How Publishers Make Decisions

We all agree that book publishing is changing fast. New technology, new formats and new ways to sell books have changed everything.  Well, almost everything.

One thing has not changed…the fundamental way decisions are made as to what new authors an agent represents and publishers publish. It has always been and remains people making quick, subjective decisions (aka QSD).

A number of years ago I knew a publisher that received 5,000 unsolicited book proposals and manuscripts each year.  Those were the days before email submissions were common, so you can imagine the piles of paper. If each of those were to be thoroughly reviewed and researched, the company would have needed to hire 15 full-time employees for that purpose alone with the very real possibility than none of the 5,000 would make the final cut for the publisher.

So what happened? Decisions to review some of them more thoroughly were based on first impressions.  If at first glance it wouldn’t fit the company, it wasn’t given any further thought.  A quick, subjective decision was made.

Agents get a lot of submissions from new and prospective authors as well.  Hundreds or thousands per year.  Here again, the only way to deal with that is to filter out most with a QSD.

Writers’ conferences contain examples of what I am talking about, by scheduling 15 minutes of time with an agent or editor to “speed-review” your proposal. It is good exposure for how quick decisions are made.  Actually, to more accurately simulate what really happens, the meetings should be more like 90 seconds, but I am not sure anyone would desire to take part in that chaos!

There have been some changes to parts of the publisher decision-process. A little more than ten years ago, sales data from various bookselling channels for all published titles became available, so publishers could analyze comparable titles and also specific author sales history to make smarter decisions on what books to acquire.

But the decision to publish a new author or any new book remains a subjective process, meaning that sometimes logic plays a very minor part in the decision.

For example, what is good writing? It is a personal, subjective judgment. Some of the best-selling books of the last century were deemed lacking from a writing-quality standpoint by some publishers and yet sold millions by the one publisher who thought it was worthwhile. Of course, this doesn’t mean it was well-written after all, but a decision-maker made a quick, subjective decision that won or lost for the publisher or agent. The common bond of everyone in a decision-making position for a publisher or agency is that “you win some and you lose some”.

One of my favorite cartoons depicts a cocktail party of publishing people and each one was introduced as, “The guy who rejected John Grisham”, or “The person who thought Stephen King couldn’t write”, etc.   There are similar stories for every publisher, editor or agent in every age which all goes to prove the point of decisions being mostly subjective.

One area where change is seen is that most publishers place their marketing and sales leaders into the role of having virtual veto power over a prospective product. This is why an author platform is so important and sales data from similar products is such an issue today.  But with all the data available and emphasis on author platforms, decisions are still made quickly and subjectively.

Every new author feels deep in their bones that if an agent or publisher would simply take the time to review their work thoroughly that they would agree it is worthy of being represented and published.

That would be true if there were far fewer authors trying to be published. The sheer numbers require that everyone make a decision quickly based on a first impression.

Publishing is a lot more like hitting a baseball than shooting free-throws in basketball.  A great free-throw shooter (like Steve Laube in is heyday) could make up to 90% of their shots. A great baseball player might get a hit a third of the time.

(I can wedge examples from sports into just about any blog topic…amazing.)

This feels like I am deliberately trying to discourage a new author, which I am not, but think of it this way:

  • You only need one agent to agree to represent your work and there are a lot of us.
  • You only need one editor to like your work to get it considered and there are a lot of them.

Everyone doesn’t need to love what you do, just one or two of the right people.

11 Responses to How Publishers Make Decisions

  1. Chris September 23, 2014 at 5:27 am #

    Chicago Dan! Thanks for being that person in my life who says, “Right. We can go with this one.” May your vote of confidence be rewarded. Blessing ~ Chris

  2. Jeanne Takenaka September 23, 2014 at 7:43 am #

    Your posts always make so much sense, Dan. Seeing the numbers helps explain why decisions are made so quickly from a publishing standpoint. It’s still a little hard to swallow as a pre-published author, but I get it. 🙂

    Your encouragement at the end was perfect: two people. It makes it much easier when it’s broken down like that.

    Have a great time at ACFW!

  3. Joe Plemon September 23, 2014 at 8:15 am #

    Thanks Dan, for explaining how publishing decisions are made. The process seems cold, but, as you say, it is a necessary reality.

    As a new author, this could be discouraging, but I would rather know how things work than have some sort of false illusion I may have concocted in my mind.

    Besides, as you remind us in your closing paragraph, I only need one agent to represent me and one editor to like my work. Suddenly, it seems doable.

    There is hope!

  4. Jenelle. M September 23, 2014 at 8:44 am #

    So I’m concluding that what you said about first impressions boils down to a writer’s proposal.

    I wonder if agents and editors actually read the entire proposal or stop after the hook if they don’t see potential in the concept or writing.

    • Dan Balow
      Dan Balow September 23, 2014 at 10:37 am #

      Publishers will start reading a proposal, but stop at the first sign of something they don’t think will work for them. That could be the first line, the third page or the last page. It’s a tough process.

  5. Shulamit September 23, 2014 at 10:48 am #

    Thank you for this post, Dan. I would love to see a few “first two lines” of cover letters that actually got the agents at The Steve Laube Agency reading more.

    I’ve got a handle on all the basics, as drummed into us at writers’ conferences.

    It is the opening hook–those first two lines–that I worry about!

  6. Rebecca Lorraine Walker September 23, 2014 at 6:06 pm #


    Thanks for an encouraging post. Yes, it only takes 1 agent and 1 editor. Really, that’s encouraging!

  7. Peter DeHaan September 23, 2014 at 7:08 pm #

    Dan, In my day job, I publish magazines. Each day I receive dozens of unsolicited press releases from companies hoping for some free publicity. Most are rejected (that is, I press delete) within a second or so, merely based on the subject line.

    For those that pass the subject line test, I’ll start reading the body of the email. If the first paragraph is confusing, contains too much hype, or is boring, I’ll reject them as well, usually in under five seconds.

    All this to say, I understand the critical importance of making quick decisions. It may not be entirely fair, but it is a necessary part of preventing overload.

  8. Jason Clair September 24, 2014 at 8:33 am #

    Hello Dan,
    Thank you for sharing these tips. I have a story which I’m looking to have published and I hardly know where to begin. It is a young adult fiction novella, focused on a tragic past being manifested into tangent reality. The feedback I’ve received has been overwhelmingly positive. Let me put a copy in your hands, even if you can’t help me directly.
    Jason Clair


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