Updated: Jul 6, 2020
by Bryanna Gary
As you might have seen on my Twitter, I interned with publisher Simon & Schuster for a few months--right before the pandemic went from "Oh, that's not good," to "Oh nooooo, I got kicked out of my dorm, my university shut down, and now I will be staying at home for an indeterminate amount of time and graduating online."
It was an amazing experience that I'll always treasure, and the wonderful Reyadh Rahaman gave me the great idea to write a blog post about the things I learned while I worked there and at other publishers/lit agencies; things that, hopefully, can help give the writing community an idea of what literary agencies and publishers look out for and what can help you stand out among the piles of submissions/resumes they receive.
Follow submission guidelines to the letter
Starting out pretty simple, but I cannot stress how important this is. Think going above and beyond the 50-page sample the agent requests and sending your full manuscript will make you look like you're showing initiative because you already have the whole thing? Do not do this. When I worked at a lit agency and they told me I could look through submissions in the slush pile, one thing they told me was that submissions that didn't follow the instructions they had on their website were to be immediately thrown away. Not following the guidelines the agent sets before even starting any sort of exchange with them is an immediate red flag: you are showing them that you very well could be a difficult author to work with because you already either A. ignored the guidelines and did whatever you felt like doing or B. didn't read the guidelines at all. And while ignoring the guidelines doesn't necessarily mean that you will be difficult to work with, sending your proposal/query letter is a first impression, and it's important to make a good one.
Read everything on the website's guidelines page, and I mean everything. Sometimes authors would follow the guidelines regarding their actual manuscript perfectly, but would ignore other requests. For example, the agency I worked with would occasionally get phone calls asking if the agent had made a decision yet even though the guidelines page specifically requested that authors not call the office directly for that. Again, doing something like that could be the difference between finding the perfect agent for your book and immediately getting your manuscript discarded just because you didn't listen.
There's more to it than the manuscript
When reading the proposals of manuscripts, editors keep a number of factors in mind beyond whether or not they like the book:
1. Has this person been published before? If they have, how well did it sell?
2. Do they have experience writing about this particular subject?
3. Do they already have an audience, and how much of an audience is it?
4. Is the book topical?
5. Who would this kind of book appeal to, and does the book succeed in drawing in that audience?
I want to be very clear in saying that these aren't deal breakers. I've seen some authors panic on Twitter thinking they need tens of thousands of Twitter or Instagram followers to get published, and while it certainly doesn't hurt to have an engaged audience at the ready, an editor will not immediately throw away your manuscript if you aren't on Twitter or don't have thousands of followers. It's also worth noting that authors definitely prioritize the quality of followers over quantity. An author with a self-help book would appeal to editors most if they have a well-established lifestyle blog with a large following of readers interested in lifestyle content over general random Twitter followers.
The point is, don't stress yourself out and assume you have to be some kind of social media influencer to get your book published.
Editorial is the hardest department to get into
This is more for aspiring editors than writers trying to get published, but the unfortunate reality is that editorial is extremely hard to get into, in an industry that is already difficult to break into as it is. When book lovers think of careers they might want in the future, publishing is often the first to come to mind, and editorial is the first thing they think of despite the many departments involved in the publishing of a book. From publicity and production to subsidiary rights and managing editorial, there are plenty of roles you can take on that give you the chance to see a manuscript through to its publication.
Mentioning the difficulty of breaking into that editorial life is not intended to discourage great writers and editors from trying anyway. Hell, I know the odds are stacked against me and I still fully intend to try for a full-time position as an editor somewhere now that I've graduated. But I also recommend checking out the other roles in publishing and seeing what they all entail, and if you're willing to look into an internship for something other than editorial. This is good for two reasons:
You're opening yourself up to the possibility of finding a role you like even better than editorial that might be less competitive because other people interested in publishing didn't look into it the way you did.
Even if you decide you'd still prefer editorial, you now have experience in another aspect of publishing that could give you an advantage when you do end up applying for that editorial internship or full-time position. Being well-rounded in the industry can only help you!
One of my first experiences in the industry was as a managing editorial intern, which helped me later when it came time to apply for internships my senior year. Interviewers would often comment on that experience, and it was a huge help in getting me the editorial internship my last semester.
All of this is just to say: try something new! You'll open doors, learn which parts of the industry appeal to you and which don't, and you might even find that you like something else even better than editorial!
Speaking of which...
Editorial ≠ Managing Editorial
So, uh, when I first switched majors from comp sci to my silly made up concentration with the goal of getting into publishing, I sort of panicked because I felt like doing an internal transfer my sophomore year set me back. I had no internships or outside experience to speak of and just knew that I wanted to be an editor in publishing. So when I came across a managing editorial internship, I figured "managing editorial" was a fancy title for editorial and was the same thing, or at least fairly similar.
I know, I know. "Brioche, you dummy, how could you not know this?" In my defense, I did read the job description carefully and knew what it entailed, but I guess I just figured that it would still be similar enough? I don't know, man. I can't explain my thought process because I don't really understand it either now that I look back on it. All I know is that I assumed managing editorial was at least somewhat similar to editorial.
It is--and I cannot stress this enough--not similar. While doing some research for this post, I was a bit relieved to find that I'm not the only one who has confused the two before, as many people assume that the role of an editor-in-chief is the same thing as the role of a managing editor.
The reality is that the managing editor is more responsible for overseeing books through the publication process, working with the various other departments to ensure that it's going smoothly, whereas the editor is more focused on making edits to specific manuscripts. The managing editor is just that: managing. They don't acquire books the way editors do, nor do they do a whole lot of reading through manuscripts. Most of my responsibilities as a managing editorial intern involved skimming through books for typos, entering metadata and book blurbs, and occasionally helping to fix coding errors in eBooks.
It wasn't my forte, or my cup of tea. But I learned something new about publishing, and having that internship was a huge step towards getting the editorial internship that I finally managed to snag.
And now I know the difference between the two!
Most books do not earn out
This came as a bit of a surprise to me, but interning in publishing taught me very quickly that the vast majority of books that are published don't earn out their advance. In fact, it's not uncommon for a book to get nowhere near it.
It also came as a surprise to find that part of what editors do is calculate the possible earnings of a book before making their final decision on whether or not they want to take the manuscript. It's why, as mentioned above, there's more to it than the manuscript itself: editors try to determine the odds of a book selling well, and all of the factors that I mentioned before boost the odds of a book selling, and therefore earning out.
So if you get traditionally published for the first time but find that it isn't selling as well as you'd hoped, don't be discouraged. You're not alone, and it's not because your book isn't good, but because thousands upon thousands of books are published every year and it's extraordinarily hard to earn out when there's so many options available. Managing to get published at all is something to be proud of. And hey, at least you get that sweet, sweet advance no matter what!
You should write what you're passionate about, not about a topic that's hot right now
It can take as long as two years for a book to get published, not counting the process of writing the book itself. Traditional publishing involves a lot of lengthy steps to ensure that the book is produced, marketed, and distributed efficiently.
That means that writing what's "hot" is largely pointless. If YA dystopian novels are the "in thing" now, they probably won't be by the time your book is ready for publishing, and it might not even be published if it falls within a genre that's over-saturating the market. Book trends are ever-changing, and it's hard if not impossible to tell what kind of books might be trending in the future.
But don't take this as "Try to figure out what might be popular two years from now." Instead, take it as advice that you should write what you're passionate about and ignore what's trendy. Good writing speaks for itself. And who knows? Maybe you'll get lucky and the stars will align. Maybe the vampire book you've been passionate about writing will be ready for publishing right as the vampire genre is "in" again.
Publishing still has a long way to go in terms of representation
The issue of representation in publishing has been a hot topic lately, with the hashtag #PublishingPaidMe trending on Twitter in early June. Using the hashtag, Black authors--many of whom made it on the bestseller list--shared how much they were paid for their manuscripts. It revealed about what you'd expect: the hashtag, started by YA author L.L. McKinney, exposed the glaring disparities between the advances paid to Black authors and white authors.
I learned firsthand about discrimination in publishing when I got the chance to meet several editors who were working towards increasing diversity in the industry. Despite the individual efforts of these editors to make that change, they told me about the many times they came across a manuscript written by a BIPOC or queer author that no one else wanted because it wasn't considered "marketable" enough.
There's no denying that improvements have been made and diversity may finally be on the radar of major publishers, but the industry still has a long, long way to go, and it will take more than posturing and claiming to care about diversity to get us there. The success of an author's book should not depend upon their race or the race of their characters. Seeking equity in publishing doesn't mean "take the place of white authors." It means "everyone having an equal chance to have their voice heard regardless of race and its supposed 'marketability.'"
I'm proud of the experiences that I've had in publishing so far. And while I sometimes have my doubts about whether it's really where I want to be if I want to bring about the change I want to see, I still have hope that book lovers everywhere will someday be able to see themselves in both the authors and the characters of the books they love. That alone is worth working towards.