Is Your Book Good, Great, or HOT?

HeatIf you’re querying agents, you may sometimes hear that they’ve taken on new clients, while your own query or a partial sits in their inbox, seemingly ignored. You’re probably wondering… what gives?

Why do some projects sit in the inbox and take longer to get an answer, while others seem like they get jumped on right away?

Well, the  truth is that your project may be good. It might even be very good or even great. But the projects agents jump on quickly are the ones that are hot.

What’s a hot project?

It’s a project the agent not only believes in, but they’re also confident they can sell it relatively quickly.

  • If it’s non-fiction: it’s a fresh new idea (or a fresh angle on a common idea), has a super high felt-need and the author has a strong platform and/or an obvious media hook.
  • If it’s fiction: the agent absolutely loves both the story and the writing; it has a strong hook, and is a genre that’s selling well.

With a hot project, the agent can immediately think of several editors who would like it. It doesn’t need much editing or reworking. The proposal is nicely done and doesn’t need to be rewritten. The author appears to have long-term potential. This project looks like a sure thing. It’s also likely that other agents are considering it.

Making good business decisions means we jump on hot projects. Other projects… those we like but they aren’t hot… usually have to wait until we have more time to assess them, and more carefully weigh the likelihood of selling this project and how much time it might take.

A project that’s very good (or even great in some respect) may still present challenges. The genre might be tough to sell right now. The market might already be glutted with that particular kind of book. If it’s fiction, it might show incredible potential but still need a lot of work. The agent has to weigh whether they’re able to put that kind of work into an author, or whether they need to recommend they get their writing up a notch, then come back. If it’s non-fiction, the idea and the writing might be stellar, but the author might have a small or non-existent platform, meaning a lot more work to sell it, plus a bigger chance that it won’t sell at all.

Unfortunately, you may not have total control over the factors that define the difference between very good and hot. Maybe just knowing how it works can make the process a little less mysterious. If agents and editors aren’t jumping on your query or proposal or manuscript, then for whatever reason, it’s not being perceived as hot. There may or may not be anything you can do about that, depending on what you’re writing.

Now here’s the important thing:

Just because your book isn’t “hot” doesn’t mean it won’t sell. More on that tomorrow.

What factors do YOU think make a book HOT?

This is an encore presentation of a post from 2009.

  1. The funny thing was that you were getting autographs. For a Cal hater, that is really weird.

  2. Angus says:

    As soon as I began to write about Rafaela, a medieval Jewish intellectual on a collision course with the Inquisition, I knew she was compelling. But a voice screamed inside my head: don’t make her fall in love with Layla. Let it be a Templar, a cheating husband, anyone…. but not another woman.
    I accepted from the genesis of my current project that if there was one thing that would make this a “harder sell,” it was Rafaela’s lesbianism. But I still wrote a 100,000 MSS. For me, unless I am loyal to my character, what I would be writing would be worthless anyhow. Will a lesbian lead condemn my work to the slurry heap?

    • D. K. says:

      Yes,in my opinion. I wouldn’t read something like that, ever. I don’t think it would be a hit like HUNGER GAMES or TWILIGHT. The character is not reachable to the majority of people, not all but most.
      I would really soul search before you go any further. Books shape peoples worldview and we as writers should be careful what we feed our audience. So yes I think it will not reach the hights you are hoping for if you choose to go that path. But it is your chose and my opinion. 😉

  3. What makes a non-fiction book hot for me? It has to be packed with practical wisdom. If it addresses a super high felt-need, but is not intensely practical, I’m going to put the book back on the shelf and keep looking for one that is rich in take away value. Christian authors, Charles Stanley and Elizabeth George are experts in packing their books with practical advice. I know I can never go wrong with one of their books. While a name of a famous author may initially grab my attention, to pick up a book, the deciding factor to buy is how much is it going to help me achieve the result the book is based on? I’d buy a book from an unknown author that is rich in practical application, over a book from a famous author, whose book lacks in that department, any day. The famous name may attract, but it’s the content that matters.

  4. I pitched my YA fiction story to a top literary agent who said the genre I am writing in is HOT right now because the Christian market is usually about 3 yrs behind the secular.

    Well, the secular market is getting into dream sequences right now. The “Wake” series by Lisa McMann led to her signing with 6 other authors to write a series of books (Infinity Ring)about teens time traveling in dreams.

    It’s a good thing my YA Christian fiction series is about, you guessed it…time travel in dreams.

    I hope an agent picks it up because I think the storyline is HOT and could bring Christian YA Fiction right up there with secular YA.

    Great post! Thanks for the tips!!

    • D. K. says:

      Good luck!

      Yeah, my YA novel deals with time travel as well. Time Travel in any form is an intriguing idea. I’m trying to review, edit, and smooth my novel over before I submit it to publishers (Christian and Non).
      So Good luck with you book!!! 🙂

  5. David Todd says:

    I believe multiple factors go into making a book hot: compelling story, sympathetic three-dimensional characters, quality writing, and freshness of the idea, dare I say “uniqueness”.

    I think storytelling trumps all, but uniqueness is a close second. The hot books mentioned above—”The Shack”, the Harry Potter series, “Twilight”, and going back a little further something like “The Prayer of Jabez” in non-fiction—were all excellent stories of fresh situations. I suppose going way back would be “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”, a fresh, compelling story with good characters that met a need. Somewhere in there is the original Amish stories (Beverly Lewis, perhaps?). The quality of the writing appears to be in last place, though it obviously has to be above some minimum threshhold. Other examples that come to mind are “Bridget Jones’ Diary” and “The Hunt for Red October”.

    Sure, copycat success extends the period of hotness. Twilight knockoffs and bonnet fiction are still hot. Those who can’t get enough vampire love at the speed what’s-her-name can write them will buy similar stories while they wait for the real thing.

    Oh to find something unique, fresh, with interesting characters and a compelling story, and write it well enough.

  6. steve says:

    It always helped me to think of it like this: Agents are pimps and we, writers, content creators, whatever, are the whores.

    An agent isn’t going to pay attention to you unless you can turn enough tricks to make them some money. Agents specialize in certain areas, fetishes, and they can’t waste their time and credibility on running anyone in the stable that isn’t going to turn the high end tricks.

  7. Rachelle, thank you!

    I have actually been wondering that. I submitted a book to an agent in May of 2011. She loved my proposal, along with her whole team and read my full manuscript. She wanted to represent me, but they were not taking any new clients at the time. I was disappointed and sad. She let me know that I was at the top of her list once they were, but that was in June of 2011 and I haven’t heard anything from her since. It makes sense that my book might be good, just not hot.

    Thanks for the post!

  8. ed cyzewski says:

    The sense I get about the “hot” books that are coming up is they can put into words something that people are already thinking about but haven’t quite articulated. It’s kind of like watching an episode of Seinfeld where you realize he’s not necessarily inventing something new, but he’s presenting stuff in a fresh way that you can relate to and enjoy. I think this also takes into account the difficulty of both figuring out what most people are thinking about and then how to connect with it!

  9. Louise says:

    Hi Rachelle,

    I submitted a non-fiction proposal to a couple of agents a few weeks ago and had two offers of representation. I signed with one last week. I always read the blog so thanks for the help you gave me through your posts! I think my book is hot. I just wanted to know how quickly will an agent usually pitch a hot proposal to editors and what factors can affect when an agent will pitch to an editor?

  10. Steve says:

    I have two agents looking at my writing at the moment. I have zero expectations.

    I was approached by an acquisitions editor out of the blue who bought my first two novels.

    I had a small press want to sign me to a three book contract. I decided not too do it. The Authors Guild will take a look at your contract and make suggestions if that happens to you.

    Right now I make more money self-publishing then what I make through a publishing house.

    I write for the money. If I didn’t make money at it I wouldn’t do it. Life is to short and I’m to old.

    • Timothy Fish says:

      “Life’s too short and I’m too old.”

      I had to laugh at that. Isn’t that more of a reason to write for something other than the money? It isn’t like we can take it with us.

      • steve says:

        Timothy,

        Yeah, I know. The whole love of writing yada, yada thing. I have a life, a FT job, a family, other interests. I like telling stories and people like reading them. If they didn’t, I would go back to writing WWII history or playing the guitar or whatever.

        Writing, to me at least, is just another outlet. I know I’m not going to be Steinbeck. I write pulp fiction. I play guitar but I’ll never be BB King. Such is life. I’m okay with it.

  11. I guess my latest is hot because it procured me both a top agent and a great contract.

  12. Susan Bourgeois says:

    I like Neil’s example. He states his book was immediately taken on by the first agent he approached.

    A bidding auction occured after his agent submitted his manuscript to different publishers.

    It doesn’t get any better than that.

    Neil, you’re not blowing your own horn, you’re simply describing a great example of a “hot” project.

    I don’t think either luck or timing is involved to any large degree.

    Congratulations!

  13. Janet says:

    It’s a mistake for writers to shoot for “what’s hot” simply because by the time a book gets to the market, a trendy work may have become “what’s not.” I mean, seriously, aren’t we all just a little sick and tired of vampire stories?

    I would rather submit a manuscript that has staying power. It’s my job as a writer to write, edit, rewrite, re-read, rewrite and continue improving my work until it reaches a standard I’ve set for myself: Writing that makes a reader want to re-read for the sheer enjoyment of the beauty of the words. To accomplish that, I have to craft believable characters with whom a reader can identify to the extent that all their quirky nuances are accepted. Then I have to listen very carefully to the stories they want to tell; to the message they want to convey. I have to create just enough tension on every page to keep the reader hooked and wondering what will happen next. I have to make promises to my readers that, by the time the last page is turned – have been kept. I have to give my readers some Easter eggs to hunt along the way without tipping them off to the twists and turns that lie ahead. Once I get the book to a place where I think it’s good – or maybe very good – I have to turn it over to critical readers who will not hesitate to tell me where it falls flat and how it could be improved. Then, I take it back and re-work it some more.

    If I kept going through this process untile I thought my manuscript was a “hot” property, I would likely never finish. (Perfectionism is a disease.)

    I think I’ll continue striving to write great books and depend on serendipty and synchronicity to land it in the hands of an agent who thinks it’s “hot.” Of course, I have to make the effort to put it out there, but once the queries are sent, I’ll just trust that God will place it where it needs to be.

  14. In non-fiction, I imagine timing, research and reader demographics (people purchasing) are the hottest factors; know your audience. NF, at least in my opinion, should involve equal amounts of research – for the WIP itself, and the salability factor post completion. (Market research is not for the weak.) Fiction, although adhering to the same basic sales principles, is more subjective. My top three fiction hot factors: relatable (I feel for the stressed and instantly bond with those characters), likeable (even if the hero is a stooge, if he’s funny, I like him and read on), memorable (translation: when the book is over, I don’t want it to be.)

  15. Joe Pote says:

    Interesting!

    Giving “hot” precedence over “great” makes great business sense. Though I’m just a bit concerned about what it says about the values of our society.

    But…that’s not exactly a new concern either…

    Thanks for the clarification, Rachelle!

  16. Megan B. says:

    I will never set out to write a hot novel. I will set out to write the novel I want to write, and make it as good as I am capable of.

    I wonder if anyone who sits down thinking “this novel will be a hit” ever gets anywhere with it? I can’t help thinking that a thought process like that is indicative of someone who cares more about success than they do about writing. (Maybe I’m wrong, of course).

    • I do think that some people sit down to write something “hot”–that will be an immediate sell, just due to its subject matter. For instance, Amish fiction is an easy sell in Christian book circles. Vampire YA novels continue to proliferate in secular circles. I guess imitation truly is the sincerest form of flattery, and possibly the quickest way to get published, too!

      • D. K. says:

        True, but there is something WONDERFUL about writing something unique or new. Something that may have been covered but is shown in a totally new light.

    • Timothy Fish says:

      I would imagine that all of us at one point or another have had an idea that we were sure would be a hit. With as many of us as there are, some of us must have been right.

    • D. K. says:

      Of course I want mine YA novel to be a hit. But the reason I wrote it is because I love the story, characters, plot, etc.
      Write what you love but write wisely with a good goal to change the world for the good.

  17. Ugh. That word. Makes me think of Paris Hilton. The gorgeous girls are hot. What is that? Flashy and empty? The average just pretty girl has so much more to offer.

  18. Diana Dart says:

    What makes a book hot in my reader’s mind? If it’s familiar enough to make me comfortable, fresh enough to catch my eye, relevant enough to make it personal, and written well enough to create a smooth read I’ll most likely devour the story and tell all my friends about it.

    I hope to capture that as a writer, but my eyes are fixed on creating strong, endearing characters involved in a solid story. The temperature’s kind of an afterthought. 🙂

  19. Thanks for this helpful post, Rachelle! This clarifies so much for those of us who’ve spent hours querying something that we know SHOULD be able to be published.

    I’m just glad there are agents who see the potential in NEW subject matter (not trendy yet), like Jodi Reamer who picked up Twilight, thus ensuring vampires would be on the radar for years to come; as well as whoever picked up The Help, even though it wasn’t a “hot” time period to write about. As writers, we have to continue thinking outside the box and setting the trends, not following them.

  20. Sarah Thomas says:

    Love these behind-the-scenes looks at what happens after we hit “send.” Can’t wait for tomorrow!

  21. Susan Bourgeois says:

    I think originality in a genre that sells well is cruicial to success.

    I think an agent can spot a hot project after reading a great hook in the first paragrah of a query. That’s what prevents it from going into the slush pile; it stands out.

    Right at that moment the agent has an immediate sense that the project could be an easy sell.

    I’m not saying this happens often. I do feel this happens with hot projects.

    I think the reader has to be able to identify with the plight of the main characters.

    I’m glad you introduced the term “hot” to the query process today.

    Above all, I think the writer knows when they have a hot project.

    It’s different than having a good or great story.

    It’s unique and it’s going to sell fast.

  22. Rachelle, you mentioned the term “felt-need”, and I’ve heard it used many other times in publishing circles. What exactly does that mean? Simply a need for the book? I guess what I’m asking is what qualifies as a felt-need?

    • Timothy Fish says:

      A felt-need is a anything that someone feels they need to know. It is the information people are asking for, rather than stuff we know they would be better off knowing, but they don’t realize it yet. For example, pregnant women are likely to be looking for books on how to take care of children. That is a felt need.

  23. Marielena says:

    This was helpful, Rachelle. Questions: I try to keep up, but in your professional opinion what genres are selling well right now?

    And has the vampire/zombie/etc., craze finally died down or must I still consider putting fangs on my characters?

    Looking forward to reading your insights in tomorrow’s post.

  24. I think for me what seems HOT in the nonfiction market is giving the reader that reality show/voyeur experience…that is, if it’s a biography or memoir. People are nosy and want to know the raw details. While this would just be 1 aspect of what could make a book hot, I do think it’s worth mentioning. My Amish memoir I think does provide that to some degree. People want to have the virtual experience and since Amish Fiction is hot right now…Amish memoir gives the reader the chance to live inside a character and, if they are captivated with the voice of the character and writing, they will feel what the true story character feels.

    Great topic!

  25. Ava Jae says:

    Interesting post! I wonder though, what if (say for a novel) the query is well-written as is the novel and it’s in a hot genre, however although the novel is written well it still needs some work. Is that still considered a “hot” novel?

  26. What makes a book HOT? For me, it’s GOT to have characters I can’t get enough of and they seem real, not just plausible. The story has to move at the right pace, and even a s-l-o-w story can have good pace if the theme is right. The way an author sets the scene is also important, and I love it when I don’t even feel like I’m reading, I’m just there, and the flow is effortless and niiiiice..

    Out of the scads of books I have read since I first picked up a novel, many of them have been mediocre, and these are the ones that can give the rest of us hope. If there’s 50 people in a race, and you finish 49th, you sure ain’t last and you’re probably on your way to being 30th or even 5th. Everyone aspires to finish in 1st place, in the hot spot of being totally mega-amazing.

    The irony is that much of what constitutes “hot” returns to a matter of opinion, yet majority still rules 😉

  27. Timothy Fish says:

    I believe the thing that makes a book hot is a strong case of “I wish it were so.” And a little bit of controversy doesn’t hurt. Go back and look at what made The Shack popular. Bible scholars hated it, but many other people loved it because it presented God as a motherly figure who thinks the solution to everything is a bigger stack of pancakes. I don’t think there are many people who like seeing God as a God who tells people to repent or face his wrath. Instead, they like seeing a God who says, “You messed up? That’s okay, have another pancake.”

    Or consider Heaven is For Real, which is very similar to The Shack. Bible scholars don’t care much for it either because of inconsistencies between what it says about heaven and what the Bible says. But other people seem to like it. Once again, I believe it is wishful thinking that drives them to books like these. In this case, they want to believe that if some kid that they don’t know went to heaven and came back then it must be real. Of course, the kid must have been telling the truth, since no six year old has ever made up a story about anything.

    Even books like Harry Potter and Twilight are largely popular because of wishful thinking. People don’t believe those are real, but they thought it was fun to imagine what it would be like if they were.

    • Good point, Timothy. I think there’s often a strong escapism element in Christian books. Not saying it’s wrong or right, I get the need to escape (I do it with video games). I’d rather read stuff that’s believable and somewhat gritty, so that’s also what I tend to write.

  28. Good points all, but I relate to what CG Blake said. When it comes to writing, however, I think you need to focus on your characters and crafting the story YOU want to write, forgetting what’s hot or not.

  29. CG Blake says:

    What makes a book “hot” is when a writer takes on an ambitious theme that resonates with a wide audience and pulls it off with memorable characters and a page-turning story. The Help and the Steig Larsson trilogy certainly fit into that category, which is why they still enjoy strong sales. The problem comes in when other writers try to mimic those themes and that writing style. How many authors tried to write the next Harry Potter series? Agents must have been flooded with manuscripts from writers hoping to become the next JK Rowling. I’ve always said writers must follow their own passions, and not those of successful authors. Great question, Rachelle.

  30. Jodi Aman says:

    I think relateability makes it hot. Can someone see themselves in it even as it takes them away from themselves.

  31. Jade Hart says:

    This is awesome. I’ve been trying to find an agent’s website that gives us inside information 🙂

    I queried way too soon for my manuscript and shot myself in the foot. I thought it was ready but that was before I found the amazing world of critique partners and beta readers. I look forward to re-trying when the MS is sparkling.

    I’m going to enjoy reading your posts.
    Thanks from a new follower! 🙂

  32. Neil Ansell says:

    I suppose, without ‘blowing my own trumpet’ too much, my book was considered to be hot. It was taken on by the first agent I approached, within 24 hours, and then auctioned between every publisher she sent it to. I guess it’s a matter of luck and timing, having the right thing to say at the right moment in time. Capturing the zeitgeist as they say.

  33. That, unfortunately, Dan is the absolute truth. I’ve heard many editors say this is the case in today’s marketplace. But I’m struggling with just how to create my platform.

  34. Dan Miller says:

    I’ve got a manuscript due February 1st – 16 days from now – and another one right after that. The publisher considers these “hot” because I have a track record of selling, I have 86K newsletter subscribers, 90K podcast listeners, a social networking site and am writing the first book with my son who lives in Mombasa, Kenya. They aren’t nearly as interested in the content in determining “hotness” as in those factors. You make your book hot property by letting the publishers know you already have an audience.

  35. OK OK, I’ll write a Christian vampire book! Seriously, this was an eye opening post. I know my books are good, though I’m hesitant to say “great” as I have only read a few “great” books in my life. Harry Potter, for example, was a good series of books. “The Screwtape Letters” and “Andromeda Strain” were great.
    I’ll say this about “hot.” It does not mean the book is good. “Hot” just means the book “sparkles,” as evidenced by “Twilight,” which I consider average.

  36. It’s good to know what to consider not just while querying but also while writing and editing.

  37. What makes a book hot? Well, as writers and wannabe authors, sometimes we have to ask ourselves honestly, “Will anyone want to read this?” If the answer is the least bit iffy, then our book probably isn’t hot.

    I guess I determine ‘hotness’ by the number of people you are going to reach directly with your words. And let’s face it, for Christian authors, that’s not going to be a very large number.

    Christian writers I notice being the ‘hottest’, that is, being read the most widely, are those who portray real, not-so-clean characters and don’t try to cram a message into their book. Whether that’s the right way to write I won’t presume to say, but that seems to be what sells best.

  38. Hot?

    It burns a hole in your heart as you read it.

    It ignites your soul.

    It lights you up on the inside.

    It spreads like wildfire.

    It sparks another life.

    Could be my book – could be yours – but can any one out there ever pick a best seller?

    Why is it that those books that are rejected by so many literary agents and publishers finally get chosen and surprise everyone?

    Because it’s hot – too hot for some to touch I guess.

    • marion says:

      Love this, Peter!

      Mine’s also too hot to handle!

      Some agents/editors may find it hard to categorize my WIP. Or they may be just plain scared of it. It’s not run of the mill–which should be a good thing!

      I just hope the book ignites the heart of an agent, and then of an editor, and then of many readers, and then of the movie folks…!

      • Well Marion.

        It looks like the two of us are facing the same challenges.

        One of my works is an adult fiction novella – and to define the genre in a more specific manner is hard because of the nature of the work entitled THE CREATOR – and it’s amazing the response that I get with that – the novella thing I mean.

        The other is a non-fiction story called ANGELS IN DARNED SOCKS & PATCHED TROUSERS and it tells the story of my dad and his family – through his eyes – of all the challenges they faced as they grew up in the slums of Sydney, Australia during the Second World War. Now that one, because it is of an acceptable novel length, is a little easier to pigeon hole.

        But hey I’m not a bird. You’re not a bird of the feathered kind.

        So what’s this about pigeons anyways?

        We have written masterpieces, and we simply want to FLY!

  39. Nuku says:

    Thank you so much Mrs. Gardner for all the help you have given!
    I have read many of your posts, and you have helped me greatly. Thank you so much for taking the time out of your busy schedule to write all this!

  40. Vicki Orians says:

    Hi Rachelle! Thank you very much for this post. It’s nice to know that although we might not hear back super quick about our work, there’s still the possiblity that the agent is interested.

    I do have a question for you in regards to what is hot right now: Based upon genres that you see in the bookstore, is there an easy way to tell what is hot and what is not? And can you tell if something is overdone?

    I have written a YA Paranormal Romance story, and though I fully believe in it, I know the genre has put out many new authors. Will it be harder for me to sell my book?

    I’m glad there are agents out there willing to give us the “down low” on questions we writers have. 🙂

  41. Lorelei says:

    Nothing makes me want to query less than contemplating whether my manuscript will be hot. I’ll be starting a new novel soon. After years of contemplating hotness, platform, social media, and the rest, I believe I shall greatly enjoy writing it, then put it away atop the last one. I believe I have had it with publishing.

    • Alisha says:

      Love your honesty, Lorelei. I feel that way sometimes, too. The love of simply writing what’s on my heart takes over and I decide I just need to write because it is the joy of my heart and keeps me healthy. If God has put it in your soul, you just have to write it, whether it’s played out or “hot”. He’ll use it the way He intends, as long as we give it life.

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