Summersdale senior editor Debbie Chapman gives you the inside scoop on what book publishers are looking for - and what you need to do to get your travel memoir on the shelves
Most weeks I receive about ten new travel submissions, but sometimes it’s lots higher than that – people seem more eager to read and write travel books in the summer than the gloomy winter months.
We publish up to around five new travel titles most years, plus a couple of reissues of beloved older titles, and a handful of travel gift books (non-narrative books on travel such as The Camper’s Survival Guide or Travel Hacks).
I’m looking for travel writing that grabs you right from the start – the travels can take place anywhere around the world and be on any mode of transport: planes, trains, mopeds, bicycles, kayaks, or your own two feet (or anything in-between) but the story has to be unique. I want to read something I’ve never read before, something exciting and entertaining. The taste for gentle ‘moving abroad’ travel writing has dwindled in recent years (everywhere has been so well catered for by now), so unless it’s really unique we’re looking for more unusual, attention-grabbing adventures rather than ‘my escapades renovating a house in France’.
Ideally, we’re also looking for authors who have an existing platform (typically a social media account with a high number of followers, but it could also be a good track record of motivational speaking gigs or a regular column in a relevant publication, for instance) – not only because it shows there is an appetite there for your story, but also because it shows you are good at engaging with readers and writing content they will enjoy, you know who your target audience is and shows your enthusiasm for the topic. Think of gaining a large Twitter or YouTube following as testament to the fact that people will want to read about your travels, and that you’re being pro-active in generating interest and discussion in your field.
Absolutely. You needn’t be the most lyrical or descriptive writer in the world, as long as you know how to tell your story in a gripping way. Some writers focus on drawing out the humour or drama in their story, for others it’s the exhilarating emotions and insights that come with an epic adventure, and sometimes it’s beautiful descriptive prose that really transports the reader. All our books go through a careful and thorough structural edit stage, though, which will help the author to craft their story or bring out some more of those important elements in their writing, so really the main thing is that you make your first readers (me!) want to keep reading.
A lot of the manuscripts I receive read like someone’s private diary, listing every single detail and observation the writer had and always in chronological order, without skipping anything. Sometimes in their submission an author will even say ‘I’ve just sent you my diary because my friend read it and said it was interesting’. A diary and a narrative work of non-fiction are very different things – not everything you put in your personal diary will be of interest, and most of the time diary-format books end up being dry or dull unless they’re heavily edited.
A lot of the time people will send their first draft, too. I understand it’s exciting to have finished your manuscript at last, and you want to get that publishing deal straight away, but you shouldn’t ever send out a first draft manuscript to publishers – you should be happy that you’ve sculpted your book into its best possible shape before you send it out into the world. It could just be a second draft, but some established authors will redraft multiple times before they’re happy.
The story needs to be well-structured, with a plot that progresses and keeps the reader interested, rounded characters and character development, and a good balance of description, dialogue and action. If something isn’t of interest to a reader who doesn’t know you and isn’t essential to the story, cut it: most of the time we don’t need to know about your flight or that day that you just wandered around the town. Only tell us things a reader will find interesting, and tell those bits well.
To be blunt, yes. While there are undoubtedly many readers who would love to read a book about Togo or Krygyzstan, it’s very hard for us to sell a book set in those places – there’s just not a big enough market for us to tap into, so unless you are a big name in travel writing unfortunately the more obscure destinations aren’t going to make commercially viable prospects for us.
It’s also tricky to sell books set in lots of different countries, unless there’s a strong theme tying them together (such as rail travel, or food). This often simply boils down to booksellers not knowing where to physically place a book that’s set ‘everywhere’. Most people who buy travel books are looking for a book on a certain country or area, so while your multi-year backpacking trip might have taken you to a really diverse and fascinating set of countries from India to Romania to Paraguay, it means that it won’t be placed on the ‘Europe’ shelf or the ‘South East Asia’ shelf in the travel writing section of bookshops and won’t pop up first in online searches for ‘books set in X’.
Writing about a popular tourist spot can have its drawbacks, too, though – I receive at least one submission a week about the Camino de Santiago. Yes, lots of people do the walk, and lots of people have written and self-published books on it, but that just makes it even harder for us to sell – how will you stand out from the crowd, and why should people read about your journey above anyone else’s? So really it’s just about hitting the right balance. For instance, I hardly ever receive submissions based in Germany or Spain, but there is a huge amount of interest in those countries for tourists. It’s a niche, but a large, popular niche – add an element like a bike ride or a cross-country first, and you have a perfect pitch.
It’s all very well thinking ‘I know Summersdale are looking for a book on Germany, so I’ll write something based there’, but if you’re not already interested in that country and don’t have any real reason to write about it, it’s not going to make a very good book, and it will show. You have to be passionate and – if possible – have some expertise or background knowledge on the location or mode of transport that means you’re the perfect person to write that particular book. And even if you do think your personal interests are very niche, if you’re passionate enough about it and can convince me that there’s a reason to publish your book, you never know, we may take a punt (yes, even on Kyrgyzstan).
By email, please, following the submissions guidelines on our website. All publishers vary in what they’d like to see at the outset, but personally I’d like to see the first couple of chapters (up to about 20,000 words) so I can get my teeth into it and get a sense of your writing style. Some people send chapters from further in, saying ‘this is where it gets really exciting’ or ‘you should read this chapter because it’s the best’, but my response is always: why isn’t your opening chapter exciting? Why isn’t your opening chapter the best? I want to know how the story starts and how the journey progresses, and that should be the most exciting part for the reader too to make them want to carry on reading.
With a couple of exceptions, yes please! How do you know if a journey is going to be exciting, how do you know you’ll even have a story to tell, until you’ve at least undertaken a significant amount of it? (If you’re mid-a-world-first bike ride or epic run and already have loads of great stories under your belt or are an established author, fine, but otherwise we are unlikely to consider a proposal for a yet-to-be-taken trip.)
It’s easier than ever to self-publish your book, but it takes a LOT of work to self-publish successfully. The ease of using Amazon’s self-publishing portal also means that the competition amongst self-published books is huge – there are now hundreds of books available that vary wildly in quality, and often the only way you can judge a self-published book before you buy it is by reviews or recommendations, meaning it can be hard for customers wading through thousands of similar titles to find one that stands out. It’s tricky to get a self-published books pushed up the rankings on Amazon to save it from obscurity. Put simply, your book is at risk of being lumped in with all the thousands of poorly-written, unedited manuscripts out there unless you put in a lot of your own time and money once the book is written.
Getting a publishing deal with a company like Summersdale means not only do you have an official stamp of approval – you’ve got through the rigorous and highly selective submissions procedure and been selected as one of the chosen few who get published per year – but you also gain access to our huge amount of experience, knowledge and contacts.
We have years of experience with editing books, we know what works, and we work closely with our authors to make their books the best they can possibly be. Your book will be professionally edited, copy-edited, designed, typeset and proofread. Our sales and publicity teams will make sure your book gets the coverage and shelf space it deserves, making it available to a far wider audience than you’d be able to reach by self-publishing, and making sure people hear about your book. It means you have the best people in the business working with you and for you to promote your book.
Being a writer in itself hardly ever makes anyone a millionaire. Unless you’re a huge name or have a runaway success, the reality is that you won’t be able to kick back and live off the royalties from your first book. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try: lots of our authors make a really successful and comfortable living from a combination of writing books, freelance writing, motivational speaking, blogging, or utilising any other skills they may have, meaning they earn themselves the freedom to give up the 9–5 and make money from their passions (which sometimes feels like the best prize of all).
You can also build on your successes, so while a first book may sell a modest amount, a second once you’ve built up your following and expertise may mean a big increase in sales. It all depends on how much you put in – if you’re determined and keen to put yourself out there, you can make a living from it, but the money’s not just going to start rolling in as soon as you finish your first draft.
The book market is notoriously tough to gauge anyway, and the travel-writing market specifically is shrinking, but the books that do well become really well-loved and respected and can sometimes really take off. We print small print runs and reprint often to keep up with demand, rather than starting with a huge amount that we might end up pulping. We’d normally start with around 3,000 copies and would hope to be reprinting fairly soon if the book is well received. However, sometimes a book gets off to a slow start but builds momentum over a couple of years as it gains word-of-mouth recommendations and recognition.
The submissions guidelines on our website provides all the details on how we like to receive book proposals. You can follow us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram to to get an idea for the books we love, or you can follow my personal Twitter account where I talk about all things travel, and especially travel books, and where you can send me your questions or ideas. Happy writing, and good luck!
Summersdale is an award-winning innovative publishing company with a 28-year-long passion for great travel writing. They publish over 150 titles per year across the travel writing, general non-fiction, gift, humour, health and well-being genres, and pride themselves on publishing beautiful books that inform, inspire and entertain.