We have never commissioned a book from a proposal submitted by a writer, or indeed an agent. A frank admission from a publishing house now in its 8th year, but it’s true. Why? Well, we have a very firm idea of what we want to publish and the writers we want to work with. Given that we only publish a few titles a year – a maximum of three – it becomes less surprising.
I should say that our approach is not elitist. Many publishers do not accept unsolicited proposals. We do… though we do have carefully drawn-up criteria on our website. Not all writers who make submissions take the time to fulfil these criteria. The few who do, we give more of our time to. We aim to reply to all serious submissions, though it takes a while (we get approximately 150 per year).
We know what it is like to be on the other side. BackPage was born out of a book proposal myself and Neil worked on together in 2008-9. It was 7000 words, not including the sample chapter. We worked bloody hard on it. It wasn’t picked up, didn’t deserve to be. It was interesting and worthy but not sellable enough. However, through the process we realised we worked well together and started BackPage (we don’t publish our own work).
Writing – and finishing – a book is very tough. It demands huge amounts of mental stamina. So it is important to spend time on the proposal, carefully considering whether this is an idea you are prepared to sacrifice a year of your life to. That’s a very challenging question, even if the answer is ‘yes’.
As publishers, the challenge for us is to remain open-minded and alert for the proposal that ticks all our boxes. I’m sure it will happen.