An American Editor

September 21, 2016

Thinking Fiction: Factors That Make a Novel Publishable

by Carolyn Haley

A common belief among authors and editors is that any well-written novel will find a publisher. Although that is broadly true, there are other factors at play, such as luck, perseverance, subjectivity, and economics. These factors, in varying combinations, explain why novels get published at different quality levels of writing and storytelling — or not at all.

A saying I heard decades ago puts the equation simply: an author must get the right book onto the right person’s desk on the right day. Published novelists who have submitted a book to multiple parties can affirm the veracity of that statement. Some writers nail the combination on their first attempt; others labor for years before success; some never achieve success. Still, whether they get published depends on somebody’s accepting their book, based on personal or corporate criteria.

Multiple choices

The right-book/right-desk/right-day combination applies only to traditional publishing. Until recent times, that was an author’s sole path to publication (unless the author wanted to spend thousands of dollars with a vanity press, which carried a stigma most writers didn’t want to bear, even if they could afford it). Authors had to satisfy the gatekeepers of the publishing industry — agents and acquisition editors — who always had to consider a novel’s commercial potential, as well as the author’s potential for long-term output. Some of the larger publishing houses could afford to take risks on unknown or radically different authors, and indeed that’s how many now-household-name, award-winning writers got their break. For the most part, though, a novel’s publishability depended on whether the house thought it could sell the book to enough readers to justify the cost of production and distribution, and generate enough profit to pay the writer and refill the publisher’s coffers.

The same conditions apply today, but novelists now have publishing options that lie between the opposite poles of traditional and vanity publishing: self-publishing. Self-publishing is considered by some to be vanity publishing under a different name, but with the electronic era have come new outlets for distribution, new tools giving authors desktop production and control, and myriad author-service vendors to help at different skill levels. The combination has created a third arena, one that places publishability determination into authors’ hands. The vanity stigma is fading fast as well-known authors reject suffocating corporate contracts and release new novels or reissue their backlists through self-publishing alternatives. A small but growing cadre of new authors is building their names and making great incomes from bypassing the old system. As a result, what makes a novel publishable has changed with the times.

The one thing that hasn’t changed is reader desire for a good story. Many authors have great story ideas, but their narrative technique is weak or sloppy. That’s where hands-on editors (copyeditors, line editors, developmental editors) enter the publishing process. But it’s rare for those editors to have decision-making authority regarding what novels get accepted for publication.

Whose standards apply?

Today a novel’s publishability depends on context. In self-publishing, authors have sole decision-making authority, influenced perhaps by their support circle and understanding of the market for their work. For them it’s a matter of getting the right book into the right channel, and they can release it at whatever writing quality level suits them and their audience.

In traditional publishing, a house’s acquiring editor makes the initial decision on behalf of the company, although managing or executive editors, and/or key people in accounting or marketing departments, might overrule their choice. Writing quality may be important to a house, but sometimes the best-written works have the narrowest audience appeal, so novels of perhaps lower writing quality but higher demand continue to be acquired in order to subsidize the less-popular books and any high-risk extraordinary works the house wants to take a chance on.

Publishability might also depend on a multibook-author’s track record, in both sales and reliability in producing new books on time, without hassle. Each publishing house has a hoodoo–voodoo equation on how best to invest their marketing dollars. Do they want to build an author’s readership over time, or make a fortune on a single novel’s potential to expand into other media? Are they interested in prize-winning literary candidates, or cultivating a mass audience in popular genres? Any or all of these factors influence which manuscripts are selected for publication.

The largest and most influential publishing houses have candidates fed to them by literary agents. The “Big Five” publishers (Hachette Group, Simon & Schuster, Penguin Random House, Macmillan, and HarperCollins) are corporate giants whose multiple imprints still offer the prestige, support, and income possibilities sought by many authors. The agents who direct material to the Big Five have no decision-making clout beyond which authors they choose to represent, which manuscripts they choose to submit, and the timing of the submissions. An agent’s job is to apply marketplace savvy to the flood of submissions they receive, and select the most appropriate novels to pitch to the editors in their network. Agents live on commission, so they look for novels they can sell. At the same time, they understand the subjectivity and unpredictability of public and editorial taste, and may choose to gamble on novels they love. In that frame of reference, they decide what’s publishable, though they are subject to the same fickleness of fate that authors must endure: getting the right book onto the right person’s desk on the right day.

Outside the Big Five, authors can fend for themselves with independent and genre-specific publishers. The smaller or more focused the house, the easier it is for authors to have their work accepted. Ebook-only houses seem to be the path of least resistance for many.

Where’s the editor?

Noticeably absent from the above scenarios are the hands-on editors — copyeditors, line editors, developmental editors — the people who actually get involved in the revision and fine-tuning of an author’s writing, as compared to acquisition or managing editors who make business decisions about a work. Hands-on editors are involved in publishability decisions only in small companies, where most everyone wears more than one hat. Still, there’s always someone who has executive authority and deems a novel worth the economic risk of publishing it, regardless of a hands-on editor’s passion (or lack of passion) for the project. It might be that the rejected book is worthy of a Pulitzer Prize, but if the deciding party doesn’t think so, then it goes back to the author to try somewhere else.

The larger the publishing company, the farther away from decision making a hands-on editor sits. Self-employed editors are farthest from that decision, especially if they work with self-publishing authors, who alone decide what to do with their edited books. For hands-on editors, it’s a built-in job frustration to diligently contribute to a novel’s publishability while the outcome is beyond their control. So to be happy in their work, they need to know and manage their personal tolerance for quality deviations, and understand their role in the publishing process. Staff hands-on editors must be in tune with their employer’s overarching policy and criteria so they can either edit what’s handed to them or pass it on with instructions to freelance editors. The self-employed hands-on editor, often the editor a book is being passed to, must establish her own parameters so she can decide what projects to accept and how to handle them. Hands-on editors must always bear in mind that once a manuscript leaves their desks, someone else decides whether the book merits publishing.

More variables

Different publisher types have different factors to balance when deciding what to novels to publish. A senior acquisitions editor at, say, Random House, who serves best-selling authors in hardcover, paperback, ebook, and audiobook, with subsidiary rights involving translation and film options and ancillary products, will have one set of criteria to juggle. A managing editor at a genre press that employs eight people who work out of their homes, producing mainly ebooks with print-on-demand options, will have different, often less stringent, criteria for deciding what to accept and reject. An indie author self-publishing through CreateSpace can do whatever she wants, limited by how much time, effort, and money she wants to spend—just like the publishing companies.

Competition among authors to get accepted by a top-tier house is fierce, and those with the best-crafted, most-compelling story ideas with broadest appeal have the best chance of being accepted at that level. “Best crafted” and “most compelling,” however, do not always equate with “well written.” Separating literary excellence and commercial viability can be difficult for authors and hands-on editors, but it helps both to grasp the fluid balance between these elements and adjust their expectations accordingly. A high-aspiring author paired with a relaxed-standards editor may not be a good match; likewise, an editor with classic literary standards may not work well with authors shooting for easy commercial success.

It serves both parties to share an understanding of the author’s goals for the novel vis-à-vis what the author has actually written, as well as the author’s potential and willingness to push to higher standards if need be. A realistic perspective on whether a novel is “good enough” to be published helps the work become the right book on the right person’s desk on the right day — or, in the case of self-publishers, the right book in the right channel. Professional hands-on editors are able to guide authors along the path to finding that perspective and help them achieve the writing and storytelling quality desired by their audience.

Carolyn Haley, an award-winning novelist, lives and breathes novels. Although specializing in fiction, she edits across the publishing spectrum — fiction and nonfiction, corporate and indie — and is the author of two novels and a nonfiction book. She has been editing professionally since 1977, and has had her own editorial services company, DocuMania, since 2005. She can be reached at or through her websites, DocuMania and New Ways to See the World. Carolyn also blogs at Adventures in Zone 3 and reviews at New York Journal of Books.


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