I was going to title this post, “3 Things Publishers Look for in a Book,” or maybe “3 Things Agents Look For.” But then I realized that the three keys of a successful book apply across the board. It doesn’t matter you’re using an agent, if you’re going through a publisher, or even if you’re self-publishing. There are some essentials that every writer needs to consider if they intend for their work to attract readers.
1. A compelling topic (a great idea).
2. Excellent execution (strong writing and organization).
3. An audience (also known as a platform).
These three essentials work together to determine the strength of your book. You need all three, but sometimes if you’re weak in one area, you might make up for it with exceptional strength in the other two areas.
In fiction: the idea and execution are primary; the author platform is still important but not nearly as important as the writing.
In non-fiction: the author platform is of primary importance; the idea comes next, and the execution (the writing itself) becomes the third consideration.
If an unpublished writer comes to me with a medium platform, then in order to consider them, I need a really killer book idea. It can’t be just another “good” idea. But if the platform is enormous and I know the book will sell partly based simply on the strength of the author, then the idea just has to be “good enough.” It’s a sliding scale, with each element contributing its strength and hopefully there is enough “oomph” between the three elements to push the book over the tipping point into “sellable.”
There’s no formula. It’s an art, not a science, and a subjective one at that. What one person thinks is a great idea, another may find “ho hum.” Even so, every agent, every publisher, and every self-publisher should be looking for each book to have a winning combination of these essentials.
Let’s drill down a bit:
The concept itself must turn heads. In one sentence it’s obvious that you have a fresh idea. It sparks interest, it compels people to want to hear more, and it might even make some people mad.
Take a look at your idea, and how you’re phrasing it. Does it sound fresh and exciting—or like a hundred other books already out there?
This is all about the writing. Plenty of people can string a few words together. But when you put your words on a page, do they sing? The craft of writing is exactly that—a craft. Like any craft, it requires learning, practice, apprenticeship, dedication. Have you done what it takes to make your writing worthy of public exposure prior to submitting it for publication?
In the fiction queries I receive, average or poor writing is the biggest reason for rejection. Some people have terrific ideas for stories that sound like they’re going to knock my socks off. But when I start to read, I realize they haven’t taken the time to develop their craft prior to submission. (This can be quite disappointing to me, because often the ideas are really good.)
In a non-fiction book, the ideas need to be well-organized and the prose needs to shine. It’s easy for a non-fiction book to become boring and lose the reader’s interest. The writing matters.
You probably already know that you need a platform, which refers to the means by which you’ll help sell your book by your presence in the media, social media, and/or the public sphere.
The key to platform is your target audience and what you are doing to reach them. It’s smart to begin building your platform well before you hope to be published—years, even. Are you already blogging, building a Facebook community, writing articles, or out on the speaking circuit?
Look critically at your proposal and manuscript—better yet, have someone else do it for you—and make an honest evaluation as to how you’re faring on the three tiers: Topic, Execution, and Audience. Whatever is lacking, set out to improve it. And don’t worry about how much time it will take. It is better to do it right than to do it fast.
Of course, having these three elements doesn’t guarantee you’ll have a successful book. These are the bare bones—the minimum needed to find success in publishing. The rest is, as you know, timing, luck, and a sprinkling of fairy dust.
“It is better to do it right than to do it fast.” @RachelleGardner on elements of a successful book. Click to Tweet.
Do you know the 3 things you need for a successful book? @RachelleGardner explains. Click to Tweet.
3 things your book needs: great idea, excellent execution, strong platform. Click to Tweet.
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