What Publishers Want
This guide serves as a tool to familiarize aspiring authors with the key elements publishers look for when evaluating a potential project.
If you have already written a book, or even if you are just considering writing one, you may have asked yourself what it is that publishers look for.
Unfortunately, there is no magic formula a writer can follow for guaranteed
publication. What works and doesn’t work varies by genre, publisher, and other
factors outside of the writer’s control. Still, there are some basic elements every
publisher considers when evaluating a potential project. Those elements are:
content, market, competitive titles, and author platform.
A great idea is a start, but it won’t go far if the idea isn’t paired with quality content. Whether it’s fiction or nonfiction, a book needs meat, substance, something readers can really sink their teeth into and get value from. If it’s fiction, this means entertaining the reader with compelling characters and an engaging plot. For nonfiction, it means providing the reader with useful information and tools that enhance the reader’s life, all presented in a logical progression.
Truly compelling content is delivered with style and skill. The elements of style and the skills of execution are beyond the scope of this paper, but we have included some resources in our appendix to help you develop your overall skills as a writer. For now, we will only cover the basic elements of content (besides good grammar and usage) that every publisher looks for when evaluating both fiction and nonfiction.
For the most part, the purpose of nonfiction is to educate, but in order to keep
the reader interested, the author needs to convey this information in an
engaging way. You, the author, must draw the reader in, as if in a conversation,
and guide the reader through the message of your book. Your authorial voice
should reflect your personality and your unique way of communicating, without
sacrificing the conventions of style and grammar required by publishers.
Even the most technical information requires an appealing voice. That is what makes it accessible to the general public and increases a book’s chances of achieving success in the marketplace.
What is the purpose of your book? What meaning or information should the reader take away from it? The answer to those questions is your message. Your message, also known as your hook, is the unifying theme tying all of the elements of your book together. Examples include inspired leadership, sustained weight loss, improving your relationships, better self-esteem, etc.
There are many types of content that can support a message, including:
- Quotes from trusted sources or people with firsthand experience
- Anecdotes and case studies
- Graphs, diagrams, and other visual representations
- Tasks and action plans that help readers directly apply the content to their own lives
- Tips and insights
When considering what elements to include in your content, ask yourself: Does this tie into and further convey my overall message? If the answer is no, then it is better left out.
No one wants to read a rehashing of content they’ve already heard over and over. Readers want a fresh take, a new approach, or even a completely original idea. We will discuss identifying your competitors and setting yourself apart later in this white paper, but it is important to note that the most significant way to differentiate yourself is in the content you provide.
So, when looking at what to write about, first consider what’s already being said
on your topic. What’s missing from the conversation? Do you disagree with any
of the particular methods or opinions on the topic? Do you have a new or
improved way of approaching this topic? Do you present it in a more interesting
or engaging way? All of those things can help you develop content that is fresh
Structure and Organization
In fiction, the flow of a book is referred to as its narrative arc. But nonfiction books need arcs, too. You may be conveying a mass of complex information. If readers don’t understand where they’re going or how each piece of content builds on and relates to other content, they won’t learn much, and the book’s promise will be unfulfilled. If the book can’t deliver, people won’t recommend it, which in turn hurts sales.
The elements of your message must be organized in a logical fashion, allowing the reader to build on one concept and then another, until they understand the greater message know how to achieve their goal. Typically, you can approach your message from two ways:
- Broad to specific: Start out by introducing the reader to the general concept, then slowly peel away the layers into more specific components.
- Specific to broad: Start with specific elements and build on them, putting them together to achieve the big picture at the end.
One method is not necessarily better than the other, and which approach you decide to take largely depends on your topic, personal preference, style, and audience.
For more resources on developing content for nonfiction, see the list of resources in the appendix.
Content requirements for fiction vary greatly, and compared to nonfiction, there is more room for breaking the rules. Still, every good story needs the following elements.
Strong characters are what create the emotional bond between the reader and the story. A good character is memorable, dynamic, and drives the plot forward through his or her actions and reactions to what the other characters do.
Strong characters are:
- Dynamic: They change, react, and adapt as the story goes on. They evolve as the story progresses, becoming a slightly (or dramatically) different person—for better or worse—by the time the last word is written.
- Imperfect: Strong characters have flaws. Perfect people are boring, and it’s impossible for them to evolve since—well, they’re already perfect. We like characters for their good qualities, but we either love or hate them for their flaws. Love and hate are more intense emotions, and they evoke a stronger response from the reader, which is exactly what you want.
- Motivated: Whether by greed, love, envy, or a deep hatred for their second-grade teacher who made them go to detention when it was clearly little Sammy’s fault, characters must be motivated by something. You need to identify those motivations and understand the nuances and instinctual responses that happen as a result of them. They will drive the plot forward and create that sense of desperation or need that readers look for as they root for (or against) the protagonist.
The plot is the sequence of events that lead up to an end point, either in terms of achieving an emotional goal or following a narrative thread to its conclusion.
Plot generally occurs in five stages:
- Exposition: This introduces the reader to the plot.
- Rising Action: This is the development of events leading toward the climax. This portion takes up the majority of the book.
- Climax: This is the epic battle scene, lovers connecting, families either joining or splitting apart—it is the dramatic fallout of your rising action and generally takes place near the end of the book.
- Falling Action: This shows the effects of the climax on the characters and other story elements.
- Resolution: This is the conclusion, often an unraveling of the complicated intricacies of the plot. Not all stories have a resolution. Some even go without the falling action and end at the climax. Whether or not you include all five depends on the nature of the story and your ability to divulge enough information for the reader to draw their own conclusions.
The plot is often compared to a three-act play. In Act 1 the audience is introduced to the characters and the main conflict or problem the characters must solve. The majority of the play happens in Act 2 and follows the characters as they address the main conflict. Act 3 is the climax and the resulting falling action and resolution, tying up the many issues and subplots explored throughout the play.
Just as in nonfiction, the narrative voice must carry the reader through the story in an engaging way. Personality is key—and not necessarily the personality of the writer (although it does come through) but the personality of the narrator, whether it’s the main character talking in first person or a third-person narrator. Also, to truly be compelling, the narrator must “show” the reader the events as they unfold rather than “tell” about them. Here is the difference:
Telling: Suzie hated Tom.
Showing: Suzie inched her chair further to the right, putting as much space as possible between her and Tom. His cheap drug store cologne choked what little fresh air remained in the tight cubicle, further agitating her sensitive allergies. She shifted her computer screen away from his roving eyes and did her best to focus on the report and not on the fact that it was his fault she had to stay late and rewrite the whole damn thing.
Setting includes the time and place in which a story occurs. Setting affects both
plot and character. The depth at which setting affects those elements varies
depending on the what the setting is and how it relates to the characters ability
to move and interact within it as they address the plot.
Sometimes the setting establishes the plot, such as in a disaster movie or in situations like Lost, in which characters are displaced in a setting that is both strange and dangerous. Under such circumstances, the characters are deeply affected and must adapt in order to survive. Regardless of how much setting affects the direction of the story, it always serves as a foundation, creating the basic backdrop and physical boundaries within which the plot will unfold.
For more resources on developing content for fiction, see the list of resources in the appendix.
Publishing is a business. In order for publishers (and authors) to make money, they need to sell books. So, when publishers look at a project they ask themselves: What is the market for this? Who would be interested? How many people comprise that segment of the population? How often do they buy books and for what reasons?
For nonfiction, you may want to identify the market even before you develop your content. This will help you identify needs not being met by your target market and help you develop more focused content. For fiction, identifying a market beforehand is not as much of a necessity, but upon completion it is just as important as nonfiction.
To identify your market, ask the following questions.
- Who would be interested in this topic?
- What are they like? (What do they do for a living? Where do they live? What hobbies do they have? Etc.)
- How much money do they make, and what do they spend it on?
- Do they buy books and, if so, in what format and on what topics?
- Are they male or female and what is their nationality and cultural background?
- How large is this market?
- What organizations, associations, or publications cater to this market?
When answering these questions, be as specific as possible. When asked who
your market is, you don’t want to respond with “anyone who reads” or “men.”
Not all people who read enjoy the same kind of books, and not all men are
interested in the same topics.
Examples of a nonfiction market would be:
- Fortune 500 executives interested in global cuisine
- Stay at home mompreneurs
- Elementary teachers of special-needs children
Examples of fiction markets include:
- Cozy mystery aficionados
- Fans of gritty crime novels
- Avid fantasy gamers
One of the best ways to identify your market is to define your genre and then research fan clubs, associations, and consumer groups affiliated with that topic. For example, Fortune 500 executives interested in global cuisine likely belong to frequent flyer clubs and read Condé Nast Traveler. You can locate information on the demographics of Condé Nast Traveler (and all other Condé Nast publications) through the information for advertisers on each publication’s respective website. Other options include business and lifestyle publications such as Worth or Forbes, which also have information available about their readers. The U.S. Bureau of Statistics also has data available on various demographic groups.
Fiction writers can locate market information by doing general searches for reading clubs and fan sites associated with the genre. You can also look into writers’ groups, both general and genre-based, to get more information on the market for your book. Identify the top authors in your genre and visit fan and community sites based on their work for more insight into your potential market.
For both fiction and nonfiction, you can also look at popular blogs and online communities to see who is participating and what topics are of interest to them. See the appendix for more resources.
The next thing publishers consider is who is your competition. This is key for many reasons. First of all, it shows them who the market is and how large is the demand. If books on your topic are doing well, they are more likely to consider your work. Second, publishers look at how your book differs from the competition. If you provide enhanced content, an innovative approach, new research, or a more user-friendly voice, then they will be more likely to consider looking at and possibly acquiring your book. However, if your book is too similar to an existing one (especially one that has done well), or if your content is weak or poorly executed in comparison, then a publisher will be less willing to consider your project.
Doing a bit of research beforehand is key. Go to the bookstore or do an online search and look at the other books on your topic. Read the bestsellers from the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal and see how they present the information. Can you do it better? Do you have a different approach or disagree entirely? Do you have a more engaging voice or more credibility? If so, you may be able to compete.
A competitive analysis will save you time in the development of your work and during the submission process, since most publishers will ask you about your competition.
Here are the key points you will want to address:
- Title: What are the titles of the top sellers in your category? What keywords are embedded in the title? (These are words people would use to do an Internet search.) Is your title similar or different from these titles?
- Content: What information do your competitors share, and how is it organized? In what way is it presented? For fiction, what makes the characters or plot compelling? How is yours different (e.g., tone, approach, scope, actionable items, plot twists, character, etc.)?
- Quantity sold: How many copies have your top 2–3 competitors sold (see appendix)?
- Credentials: What authority do these authors have? How do your credentials compare?
- Platform: How are your competitors connecting with their readers? (A more detailed explanation of platform will be discussed in the next section.) Do they have a website, a social media plan, and/or an online community? Do they give speeches, teach, write articles, or serve as an expert source for media?
- Packaging/Format: How is the book presented? What are the design elements? Is it hardcover, paperback, audiobook, etc.?
- Price: How much do your competitors’ titles sell for in each format?
Understanding your competition will help you develop a solid marketing strategy, as well as identify ways to connect with your audience. Which brings us to our next topic.
What is an author platform? Essentially, it’s the base of people who have a built- in interest in your book and who would regard you as an authority in your field. Your platform is your audience; your publicity plans and other promotional activities will be targeted at them.
The author platform is essential because it is what sets you apart from every other author in your genre. Publishers and media always look at author platform, sometimes even before they look to the content of the book itself. Just like a physical platform, an author platform raises you above the crowd. The platform is what will cut through all of the millions of advertising and media messages directed at consumers, carry your book to readers, and in turn drive sales. If your platform is not strong, active, and growing, publishers and media will move on to the next author whose platform is.
How do you develop a platform? Before you determine that, there is an even bigger question that needs to be addressed. First, you need to start by defining your target reader. We addressed this issue in the market section, but as a refresher, your target reader is the person you are writing for, the one most likely to be interested in and benefit from your content.
You need to be as specific as possible in stating your target audience. You can’t just say “anyone who reads.” Not everyone who reads is interested in every topic on the market. Instead you need to hone the target down to something like “work-from-home moms” or “twentysomething executives.” Once your audience is identified, you can start developing your platform.
Now that you have your target reader in mind, you need to define how you’ll build a group of them to serve as your platform. Using the “twentysomething executive” audience, possible outreach strategies include “tips to break the executive ceiling,” “profiles of young achievers,” “strategies for success,” etc. Whatever the focus is, it needs to relate to both your audience and your book. If your book is about underwater basket weaving, you won’t have much luck driving sales using a platform geared toward young executives.
There are many ways to connect with your potential readers as part of your platform-building strategy.
The best platform strategy integrates all of these elements:
- A Website: You need to have a well-designed, content-rich website for both you as an author and for your book.
- Blogs: Blogging lets you create current and fresh content on a regular basis. Pull content from your book and use it to develop brief blog posts. Comment on current events, news items, or trending topics. Answer questions or pose questions to generate interaction among your followers.
- Social Media: Outlets such as Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and others let you promote your media efforts, blog, or book and help you stay connected with your audience. Applications such as Spredfast and Twitterfeed let you easily manage your social media accounts without spending a great deal of time or money.
- Speaking/Teaching/Appearances: Authors are viewed as experts, and experts share their knowledge with others. Speaking on topics related to your platform, teaching others the skills you either used to develop your book or that you illustrate in your book, and making appearances on television and radio shows related to your topic all help you engage your audience.
- Organizational involvement: Being involved in writers’ groups and trade groups, charities, and local organizations lets you keep in touch with the people you want to connect with. If you are actively involved, not only will they be more interested in what you have to say, you will also learn more about your audience and what they are looking for (here is where you get ideas for blogs, new books, and media appearances).
- Articles and sourcing: Authors write articles on their subject and often serve as expert sources for other journalists. This helps build the author’s credibility as an authority figure and trusted source, which, in turn, helps drive book sales.
There is no limit to the types or number of activities authors can engage in to build their platforms. However, in order to successfully grow your platform, each of these activities needs to be cohesive and relevant to the overall topic and consistent with your message. They also need to be content-rich and provide value; purely promotional talk or advertising does not engage readers. In fact, it does the opposite: it turns them off completely to your message.
Also, be sure to keep your activities manageable and always link them back to book sales. This means referring to your book frequently in interviews and conversations, linking to the book’s website anywhere you have an Internet presence, and linking to retail outlets so that after reading an article or hearing you speak, readers can immediately go and purchase your book.
If you are still unsure about the strength of your platform and how to develop it, your publicist is the best resource to help you. You might also want to look at the resources listed in the appendix.
Zinsser, Willaim. On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction. Harper, 2006.
Maass, Donald. Writing the Breakout Novel. Writers Digest Books, 2002.
Morrell, Jessica. Thanks, But This Isn’t For Us: A (Sort of) Compassionate Guide to Why Your Writing is Being Rejected . Tarcher, 2009.
Smith, James V. You Can Write a Novel Kit. Writers Digest Books, 2008
Market and Competition Resources
New York Times Bestseller Lists
Nielsen BookScan Does allow authors to see number of copies sold for a limited number of ISBNs without purchasing a subscription. Cost is $85 per ISBN.
U.S. Bureau of Statistics
Wall Street Journal Bestseller Lists
Chandler, Stephanie. The Author’s Guide to Building an Online Platform: Leveraging the Internet to Sell
. Quill Driver Books, 2008.
Godin, Seth. Tribes: We Need You to Lead Us. Portfolio Hardcover, 2008
Katz, Christina. Get Known Before the Book Deal: Use Your Personal Strengths to Grow an Author Platform. Writers Digest Books, 2008.