With most publishers closed to authors without agents, and agents almost as elusive, self-marketing your manuscript seems like a daunting job. The market has changed drastically over the years, and certainly not for the better.

Only a limited number of publishers maintain open doors. The slush pile seems headed for the same fate as the Dodo bird. Among publishers that continue to read unsolicited manuscripts, the trend is not to respond unless they are interested. They would have you twiddle your thumbs for six months when they may or may not have rejected your manuscript the moment it came through the door. Impatience and frustration continue to drive many to self-publishing. That’s fine if you are into writing more for fun than profit. But those of us who prefer traditional publishing, we have two options: For one, we can hand over the business of selling to a third party. Agents are supposed to be experts at that. They know the secret knock on those closed doors, right? The Let them catch those annoying rejections and call us when they have an offer. I’ll save the pros and cons of that are for another day.

The alternative is to be your own advocate. I don’t know if it makes you feel better at the idea, but of the more than a hundred sold titles I sold over the last decades, only was by an agent. To the contrary, I nearly lost the sale I had already made when a different agent offended my editor with too many [unreasonable?] demands. The long drought put my confidence at an all-time low until we parted ways. It took a few years, but I sold five more books on my own. The moral of the anecdote is that selling without an agent happens.

My mantra is Writing is a Pleasure; Selling is a Business. We would rather be writing. Ideas stack up like planes during the holiday season. Life makes demands, and studying the market is time-consuming. However, it could be well worth your time. You budget your time to write, so why not set aside a portion of that time to market? It could be a day out of your week or an hour out of your day. By making it a routine time, you are more likely not to blow it off.

You might already own the annual market books that list publishers, addresses, submission requirements, and the percentage of un-agented manuscripts they publish. They list the genre and for children’s publishers, the ages for whom they publish. There is a drawback. By the time the book is available, some information is obsolete. Editors move. requirements change, and houses are absorbed by bigger companies or vanish. You need to update the information.

The industry magazines, The Writer and The Writer’s Digest, help. However, the information might be at least a month old. Your best source for requirements is the publishers’ websites. Publisher’s Weekly gives the best industry news about changing personnel. I made my first book sale when I saw an interview with a new editor. In the photo, she was holding a cat. Although I had submitted the manuscript to that house a year before, a new editor meant a different taste. Since the main character of the story was a cat, I figured that she’d be more receptive and popped it into the mail the same day. I got the call four days later. She bought it. Publisher’s Weekly is expensive, but libraries usually subscribe.

It is tempting to submit to the publishers who buy the most unsolicited manuscripts since the odds seem better. That’s not necessarily so. Your manuscript might be the perfect fit for the publisher releasing only one or two titles a year. That’s where smart research comes in. The market blurb is not the whole story. Show Don’t Tell works as well with marketing as with writing.

Years ago, I sent for the catalogs from every publisher that I could. Now you can find them online. Your local library may have the hard copies. You’ll have to ask and maybe trade your first born for a peek, but it’s cheaper. The Spring and Fall catalogs with their backlists tell you a complete story about the publisher. Let’s say you have written an anthropomorphic picture book. Perhaps the publisher’s market blurb says they publish ten picture books a season and the second publisher publishes only two a year. A look at the catalogs shows that the ten picture books and those in the backlist are all realistic, and the smaller publisher lists both stories with animals living as people. Which one will be more receptive?
My earliest sales were picture books and a novella. In my catalog perusals, I fell in love with the choices of illustrations. I could visualize my story with that artist. The next step was to take a trip to the library and read some of their books. I saw that their books were the minimalist style that I used and that my story would be a good fit. The editor bought the manuscript and asked for more. He eventually bought four before I moved on to a different style and genre more suitable for other houses.

Look at the catalog index. Most publishers list titles by genre. There you can see categories they didn’t mention in their short market blurbs. Pay special attention to the books that they say are by first-time authors. It takes a real commitment of resources to invest in an unknown and unproven author. They are counting on that beginner to write many more for them. Read that book. Analyze what it is that made them take a chance. Is your manuscript ready to compete with that?
Read titles by that publisher. Do you feel that in a line-up, your story will stand out? It should be a good fit because it just might be the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Good luck!