…the one you’ve already written, the one you’re working on right now, or the one you want to write someday #writing #books #authors
A book is always on my mind, but I confess: my literary brain is bifurcated between the writing world and inside the book industry.
Yet as a professional ghostwriter, I’ve helped well over 200 create marketable literary properties that say what the author wants them to say, the way the author wanted to say it, while keeping in mind the average potential cold reader’s language tier, topic/genre sensibilities, and generational expectations.
That sounds complicated even to me, so over the years I figured out how to bring things down to a relatively simple set of questions. You can use them whether you’ve finished your manuscript, are in the middle of a work-in-progress, or are still trying to figure out how to get started.
Every question is integral to not only how you craft your manuscript (the writing world), but also to how you pitch, promote, and sell it (inside the book industry). I hope it helps satisfy the bifurcated parts of your own soul.
Note: the “then it goes here” list is a standard progression for both nonfiction and fiction manuscripts but not an absolute value. Your nonfiction may contain fewer or more than 15 main ideas, typically laid out one per chapter. Similarly, your novel may have fewer or more than 15 plot points, which can translate to any number of chapters depending on how you craft each one’s setup, execution, aftermath, and advancement to the next.
“Why won’t my novel sell? My friends/family/critique group/editor all love it!”
Oh yes, the most common novel issue. I’ve been fielding that question in one form or another for over thirty years, and, sadly, I can usually answer it after reading the first few pages of a novel — sometimes just the first few paragraphs. I can always answer it before I’ve finished the first three chapters. So let me share the four most common reasons why agents, publishers, and cold readers pass on otherwise strong, well-written stories.
“The Reader Needs to Know…”
No, they don’t.
I don’t know why this is still an issue in the twenty-first century, but I promise from the bottom of my heart that the reader does not need to know the main character’s (MC) backstory to understand why they’re doing what they’re doing or are about to do.
They don’t need you to explain how the character got into the tight spot they’re in, the heartbreak that came before, or even what’s going on in their life right now — certainly not up front, certainly not in omnipotent narrative or an info dump disguised as dialogue.
They also don’t need you, the author, to explain the MC’s lifestyle or favorite activities or lousy childhood or secret longings before you let the characters begin playing out the story line. And since this is 2021, not 1951, they really don’t need two pages of the intricate details about the countryside, the manor, the house, the apartment, or the hovel where the MC lives.
What they do need is to watch the MC react to the inciting incident that made everything in their life suddenly change.
The reader wants to spot the clues you leave along the story’s journey so they can later have an “oh!” or “aha” moment that lets them figure out why the MC reacted that way. “Oh, I should have realized she was up to no good when she showed up with that plate of cookies!”
Which brings up another reality that may disrupt your author comfort: sometimes the reader will draw a conclusion other than the one you intended.
Please let them.
Rather than go the extra mile to make sure every reader goes exactly where you want them to go and experiences the exact emotion or insight you want them to get, remember that reading is — and has always been — an interactive form of entertainment. You, the author, share your imagination through how your story impacts your characters and the characters impact the story. Let your readers use their imagination to fill in the blanks. That’s the essence of reader engagement.
After all, novels are not movies or TV shows. Even the most lighthearted story needs conflict, complications, and at least a bit of mystery. Ergo, the reader really, really does not need to know upfront who the antagonist is, or why they’re doing whatever they’re doing to challenge, complicate, or confuse the MC. Uncovering that secret is part of the fun, no matter what the genre: Romance, mystery, Sci-Fi, historical drama, fantasy, action adventure, humor, sports, politics, westerns, etcetera and so on and scooby-dooby do.
When you eliminate all the “but the reader needs to know” (also known as author intrusion), you’ll likely find your characters jump into the story more quickly, thereby rectifying one of the biggest reasons novels don’t sell: they don’t get into the story fast enough!
“That’s How I Would Have Done It…”
Yeah, okay, maybe, but — alas — you’re not a fictional character.
You, as the MC of your own life, may naturally and logically farm out some of the more mundane, tedious, or dangerous pieces of your job to underlings or more-qualified professionals. In an office or other real-life situation, we applaud that kind of delegation or project management.
But when a novel’s main character delegates or project manages their way through the story, the reader feels cheated. Suddenly, the main character isn’t the main character anymore; they’re just one in a cast or ensemble of characters.
I don’t care how you try to disguise it, protagonist hand off can stop even the most devoted reader from turning the page. It not only disrupts the story’s forward drive, it thwarts the very concept of character journey.
Novels, after all, are stories of people reacting to life-altering encounters, trials, or quandaries, be they physical, medical, emotional, psychological, spiritual or any combination thereof.
Except for romantic sagas and epic sci-fi tales, novels are a slice of time, a snapshot of “that moment,” a start-middle-end tale, ala:
The MC was there, then XXX happened, and the MC had to do this, that, and the other thing. Things came to a head when xxx occurred, just before it all ended happily/tragically/intriguingly here.
I don’t care how many twists and turns you use to keep the reader engaged, reality is (and can never be) that simple or direct. Save your own everyday life reactions and decisions for your memoir or nonfiction.
Along those same lines, you, as the MC of your own life, may pull off a questionable act and never face any repercussions. A lot of people “get away with” mischief and misconduct all the time, and those exploits make for great nonfiction exposés. But, as Twain put it, “Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t.”
So when an MC takes a risk, the reader will spend the rest of the book looking for them to face the music. If that never happens — if they’re never confronted with any consequences or guilt — the reader will, once again, feel cheated.
And cheating the reader is an almost sure-fire way to not sell a manuscript.
“I’ve Seen It Happen…”
Ah, accuracy, the set-up for implausibility. Crucial in a courtroom, police report, or insurance claim. Deadly to an otherwise good story.
Novels need to be plausible, not documentable. Your characters need to make sense with motives and agendas that resonate with someone who doesn’t know or has never even heard of you and cannot therefore simply “know” what you mean or intend.
Case in point: it’s implausible for a character who has been frightened and withdrawn throughout the entire tale to suddenly save the day through a heroic act they’ve never before shown the knowledge, ability, or strength to perform —
…even if you know a guy who did exactly that because he’d been privately working up to it all his life and when the right set of circumstances came together at the right moment, wham! He stepped up to the plate and astonished everyone.
Yes, it could happen. But in a novel, it’s implausible — unless you have dropped hints and left “aha!” clues about his private inner efforts.
It’s equally implausible that a loving, dedicated parent would simply leave their toddler in a dangerous situation while they go for help. No reader who has ever had or been a child will accept that situation, even though, yes, parents are sometimes forced to do just that in real life.
But since fiction needs to be credible and protagonists need to be sympathetic, expand that necessary-desertion scene by showing the protagonist parent’s angst and inner turmoil — unless the child is the protagonist, and their inculcated sense of abandonment and rejection is an aspect of their later character perspective, motivation, and agenda.
Truth is, indeed, stranger than fiction, and too much of it can kill a good story.
So: just because an author has seen young girls stand up to vigorous martial-arts training does not mean a small, blind protagonist could plausibly withstand repeated beatings and brutal rapes at the hands of her large, malevolent husband.
Five or six apparently missing people would not plausibly create panic in a town of 40,000 people.
Even though it may be theoretically conceivable for one man to raise fifteen children on his own in an isolated, hostile environment, it’s not plausible for all of them to not only survive but to all develop such mild-mannered personalities no one ever argues or competes with each other.
When a kidnapper taunts a father with, “It doesn’t matter how much you search, you won’t see her again for nine months!” only an implausibly stupid character would not realize the kidnapper has already gotten the daughter pregnant.
So there they are, four common reasons why otherwise good novels don’t sell: Author intrusion. Protagonist hand off. Cheating the reader. Implausibilities.
As a professional ghostwriter, I am loath to post on social media sites. Discretion and confidentiality are built into my job description. I never reveal author names, titles, or even sketches of the projects I’ve worked on, and that reserve long ago generalized into personal habit.
So, I’ve decided it’s time to share what few others will explain: the blunt truth.
I won’t go through the full list of 20+ nonfiction and nearly 20 fiction content disruptions that can torpedo a project. I’ll just address the three most prevalent ones: pride of authorship, rush-to-publish, and shortsightedness.
Pride of Authorship
Without doubt, pride of authorship kills more potentially great projects than anything else. Developmental editors can suss out structural issues. Copy editors can correct syntax and punctuation errors. But no one but the author can fix, “I want my readers to want what I want to share, the way I want to share it.”
Pride of authorship is what compels an author to write 45,000 words about their new discovery, their methodology, their political views, their corporate history, or the struggles they inspirationally overcame to get where they are today. And that’s fine. As one of the very first eBook publishers told me a few decades ago, everyone should have the right to see their story in print — or at least pixels. But the reading public adheres to the old Chicago mantra:
“What’s in it for me?”
“What’s my takeaway?”
“How can I apply these ideas to my life?”
Even memoirs need to include reflections and insights that connect or resonate with their readers.
Intrusive “me-ness” is only one content issue with pride-of-authorship roots, but rather than belabor the point in a social media article, let’s cut to the chase: what can you do to keep pride of authorship from destroying your book’s potential? Here’s the painful part.
1. Recognize your pride of authorship intrusions. That doesn’t mean don’t take satisfaction or pleasure in your work; it means realize your book has a life force of its own. Don’t let your ego interfere with your book’s potential wonderfulness.
2. Let someone help you. No, not another editor. You’ve probably had editors up the wazoo go over your work line-by-line, even word-by-word. Editors are too close to the black marks on the page to catch how or what a manuscript radiates to someone who doesn’t know you, doesn’t really care about you, and won’t want to take the time to learn about you without getting some kind of satisfaction.
Instead, look for someone who understands creative analysis, who can take a 30,000-foot view of the work and see it as a commercial product, not merely a literary effort. Someone who understands that a first draft is all about what the author wants, and a second draft is all about what the reader wants.
If you can’t find someone on your own, reach out to me. I’ll introduce you to a Certified Ghostwriter who’s been trained to do just that.
1. Accept that you may have to make substantial changes even if you’ve already self-published. You may need to refocus the book. A third of the text might need to be replaced. You may have to add substantial material that isn’t all about you, and you, and yours.
Told you it would be painful.
Rush to Publish
Agents, publishers, booksellers, and even publicists and event hosts have complained about authors’ lack of awareness since long before the digital revolution changed the course of how and what we read. Common grouses include:
· Authors don’t understand what publishing really involves or how it works
· Authors don’t understand that books are products
· Authors don’t understand the difference between audience and market
· Authors don’t understand how to title their book
· Authors don’t understand what publishers expect them to do with their advance money
That’s a lot for authors to not understand, and it’s just the visible part of the iceberg. Most authors have zero frame of reference for any of those issues and as little interest in learning about them. Technology has leveled the book-business playing field to such an extent that the average person who sits down to write their book thinks production is the same as publishing and Amazon.com is a distribution channel.
Neither thought is true.
Exploring just the tip of that glacier reveals that, like any other multi-product concern, publishing is an elaborate business, requiring the diverse talents and skills of many separate departments. Pre-press, for example, involves
a. Inhouse style-guide editing
e. Interior design
f. Galley proofs
g. Price and barcode embed
h. Cover design
…to name just the obvious. Rush-to-publish authors typically skip steps b, c, d, and f either because they aren’t aware of them or don’t want to spend the time and money it takes to acquire them. But without adequate legal indemnity (b. permissions), broad and proper metadata (c. classifications), Library of Congress and CiP/PCiP notifications (d. registrations), and cover reviews (f. galley proofs), a book has far less chance of receiving serious consideration in the marketplace, attaining supply-chain representation, or, bottom line, selling well.
The other publishing aspects (production, distribution, marketing, sales)
These are just as complex and thus require just as much time and attention.
Obviously, self-publishing isn’t going to cease to exist and, just as obviously, most pay-to-publish houses aren’t going to expand their businesses to include services they aren’t versed in and so cannot justify charging for. The urge to go from typewriter to print used to be tempered by the control publishing houses exercised over the industry. With that control no longer the law of the land, what can you do to prevent your rush-to-publish compulsion from destroying your book’s potential? More painful truth.
1. Slow down. Give your book the 18–24 months traditional publishers set aside to produce each quality title they put their imprint on. That will give you enough time to determine the right metadata to attach to your ISBN; obtain a Library of Congress Control Number; acquire a PCiP for library sales; send out galleys to industry, publication, and personal contact reviewers and wait for their responses; offer pre-sale discounts to bulk and hi-volume buyers; submit to distributors and wholesalers, and launch a pre-release publicity campaign six weeks before the book hits the stores.
2. Draw up a marketing plan to sell 30–50,000 copies in 12 months. Utilize every avenue you can think of to create bulk-sale orders, hi-volume tie-in possibilities, and continuous bookseller expansion. Make a list of the different types of outlets your title might fit into, such as airport gift shops, grocery stores, specialty stores, big-box stores (Costco, Sam’s Club, Walmart, and so forth). Research the best free and paid promote sites, such as Book Bub, Fussy Librarian, and Free Booksy, etc.
Get in front of as many audiences as possible, from Rotary Clubs to entrepreneur groups to talk radio shows to BlogTalk and independent podcasts. Schedule webinars, seminars, and guest blogs.
Check the five high-volume/low-margin display marketers for submission guidelines and deadlines. Participate in Independent Book Publishers Association cooperative marketing campaigns.
Make a list of corporations, charities, municipalities, non-government agencies, and state/regional/federal/military bureaus that might carry your title.
1.Spend the money to implement your plan. Yes, it takes money to make money, and yes, it’s true that the more people you make money for, the more money you’ll make. So don’t try to do everything at once; that’s counterproductive. Rather, draw up a schedule to initiate one thing at a time over the course of a year to maintain your focus, bring in funds to reinvest, and highlight what does work and what doesn’t for your particular title.
Toilet paper companies seldom go out of business.
Toilet paper is a low-cost/high-return product that costs $.04 per standard roll to produce and sells for anywhere from $1.00 for two thin rolls to $16.00 for eight plus-sized rolls. Yet toilet paper companies don’t settle for merely selling it direct to consumers at retail prices in dollar stores, convenience stores, gas-station stores, grocery stores, big-box stores, and every other kind of store in existence.
They also sell it wholesale to school districts, universities, corporations, hospitals, government agencies, military bases, and every other organization populated by humans. In other words, toilet paper is packaged and sold as an indispensable commercial product.
Books, on the other hand, which are also indispensable but comparatively high-cost/low-return commercial products, are too often offered only at retail or slightly discounted prices via direct-to-consumer databases (Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Goodreads, etc.).
“Here I am! Here’s what I have to share!” the titles proclaim on those database pages — essentially giving license to those owners to take a cut of every sale, reserve your take for 30 to 90 days, and withhold the name and contact information of all your buyers.
And yes, you’ll pay income tax on your part of the sale, but you can only deduct the expense of each book as its sold. What kind of a ROI model is that?
Consider that all the ideas, processes, inspirational concepts, and new ways of thinking you share in your book are merely introductions to a reading public hungry for connection, guidance, and approval. Whether you’ve written a business book, a health-and-fitness guide, a self-help, a psychology title, or even a political exposé, if your title captures the hearts and minds of your readers, they want more.
They don’t necessarily want another book, although they’ll likely buy it when it comes out. They want more of you.
Readers who enjoy your written words are warm prospects to book you as a speaker, join your webinar, take your workshop, participate in your master class, or sign up for your off- or online program. You already have the material to share for those low-cost/high return offerings — it’s right there in your book.
Positioning your book as a marketing tool makes it more attractive to investors and loan officers, prolongs its shelf life, and makes the cost of its development and production a deductible advertising expense on the IRS 1040 Schedule C form.
Pragmatic, but yes, painful. After all the work and sweat to write and publish the book, most authors want to hand off the baton and let someone else finish the race. The idea they now have to essentially create a new business just to get their ideas out to a larger audience feels unfair.
It is unfair. Painfully unfair. Truth often is. On behalf of the multi-billion-dollar book industry, I apologize. But that doesn’t change the reality.
So, what can you do you prevent your shortsightedness from truncating your title’s success?
1. Make a decision. You are under no obligation to do what’s necessary to sell a lot of books. You are entitled to be content knowing how much hard work and devotion you already put into your book. You do not have to go for financial return, too. But if you want to make money on or with the title you’ve labored over, pull out any intrusive pride-of-authorship elements, address your reader’s needs and sensibilities, give yourself time to get everything in place before you release, and change your perspective to use your book as a marketing tool, not a one-off calling card.
2. Make a plan. Suss out best avenues for bulk and volume sales for your particular title and find the buyers in those marketing departments. Draw up a plan or schedule to contact at least one organization every 3–4 weeks.
Draw up an action plan of speeches, webinars/seminars, workshops/master classes, and programs. Schedule them so people can advance from one to the next throughout the year. Rinse and repeat.
Do the work. Plans are worthless without implementation, so don’t let yourself get sidetracked. If you run out of time, energy, or money, rather than get discouraged and give up, step back, catch your breath, review and revise, and start again. You can give your plan as much or as little time as you like. All the results are on you either way.
Let’s start by defining some terms. Old-school “ghostwriting,” wherein a writer researched and wrote books and articles for someone else to put their name on, is not only passé—it’s unethical. Although it was an acceptable practice for a number of decades, in today’s world, most writers label that endeavor deceitful. The perpetration of a public fraud. A scam.
But what about the other pursuits that theoretically require a “ghostwriter” these days: marketing copy, white papers, web content, blogs, content-marketing articles, and so forth? Are they scams? Or do we only think of them as cheats because job postings insist the writer call themselves a ghostwriter?
Marketing and brand content absatively require strong writing skills, sense of subject, and SEO knowledge, but none of that has anything to do with ghostwriting—at least not the kind of ghostwriting that has evolved since December 2009, when the print industry imploded, and editors of all ilk were kicked to the curb by almost every type of publisher.
Books are the real line of demarcation for ghostwriting in the twenty-first century. If you ghostwrite books as a freelancer, odds are you’ll end up doing the job as a work-for-hire writer. The author will set the price—in fact, the author will go with the lowest bidder. They’ll entice you to take a piece of the action and byline credit in exchange for cash-in-hand today. They’ll write a contract that lets them retain all control, including the right to fire you at will.
And despite knowing nothing whatsoever about the real book industry—as opposed to the consumer information, disinformation, and misinformation available around the web—they’ll direct the project’s positioning, structure, and writing.
In pursuit of those gigs, which typically pay $7,500 to $25,000, the typical freelance writer will:
Search through directfreelance.com, sologig.com, monster.com, indeed.com, and myriad other sites for any mention of the terms “writer” or “ghostwriter”
Eagerly submit writing samples, testimonials, and a rate sheet to all comers
Engage in bidding wars to “name that tune” (i.e., “write that book”) for less than whatever their nearest competitor bids, and
Twist themselves in knots to fulfill the client’s often unreasonable bestseller, deadline, and other dreams and demands
Spoiler alert: the results of those gigs more-often-than-not end up as self-published titles in the Amazon abyss.
Professional ghostwriting, on the other hand, wherein a ghost creates a marketable literary property out of an author’s idea or initial manuscript, is a new horse, of a new color — and new revenue prospects. It involves positioning yourself as an industry expert and ghostwriting authority. It means If you choose to offer professional ghostwriting services to select clients rather than search through job sites, you radically alter the circumstances.
You set the fee and the payment terms
You write the equitable contract.
You manage the project.
And the resulting titles often land traditional or well-established hybrid publishers with concomitant success.
When you work from a position of authority and expertise, you’ll find you attract high-end clients, from whom you’ll easily command $35,000 to $150,000 per title.
Becoming a freelance ghostwriter is not a major decision; it’s simply an add-on to an already established freelancer career. Any good writer can do the job, and there’s always plenty of work to go around, so it can be as lucrative or unprofitable as the tide allows.
Becoming a Professional Ghostwriter, on the other hand, is a life-changing choice. The differences are freelancing and going pro are similar to those between being a medic and a doctor, a handyman and a contractor, or a company-team outfielder and National or American League ballplayer.
Today’s professional ghostwriters are those who understand and can offer what traditional-publisher’s in-house editors used to do for all their authors, but can now only afford to provide to high-profile ones. Any determined writer can certainly teach themselves all they need to command high-end fees, and deliver high-end results.
Become immersed in the myriad aspects of the $115 billion global book industry — talent, acquisition, registrations, prepress, production options/costs/ROI, supply-chain players, marketing/advertising/promotion ROI, and so forth;
Suss out industry standards for coding, formatting, and style-guide expectations and exceptions;
Get schooled in creative analysis to focus, position, and structure any manuscript for its most effective market or set of markets;
Learn “deep listening” and “ego restraint” to ensure maintain the author’s voice, flavor, color, perspective, and, most importantly, intent;
Over the years, I’ve fielded dozens, if not hundreds, of queries about why a title can’t seem to attract a literary agent or traditional publisher. Typically, the problem comes down to not understanding the realities of the book industry itself, and where the project is in terms of its readiness for publication. Simply put, is it a really good manuscript, or is it a marketable literary property?
Here’s a checklist to help identify where you are with your nonfiction book.
If you answered “no” to four or more questions, think about creating a tailored action plan to increase your property’s viability in the marketplace. And yes–we can help you with that!