sophistication. A letter like this would likely get due consideration from an agent because it touches all the bases.
Dear Ms. Agent,
What happens when a Nigerian dog-walker in Brooklyn Heights who is trying to find a way to stay in the U.S. strikes up a friendship with a married Orthodox Jew mired in doubts about his faith and beginning to suspect he’s an alcoholic? The answer is a good deal of family drama but ultimately a reckoning about values and a meeting of minds and souls. [BOOK TITLE] is a work that explores intense emotions but also contains comic moments, taut scenes, and crisp dialogue—an unconventional romance that will resonate especially with millennials.
[Skip with pleasantries. Grab the agent’s attention by getting right to the essence of the story and making it sound unique and exciting. Make the agent think, Oh, I must take a peak at this, no matter how busy they are. Most attractive will be a story that speaks to current trends; in this example, there are several—a non-European culture, religious questioning, biracial coupling, and addiction.
Next, you might want to include a beautifully constructed sentence or two from the novel to show off your stellar writing or a particular moment of intrigue.]
I wrote this 80,000-word novel while on a writing retreat in Massachusetts. It grows out of my experience working for twenty years in several African capitals with the U.S. State Department. [BOOK TITLE] began taking shape as part of a writing workshop that I co-lead in Washington, D.C. Further, I am currently celebrating my sixteenth year of sobriety, and so I can speak with compassion and first-hand knowledge about the addiction element of the story. I am currently an active mentor to others in the addiction community and regularly co-lead meetings. My work involves regular speaking engagements throughout the country and brings me in touch with…
[Use the paragraph above as a model but, of course, fill in information that is true for you and shows off your experience in the world and in the field of writing as well as your personal connection to the themes in the story, if there is one.]
I see that you represent [TITLE A] and [TITLE B] in recent years and have an interest in novels that are both of high literary quality and tell a gripping story, often about clashes between cultures. I respect your standing in the industry and would be honored if you would consider representing my book.
My own literary heroes include those such as [FAMOUS AUTHOR A] and [FAMOUS AUTHOR B] [name some writers you try to emulate], whose writing styles are quirky and insightful, who say so much with few words. [Modify this to reflect your own preferences in literary style.] I see my novel fitting on the shelf with the likes of … [name two or three books that are somewhat similar to yours.]
I have numerous ideas for marketing the book thanks to help from several book-marketing specialists with whom I am consulting. My story will lend itself well to a video trailer. I regularly blog about writing issues and post often on GoodReads as part of a women’s literary group and on several LinkedIn groups related to writing. I post short stories and poems on my website, and my analytics show a growing audience every month. As a former member of the D.C. Council on Economic Development, I have connections with local media and know the owners of several bookstores in the metropolitan area.
[The goal in the paragraph above is to show some familiarity with the process of marketing a book and creating a platform. Play up your connections with the world around you and demonstrate savvy.]
I have included the first chapter of [BOOK TITLE] at the end of this letter. I’d be happy to send you the proposal and the full manuscript upon request.
How to Write a Book Proposal
If you make a good impression with your query letter, you will be asked for a book proposal. This twenty- to thirty-page document is much more detailed and usually includes at least one sample chapter of your book. It must have a one- or two-page overview of the book, a chapter-by-chapter synopsis, an author bio section, an analysis of the audience for the book, and marketing and promotion sections. Include a sample chapter¬—usually the best choice is the first chapter, and it should be engaging right from the start.
The overview is similar to the query letter but provides more detail: what the book is about, what’s unique about it, what you the author bring to it, and why this book is needed now.
For a nonfiction book, the overview is generally going to be longer and will include information about the specific market that will find the book useful. So, for example, if it’s a book about a new method of smoking cessation, the overview would include statistics on the number of smokers in the country and in the world, how many try to quit each year, what percentage quit and then take it up again within a year, etc.
If the book is a novel, the overview would talk about its genre (mystery, romance, literary) and subgenre (cozy mystery, historical romance, dystopian) and any particular topics that the novel includes, such as adoption or southern Florida, that might have an appeal to certain groups. The overview tries to lay out the case for why the book is needed, why the book is excellent, why the book will sell. The focus is not only on the book but also on the wider world and cultural trends.
The chapter-by-chapter synopsis should provide a sense of the narrative arc, characters, and basic plot points of the story. Typically, you would write up a paragraph or two for each chapter. Make sure the writing in the synopsis is of high quality to reflect the writing in the book.
The author bio should include the author’s location; educational and professional credentials; previously published books or articles; participation in a writer-in-residence program; writing awards; social media following; connection to specific group(s) that might buy the book; media connections; speaking engagements past and future; and lastly, some personal details.
It is important to show an awareness that you are not writing alone at your desk into a void but rather that you have a sense of who you are writing for. Agents/editors don’t want to hear “My book is great!”; rather, they want to hear, “I know exactly which group of people will buy this book!” For nonfiction books, the audience will tend to be obvious.
For fiction books, you want to talk about your genre and subgenre and show familiarity with current trends within them, in terms of subject matter or style or both. Ideally, if your audience is easy to target, easy to find, easy to sell to, you will have a real advantage. Don’t try to make the argument that your book “is for everyone,” because no one can find “everyone” to sell to. But if your market is, say, reptile-enthusiasts, well, those are people who read reptile-focused publications, visit reptile-themed websites, go to reptile conventions, and might be found at the pet store or at the zoo. And the audience will easily stumble upon the book when they type “reptiles” into the Amazon search box. Ideally, you want to show there’s an audience and that it is identifiable and reachable.
Part of the audience analysis should include a list of books similar to yours that have sold well in recent years. The point to make is that people who bought these books are likely to be interested in your book as well. Do a brief analysis comparing your book to each of these similar books, emphasizing how your book takes another view of a controversy or expands on a conversation, to show that your book is needed and will be attractive to this audience. (Obviously, this discussion is more relevant for nonfiction books.)
Marketing and Promotion
If you already have a marketing platform to boast about (say, you are a sought-after speaker, the mayor of a town, a newspaper columnist), you are ahead of the game and should detail how your platform will help you market the book. If your platform is a minor one (say, you have a blog with a decent number of followers), then you need to detail actions you are taking to broaden your platform and show how you will use it to market your book. If you don’t have a platform—and most writers don’t—it’s essential to at least show that you are not naïve about marketing and that you are aware of how much work you will need to do and that you already have some ideas and plans in the works. Don’t just throw out generalities, like “I will make myself available to local media for interviews.” Say specifically who you think would interview you and why they would do so and who their market is. The more specific, the better.
If you have the budget for it, hire a book-marketing consultant and pick that person’s brain for ideas you can use to beef up the marketing section of your proposal. If you don’t have the budget, spend some hours using the internet to see how other people who have marketed books similar to yours have gone about it.
Help from a Book Editor with Publishing Experience
Your query letter and book proposal are your selling documents. If they are not stellar, your book will not even be considered for publication. These documents represent the first impression you will make on agents and/or acquiring editors, so they must showcase your writing abilities and convince these key people that your book has something to offer the current market. You want your first contact to do the best possible job of convincing them to read your manuscript.
The published writers and professional book editors at Book Editing Associates can help you write or revise query letters for both fiction and nonfiction books. Don’t wing it with something so important. You’ll never have another chance to make a first impression. If you believe in your book, give it the very best shot by working with experts in the field.
CARLY CANTOR is a publishing industry veteran who has worked in-house at a New York publisher as an acquisitions editor and is a two-time published author.