What Do Publishers Look for?

Advice given by Emma Nelson at UVU Teen Writing Camp, 6/9/17

Notes Taken and Arranged by Clover Brooks

I’m almost positive this question has passed through many authors minds – including my own.  We as writers try our hardest to write the best books we can, but what if we get to the end and no publisher wants it? (Trust me, that’s a fear I experience almost every day of my life). Let’s discuss what a publisher is looking for in a book. What separates certain stories from the piles upon piles of options?

What separates certain stories from the piles upon piles of options?

  • Mechanics
  • Strong Voice
  • Hook
  • Sense of Structure
  • Strong Ending
  • Wide Appeal
  • Uniqueness

Great. Now, what the heck does that all mean? Let’s break it down.

1- Mechanics refers to how readable your book is – the grammar, the length of the book, etc. Overall, if your book is clear of errors and flows nicely from beginning to end, congrats! You nailed the first step! (But don’t be afraid to have another scan through).

2- Strong Voice. This is key to both the publisher and reader. It what keeps readers coming back for more from that author. It’s the author’s writing signature. For example, I’m going to give you some passages from different books by the same author:

  • “In a way, it’s nice to know that there are Greek gods out there, because you have somebody to blame when things go wrong. For instance, when you’re walking away from a bus that’s just been attacked by monster hags and blown up by lightning, and it’s raining on top of everything else, most people might think that’s just bad luck; but when you’re a half-blood, you understand that some divine force really is trying to mess up your day.“*
  • “We have only a few hours, so listen carefully.  If you’re hearing this story, you’re already in danger.  Sadie and I may be your only chance. Go to the school. Find the locker. I won’t tell you which school or which locker, because if you’re the right person, you’ll find it. The combination is 13/32/33. By the time you finish listening, you’ll know what those numbers mean. Just remember the story we’re about to tell you isn’t complete yet. How it ends will depend on you.”**
  • “They landed in what must have been the penthouse suite, but the place had been hit by a flash freeze. The entry hall had vaulted ceilings forty feet high, huge draped windows, and lush oriental carpets. A staircase at the back of the room led up to another equally massive hall, and more corridors branched off to the left and right. But the ice made the room’s beauty a little frightening.”***

Alright, you guys probably guessed who the author was just because I chose the easiest quote to start with: it’s Rick Riordan.  But do you understand what Emma Nelson meant by Stong Voice? Riordan’s signature way of putting words together and how he voices his characters gives him a unique stamp. Publishers look for that type of writing. Try to find your style. If needed, try imitating other authors to find what works best for you, but please, don’t plagiarize. Through practice, you’ll find your voice as an author.

3- Hook. This is pretty self-explanatory, but I’ll give a rough overview. A hook is what makes your readers want to read more of your book. It reels them in, per say, and makes them emotionally invested in your characters – and we love that. Not only do us writers enjoy giving our readers the feels, but the readers enjoy the journey. If your book has a great hook and keeps the reader invested, congrats! You finished the 3rd requirement! (But, again, another scan through wouldn’t hurt.)

4- Sense of Structure fits in really nicely into what I just said about keeping your readers invested. A publisher wants a book that follows a coherent plot – and not a predictable one, either. Structures, such as ‘The Heros Journey’ and the ‘3 Act Structure’, are great references when you’re trying to figure out if your book has a strong plot or not.

(Amy Beatty has a great powerpoint and blog post explaining all different kinds of plot structures, so I’m going to put a link to that in the footnotes below.)

5- Strong Ending. Guys, I think we all can agree on this. If you read a book and the ending sucks, do you want to come back for more? *crickets* Yeah, that’s what I thought.

6- Wide Appeal. This is where it starts to get tricky. One thing authors need to understand is this: publishing houses/companies are businesses. They like putting books into certain boxes using genre. (Fantasy, sci-fi, westerns, romance, etc.) If you ever go to Barnes & Noble, books aren’t spread out willy-nilly. They’re filed on different shelves due to the genre.

When querying to publishing companies and agents, be sure you know what genre your book is. I cannot express how important this is. Though you’re allowed to mix genres, try limiting it down to two or three. And, if you do that, know which one has priority. By that, I mean to take the one that is the most important to your plot and put it first.

For example, let’s say I’m writing about magic in a strictly science-centered world. My teenage boy main character, who has no powers, meets a girl who does. They agree to help each other get what they want, even if it goes against society’s rules. (I am writing that book, btw). I would label it as the following: YA Sci-Fi Fantasy.

Why? One, my main characters are teenagers (YA) and fall in love (spoilers). And two, most of the plot revolves around science (Sci-Fi) with a dash of magic (Fantasy).

Publishers like knowing where they can place your book on the shelves. If you have a story about western cowboys who elope in space on a dragon, that might be hard to categorize. This doesn’t mean that book can’t get published, it’s just much harder. If things don’t pan out in the traditional publishing world, you can always self-publish that awesome book about eloping dragon-loving cowboys. Who knows, it might even be more successful there than in a publishing house.

7- Uniqueness. I hope I’m not alone on this… I’m really hoping a lot of you don’t like reading the same book over and over again just with different characters or setting. (Unless it’s fanfiction. That is my only exception, but it probably won’t be getting published by a publishing company anytime soon. Sorry aspiring Septiplier smut writers).

Books with a unique concept, great 4D characters, and are executed well have a higher and more likely chance to be picked up by an agent or publisher. Where would we be without Harry Potter, Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, or Hunger Games? The authors of those books expanded on their ideas, rather than just having it be another modern fantasy, sci-fi, or young adult dystopian novel.

Make your book unique to only you and you alone! You can achieve this by using ‘What If’ questions (which I’ll cover another day), expanding your world, fleshing out your characters, and finding your style.

Finally, I want to thank Emma Nelson for dishing out this advice. I have more notes from her guest appearance at the UVU Teen Writing Camp – and many other authors/writers -so there will be more to come!

Before I leave, I’ll leave a link to the publishing company Ms. Nelson works for the footnotes below, so if you think you’ve met all of these requirements, don’t be afraid to send them a query letter. (Side note, I am not getting paid to say this, I promise. She was an amazing woman to meet and hear from, so I wanted to thank her in some small way).

Best of luck, soldiers.

Now go write. *salute*


*= The Lightning Thief, chapter 11, page 168.

**= The Red Pyramid, chapter 1, page 1.

***= The Lost Hero, chapter 18, page 204.

Owl House Press: [X]

Amy Beatty’s blog post/powerpoint:  [X]

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Nice post. I learn something new and challenging on sites I stumbleupon every day.
    It’s always interesting to read content from other authors and practice a little something from
    their sites.

  2. Thanks for the good critique. Me and my cousin were just preparing to do a little research on this. We got a book from our area library but I think I’ve learned better from this post. I’m very glad to see such wonderful information being shared freely out there..

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *