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ASK THE EDITOR Writing a Book That Sells

By Susan Malone

June 2001

Writing a book that sells. That's the aim of all writers, no? It provides a constant topic at writer's conferences, but what, in fact, does this entail?

Misconceptions abound here, but before you drive yourself nuts chasing phantoms, do know that this goal is not just indigenous to the writing end. Agents, editors, and publishers are all looking for that elusive beast–the best-selling book, or even one that sells well (earns out, goes into reprints, etc.). But if anybody (including agents, editors, and publishers) actually could relay the one, two, three, four of bestsellerdom, then the topic would be passe.

It's not though. The goal remains elusive. Ask any editor or agent at any conference to tell specifically what he or she is searching for as the next trend in excellent sales, and the answer will be: "I'll know it when I see it."

There's a secret going on that you find once you've been fighting this long enough–this is a screwy business. Unlike in other industries where a logical plan of action brings odds-on results, very little cause to effect occurs here. If you want to be a doctor, you go to college and then medical school and then do an internship and residency, and then hang out your shingle and folks come to get fixed. If you sell bread dough, you go to sales' school, learn your product, get introduced to grocers, and begin selling.

The ways authors become successful have no such roadmaps. One must write. And then learn the craft through how-to books or classes or conferences or working with developmental editors or best-case scenario, all of the above. But that's the writing portion of this, not the marketing/selling end. And the latter is so convoluted that little way exists for you to understand it until you've been in it a good while, and long after the information is needed. Sort of like raising children, but that's a column for another site.

The confusion comes from all sides. I recently talked with a marketing whiz about the bang-up sales of a self-published book, and her take on the success was, "I assume it sold for the same reason that any product sells–it filled a need."

A common misperception from the outside.

However, I also just had a long conversation with a Senior Editor at a major publishing house, who was grousing about always hearing that question from writers. "Tell 'em to read what's on the bestseller list, and emulate that."

Good advice, on the surface. The problem with it is that often the books on the bestseller list are abysmally written. And, most are by perennial authors. There is a link between the two. As authors become more and more successful, and their readership grows to the point of actually making money for both publishers and themselves, editors no longer touch the work itself (for a variety of reasons, which is, again, another column). So what is printed and sells like crazy is quite often sloppily written, with cardboard characters and/or thin plots. Publishers, however, know that most folks don't buy books off of reviews (a boon for most best-selling authors), but rather from past experience, word of mouth, and advertising.

All this is just the way it is. But where does that leave the writer trying to break in? If one would submit such a manuscript, rejections would come accompanied by catcalls (you should hear what insiders say of many bestsellers). So simply perusing the most successful books won't seem to get you very far.

Ah, but it will. What you glean from that is what publishers are buying, and what they're touting to readers. A LOT can be learned from browsing through the book store, such as what house is hot with what genres (this is different from just reading the lists–it gives you a broader insight into the books themselves), what sorts of books they're having success with, and where you might fit in.

Thrillers are still the hottest thing going, and look to be for a while. So, if that's your genre, see who's doing what with which books. The point being that a Thriller, by its very nature, is plot driven. The writing may stink, the characters may be skeletons, but if you can turn a twisting plot well, then you're in the running. Still, to break in, you better learn characterization and the basics of good storytelling, all of which are about skills, and those, as mentioned above, are learned.

So, do you want to write what you want to write, or do you want to be published? That seems like a contradiction, but it's truly not. You can, with some talent and by learning the skills, become successful in most genres. If you truly love Thrillers and read them voraciously, learn your craft, utilize skills, get savvy about marketing, and keep at it, you'll get there. I have worked with too many writers who have made it.

This comes to the crux of the matter–what do you WANT to write? Is the goal to be atop the bestseller list? Then write what stays up there, i.e., Thrillers, Mysteries, Romance. If your goal is to write Literary Fiction, then don't whine when sales are low. Those are the most difficult books to sell (both from you to the publisher and the publisher to the public) as they don't fit in the rigid sales channels through which all books are marketed and sold. And trends truly do come and go (the meaning of trends), so if the genre you love isn't hot right now, hang in there and in a few years, odds are it will be. And you'll be fat and sassy and ready to take the book business by storm.

The point here is to identify your goal. See where you fit in the market. And then adjust your aim accordingly. If you truly want to write a bestseller, then write and market the sort of stuff that sits atop the lists.

If you truly want to write what's in your heart, then take a realistic look at where that will leave you, both publishing and sales wise.

I'm not saying the two never cross. Of course they do. Oprah picks a new book every month. But as a gambling woman, I'd recommend you do your wagering at the race track. I'm just saying to get the mote out of your eye before judging what's going on–it'll save you an enormous amount of grief in the long run. And then, if you're clear that you're writing what's truly within you, to the best of your ability, and it's still not selling, the sitting back and continuing to perfect your craft and keeping at it against all odds won't take such a toll on your heart. I.e., you won't take the rejections so personally. Because you'll know, without a shadow of a doubt, that this is truly a screwy business.

Susan M. Malone is a Contributing Editor to Authorlink.com, a multi-published author, and owner of a successful editorial service. Ten books she’s edited have been published or sold within the last three years. Check out her listing under Editorial Services, and email her at aaasuz@aol.com