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Saturday, October 12, 2013

Writing Fiction that Sells

Telling you how to go about writing fiction that sells isn't possible, really.

But I'm going to try to say something about the topic, because the last time I posted here, I got this question from a reader:
Please, in your next article, give some examples of why certain books sell in the different markets other than by author name recognition.
I know why books written by unknown authors break out. It's word of mouth that causes that happy circumstance. It's when people tell their friends what a great book they just read.

But what gets people juiced up and talking about one book and not about another? I can't tell you. Why did Twilight sell as many copies as it did? Why have other good books had dismal sales? No one has come up with a formula to explain these things.

We know some things about what readers, in general, like in books.

  • Characters: Readers like to relate to the main character. They want to care about the character and to root for him. They want characters they can empathize with or, at least, characters they can sympathize with. They want characters that feel real and three-dimensional. Clichéd characters? Not so much.
  • Plot: Readers want conflict. Why do the TV news shows run sensational story after sensational story? Because conflict interests us more than peace. When there's conflict, we need to keep reading to see how things will all turn out. Along with conflict, readers enjoy twisty surprises.
  • Voice: Many readers don't notice a gorgeous voice when they read, but they will feel bored by a snoozer voice. And, yes, it's possible to have colorful characters and a thrilling plot and then to kill the whole deal with a voice that plods from paragraph to paragraph, stringing together one gray sentence after another. Pacing, word choice, rhythm, sentence variation—all of these are part of voice.
  • Theme: Readers want to be moved, and the way you move them is by putting universal themes into your books. To move a reader emotionally, you need to plug into his dreams, his fears, his sorrows, or his joys. Nonfiction authors often hear that they should speak to a felt need, but what many novelists don't get is that fiction readers have mice that need to be trapped and wounds that need to be bandaged as well. Maybe fiction readers haven't identified their needs on a conscious level, but you, the author, will do well to analyze their needs before you write the book. Women who read romance want to be loved and cared for and protected, I think. What do lovers of fantasy want, do you suppose? Probably all readers want to feel safe and cared for. Those are basic human needs. So tap into those needs when you write your fiction.
In the end, though, many books that have all of these things—living, interesting, sympathetic characters, intriguing plots, lively voices, and universal themes—never break out. Many good books never sell more than a few thousand copies.

Writers can't control sales. There is no formula for writing fiction that sells. You can write good books and you can be smart about promotion, but you can't make people buy and talk about your books. So instead of worrying too much about sales, worry about the things you can control. Write well and promote well. Then leave the sales in God's capable hands.
photo credit: photo credit: Bindaas Madhavi via photopin cc
Sally Apokedak
Sally Apokedak is a literary  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. You can connect with her on her blog, where she posts about writing and publishing, on Facebook, on Twitter, on Pinterest, or on Google+


  1. That last paragraph is classic, Sally. Spot on.

  2. Outstanding with a heavy emphasis on excellent. Sally, you hit the nail on the head!

  3. Thanks for commenting, you two. Sorry, I'm late to reply. I was out of town at a conference. But I appreciate you reading and offering feedback.

  4. Only worry about the things you can control. This is true for every aspect of life. Thanks for pointing this out for authors. We tend to compare ourselves to others and kick ourselves when we aren't at their level. To everything there is a season...


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