Ask BHP: What Do You Look For In New Authors?

From our Ask BHP survey, we’re answering a question from very early in the publishing process: “What are factors Bethany House Publishers look for when considering publishing a new author?”

This was probably the question that we got the most via our survey, with slight variations. We know that both aspiring authors and readers love to hear what goes on in deciding to publish a book, and even though we’ve shared about this before, it’s a fun one to revisit.

Keep in mind that because we continue working with many established authors every year on their next releases, Bethany House usually doesn’t have more than 1-2 new-to-us authors every year, and not all of them are debut (first-time) authors. I don’t say that to be discouraging, just to give context to some of the items below. Traditional publishing tends to be more competitive because logistically, there are only so many “slots” that our staff and publishing schedule can handle.

That said, it is possible to stand out in the crowd with some focused effort. Here are a few of the top answers I’ve gotten from Bethany House team members in recent years when they share what draws them to a project from a new author.

A complete manuscript (for a debut author). We want to see that you can not only start a story well, but have a strong middle and ending as well. It’s rarer than you might think!

What you can do: Finish that book! Also, make sure that you’re not making the first 3-4 chapters super polished for contests and proposals and neglecting the rest of the book. We can always tell, and many first readers at publishing companies care.

A story that’s a good fit for our audience. Sometimes we give a “no” to an otherwise strong manuscript because of the way a faith theme is treated or because me notice a prominent element that our core readers might not respond well to. In those cases, we’re really not a good fit.

What you can do: Make sure you’re familiar with the breadth of books we publish, and be able to explain why your book fits in nicely with them.

A strong pitch for the sales team about how the book will sell. Obviously, there is a time for experimentation and risk, and our team is willing to do that for a project that has other strong points or is just a story we feel we have to publish. Generally, though, our sales team is hesitant to sign projects that are squarely in categories that have sold poorly in the past, unless we and the author can demonstrate that a particular genre is on the rise.

What you can do: Know the market and what’s currently selling. If you know you’ve got some sales obstacles, collect and present data. Tell us why your book is different, show evidence that readers are interested in this genre/setting, give us some recent comparable titles that have done well.

A story that finds the balance between original and familiar. The best story pitches have a mix of compelling points that make the sales team think, “Ah, yes, readers love that” and fresh takes that will make them think, “Nice, this will stand out.” We’re usually less interested in both ultra-safe stories that only repeat super common tropes and zany tales that break nearly every reader expectation.

What you can do: If your book is something more common, like a marriage of convenience romance, great! Some readers love that. You’ll just need to make it very clear why it’s different than the thousands of other marriage of convenience stories out there. If you’re trying something that’s less common in Christian fiction, then tell us what makes it familiar as well—a detail that readers would recognize and feel drawn to the story.

An author with demonstrable marketing savvy. We love it when proposals show that an author knows their way around the world of connecting with an audience of readers. That could mean they have friendships with published authors who will endorse their book, or they’ve started a platform (often by talking about others’ books) where they have an audience already, or they have a great plan for how to launch their book. All three is even better! Publishing is a team effort, and being an author with marketing savvy is a great way to stand out.

What you can do: We know that most authors start out focusing just on the craft of writing—as it should be! But you should also consider an investment in marketing know-how (via conferences, online seminars, and even old-fashioned experimentation) as the next step in becoming a professional writer. Just know that it’s very unlikely that you’ll find a quick fix to accumulating marketing know-how or building a platform in the space of a few months. This is usually a long-build process.

A fantastic story. This is always key for us. Even marketing team members like me have read widely and will always advocate strongly for characters that jump off the page, a compelling voice, and a plot that keeps us turning pages.

What you can do: Besides the obvious of investing in your craft and always learning and improving, get feedback from other writers or beta readers to make sure your story shines. As a bonus, you’ll start to learn more about doing rewrites based on others’ recommendations, a great publishing skill. I also tell new authors to keep writing. If the first story of your heart can’t find the traditional publishing home you wanted, it might be time to work on a new one, applying all you’ve learned. Out of more than a dozen debut novels that Bethany House has published in my eight years here, I believe only one was the first book the author had completed. The best way to become a better writer is to do more writing!

How about you, readers? Are there other questions you have about the publishing process, either from a writer or reader’s perspective?

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