Tuesday, October 2, 2012


 I have added to this previous post because like the pub industry, I am evolving and have more to say on the subject....

What makes a book sell to a publisher, and sell-through to readers?

It is NOT how fabulous your website or blog is. It is NOT how many facebook or twitter friends you have, how many publishing links you forward or put on said website, blog, facebook and twitter. It is not how much editors and agents like you, though being a pain in the arse will NOT help you in any way, shape or form.

What sells a book is THE WRITING coupled with an ORIGINAL, COMPELLING CONCEPT!

You have heard that great writing will rise to the top and find its way. Yet we all know that not all great writing sells. There is marketing and sales to contend with, and even in my 3 short years of agenting I have had quite a number of books that editors loved and sales and marketing told them that it would sell, but just not enough....and the books are still not published. Breaks my heart. Breaks the editors' hearts. And oh, the author. So very unfair. BUT, publishing is a business and fair is not the leading part of the equation here.

But couple GREAT WRITING with an ORIGINAL AND COMPELLING CONCEPT and you are 75% there. The rest is luck, timing, bizarre unknown factors that none of us understand but we kill ourselves trying to, and kismet. When HARRY POTTER, TWILIGHT, WIMPY KID, 13 REASONS WHY, etc were brought to acquisitions meetings and given the green light, publishers made an educated guess that these books would sell. They make those educated guesses on other books (and in some cases pay big advances and pump marketing dollars into them) that are equally fantastic but for some mysterious reason never find their audience. I worked in marketing for a couple of decades and this is just how it goes. What made the Pet Rock, Silly Bands, Chia Pets, Fuzzy Wuzzy was a Bear Soap, etc sell? Don't know.

Is it all word of mouth? Is it superior product--maybe yes in books, but in Pet Rocks?

So let's talk about 'superior product in books'. In my opinion, the ORIGINAL, COMPELLING CONCEPT outweighs mediocre writing, but the better writer you are (LEARN YOUR CRAFT!) the stronger CAREER you will have as a writer be it traditional published or self-published.

And to the self-published, $0.99 sales price may get you a heck of a lot of first time readers (if you are so lucky) but if your writing is crap, who the heck is going to buy your second book? Let me quote my friend and 80+book author Kathleen Duey: Almost no one expects musicians to get good on an instrument without years of lessons, books, years of practice. There is a similar learning curve for writing. (read full post here)

So, my advice to writers other than the all important LEARN YOUR CRAFT---

1. Brainstorm concepts and pitches before you commit to a new book.
Even if you love your your new idea....write 10 more to get your creative juices going and see if you can come up with something better and/or improve on your original idea.
Brainstorming without self-criticism is an excellent way to unearth your creativity.

2. If you have a critique group/agent--consider picking the 3 that you most want to work on and share it with them to see if you are on track to writing something truly original and compelling.

3. Find the manuscript voice you want to work with. This is not Author Voice--Author voice is your unique voice that permeates all your work, this is the Manuscript Voice--the tone you want to tell this particular story in.

4. Write 3 chapters in your chosen Manuscript Voice and see if it is working. Share it with your critique partners, and, if you have this kind of relationship, with your Agent. While these first chapters may end up in the dumpster as many first chapters do, it is the tone/ characters/ setting/ concept/ freshness/ uniqueness that must shine through. Sometimes we come up with an amazing concept but we just cannot write an amazing manuscript to do the concept justice. I find this all the time in queries....amazing concepts with pages that are not compelling. If you cannot write to the chosen concept, pick another one. You have a list of 10+. Or brainstorm again.

5. Be absolutely mindful of every character you choose to put in the book. Why are they there? How do they move the story forward? What is interesting about them that will make a reader care about following them from page to page to page? What would make a reader demand book 2 and 3 because they can't bear to say goodbye to these characters? This is a must even for stand-alones. Don't you love that feeling when you slow down at the end of a book because you just don't want it to end?

6. Plot the heck out of the book. If you are a pantsers (as opposed to an outliner), no problem. Just make sure you go back through one full revision with the plot in the forefront of your mind asking How can I make this book UNPUTDOWNABLE?

I could go on and on but I want to hear from you...what do you think makes a book sell?

Sign up for A PATH TO PUBLISHING online face-to-face writing workshops. Wether you choose the NOVEL TRACK or the PICTURE BOOK TRACK, our goal is ensure you understand concept, plotting, character development, scene development, action and emotional arc development, as well has how to pitch your work to agents, editors, and readers.


  1. Hey, I use the same blog template! (But yours looks much nicer.)

    Great post!

    I'm a reader, so I stand on the other side of this equation. I write for fun, but I teach reading at the college and graduate levels. asically, my mission is to create readers, and to help in-service educators become reading specialists so they can go out into the world and do the same thing.

    I recently blogged about my own motives for buying the last 20 books on my shelf, and I've been asking my students what makes them buy a book for years. Of course, the fact that a book is unputdownable is key. My college students are especially drawn to books that suck them into a new world, so the story has to be believable AND compelling at the same time.

    But beyond that, a great cover, and an enthusiastic recommendation from a trusted source seem to be the key elements that lead us to buy books. I can't tell you how many times I've posted a five-star review on Goodreads that led to multiple purchases of that book from my students. (And my undergrad students are struggling readers! How cool is that?!)

    On the other hand, I don't know many readers who spend a lot of time following writers they haven't yet read on Twitter, or reading blog posts about the writing craft. They are also extremely turned off by sloppy writing in any of its forms--typos, inconsistencies, confusing subplots. You don't have to be an extremely skilled or experienced reader to detect sloppy writing.

    That's what I've learned about why we buy. Thanks for sharing this post. I love your blog!

  2. Thank You for emphasizing the need for learning and honing the craft of writing. This is what elevates a concept or idea and makes it really worth reading.

  3. What I like best about this, Jill, is that you reiterate having multiple projects going. I know many talented writers who work on the same concept/story for years, and so never master new approaches, voices, POVs, etc.


  4. What an extremely useful and comprehensive post. Just what THIS author needed to hear today.

  5. Jill, terrific stuff. I'm early in a MG manuscript (third try--and still outside my comfort zone). So it's great to know that this is the time to let others in my circle see the mss. to help determine if it's worth pursuing. THANKS!

    Rob Sanders

  6. A wonderful post, Jill. I completely agree that great writing and a Unique and Compelling concept sells books more than any other thing. I also agree with the idea that having crit partners who can analyze and give sound feedback is a must for every writer.

  7. Wonderful. I can stop sweating the small stuff with one idea, put it down and start another one. I do it with everything else in my life, what made me try anything different with writing?

  8. Great post, Jill. While I agree with the two elements you mentioned above, I would add creating endearing, enduring, unusual characters. I think the key is producing something different, a challenge when we're drowning in books.

  9. Jill, this is such a great post that I mentioned it on my blog today. Glad I got to hear you speak at the SCBWI conference in Miami.

  10. First time I'm reading your blog, Jill. I'm adding it to my 'blog I must read' list. Thank you for your timely advice.

  11. First time I'm reading your blog, Jill. I'm adding it to my 'blog I must read' list. Thank you for your timely advice.

  12. I've been writing for 16 years and this post offers some very sound advice. I've met so many writers who are just starting out who go to all sorts of marketing workshops and spend very little time on craft.

    This approach feels backwards to me, but maybe we do that because the mkg. aspect feels more daunting. At any rate, my vote goes to focusing on craft, at least initially.

  13. Thanks for the timely and challenging post, Jill! And also a great thought-provoking question. What makes a book sell? A universal theme that tugs at everyone's heart (finding a friend) and has a fresh, unique twist (finding a friend who is also a good writer and just happens to be a gray spider named Charlotte).

  14. I love this post! I think you've nailed it, Jill. I think great beta readers are important too. Their feedback needs to be insightful and thorough.

  15. Jill: Thanks for tagging my post in your yours. It's TRUE. I am hearing the same thing from every editor and agent I know. They are all inundated with similar, tired-trope storylines. It's time to dig deeper, see farther, reach higher--which is always good for any writer, even when it hurts. Hope to see you somewhere soon!

  16. Great advice as always, Jill. In fact it was after I heard you speak at an SCBWI conference that I took another look at the beginning of my MG and decided it needed a little revising, to amp up the action. Thanks!

  17. Concept makes me pick a book up; writing makes me keep reading. The first infelicity of phrasing or unbelievable premise, and I'm done. There are enough well-written books in the world that I don't have to waste my time on the amateurish ones--and that includes more than a few published works. Too many adverbs in a first paragraph and I'm done. The word "wry"--in adverbial form or not--makes me want to scratch my eyes out. I can usually tell you--especially with stuff that ends up on Miss Snark Victim's or similar sites--the exact word where I stop reading. In a way, I feel horrible about it. I know the kind of mental work it takes to just sit down every day and crank out your words, good or bad. But I've seen so many people just make the same mistakes over and over again on places like Absolute Write. Interestingly, they can usually point out these problems in other people's work but can't see them in their own. So if you're not going to bother to learn, I'm not going to bother to read.

  18. The fabulous Sherry Shahan sent me over to read this posting. Every word rings true, ouch, a terrible cliche.

    Thank you for this posting. Wonderful.

    Sharon Lovejoy Writes from Sunfloweer House and a Little Green Island

  19. This certainly makes sense to me. What I think works even better is if you take a compelling concept (doesn't even have to be original) combined with a great cover, and an enthusiastic recommendation from a trusted source (just as Lori Oster mentions). I think a concept that's totally original might scare off potential buyers if they're the timid sort.

  20. Great advice! Thanks for the thoughts.

  21. Great post.. loved the articulation of manuscript voice as opposed to author voice.

  22. Wonderful advice and questions to ask myself! Thanks for writing this!

  23. Great post. I agree with the whole plotting thing if you're a pantser. I watched every video from Martha Alderson, because you recommended it, and since then have turned into a plotter, not a pantser (love her book, too). It's so much easier to plot first!

  24. That was a great read! Your input is encouraging to say the least and one day I hope to have a great agent not unlike yourself!

  25. What an excellent post! Since I'm participating in a discussion on another blog site regarding "voice," the third comment was especially helpful, as you distinguished between author voice and manuscript voice. I'd love for you to elaborate on that. Thank you so much.

  26. Thanks, Jill! I am posting a link to this. Great reminders to all of us.


  27. Thanks for this! I think it's true that a compelling concept will sell. However, I have seen some writers get great deals with a first book that is high-concept, only to flail in getting a second contract because they either couldn't create an equally compelling second concept or because some element of their writing was too weak to carry another idea. So while I think a great concept is important, I think it needs to be accompanied by strong writing abilities for an author to sustain a career.

    As for what makes me love a book, it's usually a character who I'm really rooting for, not so much because Everything Is Against her (which feels overdone at times), but because of something unusual in the way she thinks. I want a book that gives me insight into another person's world, and good protagonists do that.

    Still, you're talking about books that sell, and focusing on concept is a piece of advice that will stay with me.

    Final thought, though: the focus on high-concept books seems to be about a decade new. Do you think it will fade as many trends do, or do you think, in the media-saturated climate, that this is the new normal?

  28. Yep. Working on MS #12 and still only scratching the surface :-)

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  30. Wow,wonderful post i like this post .Thank you so much for your sweet information.
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