Breaking Big: How to Impress Big Five Publishers
The BIG FIVE Publishers sing a siren’s song irresistible to most writers. Granted, in the New Publishing World we now have multiple publishing options, numerous paths to take us to our goal (whatever that goal may be).
Self-publishing, indie, small press, blog-to-book, and legacy press. I’ve worked hard for my slice of success, but I’m not so “evolved” I’ve eschewed all desire to earn my own spot as a Random-Penguin 😉 .
Big Five Fever
All publishing paths hold advantages and disadvantages, yet nothing can beguile us like the Simon & Schuster sparkle, hypnotize us as much as the Macmillan mystique.
Big Five Publishers are the sun that burns through our ennui, revealing a mere glimpse of the literary summit. Gives us a fever burning so hot, we forget all about those manuscripts that tried and died. Ignore the frozen, forgotten dead we’ll have to climb over on the way up.
A delirious insanity propels us toward the top, no matter how much we bleed. Big Five Publishers are the K-2 for the high-achieving (okay Type A) author.
Author does start with A. It’s a sign 😉 .
Why Big Five Publishers Hold Such Appeal
Why do so many of us crave a spot among The Five? Even though we’re well aware we might only summit once, if ever? Despite the odds, we boldly take on this mountain. We accept that, while we might lose some toes, we’ll gain bragging rights and authentic respect.
Once “in the club” we won’t have to prove ourselves by something as gauche as comparing royalties. We won’t feel the urge to reveal how much money we made on that last box set (common practice in indie and self-pub).
Added bonus? The power to instantly humble that asshat stranger who laughed when we said what we did for a living. You know him, that guy who always follows his condescending laugh with, “Sorry, I meant what is your real job?”
Big Five Publishers give us that name brand “stamp of approval” that separates the bourgeoisie poseurs from the authentic elites. Even that clod who mocked our profession can understand the sentence, “I‘m with Harper Collins. Ever heard of them?”
Before anyone starts hating on me, I’m well aware that this “belief” that Big Five Publishers only take on works of literary genius is bunk. But, human emotions are not known for making logical sense. Intellectually we writers know Big Five Publishers are a business. As a business they represent books that will make a lot of money, plain and simple. They’re always on the hunt for A Shore Thing.
Even though Snooki’s memoir was/is hardly literary genius, it was a fairly safe bet it would sell a lot of copies and bring in the Benjamins.
Brands Have Power
With so much algorithm gaming and the fact the slush pile has been handed off to readers (only now with glossy covers), publishing has become hell on Earth.
It’s like living in a world of Publishing Participation Trophies. In all the electroplated garbage, how does the real gold outshine the faux? A question posited by writers and now by readers.
Five years ago no reader would have thought to look to the publisher. But times have changed and names have power. The author name (brand) sells more books than any full-page ad. An author repped by Big Five? Automatic advantage in terms of public perception.
Sort of like how designers can sell ugly shoes we wouldn’t be caught dead in…but they’re Prada. Thus instantly worth the $800 and they’re no longer hideous. They’re haute couture.
So I get it and don’t blame anyone for longing to be embraced by Big Five Publishers. Thus I am going to offer some tips.
Write a Good Book
Yes, this falls under the “Um, duh” category but self-publishing has given a lot of emerging writers a shortcut to claim the title of “author” while avoiding mastering the craft. Remember the last post by Cait about dismemberment? There are countless red flags that light up a rookie brighter than LED. It’s why agents and editors often don’t need more than three pages to pass.
I know all a writer’s strengths and weaknesses in less than twenty pages—really five, but being generous.
Have a Platform and Brand
Remember my Snooki example? NY didn’t represent this memoir because it would add to the body of early 21st century literature. No, she had a brand and a platform with eager fans willing to pay retail for her book regardless of “quality.”
Sort of like people lined up to own Jaguars in the 80s even though the Jags spent more time in the shop than on the road. Coveted brands are the only ones able to evoke that kind of blind love and loyalty.
Most agencies now will google our name when we submit. The platform/brand is now as, if not more, important than the book. We could have a novel so incredible angels weep, but if search engines don’t even know our name, then potential buyers don’t either. This makes us a risky investment and in these slim times, Big Five is not interested in Russian Roulette.
Do YOUR Work
These are publishers not daycare centers. It’s our job to know our craft and understand the business of our business. No one is going to hold our hand and do our work for us. There is no Publishing Sugar Daddy. If we suck at grammar, improve or hire someone to fix the mistakes. If we don’t know how to plot? Learn. Practice.
No agent/editor is going to baby us along from a typo-infested plotless nightmare “with promise” to a gleaming gem mega-seller like in the movies.
Being able to spell, punctuate and um, write is sort of expected with the profession. I appreciate that some people have dyslexia, or are terrible spellers. I’m severely ADD and often my sentences go off the rails…which is why even I hire pros for the polish. We need our work at its best before even thinking about an agent.
Speaking of agents, we need to do our homework. Research who represents what genre. Pay attention to what they’re in the market for. Agents are open about their “wish lists.”
Good writers are always avid readers. If you love a book and yours is similar, who’s the agent?
Another angle is to research an agent you believe would be a good fit, then read what they’ve represented and sold. This a) solidifies if it really WOULD be a good fit and b) is professional and flattering to the agent that we took time to do some work. You know, like a professional 😛 .
Follow %$#@*$ Instructions
This is a bugaboo that makes my left eye twitch. FYI, Big Five Publishers (actually all traditional publishers) have submission guidelines. Remember they are actively looking for a reason to NOT read our work. Sometimes the hoops are ludicrous, but they are there to weed out those who can’t follow directions.
If they ask for a 5000 word sample (20 pages) and instruct a Word doc double-spaced, one-inch margins, and 12 point Times New Roman font, then just do it. Because when they open a single-spaced, 10 point Courier font with three-quarter-inch margins, it doesn’t fool them.
It ticks them off.
Maybe by fudging the “rules” we squeezed in thirty-three pages instead of twenty but it won’t matter, because that agent won’t even read ONE page let alone thirty-three. An agent will take a single glance, then send the appropriate form letter about how our work not right for their agency.
Which is code for: We don’t have time for amateurs who can’t follow instructions.
Sell A LOT of Books
Remember in the beginning I mentioned the numerous ways to attain our goal? If our goal is Big Five, nothing sweeter than fat sales figures to get our foot in the door.
Money is a universal language.
Impressive sales numbers take out all the guess work of what readers want to buy and offer evidentiary support our books are a solid investment. This dovetails into two earlier points about writing a good book and creating a strong platform/brand.
“Good” is subjective, the reader voting with purchases. No it isn’t fair, but fair is a weather condition. There are more than fifty shades of why it’s important to write books audiences want to read.
Write What Consumers Want to Buy/Read
Maybe you possess a burning desire to tell the story of a luchador who is mocked for his passion to write haiku. Instead of teaming up with his brothers in the ring, he longs to travel to Japan and unravel his inner demons. Go for it. But who would be the audience? A clue is in the reason for writing THIS story.
Perhaps, your reason for writing this is you lived in Mexico and found the luchadores fascinating and witnessed many others did as well. You yearned to tell this story, crafting it for an ignored audience with no voice.
Maybe upon submission you’re rejected. Self-publish and if it sells a gazillion copies, then Big Five will come knocking.
Yet, if you chose to tell the story of a luchador shunned for his love of haiku and the ONLY reason was to be “different” or “clever”…then have fun storming the castle. Cherry-flavored lutefisk is different, too, yet don’t foresee any long lines forming to consume it.
We can write for ourselves, sure. But if we fail to also consider our audience, then we are writing for ONE. Publishers have no interest in audiences that small.
The Truth Will Set You Free
Hard truth, I know. But in reality? Pretty simple stuff here. We CAN do this.
What are your thoughts? Do you long to be a Random-Penguin, too? Do you think it is harder and harder for writers to find ways to demonstrate authentic “success” with all the Amazon gaming, algorithmic alchemy, and the deluge of books not ready for public consumption?
Do you resent having to part with sales numbers or rankings to garner a smidge of respect? I know writers and creatives have always had a tough time being taken seriously, but these days it seems far worse.
I LOVE HEARING FROM YOU!
And I am NOT above BRIBERY!
What do you WIN? For the month of NOVEMBER, for everyone who leaves a comment, I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).