What Publishers Want
An Author’s Guide
Abstract: This guide serves as a tool to familiarize aspiring authors with the key elements
publishers look for when evaluating a potential project.
Intro: 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
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
• 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
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
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:
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.
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.
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:
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.
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
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
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
• 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
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
Here are the key points you will want to address:
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?
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)?
What authority do these authors have? How do your credentials
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
How is the book presented? What are the design elements? Is it
hardcover, paperback, audiobook, etc.?
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
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.
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
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
• 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.
This white paper was produced by Greenleaf Book Group. Greenleaf Book Group is an independent
publisher and distributor helping experts with brand building and the development of intellectual
capital. Greenleaf goes beyond the book, providing services in specialty placement, marketing,
distribution, and the publishing of ancillary materials. Greenleaf is more than just a publisher; they also
help professionals build their businesses. To learn more visit www.greenleafbookgroup.com or call
Harbrace www.harbrace .com
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Market and Competition Resources
New York Times Bestseller Lists http://www.nytimes.com/pages/books/bestseller/
Nielsen BookScan http://en-us.nielsen.com/ 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 http://www.bls.gov/
Wall Street Journal Bestseller Lists http://online.wsj.com/
Chandler, Stephanie. The Author’s Guide to Building an Online Platform: Leveraging the Internet to Sell
More Books. 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.