By: Rachelle Gardner
Classic wisdom for unpublished authors seeking traditional publication has been this:
If you’re writing a novel (fiction), you need a complete manuscript. If you’re writing non-fiction, you need a book proposal plus two or three sample chapters. If you’re writing a memoir, who knows — everybody has a different opinion.
Here’s what is true and will always be true: unpublished fiction authors MUST have a complete novel before trying to get an agent or publisher. No question, no exceptions.
But things are changing in publishing, especially when it comes to non-fiction. In some ways, the standards are higher. It’s more of a risk for a publisher to say “yes” to an unproven author. And in light of this reality, I’m going to make a bold and probably controversial suggestion.
No matter what you’re writing, even if you’re already published, even if it’s non-fiction or memoir:
Consider writing the whole book before you search for a publisher.
Why would I say such a thing? A few reasons:
1. It lowers the risk for the publisher.
Recently I’ve been submitting proposals to publishers with the entire manuscript attached rather than just a few sample chapters. Without exception, editors are telling me how much they appreciate me sending them the entire book. It takes away so much of their risk and guess-work. Even though they’re planning to edit the book, they know exactly what they’re getting. They know for sure that the author can deliver a manuscript that satisfies from beginning to end.
2. It makes the publisher much more confident.
There have been instances when I sent the entire manuscript to an editor, and soon I was told that the editors, the sales people, and the marketing people had all read the manuscript cover-to-cover. When that many people at a publishing house have that “can’t put it down” feeling, it leaves no doubt in their minds about whether they can sell this book. They experienced the book themselves, and they’ve already begun to develop a vision for how they can sell it. Their confidence in the value of the book is high.
3. Consequently, you have a much better chance of selling it.
When several members of the publishing committee all have a strong gut-level “buy in” on your book, they naturally want to try and acquire it. They’re much more likely to put an offer on the table because of the certainty about the product they’re acquiring. This is completely different from the more common scenario — a strong proposal and some killer sample chapters that still leave them waffling a bit as they wonder… will the rest of the book deliver what this proposal says it will? Is this going to be a satisfying reading experience, making people want to recommend the book to their friends?
4. Finishing a book is harder than you think.
One of the things I’ve been learning over the last few years is how very difficult it is to write an entire book when you’re contractually obligated to a deadline, and you’ve never written a complete 60,000-to-100,000 word piece before. You have no idea what it’s going to take until you do it. You may be uber-confident you can deliver the entire thing and have it be awesome, but publishers know this isn’t always the case. The best way to set yourself up for success is to prove to both yourself and your potential publisher that you can do it — by having it already done.
A few notes:
- For unpublished novelists, I am not saying anything different than the standard wisdom that has always been true: don’t try to get an agent or publisher until your novel is complete, edited, revised and polished.
- I am not trying to create a new gospel for publishing. I’m simply putting this idea out there as a suggestion that might help some of you reach success.
- I always prefer memoir-writers have a complete manuscript rather than just a sample. Memoirs are tricky and very difficult to craft from beginning to end, in some ways even harder than a novel. Memoirs usually require not only a complete manuscript, but one that has been worked and reworked multiple times before it’s right.
- This advice isn’t meant to supersede whatever advice your own agent is giving you. Trust your agent!
- You may find that you can get an agent with your non-fiction proposal and sample chapters, but your agent may suggest you write more of the book before submitting to publishers. Be open to discussing this.
- Publishers still buy non-fiction based on a stellar proposal and sample chapters. Just remember, the more you can provide them to raise their level of confidence and emotional buy-in, the stronger your chances.
- If you go to the effort of writing the whole thing and still can’t sell it to a traditional publisher, you’re perfectly positioned to self-publish. So there’s really no downside.