Top Reasons Publishers Reject Your Business Book Proposal

Getting published is more than just good writing.

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Getting published is more than just good writing.


Top Reasons Publishers Reject Your Business Book Proposal

Getting published is more than just good writing.

Share this article

If you’re leading the conversation in your field in business, you’re almost certainly writing about your area of expertise. Maybe you’ve even written a Minutehack article or two.

And if you’re writing articles, you may also have thought about writing a book. In a world of disposable content, books remain the gold standard of the ideas economy.

Of course you can self-publish these days, but if you want the professionalism, distribution muscle and credibility of a traditional publisher, you need to pitch both you and your idea by submitting a book proposal to a commissioning editor and/or an agent. Many are pitched, few are chosen. What makes the difference?

Publishers reject business book proposals all the time for all the obvious reasons: they’re not a good fit with their list, they don’t think the author is a credible voice, or the concept just isn’t strong enough.

But even if you tick all those boxes, you may still find your proposal rejected. Here are five top reasons that publishers reject business book proposals – and they might not be what you think.

  1. They already have ‘that book’
  2. It’s for ‘the general reader’
  3. There are ‘no competing titles’
  4. It’s too beautiful
  5. There’s no author marketing plan

So what does each of these mean, and what can you do about it?

They already have ‘that book’

If a publisher already has a book on their list that they consider a close equivalent, they won’t want to annoy their existing author or put their sales reps into the embarrassing position of having to recommend one book over the other. So do your research.

Don’t be discouraged if a publisher has published books in your area of expertise – they’re unlikely to take yours on if it’s an entirely new field for them – but do the extra work to show how your book complements existing titles rather than competing with them.

If you list a book by the publisher you’re pitching to in your competing titles analysis, state up front that these are complementary and explain why (maybe they’re aimed at different target markets, or with different applications or approaches).

You could also address the potential conflict head on in your covering letter: ‘I’m approaching you because you publish the well-respected [title], and I believe this book will build on and extend your reputation in this new direction…’

It’s for ‘the general reader’

If you’re the first-time author of a business book, there’s no such thing as ‘the general reader’. If they don’t already recognise your name and love your work, readers will need to recognise the problem you’re tackling and love the solution you’re offering. Which means you need to be super-clear on who they are.

The ‘target reader’ section of a proposal is foundational – that’s why it’s the first field we tackle in our online course the 10-day Business Book Proposal Challenge – and you need to show the publisher that you know who you’re writing for, that they’re facing the problem you’re solving and they know it and are actively seeking solutions (if they’re not, they won’t buy your book), and that there are enough of those people to make a viable marketplace.

Focus on psychographics rather than demographics: someone’s age or gender is probably irrelevant, what matters is what they’re up against.

There are ‘no competing titles’

Possibly true, but very unlikely. And if it IS true, you’re asking the publisher to take a massive risk: the most common reason a book doesn’t exist is that there isn’t a viable market for it.

It’s more likely that you simply haven’t done your research. The existence of competing titles is a Good Thing – your job is to demonstrate how you are adding to the conversation in this space – a fresh approach, a new application, a distinctive model or metaphor, maybe.

It’s too beautiful

You may have a clear vision of your book – 50 full-colour illustrations and a peachy-finish cover with spot laminate. That would indeed look lovely, but sadly you’ve just priced yourself out of the market. Books are low-price, low-margin objects (remember, the retailer takes 50% of the cover price right up front), and the more your book costs to produce, the lower the publisher’s chance of seeing any profit from it.

Unless you absolutely need colour – in a medical textbook or a coffee-table cookery book, for example – assume a black and white interior. And if you’re using illustrations, be clear on how many (because that impacts on extent, which impacts on cost) and who’ll create them if they’re original or pay for the rights to use them if they already exist (are you asking the publisher to pay for an illustrator or cover permissions fees?).

There’s no author marketing plan

You might think the publishers will handle the marketing. Well, they’ll do some, sure, but you’re the one with the reputation and community in your field, so they’re going to want to see you putting your own marketing muscle into this too.

Give clear, specific and credible commitments (for example publications you’ll pitch articles to, conferences you expect to speak at) and showcase your network and connections shamelessly – that’s part of what the publisher is buying when they acquire your book.

If you’ve got a great idea for a book, do it justice and put the time into creating the proposal – the pitch – that does it justice. Work through these five pointers, making sure you give specifics wherever you can.

Demonstrate that you’ve done your research, understand your audience and are willing to personally go that extra mile to make your book a success.

Alison Jones is the founder of leading business books publisher Practical Inspiration Publishing, host of the Extraordinary Business Book Club podcast and head judge of the Business Book Awards.

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Top Reasons Publishers Reject Your Business Book Proposal

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