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Never Ask a Publisher this Question

Anna Leinberger Posted by Anna Leinberger, Editorial Manager, Acqusitions, Berrett-Koehler Publishers Inc.

Anna is a writer and editor for Berrett-Koehler in Oakland, CA. More on killer book proposals and writing can be found on her BK Blog.

Never Ask a Publisher this Question

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One of the most baffling questions I sometimes hear as an acquisitions editor is “So what are you guys looking for?” I am never quite sure how to answer.  It is true that some publishers to have a specific agenda of topics for which they are seeing a qualified author.  I personally do not have a formal process for this.  There are a few ideas I have bouncing around in my head, but not too many and nothing terribly specific. 

For example, I could decide that I want to find a book about Leadership Lessons from Musk Oxen! And maybe the person I am talking to happens to be a Musk Ox expert. It could happen? The more important issue here is the motivation of the asker, which is significantly more important than whether or not the editor has topics in mind.

Are you a Musk Oxen expert with a background in leadership training?

There is the chance that the person asking this question might happen to have expertise in one of the fields or subjects that the editor is looking for.  I would say it is a long shot though, and the hope that luck will land you in front of an editor who happens to want exactly what you have is not what fuels this question. 

It is important to ask yourself, if you have ever thought of asking this question, why?  What is your motivation? The motivation is usually a desire to write a book. This is actually a bad thing.

Why is it bad that I want to write a book?

Simple answer- it is not.  Complicated answer: if you are more interested in the achievement of having written a book than in the book you would be writing, we have a problem.  My worry when I hear this question is that the person asking wants to know what I am looking for and will then go off and try to write a book that fits- regardless as to their background, qualifications, or interests. 

A book is a status symbol in our country- being a published author is an impressive achievement and feather in your professional cap.  Too many potential authors get caught up in the idea that it is WRITING A BOOK that is the important part.  These people are actually the last people who should be writing a book.

What to do?

I don’t go looking for books.  I go looking for authors.  I look for people who are doing something great in the world, people who have coined a new idea and are implementing that idea successfully. I am not interested in someone who wants to write a book so badly they are willing to write on whatever the editor is interested in.  The reason is simple: they will never write a good book on something of only tangential or forced interest, and no one will trust someone with no background in the subject matter. (Hint: this means the book will flop).

You have to write the book that you are passionate about.  You have to, in the parlance of millennials, do YOU.


Charlotte Ashlock
Charlotte Ashlock

I love this post.

May 12, 2015

Steve Piersanti
Steve Piersanti

Hi Anna,

So you always carried a book with you to parties?  My kind of person!



May 15, 2015