What does a traditional publishing house want?

Between a bestseller and a book that nails the 3 Cs, I would say the latter is more realistic.

Every day, publishers get hundreds of unsolicited manuscripts and most professionals agree that the rejection rate is abominably high at 95 per cent. Poorly written query letters is an obvious put off. So is a manuscript with obvious loopholes that begin showing on page one. Although the most important thing a traditional publishing house is looking for is credible writing, there is a lot more to getting published.

To understand what a traditional publisher needs, you must try to understand the nature of the business and the vision of the publisher, if any. In Peter Ginna’s seminal anthology, Why Editors Do: The Art, Craft and Business of Book Editing, an editor succinctly describes publishing as a business in which the publisher digs a grave, and puts money inside it hoping that one fine day the money will grow.

Investing in debut and mid-list (well received but not bestselling) authors is a huge risk for most traditional publishers. Until a few decades ago, publishers found it easier to invest in mid-list authors, but thanks to several changes in the industry, it is extremely difficult for most books to make a return on investment, forget a breakthrough. Of course, taking a risk is not merely a monetary decision but also about braving the socio-political environment. All said and done, even as it gets harder to get published and make a living as a writer, the industry is growing and there is a felt need for new and fresh talent.

In my view, there are two things most traditional publishers look for. First: work which already has a market. A good example is how the market for college fiction increased substantially after the success of one author, namely Chetan Bhagat. Before him, there was hardly any name in the college fiction space as well known as Bhagat. The reason publishers bet their money on a bestseller is the same reason producers hedge their money on a blockbuster film: if it works once, the idea is that the ‘formula’ will work again. Whether anyone has cracked the formula is another debate of course.

Second, most traditional publishing houses look for authors who have an excellent sales record or are well known professionals in their fields. Example: After Bhagat became a bestseller, he wrote non-fiction as well. Another example is a book by or about a known figure from politics or sports. The risks in publishing a home grown name are perceived to be low.

It is important to remember that the rejection rate for most authors submitting to traditional publishing house is extremely high. Of course, the primary reason is poor quality but sometimes even good books get rejected. One of the most well known agents in the country, Kanishka Gupta talks about this aspect here. You are lucky if you tick both the points mentioned above but whether or not you do, you still have to nail the three Cs.

The 3Cs

Having commissioned books from all kinds of authors, be it seasoned journalists, professionals, established or beginning writers, I come with first-hand knowledge of what a trade publisher or even literary agent looks for in a book: the 3Cs. Remember the three Cs are also a mark of a good story, be it fiction or non-fiction.

  1. Credibility
    In non-fiction, the reader needs to know that the author is trustworthy. This is different from saying the reader should be able to merely verify your credentials as a writer but instead gain a sense of why they should trust your perspective or opinion or your version of the story. Can they gain anything from it? For instance, your writing offers reprieve from a harsh world, provocation or comedy when they least expect it. If so, the reader is more likely to trust your words. If it is a true story, why should the reader care for your version of the story? If you can nail this, you are likely to be seen as a credible artist. Of course, you can play with the credibility by questioning or lampooning it but for that, you have to be honest. In fiction, a common misconception is that a story needs to be realistic. On the contrary, good fiction is about creating a world that is credible, or better put, resonant even if unreal.
  2. Clarity
    I can’t overstate the importance of clarity. I am sure you will agree that nobody wants to read a book that only the author can understand. Clarity, however, is not merely about the length or structure of a sentence. Whether your idea is simple or complex, new or old, big or small, you want to leave an impression on the reader and you cannot do that if your writing lacks clarity. It is needless to say that clarity is also needed in the author’s vision, not just the written word.
  3. Compassion

What does compassion have anything to do with a good book? I would say everything. At a very fundamental level, all of us are looking to read our story in words. Any good story will help a reader gain a compassionate view of any or all of these:

  • The world
  • Themselves
  • The author.

If you are wondering, is it not important that your idea should be original and have a market? Of course, those are critical but I am sure you can easily find a book that had an original idea, and had a market (huge or niche) but lacked any or all of the three Cs. I plan to explore in-depth the 3 Cs and would love to hear your views on this.

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