Publishing your book: Getting the green light

[Emily Potts] So you think you have a great book idea? A lot of people do, but if you don’t have a solid proposal, your book will never see the light of day. Publishers have strict guidelines for book briefs for a reason: Producing a book requires a huge upfront investment, and it’s a gamble.

As acquisitions editor for Rockport Publishers, I’m the first point of contact for aspiring authors. If you can’t sell the idea to me, that’s as far as it goes. If I think your concept has merit, I will work with you to develop a book brief and be your biggest champion in the process. Just because a book idea has a strong concept, however, doesn’t mean it will be published. There are many factors involved the approval process, and ultimately the decision to publish the book will be made by an in-house committee comprised of marketing and sales people. If they don’t understand it or don’t think they can sell it, it’s dead.

Following are the do’s and don’ts when submitting a book proposal:

Don’t submit a finished manuscript. Editors don’t have time to review an entire manuscript, nor do they want to. Send a summary of your book. This can include a table of contents and a sample chapter. It allows the editor to see how you organized your content, and she can review your writing abilities. Your cover letter should explain the book concept — but be succinct.

Know the publisher and what they publish. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve received proposals from people on topics ranging from foot massage to tractor maintenance. In most cases, the author is doing a mass mailing to any and all publishers, which is costly and a waste of time — your letter will end up in the trash. Research publishers and target the ones that publish books in the category you’re pitching.

Know your target audience. Publishers are in the business of selling books, so give specific information on who will buy your book and why. Will readers need it to help them excel on the job? Will educators want to pick it up for required reading in their courses? If you can get statistics that prove this book is needed, do it.

Tell why your audience will plunk down cold, hard cash for your book. With so much information available for free online, you need to provide a convincing argument why people will make an investment in your book. What’s different about it from what’s already out there? Be specific here.

Know the competition. Research books on the same subject/category — what will your book bring to the market that’s different? How successful are the other books? provides book ranking numbers as well as the categories they fall in, and this makes it easy to find similar books. It usually works in your favor if these books are selling well, because that suggests they’re in a category of interest to lots of people. Note the titles, prices, page counts and when they were published, and then point out what these titles offer compared to what your book will offer.

Explain why you are the best person to write/deliver this material. Show your qualifications and experiences as they relate to the topic you’re writing about.

Offer ideas on how you’ll promote the book. Once the book is finished, there’s still a lot of work to be done. Publishers expect authors — especially well-known authors — to promote the book and reach out to prospective readers. Social media come in handy here. Do you have an online following either on a blog or Twitter? Will you write articles and do interviews prior to publication? If so, what contacts do you have? Are you a good public speaker? Offer to do a book signing at your local bookstore. Every little bit helps, so be sure to put all the possibilities in your proposal. If the publisher feels confident in your abilities to promote your book to a big enough audience, there’s a better chance of it getting approved.

Have everything in place with your contacts and be sure you can meet the editorial deadlines before you sign a contract. Don’t promise the moon if you can’t deliver. Meeting deadlines is important. You’re not the only person working on your book. There is a team of people at the publishing house who also have deadlines to meet, and they are usually working on many books at one time. Be respectful of their schedules, as time has already been carved out for your book.

Writing a book is a huge commitment for everyone involved, and the process can be painful. But if it’s done right, you’ll have a product you can be proud of that will hopefully take on a life of its own.

Here are some of my favorite books that I’ve worked on in the past two years — they’re favorites mainly because I have great working relationships with the authors. Note to potential authors: If you deliver quality content and meet your deadlines, your editor will be your best friend for life.

Interior spread from I Heart Design

I Heart Design — Steven Heller is a pro, no doubt about it. He delivers excellent content and is always accessible. That isn’t to say we don’t go back and forth on some things, but we always agree in the end. The projects and essays in this book are beautiful and inspirational. It is beautifully designed by Rick Landers, and I’d highly recommend this as a holiday gift to any graphic designer.

Interior spread from Type, Form & Function

Type, Form & Function — This book went so smoothly, I could hardly believe it. Jason Tselentis is extremely professional and never misses a deadline, plus he knows type. Any time something needed to be addressed in the text or design, he promptly took care of it. This book is a must-have for design students and anyone who works with type.

Interior spread from New Masters of Poster Design, Volume 2

New Masters of Poster Design, Volume 2 — There are many reasons I love this book … it’s fun to see beautifully crafted posters and learn the process from the designers. The work is amazing and so is the author, John Foster. He has the innate ability to always make me laugh when I’m having a chaotic day. He also writes the “Poster of the Week” column every Wednesday at

Interior spread from Inside the World of Board Graphics

Inside the World of Board Graphics — I love this book mainly because it turned into something completely different from what I originally proposed. Robynne Raye and her team at Modern Dog delivered a cohesive book on board graphics that is both stunning to behold and informative. You don’t have to be a snow/surf/skateboarder to appreciate the bold graphics in this book.

Interior spread from Typography, Referenced

Typography, Referenced — OK, this book was actually kind of a nightmare, but it all came together with help from several writers who arrived at the 11th hour, worked on a tight schedule, and really came through for me in the end. I just received my advance copy of it, and it’s unbelievable how well it turned out considering there were so many cooks in the kitchen. The designer, Donald Partyka, deserves most of the credit for this: He created a cohesive design that seamlessly integrates each voice. Hats off!

Emily Potts is senior acquisitions editor at Rockport Publishers.

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Comments (7)

  1. Posted by Mick Hodgson on 12.16.11 at 10:46 am

    Great article Emily, thank you and I see that my editor is now my best friend for life.:)


    PS please send me a copy of each of these books, come on its Christmas!

  2. Posted by Amy Graver on 12.16.11 at 11:31 am

    Very nice article, Emily. I just hope you are still speaking to me after our book is complete (nearly there!). Well, I’ve enjoyed the process none-the-less and couldn’t have asked for a nicer editor. Thanks for everything, Emily!

  3. Posted by Pam Williams on 12.16.11 at 1:34 pm

    Emily, thanks so much for this great post. It’s a great link to share with people who have questions about how to get their book published.

  4. Posted by Nicole on 12.16.11 at 5:43 pm

    Great article Emily! Thank you for sharing your insights as an Editor. These tips are especially helpful for someone like myself who is working with an awesome Illustrator to publish her first graphic novel.:) If you’re interested in taking a peek you can see it here:

  5. Posted by Mark Andresen on 12.19.11 at 12:10 pm

    Gee, Emily, I’ve been doing it wrong all this time. Except for getting one published. How is it that celebrities can get children’s books published while so many charming ones get ignored? I keep collaborating with writers and not editors. Ah well, you know more than I do so I’m keeping this one.

  6. Posted by stanley hainsworth on 12.22.11 at 6:35 pm

    Great article from a very patient and wise editor. Words of wisdom indeed.

  7. Posted by Christopher Simmons on 01.1.12 at 11:16 pm

    A great share, and so true. Thanks Emily.

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