What Are Publishers Looking For?

By: Jeff Herman

Every agent and writer asks this question. It's possible that every editor also asks the same question, because they are rarely at liberty to make unilateral acquisition decisions, and what they nominate can be rejected by their peers.

The smaller houses and imprints are easier to predict. All you really need to do is just look at their most recent front-lists and back-lists to see the near future. Large programs are less predictable because they tend to abruptly abandon entrenched lists or simply fire the editors who run them.

It cannot be over-emphasized that the current publishing paradigm is a relatively recent event. A mere 30 years ago most publishing assets were literally owned and controlled by villages of human families and their names were shared by the companies they founded. Their names prevail, but most of the families have moved on. A rash of compounding corporate acquisitions and consolidations has given us a matrix of several large publishing houses that have no control over what they might be within a mere 24-hours. The day to day characteristics and very existence of these houses is determined by boardroom billionaires who are mostly foreign, and who manipulate powerful agendas in which their publishing assets barely register. Share price is king and queen and major shareholders are deities. Everything else, which means everyone else, are tools at best and collateral damage at worst. The few executives and authors who are granted delusions of importance are essentially appeased into providing corroborative functions, but they are actually glorified serfs who are as expendable as the abundant bones and blood beneath their skin.

Some call this Capitalism, but we should call it arrested resources. The result is that information, human creativity and liberty is progressively suspended. Flows turn into trickles which favor deliberate bull-shit. Imagine yourself bound by rubber-bands to one-million other people. Soon you will all congeal into a single cell with a million entwined brains. It happens to us everyday whether we know it or not.

What are publishers looking for? I answered that in the second paragraph, and more can be discovered by simply scrounging around well trafficked book stores. Basically, I lured you into reading more than you might have chosen to. A larger question is: What are you looking for? 1. A book contract. 2. The freedom to write what you choose. 1 and 2 can be compatible, but you might have to sacrifice #1 in order to be faithful to #2.

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