Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Selling Candy to Publishers

I mentioned in my last post that some sources calculate that publishers reject as many as 95 to 98 percent of all agented submissions they receive. I’ve also talked about how tough the market is for private eye novels, particularly private eye novels in mid-series. The phenomenon of authors losing their publisher mid-series has grown so common, in fact, that the professional organization for mystery writers—Mystery Writers of America—has put together a special “rebound grant” to help authors in that situation.

You can imagine, then, how I must have felt when my new agent and I set out to place my third novel in the August Riordan private eye series (Candy from Strangers) with a new publisher. Let’s see how it went…

Picking the Pitchees

The first step in the process was to determine which publishers—and which editors at those publishers—to pitch the book to. My agent put together a list based on contacts she had developed and suggestions from other agents in her office. Her original list represented a good cross-section of the New York houses that published mysteries and included both very senior editors at those houses as well as some relatively junior ones.

The question of which editor to select at a house can be interesting. One strategy is to go with one with whom you have a relationship. Another is to pick someone whose past buying patterns indicate they might like the book you’re shopping. Still another is to go with a more junior editor who wants to make a name for him or herself.

Another tricky bit of the process is that some houses don’t mind if you pitch a second editor after getting a “no” from a first, but if you get a “no” from the first editor you ask at other houses, then you’re out of the game. Finally, it’s not always clear what constitutes a “house.” The big publishers have many imprints now, and some of them buy separately for each imprint, while others have editorial staffs that serve multiple imprints.

It can get very complicated, but the thing you must never, ever do is pitch a second person at the same house without telling him or her that the book has already been presented to someone else at the house.

After reviewing my agent’s list, I suggested she add two independent presses she was not aware of, but whose books and market presence I had been impressed with through my exposure to them at conferences and mystery events.


Next, my agent started contacting the editors on her list with a pitch. Sometimes this took the form of an e-mail, sometimes it was done via the phone. The pitch included a short description of the book designed to “hook” the editor’s interest and also included a summary of my past publication track record, including mention of good reviews, award nominations, etc.

If the editor was interested, he or she would ask to see the manuscript. If not, then my agent scratched the editor from the list and determined if it was possible to pitch another editor at the house, or if the house overall had to be scratched.

The original list had about 15 editors on it. The process of pitching took several weeks, and a number of new editors were added to the list as others dropped out, but when all was said and done, we had 10 houses that asked to look at the manuscript.

The Final Ten

Here is a rough characterization of the ten houses and editors who agreed to read Candy:

  • House A – Medium-sized New York house with experienced editor focused on genre fiction

  • House B – Smaller New York house with editor who bought fiction and nonfiction

  • House C – Well-established New York house starting a new mystery line with a very experienced and high profile editor

  • House D – Large New York house with well-known editor focused primarily on mysteries

  • House E – Large New York house with well-known editor focused primarily on mysteries

  • House F – Independent mystery-only press with editor who was an owner there

  • House G – Large New York house with experienced editor who bought fiction and nonfiction

  • House H – New York house known for mystery line with experienced editor

  • House I – Independent mystery-only press with primary editor

  • House J – Large New York house with very high profile editor who bought few mysteries but apparently liked memoirs (but maybe not so much anymore)

The Feedback

To cover the rejections first, House B said they were simply too busy to take it on, which was probably just a polite way of saying thanks, but no thanks. House C and H said the book wasn’t “commercial enough,” which probably translates into a concern that the book was a private eye novel, rather than a thriller. I didn’t get specific feedback from my agent (that I recall) regarding the reasons why House D and G turned the book down, but House E felt the book was “too dark.”

Finally, House J simply never responded.

On the positive side of the ledger, the editor at House A wanted to buy the book, but told us he needed approval from the editorial committee. House F also indicated interest, but asked for more time. And House I made an outright offer.

Which Suitor?

When we got the offer from House I, we were very pleased and talked about accepting it immediately, but my agent pointed out that the rational thing to do was to wait for final decisions (and hopefully offers) from Houses A and F, so that we could compare.

We ended up waiting for several weeks, but in the end felt that we shouldn’t delay accepting the offer from House I to wait for what were proving to be indeterminate decision-making processes at Houses A and F.

Bleak House Books

As you know if you’ve been reading this blog, House I was a “bleak” one: Bleak House Books. The terms of the offer called for Bleak House to reprint my first novel, The Immortal Game, and as well as purchasing Candy, they also agreed to purchase a forth book in the series, which I’m tentatively calling Runoff.

The more I thought about it, the more it seemed to me to be a home run. This was a publishing house that had been added to the list at my request, my first book was going back into print and I had a contract to extend the series beyond Candy to include a forth book. I was very happy.


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