I’ve been writing lately about what authors and would-be authors should and need to do in order to help make their books successful. You have to treat your book as your business. You have to nurture a community of readers. You have to spread your message far and wide.

But before you even get that far, you actually have to have a message. And it has to be a message that A) you really want to share and B) readers really want to hear.

This holds true for fiction and nonfiction alike. No one wants to read 90,000 words of text that wanders around and ends up nowhere. Hell—no one wants to read 900 words of text that end up nowhere. I mean, seriously, if I get suckered into reading one more idiotic list of stupid factoids masquerading as an actual article, I’m going to fine myself.

In a day and age when something like 30 percent of U.S. adults don’t even read a single book in a given year, no one can afford to publish a book without a clear message from a talented writer who has a pretty good fan base—and no one wants to buy a book that doesn’t do something for them. It has to resonate in some way. A book has to do something for the reader; it can’t just be about the author. Granted, publishing is a quirky business—we don’t always know which books will resonate with readers and which won’t. I believe it was Michael Korda who said something like “if we knew how to publish bestsellers, that’s all we would publish.”

True, that.

But even though we might not know how to publish bestsellers, we in the business certainly want to publish good books. Books that mean something. Books that make us laugh or cry—or both. Books that educate us or entertain us. Books that stick with us, with messages that linger. Whether it’s a remarkable novel with characters so real we wish we could know them in real life or a piece of history that makes us realize something new about the world or a memoir that makes us feel like we’re not alone in life, all readers want the books we read to mean something. To us.

This is something that, oddly enough, all too often seems to come as a complete surprise to too many would-be authors. I’ve seen countless book proposals that claim that this particular book is so fresh, so new, so unique that there are simply no competing or related titles that could possibly ever compare. I’ve talked to prospective authors who can’t exactly explain what their book is about—their elevator pitch rambles so much that we could be ascending the Burj Khalifa in Dubai and the writer still wouldn’t be able to explain it. And I’ve talked to scores of writers who can’t answer this crucial question: Why do you want to publish your book?

And when I say “can’t answer this crucial question,” I mean that too many authors can’t seem to get beyond the dream of seeing their name on the cover, spine, and title page of their book and being able to point it out to friends and family on Amazon or at the library or in a bookstore. They’re mesmerized by the idea of seeing their name in print. Or, worse, they’re certain that their book—which is so fresh, so new, so unique—will be a breakout bestseller, easily surpassing in sales the other hundreds of thousands of books that are published every year, transforming them from weekend novelists into millionaire authors.

Wrong answer.

Let’s try again.

Q: Why do you want to publish your book?
A: Because I have something to say, it needs to be said now, I’m the only person who can say it, I can point to a specific audience who needs to—and wants to—hear that message, and I can tell you exactly why that message will resonate.

That’s better!

A book has to be more than an exercise in catharsis. That’s what journals are for. Or Facebook. Or blog posts. There’s got to be more to your desire to publish than your desire to be published.

So what makes agents and editors interested and excited enough to want to publish your book? A few things, including:

  • A Unique Approach. Whether fiction or nonfiction, a book should have a unique voice, a unique way of doing something, or a unique story to tell. Although plenty of authors have made their names by capitalizing on trends, most agents and editors like me will get pretty excited about seeing something that feels really special and really new. (Be careful, though: it can’t be so new or so unique that the market for it is too narrow.)
  • Spot-on Timing. We in the business get really excited when it feels like we’re looking at a manuscript that is right on the cutting edge, capturing an element of pop culture or business or current events. A novel that taps into something visceral that’s just about to hit the cultural boiling point. A piece of history that uncovers an overlooked story in a compelling way with some never-before-seen research. A business book that shares a truly new method of solving a problem. That’ll catch my interest.
  • Seriously Good Writing. Recognize that any agent or editor you’re pitching your book to has read literally thousands of pitches, proposals, manuscripts, and books. We know what we like. And when a manuscript makes me laugh out loud or cry or think or wonder, when a story is so good I can’t put it down, when the writing is so tight there’s almost nothing to fix … that’s pretty exciting and will probably make me want to talk to you.
  • An Amazing Platform. I’ve written about this before, so you know that an author with legions of fans and followers who are waiting with baited breath to read his or her new or next book is a pretty enticing prospect. There’s got to be more there than a bunch of Twitter followers, though—and that “more there” needs to be a good message. Because just because you’re popular or famous in some way doesn’t necessarily mean that what you have to say will resonate with readers enough that they’ll plunk down $25 to buy your book.

Publishing a book—getting your book published—is hard work. Agents and editors accept a mere fraction of the book proposals they consider. Those books that do get published are the ones that go well beyond serving the author’s purpose. The dream to publish isn’t enough. Wanting to see your book in print isn’t enough. You have to have a message that readers want to read. Your book has to answer clearly the what’s-in-it-for-me question when a reader (i.e., a buyer) is considering whether to spend $25 on your book or $25 on two craft beers at her favorite pub down the street.

So, why do you want to publish your book?

The answer better be good.

July 17, 2015



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