How we choose what to publish
One thing and another this week has made me think about writing a post that explains how Snowbooks chooses what it pubishes. I imagine, from a number of points of view, it is quite mystifying how publishers make the choice. Here we go, then.
Bear in mind that the Snowbooks team has changed shape recently. The description I'm going to give applies more to the future than the past. That is to say, it is more a reflection of how Anna and I work than how James and Gilly worked, and since we're the ones in sole charge of the shape of Snowbooks' forward list, that should be more useful.
I'll focus on how we choose fiction, too. Creating our non-fiction list is a little more methodical, reasoned and deliberate. We have great passion for the non-fiction areas we publish in, and knowledge about what books readers would find useful. It's thus more of a commissioning than selection process.
Let me provide some background, too. Snowbooks has an open submissions policy. From our own, selfish, point of view, we think it's great that most other publishers only accept manuscripts through agents. It means that the quality of writing we see on the submission list is that much higher than it would otherwise be, as the majority of writers are denied access to publishers. From an unagented author's point of view, of course, it sucks. Publishing is not a progressive industry.
We get a lot of submissions. So many, in fact, that we don't give feedback - we'd never have time to do the actual publishing part of publishing, otherwise. Instead, we have an open rejection letter, available on this site. It's probably worth repeating it here as it contains many of our reasons for choosing, or not choosing, to make an offer of publication:
The bad news, I'm sorry to say, is that Snowbooks isn't planning to publish the manuscript that you submitted to us. For many people, a letter like this is a big let-down, so it's probably a good idea to explain something about how we make the decision to reject a book so that you realise that it isn't necessarily a criticism of you or your writing.
When setting up Snowbooks, we didn't like the idea of having quotas of books to publish and we also didn't like the idea that one department acquires new manuscripts but then hands them on to other departments to market them or to turn the manuscripts into finished books (although that's the way most conventional publishers do things).
Instead, we wanted the person who said 'we should publish this' to be the same person who followed the book all the way through to publication and beyond. Obviously, if someone knows they are going to be working on all aspects of a single book for at least six months, they'll only champion books that they love. So the fact that you were rejected by Snowbooks means that your book didn't become an instant all-time favourite with a member of our very small team - but it doesn't necessarily mean anything more.
This is an open letter and so there's a chance, if we're being absolutely honest, that we did reject your book because it was awful. We get a lot of manuscripts where the use of language is so awkward or clichéd or error-filled, and the story so strange or difficult to follow or unsatisfying, that we can't imagine anyone publishing it. But we also have books submitted to us that we like, that we think are at least as good as many titles currently in the bookshops. Unfortunately, that doesn't mean we'll publish them. They have to be personal favourites of ours before one of us will devote half a year of our working life to bringing it to market. In other words, a rejection from Snowbooks is hardly a rejection at all.
Other things you might like to know about the people choosing not to publish your work are that several of us have hated nearly every Booker-prize-winning book that we've read. These are titles which have not only been commercial successes, but have been held up for special commendation by a panel of expert judges - and yet we didn't like them and if they'd been submitted to us, we probably wouldn't have published them. So again, you can see that a rejection from us is not necessarily a bad sign.
You probably also know the stories about authors such as Joanna Rowling and John Grisham being rejected by more than a dozen publishers - before going on to make some lucky company heaps and heaps of money. It certainly makes you wonder whether there are other authors who would have delighted millions if they hadn't given up after ten rejections.
What it comes down to is that publishing companies aren't really the people you want reviewing your work. If you think about it, we have a financial incentive to put as little thought and effort into sifting through submissions as possible. We've got a lot of submissions to get through and not enough time. Plus, many publishers aren't looking to take any chances with new material; they want obvious, commercial successes, ideally from authors with a track record.
Snowbooks could hire a team of people whose job it is to give detailed constructive feedback to submitting authors and to point them in the direction of other publishers more attuned to their style, but there's no obvious way for us to make that idea profitable. We'd be spending money that other firms aren't and it wouldn't necessarily make us any more financially successful - and it's the same with any other publishers you'll deal with. We're like shoppers at a January sale: we grab the two or three things that catch our eye as quickly as we can and move on. We're not critics so much as opportunists.
Given that a submitted manuscript is inevitably an author's pride and joy, and that a book's acceptance and future fortunes are bound up with its author's own hopes and happiness, it's almost criminal that publishers get to accept or reject submissions with so little feedback or accountability. The best we can say at Snowbooks is that we think it's a bad situation, but we don't at the moment have a solution to it.
In the meantime, all we can suggest is that you don't trust publishers. They're not your friends and they're not even that great at spotting what readers will like. If they reject your book it doesn't necessarily mean that there's anything wrong with it and, perhaps even more importantly, if they accept it, it doesn't mean that they love it and are going to treat it with respect. Many unpublished authors have a picture of how they'll be treated once they have a book in print that's much rosier than the reality - they're often disappointed to learn that most publishing is, after all, just a business.
Obviously, we wouldn't be painting such a bleak picture of publishing if we didn't aim to be different; we do. But we're limited at the moment in that we're new and poor. So please accept our apologies for replying with an open letter to a submission that must have taken months or maybe years of effort and energy to produce - and let us wish you better luck in the future.
So, there you have it. Publishers are looking for opportunities to make money. But let's home in for a moment on that crucial, magical, hard to explain singular moment of certainty: of knowing, without a doubt, that the submission we've just read is a book we want to publish. How does that happen?
I can break it down into three main areas. Firstly, whether the book fits with the aims that we've already spent time and effort thinking through. Anna and I have decided that our all-time favourite categories of fiction are historical fiction, horror, supernatural thrillers and general fiction. If Bravo Two Zero or Bridget Jones' Diary were submitted to us, it's not very likely that we'd have seriously consider them.
Secondly, basic quality. I'm not the sort of person who can forgive errors. My eye doesn't skip over bad punctuation, bad grammar, clunky sentences. I can't think 'oh, we can tidy that up later'. Polish is important.
Thirdly, my physiological reaction to it. I mean it. Reading and selecting from submissions is exhausting because when I find a book that's for me, I go through a similar process to falling in love. I read it in one or two sittings - everything else in the world stands still. When I get to the end, I feel a sense of loss, a sadness that it's over. I think about it for the rest of the day. I think about it for the rest of the week. I can't get it out of my head. It plays on me. I worry about it. I worry that Anna and Rob won't like it as much as I do. The characters get bigger in my head. Everything reminds me of it. I worry that the author will turn out to be a nightmare. I worry that someone else will make an offer and if I'm not quick I will lose the opportunity. I fret. And then when we've agreed the deal, I'm full of optimism and hope, dancing around, making plans, getting on with the cover design, planning the future. And once it's created and out there in the world, I get an enormous burst of pride for it when I see it on the tables in store. It's proper love: it's the best feeling in the world.
How do you tailor a book to make sure that's my reaction? Well, you just can't. It's purely subjective and it's not something you can guarantee. You just have to write an immaculate book with flawless style that I love. And you can also imagine that sometimes, for no good reason, perfectly excellent writing doesn't spark this extreme reaction. Publishing is both an art and a science: get the science bit right and you're a good deal of the way there. The rest is alchemy - luck and magic.