What an Editor at a Publishing House Is Looking For: 6 Myths & Truths

This post was written for Writer Unboxed

Dial back a good few years, and I had just put the phone down with an agent. I had acquired the UK rights for Never Fall Down, by Patricia McCormick, a powerful, hard-hitting book about a boy escaping the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. I know, cheery stuff. But to me it was an astonishing book, and a book I felt readers in the UK needed to read.

The boss, the Publisher, walked across the room to my desk — ‘Have you already signed the contract for your book?’

I told her I had. Trouble was, they had just read another hard-hitting book, and she thought that one was more commercial. But it was too late, I’d already made my move on the book I loved, so she had to pass on the opportunity for this second book.

Who knows what we told the agent or the writer about why we rejected the second book , but the truth was we only had space for one of that type of book that year and my acquisition had taken the slot. There was nothing wrong with that second book. It had nothing to do with the author’s social media followers or her publicity plan. Nothing to do with her cover letter. Just plain bad luck and unfortunate timing.

Sometimes I wonder if authors and aspiring writers really know what’s going on in publishing houses — what motivates editors and why they say yes or no to an unpublished book.

I regularly scroll through advice given online to aspiring writers about how to approach editors and how to stand out. More often than not, I wrack my brains to remember: Did I ever care about that as an Editor at Random House, or did I hear fellow editors worry about this in editorial meetings?

Sometimes yes, the advice is spot on. Sometimes the advice doesn’t match my or my friends’ experiences at all.

The obvious thing I want to point out is that editors have two forces at play when they look at a manuscript.

  1. Their love for a book, or their intuition about that book’s potential to be a bestseller
  2. The company’s position : Are they acquiring? Is there a lockdown on a certain type of book (e.g. paranormal) because the list already has enough of that scheduled in the next year?

So here are some things I often read, and here’s what I think are myths and truths.

Myth #1: An editor is looking for an author who ‘speaks the right language’ of the genre, and has a compelling cover letter.

While it’s nice if an author can make comparisons between his/her book and other bestsellers in the market, I’ve certainly invited authors in who don’t read in their genre but have produced a page-turning book.

YES, authors who can speak the right terminology are great on festival panels, but when I read a manuscript it was because an agent had convinced me with their great description to do so—and because I trusted that agent. I never picked up a manuscript just because it was described well by an author I met at a conference or fair.

Of course, it’s helpful for an agent to see a smart cover letter that sells your book well, but smart ones will get the gist of the story and read a sample to see if they like your style and writing. My advice is not to overly worry about this till you come to submit. In the meantime, just focus on your story. Once you’re coming to submit to an agent, you can take time to hone your pitch.

Myth #2 : An editor is looking for an author with a massive social media following.

I just emailed my friend who is a non-fiction editor at a large UK publishing house to double check this. I asked ‘How many followers would you need a non-fiction writer to have, for you to be interested in them? 10k?’ Her response ‘That’s way too low.’ She said it depended on the project, how topical the subject is was but at least 50k+. It’s a competitive market for non-fiction.

But for Fiction it’s a different story.

Editors are WAY less concerned about how many followers you have. I mean really, I can’t remember caring that much at all.

As an editor, I played up ‘the social media card’ when trying to convince a sales team to let me acquire a book, but it was always the cherry on the cake, not the cake itself. Unless the writer had a ridiculous number of followers, it wasn’t worth mentioning.***

Yes, it’s smart to start engaging with your community early on, but worrying about the number of followers you have is unnecessary at this stage. Focus on writing, and set aside 25–40 min a day on a social network (Not sure what to do on social media? Read this and this), but don’t worry beyond that.

Now you might point to Grace Helbig or Zoella or some YouTuber who won a huge publishing deal because of their social media following. That’s different. In my mind, they get deals because of their followers; they are social media stars first, writers second. Unless you’re interested in making social media your priority, focus on the writing.

I can think of a number of unpublished, about-to-be-published, still-early-in their-career writers I followed when they had small numbers, whose followings grew organically as they published. Nikesh Shukla, Cat Clarke, RJ Palacio, and Patrick Ness have a healthy number of fans today, but five or ten years ago it was very different!

I personally like using the Pomodoro Technique to be strict about time spent on tasks. The advice I give all authors, and try to follow myself is to show up daily but don’t obsess.

Myth #3 : An editor is looking for a writer who has a marketing & publicity plan.

I read this advice online and had mixed feelings about it. In today’s publishing houses, it’s a guess as to how much help you’ll ever have from the publishing house. Smart authors, whether self-published or traditionally published, will consider the Long Term Launch. At some point it’s smart to have a publicity plan, and if you’re in a position to choose between multiple publishing houses, then knowing what a publicity plan should look like will help you decide on the best company for you. However as an editor, at the stage of reading a manuscript, that was never on my mind.

By all means start researching marketing & publicity (you can find inspiration by reading Six Lessons Seth Godin Taught a Literary Novelist, and 12 lessons learnt by Tim Ferriss’ marketer) But for now, at the stage of writing and submitting, spend some time reading about how other writers are helping themselves, and focus on the writing.

Truth #1: An editor is looking for an author who is great to work with & personable.

An award-winning author once emailed me in the middle of the night, a long rambling message, with some insults thrown in. I’m pretty sure he was on drugs, complaining about the draft cover we had created. Turns out he had been looking at the wrong image.

He wasn’t easy to deal with; he really wasn’t. By contrast, years later, I still remember kindness and gratitude shown to our team by authors like Daniel Suarez (Daemon) and Michael Williams (Now is the Time for Running).

It’s like any relationship with a client or colleague, everyone would rather work with people they like and can get along with. Try to be that person.

Truth #2: An editor is looking for an author who has potential to grow and develop.

When an editor is persuading the company to acquire a book, the first thing they do is talk about the book itself and how wonderful a story it is, etc…

The second thing they do is talk about the author him/herself. What a publishing house wants to hear is that an author has the potential to GROW, that an author has more ideas and even more fabulous books up his/her sleeves.

It makes sense, right? A publishing house is taking a chance on a debut author, and it takes time for the author to blossom. Household names like Jacqueline Wilson, Lee Child, and Murakami have developed over decades and over multiple books. The best authors become brands in themselves, and the money they make a publisher allows the publisher to invest in lesser-known authors.

Truth #3: An editor is looking for a story that is a potential award winner and/or bestseller, or fits a gap in the publisher’s schedule.

We all want to be successful, to have our work matter. An editor at a publishing house is no different.

Being the editor who acquires EL James, or JK Rowling, or Lee Child can change your career. Discovering small authors who perform well can still save your head when the company is downsizing. I remember having lunch with an editor during a time when his department was downsizing, and he told me he knew he wouldn’t be made redundant because he had ‘discovered’ a book that had gone on to win multiple prizes around the world.

Editors battle across publishing houses, and even internally within publishing houses, to be the first to see potential award winners and bestsellers.

As an editor, when you’re reading a manuscript that you think will be the book of the year/decade, it’s like winning the jackpot — it really is. Of course you might be wrong . I remember being the first person at Quercus to read Genesis by Bernard Beckett, which was acquired by the boss with big fanfare and—although I still absolutely love the book—it didn’t make or break my career or the company’s. But an editor always hopes…

I don’t think there is a simple solution for having the right manuscript. Editors read your manuscript and compare it to books that the public hasn’t seen yet, to trends that haven’t emerged yet. And they do get it wrong, sometimes, of course. Choosing the next big book is an art, not a science. The best advice I’ve seen for writers is to read broadly so that you have a sense of what else is popular; and of course, the simple advice to ‘just write,’ with focus, without distraction.

Have advice you’d like to share? The floor is yours.

***Note from Parul: After I submitted this to Writer Unboxed, I had a slight panic – was I out of date? After all, it has now been 4 years since I worked at the Big Five. I texted two of my friends, a senior editor & an editorial director both at different publishing houses to check what they had to say. The first answered, ‘It has changed since you left. I do look up an author’s profile online and it is helpful if we know they can engage online.’ The second said, ‘No way, I think you’re right. It’s not important for me, and frankly it would be depressing if we cared about a fiction writer’s Twitter account at the submission stage. It’s great if they can build a following after, of course.’ So there you have it.