Ask BHP: What Do You Look For in a Manuscript?

“What makes you say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to a manuscript from a new author?”

This question was submitted to our Ask BHP survey in various forms, so for all the aspiring authors and curious readers out there, I’m going to focus on one of the later steps in the process: publication board.

At Bethany House’s pub board, the acquiring editor for the project—the one who has interacted with the author or agent and is championing the manuscript—will present persuasive reasons why we should make an offer for a particular novel.

Present around the table are other editors as well as people from our marketing, sales, and rights departments. We’ll all have looked at the sample chapters and book proposal, which gives a summary of the plot, describes the potential audience, lists marketing ideas, and includes other helpful information. Sometimes we’ll even read (or at least skim) the whole manuscript when considering a new fiction author. Most of us come to the meeting with a list of questions, possible concerns, and sometimes strong opinions of whether we want the team to accept or reject a project up for consideration.

Here are a few questions we ask and answer in our pub board meetings to decide what new fiction projects are a good fit for Bethany House. (Remember, these have already gone through several steps before getting to pub board, so there’s nothing here about the basics like correct grammar, coherent plot, and general awareness of good practices in writing.)

Is this too similar to something we’re already publishing?

In a broad sense, there are only so many writers of a particular subgenre that we can publish well without feeling crowded. In a more particular sense, if we have a book coming out next season with a very similar plot or setting, we may need to pass on a manuscript.

 

Will the author make a good marketing partner?

Many industry blogs talk about the importance of a strong platform for new writers. This is absolutely critical for nonfiction authors, and while an impressive following isn’t as important in fiction, we do look to see if the author knows how to promote their books and has included ideas, statistics, and examples in the book proposal. That way, we know that the author will be joining us in getting the word out about the book, which can be helpful for sales.

Is the writing strong?

This is somewhat subjective, but then again, remember that we have read a lot of Christian fiction, even in genres that we don’t personally care for, so we notice when an author’s voice has a little extra sparkle…or when it doesn’t. When we talk about the writing, we explain what we do or don’t like, and often the editors will get other “first readers” from inside the company to weigh in on the writing to make sure we’re not biased by, say, a few people who just really don’t like first-person point-of-view.

At this point, no manuscript is badly written, and we’re all aware that the editors will be asking the author to make changes, but we usually talk about big-picture things that couldn’t be fixed without a total re-write. For example, we might argue that the premise isn’t very suspenseful, or the narrator’s voice is off-putting, or only one of the dual timelines actually interested us.

What are books similar to this one doing in the marketplace?

This one is a strict sales question where we look at the potential audience for the book—is the author inspired by any trends that give it a strong hook? Is this genre seeing a resurgence, or slowly tapering off? Are there a thousand other books just like this out there, or none at all? (Usually both of these extremes aren’t the best for convincing the sales team this can sell.) If the author has past sales, independent or with another publishing company, we’d consider those as well.

Are we excited about this project?

This is so subjective that I’m sure it can be frustrating to hear. But the fact is, if the marketing team in particular finds a new author’s manuscript just doesn’t work for them, then the author probably wouldn’t want us to publish it. We’re the ones explaining the book to the sales team and promoting it to readers, so it would be better for the project to find a home where everyone was 100% enthusiastic about it.

Are the strengths of the manuscript worth any potential drawbacks?

And by that, I don’t really mean strengths or weaknesses in the quality of the writing, which I mentioned earlier. Here are a few examples of possible pros and cons we might need to discuss.

  • Will readers be okay with an unusual setting/time period if the book has a strong cast of characters?
  • There are lower sales for [insert genre here], but this is amazing writing.
  • This plot feels overdone, but the setting is unique.
  • The author’s sense of humor might not catch on, but it has potential to stand out because of that.
  • This is a controversial subject, but handled with grace.
  • We have an unknown author with no platform but a compelling, fresh voice.
  • This is totally different than anything we’ve done before…but it’s totally different from anything we’ve done before.

Sometimes we choose to pass on a project after weighing these pros and cons, sometimes we move forward. The factor most likely to convince us to take a risk is when multiple people on the pub board truly love the author’s writing style and think they have a compelling story to go along with it.

When we think of “our” readers—people who read Bethany House books—is this story something they would be interested in?

Of course, we’re always looking to reach new readers, but the majority of a new author’s audience will likely be readers who enjoy other Christian fiction that we publish. Because of that, we want to make sure a book feels like it fits our audience. We’ve occasionally said no to a great story that had too many dark elements to it, or felt theologically off for our readers.

As you can see, most of these questions are not personal to the writer, or even to his or her manuscript (although I’m sure it can feel that way). When we don’t choose to offer a contract for a debut author’s novel, it’s not because we think it’s terrible trash unworthy of publication. Not at all. Most of the time, it’s for a combination of more subtle reasons, like the ones above.

Just know that we’d love to publish more books…but there are only so many slots in a year for a traditional publisher. Sometimes we see that a story we had to turn down for one of those reasons finds a home elsewhere—one that is probably a better fit for both the story and the author.

And for the new authors we do have, we’re always delighted to introduce their first novel to the world. (Some recent debut novels have been The House on Foster Hill by Jaime Jo Wright and Counted With the Stars by Connilyn Cossette. You should check them out…they’re amazing!)

Did any of these questions surprise you? Any other questions you have about the pub board process?

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