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Saturday, September 14, 2013

Study the Market to Show Thyself Approved Unto the Publishers

I went to a lot of conferences this past year and I sat across from a lot of writers. In particular, I sat across from children's writers. They sit down with high hopes, smiling brightly, so happy to have found an agent who is willing to look at picture books and chapter books. But often, I'm afraid, they go away angry. The stars of hope in their eyes quickly transform into sparks of frustration and resentment.

"Why won't this book sell?" they want to know. All across the country, I hear the same refrains, over and over again.
  • We need more books like this.
  • My grandchildren love this book.
  • I loved this kind of book when I was little. My mom used to read to me.
  • I've been working on this book for fifteen years---it's my passion. It has to sell.
  • God gave it to me. I can't disobey him. I can't stop trying to sell it.
  • I'm writing it for God. I promised God I'd give him this book.
  • It's profound. It teaches a lesson that children desperately need today.
And all across the country, I've given the same answer, over and over again: Take your passion and put it into a form that will sell.

Let me repeat that:

Take your passion and put it into a form that will sell.

I'm not disagreeing with you when you tell me that children need your message or even when you say God gave you the book. I have no idea what God did and didn't give you. All I know is that if you want to be published by a traditional publisher, you have to write a book they'll buy.

Some of the writers who sit across from me at conferences are like tallow men trying to sell candles to publishers who have already installed electric lights in their offices. It's not good enough to write a story like the ones you loved when you were young.

Let me shout this from the highest rafter: If you haven't read a picture book or a middle grade novel or a YA novel in the past forty years you shouldn't be surprised when your manuscripts gather a bunch of rejections.

Can you imagine a guy making sports shoes without knowing what Nike shoes look like? Can you imagine the Barnes and Noble people making the Nook without looking at the Kindle or the Google people putting out a tablet without studying the iPad?

Don't give me the stink eye for telling you your book won't sell. This is not meant to shoot you down. It's meant to lift you up. It's meant to tell you what to do to fix the problem. Very simply: Research the market.

Whether you're just starting or you've been writing for years, my answer is pretty much the same. You may keep your passion. You simply have to lose your grip on the book you're hawking that no one is buying. You either self publish it, or you set it aside and move on. Save your passion and let go of the rest of the story. Arguing about how much the world needs it isn't going to do any good. Saying that God gave it to you, isn't going to do any good.

God gave you a vocabulary of 500 words when you were just a baby. That doesn't mean he wanted you to preach the sermon on Sunday. He wanted you to work and listen and practice and to get better and better at speaking.

The fact that God gave you a story doesn't mean he wants you to sell it to a big publisher this year. It might mean God wants you to listen and learn and practice and get better at writing.

And, no, you don't have to write about zombies and vampires. You don't have to write fantasy or put sex scenes in the books. Don't go away, thinking that's what I'm saying here.

How about just starting with giving me projects with word counts that are in the realm of possibility? That would be a good start.

To all you writers who sit across the table from agents at conferences: We want to say, "yes" to you. We want you to succeed and sell a bazillion books. We want the people of the world to read your words and to hear that great message God gave you. Study the market. Give us books we can sell. Make us rich. Save the world. It's a win/win scenario.

photo credit: alles-schlumpf via photopin cc

Sally Apokedak
Sally Apokedak is an associate agent with the Leslie H. Stobbe Literary Agency. She's in the process of of building a dynamite list of authors. She is also active in the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators.


  1. the world ;). I have to admit that I cheered and laughed in MANY different places reading this. You go, Sally Apokedak.

  2. Thanks for dropping by, Kara. I always like it when my rants draw cheers and laughter from the cool kids.

  3. Sally, thank you for an excellent and timely post. it blessed me to read it.

  4. Please, in your next article, give some examples of why certain books sell in the different markets other than by author name recognition.
    Otherwise, your post is great.

    1. I'll be happy to do that. Come back the second Saturday of next month, :)

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. Whew! I'm glad I didn't sit across from you this summer. lol I agree wholeheartedly with your advice. I don't write for kids, but the information applies to any genre. I've learned these lessons over the past couple of years trying to find an agent for my book. However, I have come across several people who aren't willing to work harder and smarter to be published. They think it is a sell-out to consider making their book profitable. And yes, I've seen oodles of people resorting to self-publishing because they are unwilling to consider the market.

    Thanks, Sally.

    1. Ah, but I believe you did sit across from me, Karen. You just didn't pitch to me. We shared a table at the Blue Ridge Banquet and instead of pitching, you told a funny story about showers at a certain retreat. :)

      Yes, this applies to any genre. And even to shoes and tablet computers.

      I'm not saying we want to make the same old stuff or we want to write cookie cutter stories. I'm saying we should take our passion and take the frames that will sell today and mix the two together to come up with the new, improved version of the story everyone else is trying to sell.

  6. Oh this is great. Oh you made me laugh. "men trying to sell candles..." brilliant.

  7. This comment has been removed by the author.

  8. Sally,

    That was well-put and I think timely for ANY of us authors. We have put so much work, love and attention into our books, and we largely can't understand why if people have heard about it, they don't just run out and grab it.

    Pete Klismet, author of "FBI Diary: Profiles of Evil"

  9. Pete, I get that.

    On the one hand I get queries from a lot of new writers who haven't put love and work into their stories. They just spit something out and they can't understand why I don't snap them up. They need to get a reality check and they need to study other books that are being sold and "how to" books. They need to go to conferences.

    On the other hand, you're right. There are plenty of writers who have put time and work into their books and those books still aren't selling. And for them . . . for most of them . . . I want them to write another book. Because often the first book is where you learn to write. And the next book is the one that has a premise that is actually interesting. But to understand what makes for a good premise and how much conflict or intrigue you need to drag a reader in, you need to read books that are currently selling, I think.

    Or . . . let me put it this way: If you read what's currently selling you're going to greatly improve your chances of writing a good book.

    1. Although it would be nice to gain the Midas literary touch and turn all our manuscripts into golden treasures, I agree that the first book is more likely a trial run. The second might be, too. I have a full-length novel languishing in a bottom drawer, and it will probably stay there even though I thought it was hot stuff the day I typed "The End." It's so much better to move on than to spend a decade carrying the same old manuscript to conference after conference.

  10. I saw the first part of this in my inbox while traveling and KNEW it was yours (I don't pay attention to what day of the month you post). This is so true and has such application beyond writing for children.

    I find much the same things in those who write for the teen market, specifically in my work with SISTERHOOD Magazine. Sometimes people have great ideas and "messages [teens] need to hear," but the package is all wrong.

    How do you change that? Read what's already out there. Study the market. Get some teens/children/people for whom you're writing in your life.

    I can't imagine not reading in the genre for which one writes (or hopes to write), but it happens all the time. And as you know, it shows.

    Thanks for making me rethink my own aspirations, too. And I promise not to give you the stink eye about, well, anything.

    1. Ha ha, Marti. I have branded myself, apparently.

      A friend asked me the other night what my NR post was about this month, and I said, "Same as always. It was a rant about people not reading the genre they are trying to write in."

      And here is your comment telling me I've effectively branded myself as "she who whines about would-be writers who know nothing about the genres they they want to target with their writing."

      What can I say? It's the number one beef I have with queries.


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