Most first-time authors begin writing in response to some vague creative itch. They’ve no idea how many books like theirs already exist; most assume that none do. These authors are swept up in their creative vision, with no thought to what sells and what doesn’t in today’s hypercompetitive publishing industry.
Many of the books written this way are not commercially salable novels.
Other authors-to-be are busily penning books that aren’t actually designed for readers at all. These authors are writing for themselves. They’re writing a memoir to process some experience that happened to them. They’re writing an autobiography to preserve and share their family history. They’re producing creative writing filled with dense wordplay and insights better suited to poetry, short stories, or a literary journal, not a novel.
Many of these books written this way are not commercially salable novels.
Will your book sell?
How do you know if you’ve written a salable novel? You’ll find no handhold on that question until you can effectively describe what you’ve written. What other books is your book like? What sort of readers will be interested in reading your book? What are your book’s themes? What drives the characters? What is the primary story conflict?
If you find it difficult to answer those questions, you’ve likely uncovered a fatal flaw in your book.
If you can’t find anything else like your book on the market, it’s extremely unlikely that you’ve identified a hole nobody has ever tried to fill. Instead, it’s more likely that no books like yours are on the market because no significant market for them exists. It’s more likely that you’ve written a book that’s not commercially viable.
Why comps matter
A “comp” is the publishing industry’s term for a “comparison” or “competitive title”—essentially, your book’s competitors. Choosing accurate comps for your book helps you understand the kind of books your readers are reading, how to make your book appealing to them, and how to write your book to stand out among similar titles.
GoodReads lists are brilliant resources for this sort of research; just don’t go to GoodReads to do the actual searching. Google is the best tool for finding good comps. Include“GoodReads” (no quotes) as one of your search terms. For example, “GoodReads dystopian genetic thrillers” starts me off with this list—more than a hundred titles in a single list. Don’t stop there. Try more search terms, fewer search terms, different keyword combinations, and so on.
Your goal is to find other books that resemble yours in some way: theme, premise, historical period, setting, remarkable qualities about the protagonist, whatever. Finding those common threads is good news. It means readers want to read what you’re writing.
Conversely, turning up nothing at all is most likely a sign that there’s no market for what you’ve written.
The commercially viable story
Some writers believe they should give up working on their story if they discover that another author has gotten to their story concept first. Baloney. Ideas aren’t copyright; it’s the execution of the idea, the actual writing, that is. Your book is unique even if your story concept is not, because nobody will ever write the same idea the way you will.
Get out there and find good comps for your book. Arm yourself with useful benchmarks. Can your book hold its own in its market? What does your book offer readers that will make a publisher want to buy it and put it into competition with the comps you’ve identified? What makes your book more compelling than the others on your list?
Who’s the judge?
It could be, of course, that your writing simply isn’t compelling enough to make your book interesting to readers. I’ve turned down manuscript critiques for several authors recently who’d already worked with other editors yet weren’t getting the responses they wanted (or quickly enough) from agents. After just a few months of querying, they wanted to pay me to rubber-stamp the quality of their manuscripts.
The problem is that’s not what editors do. Editors are here to work with you to make your story the best you are capable of making it at this point in your development. Our job isn’t to tell you whether your book is publishable. That’s the purview of agents and publishers.
The way to tell whether your manuscript has what it takes to get traditionally published is to actually submit it for publication. Start querying. Keep querying. If you get no bites, you have your answer.
Big sales mean big business
If all this makes writing a book sound like more like marketing than writing, it is. If you’re hoping to write a bestseller, you’re by definition hoping to sell a lot of books. That means your book is a product that has to make its way in the marketplace. Can it? Can you?
Being an author is a business, whether your books are produced by a company you don’t control (a traditional publisher) or a company you do control (self-publishing). Marketing will demand as much of your time and effort as writing did. The days of handing over a manuscript to your publisher and letting them take things from there are long gone. Even solidly established authors must market their own work.
And a book that readers never discover is a book that readers will never read.
Pinpoint your publishing goals
How much control you want to have over how your book is marketed and sold determines whether you should try to become traditionally published or whether you should self-publish. It’s a big decision, but many good resources exist to help you parse the options.
Maybe none of that is really what you thought you were getting into when you decided to write a book. If that’s the case, it could be time to reexamine what you hope to achieve from publishing.
Maybe you were hoping to win a writing award. Maybe writing a book or seeing it in print is something you want to cross off your bucket list. Perhaps your goal is to share your life experience with others, or to learn how to publish a book, or to write a bestseller, or to launch a publishing career, or to win a traditional publishing contract, or something completely different.
Actually publishing your book is necessary for only some of those goals.
At the end of the day, selling your book might not be your actual goal. If that’s the case, your book doesn’t need to be commercially viable. You’re free to do as you like. If you do want to sell books, though, it’s time to roll up your sleeves. It’s time to identify comps, target readers, and things about your book that will make readers buy it. If you want to sell books, it’s time to write a commercially salable novel.