Having spent a good few years in the publishing industry, it always surprises me how little research aspiring authors do before they submit their finished manuscripts to a publisher. Even now that I am no longer in the mainstream of commercial publishing, many writers who are nearing the end of their first drafts contact me to ask for the names of publishers who might be interested in publishing their work. And when I listen closely and then suggest a couple of names of houses who could be receptive, they come back to me and ask for contact details or phone numbers. I am usually more than happy to help if I can, but what the latter question indicates to me is a lazy lack of effort and a diffidence that isn’t going to get them very far. It’s a tough world out there and you need to equip yourself to weather a few slings and arrows. The best way to arm yourself for the fray is to gather as much useful information as possible before you send your memoir/debut novel/state of the nation treatise off to a publisher.
Boring though it may sound, especially when excitement is building over the final full stop in your manuscript which may now be in your sights, some solid research and a dose of homework is recommended. These days you don’t even have to leave your desk to do this – that is, if you have online access, which you do have if you’re reading this – although it might be a good idea to get out of the house and go browsing. (Another thing that never ceases to amaze me is how many would be published authors rarely go into a bookshop and hardly ever buy a book themselves.)
Your first port of call, however, assuming that you have some knowledge of the local industry and know the names of the key publishers who operate in your home market, is their websites. All of them will have websites and a tab that tells you about their manuscript submission process. It will also clearly explain the kind of books they routinely publish and the kind of books they don’t. In a small market like South Africa, it is unusual for a publisher to specialise in a certain area – for example, publish only cookbooks – so most will offer a fairly broad range of fiction and non-fiction. Check, though, to see if your genre is listed. Their websites are usually clear about what they don’t publish – poetry or plays, for instance.
If, however, your genre is fantasy and your target audience is young adults, or you have a range of illustrated children’s books to offer, and these are not specifically mentioned on the site, ring them up and ask to speak to an editor. It will save you time and avoid a dispiriting standard rejection letter later on.
Another good exercise is to browse bookshops – bricks and mortar shops, on-line bookstores and other retailers. I would recommend going to your local bookshop, however, if you are able to. There’s something sobering yet exhilarating, if not a little daunting, about being surrounded physically by hard copies of the hundreds of books on shelves and front of store tables that have been released in a given month, but if you’re serious about writing, you’d better face up to it. This is the space you’ll be competing for one day, so pay attention. The names on those glossy hopeful covers will be your competitors for a reader’s hard earned cash. If you write crime fiction, you will be competing with every other crime novel out there for sales and space. Study your competition. How is your book going to be different, or “better” and how will you pitch it to the publisher you’re hoping to interest in taking it on? Make a note of which publishers’ books are prominently on the shelves and which local authors are being showcased. When you go home, find those books and authors on line and see whether they and their books have websites or Facebook pages. Make contact. Ask them about their publishing experience.
If you can, have a chat to a bookseller or the store’s manager and ask what’s selling well. Booksellers are knowledgeable people generally and they are in the business because they love books and they are readers too. Ask what authors and titles they have on their core stock lists. Ask them about local publishers and what they publish. They know all the publishers because their sales reps call on them every month to talk them through what’s new and what’s coming up. They often host author events and launch functions and know authors personally. Booksellers are a good source of who’s publishing what. They may even give you names and contact details!