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Approaching a publisher

Approaching a Publisher: You Gotta Have One or the Other

When I started KN Literary, I used to write, edit and coach most of our clients. But as we’ve grown, so have my responsibilities. There was a point about two years ago when I had to stop taking on long-term editorial and writing projects.

Why? Because I spent most of my time on projects being late and distracted. I was asking forgiveness all over the place, which did not feel good. So now I leave the editing, writing and coaching to our amazing tribe of associates.

That said, there’s one service I can’t stop offering. I just enjoy it too much. I still do one-hour book consultations to help launch a client’s book idea and set them up for success.

The other day I was having one such consult with a lovely author I’ll call Tamara. Tamara has been on a heroine’s journey in her own life, and now wants to share the principles she’s learned with others.

I carefully reviewed her book proposal, website, blogs and questionnaire before our call. Almost as soon as we got on the phone, she asked me: “So…do I have what it takes?

There are two surefire ways to catch the attention of a publisher, I told her. One of them is straightforward, quantifiable and measurable. It’s easy to know whether you’ve “got it” or not.

The second is basically the opposite. It’s elusive, subjective, and has a know-it-when-I-see-it quality.

What these two attention-grabbers have in common is this: Each indicates—for different reasons—that you’ve got a chance of selling a lot of copies of your book. Because when it comes down to it, that’s what publishers are looking for…sales potential.

So this is what I told Tamara. Secretly or not-so-secretly, when an agent, editor or publisher is reviewing your work, they are looking first and foremost for…

A large and “selling” platform.

If you’ve been reading my blog for any amount of time, you know what I mean: Your “platform” is the audience you, yourself, bring to the table.

This includes—in roughly this order—your email list, your social media following, and any other ways you’re communicating with a large number of people on a regular basis. (Podcast, magazine column, speaking schedule, TV appearances, etc.)

If you can convince the publisher you already have a group of people dying to buy your book, acquiring your book becomes less of a risk. They can feel confident your book will at least make back the cost of publishing it, if not earn them profits.

A sizeable platform—we’re talking anywhere from tens of thousands to millions of followers, depending on your topic—can overcome any number of other weaknesses. Right or wrong, if you have a huge platform you are likely to be published—even if your writing and concept are “just okay.”

Tamara, like many of my clients, got a little depressed after hearing this. We work with authors at all different platform levels, but Tamara was like the majority of our clients: She doesn’t yet boast a super-sized audience.

Luckily, I have something else to offer. Because authors get published every day who have no platform to speak of. What’ve these authors got instead? The “other” must-have:

A compelling hook. 

A hook is a 1-3 sentence explanation of your book’s concept. It’s also known as an “elevator pitch” or “positioning statement.”

This is where Tamara and I spent most of our hour on the phone together—helping her retool her hook so it was more likely to catch the attention of the publisher.

What, then, makes a hook stand out? Like many art forms, it’s hard to put into words exactly what makes a hook shine. But it goes something like this:

  • It’s unique and narrowly tailored. I find that most would-be authors think they have a super-unique hook. But most have not spent as much time working with books as I have. I’d say 95% of the time, I have heard their hook before…many times. So a big part of my work is to help them tailor it—i.e., narrow the scope of the concept—so it might get noticed in a niche. An example is taking a book about “how to love yourself” and gearing it toward a particular audience: How to love yourself as a parent; how to love yourself at work; how to love yourself after a break-up; etc.
  • It’s magnetic. It’s nearly impossible to explain what makes a hook magnetic. It’s like trying to explain what makes a joke funny: “I don’t know—it just is!” Same goes for magnetism; you know it when you hear it. That said, let me try anyway. A hook that’s “magnetic” makes you say, “Wow, I want to read that book!” Some elements that may produce this response include: promises/benefits to the reader that sound too good to be true and/or are hard to get elsewhere; speaks to a need you didn’t know you had until you read the title; sounds incredibly entertaining/funny/amazing. I’ll be honest: It’s difficult to know whether your own hook has these elements. I’ve talked to many authors who think they’ve got an amazing concept and to me it sounds blah, boring and cliché. This is where it helps to get an expert’s opinion.
  • It’s saleable. This is something that’s hard for most newbie authors to gauge. They think, “I would buy this book!” and from there they assume others will as well. Sitting around an acquisitions table for a dozen years, I’ve heard thousands of book ideas. I’ve benefitted from hearing the experience of industry insiders much more intelligent than I, and I’ve watched books I loved and believed in wither on the vine for lack of sales. Frankly, nobody actually knows whether a book concept is going to work—until it either does or doesn’t. But making sure your book has an obvious audience is the closest you can get. I want to hear your hook and think, “Everyone in X category will want this book.” In this case, X may be any group that we know buys books: women who live in big cities; mothers of teenage daughters; readers of science fiction; spiritual practitioners; etc.

If you want to tighten up your hook, remember that it takes a village. It’s nearly impossible to get enough perspective on your own idea without other voices in the mix. Asking only your closest friends and family is not a good way to get quality information! (They are bound to be biased by their love for you.)

Here are three easy ways to get quality, objective insight:

  1. Craft 2-3 possible hooks with different audiences/angles and poll your Facebook audience. Which feels the most compelling?
  2. Go to your local bookstore. Find a knowledgeable employee with a little free time, and ask them for their honest opinion. Would the customers in their store buy this book? Then listen with an open mind, and try not to get your feelings hurt. ?
  3. Work with a professional book coach or consultant who specializes in book concept work. What do they see/hear in your hook that you might be overlooking?

Crafting a hook is a sort of alchemy. By the end of my consultation with Tamara, we’d turned a leaden hook into gold. “I can see why they say this is your zone of genius!” she said.

I’d helped her uncover and polish an idea that had been embedded in her original concept, but which she herself had overlooked. Now, it’s lighting her way.

Lacking a platform, a high-concept, narrowly tailored, magnetic hook is your best bet to catch a publisher’s attention in 2018. If you’d like help with your own book concept, I’m always here. Just fill out our questionnaire to get started.