Every year, we get some great questions to our Ask BHP Survey from aspiring authors who follow us on social media, including this one: “I wonder about the process of finding new voices. How does an unpublished author stand out when you probably see hundreds of proposals?”
For context, I’m on our marketing team, so I only see book proposals at one of the last stages in the “will I get a contract?” process: publication board, or pub board. By that point, the manuscript has already impressed one of our acquisition editors, been reviewed by some test readers, and gotten the thumbs up from the editorial team. At pub board, the editor has to convince marketers like me, sales team members, and executives that the project is worth investing in. We talk not just about literary merit, but things like sales history, expected print quantities, and cold, hard cash.
Pretty intimidating, huh? So I completely understand the desire to stand out in the crowded market of traditional publishing. There’s lots of advice I could give here, including:
- Show that you understand the publishing market (know your terms, join writing groups/associations, make your book proposal professional).
- Have a well-thought out marketing section, which can include endorsements, promotions, platform numbers, local media or book events, and launch team efforts.
- Make sure you’ve taken time to perfect the craft of writing so those sample chapters absolutely sparkle.
While all of those things are important, something I’ve thought about recently when pitching our 2020 debut novels for reviews and other media coverage is that publishers (and readers) are looking for projects that are both familiar and new. Let me explain what I mean by that.
Familiar: This is what makes your book something that you can demonstrate people will want to buy and read…because people are buying and reading stories similar to it. An editor picks up on these aspects of the story to pitch it to the often-skeptical sales team. They’ll say things like, “This book has a similar theme/style/setting to [famous bestseller]” or “Readers who enjoy [trope or genre] will love this” or “This one has a strong Hallmark Christmas movie feel.” Your proposal will need to make some connections to entertainment that your target audience is loving.
Because of this, as a brand-new author, now might not be the time to break every rule/preference possible in an attempt to be different. Your Bronze Age superhero novel set in Antarctica with haiku chapter openers from the point of view of a talking elephant might cross the line from being unique to being un-sellable.
New: It’s also easy to identify a manuscript that tried too hard to play things safe. Whether the author is unconsciously imitating favorite authors or intentionally adding in time-tested plots and reactions, it’s possible for a story to be too familiar. Characters are often predictable and even boring, and the ending, while probably happy, falls flat.
In contrast, a project that has a few unique aspects is one that attracts our attention—if we think it will attract readers’ attention. Doing something different just to be different—“In my contemporary romance, all of the main characters die at the end!”—isn’t the goal. Doing something different that, mentioned on the back cover of the book, would make a reader intrigued enough to read the book is.
If all of that is still too abstract, let me explain by using the examples from the four debut novels we’re publishing in 2020. (Also a note that this is higher than our average number of debuts; the number is usually 1-2.) These books all had other factors in their favor, including strong writing and savvy authors. But from my point of view, here’s what each novel brought to the table in terms of familiar and new, points that were very clear in their book proposals.
A Mosaic of Wings by Kimberly Duffy
Familiar: A historical novel with a romance plot, the heroine is a strong woman ahead of her time
New: Over half of the book is set in India (a place the author loves), the heroine is an entomologist (studies and sketches insects), potential for other India-connected novels to follow this one
The Sowing Season by Katie Powner (releases October 2020)
Familiar: Contemporary fiction, addresses themes of growing older and growing up
New: Shows an inter-generational friendship between neighbors (a retired farmer and a teenage girl, who are the point-of-view characters), strong writing voice
Things We Didn’t Say by Amy Lynn Green (releases November 2020)
Familiar: Set during WWII, a popular era for historical fiction.
New: Epistolary (told entirely in letters), about the little-known German POW camps in America during WWII, the romance subplot hero is a Japanese American training to be a spy/negotiator
The Dress Shop on King Street by Ashley Clark (releases December 2020)
Familiar: Dual-time where the contemporary characters try to solve a mystery of the past
New: Retro fashion theme and well-realized Southern setting, deeply relatable characters who have had their dreams delayed, both timelines are equally interesting
Remember, though, that your manuscript might have solidly hit on both familiar and new and still not find the publishing home you dreamed about. Sometimes our team turns down projects because the writing isn’t quite at the level we’d like to see, or because we have an author writing something similar in six months, or because the theological slant, genre, or tone just isn’t what we’re looking for at the moment.
That said, this is a great way to start—thinking about your story in a marketing mindset will help you know how to pitch it in meetings with editors and agents. Whether you’re wondering which idea to write next or how to present your completed manuscript in a proposal, try to find that balance between familiar and new.
Take a look at your bookshelf and find a book you’ve enjoyed recently. What about it fits into “familiar” and “new”?