There are many factors that determine whether a book sells. After taking my own crack at publishing and reading about the experiences of other writers, I’ve learned about the things I’ve done well and the areas where I need to improve. I’m speaking pretty specifically about my experiences with nonfiction writing, though I’d say that a fiction writer, with a few tweaks here and there, could generally follow the same principles.
While authors can’t control the economy, the trends in popular culture, and even unexpected reader preferences, there are two factors that will disproportionately influence how well their books sell.
Today we’ll cover the first thing that sells a lot of books: A well-written book that is targeted to a specific but wide audience.
Writers can’t simply sell books based on the merit of an idea or the quality of their writing—though these things are very important. They need to write clear sentences, paragraphs, and chapters that guide readers from chapter to chapter and convince them to keep reading and, on a related note, address the needs of a wide but specific audience.
Write Clear Chapters That Engage Readers
After reading what other writers do when composing drafts of their books, I’m often impressed with the number of drafts they complete and the detail of their revisions. They think about word choice, introductions, conclusions, transitions, and edit with a fine-tooth comb several times. The amount of text some delete is astounding.
Good writing isn’t an accident.
My own editor encouraged me to think about why I’m making a particular point, how it relates to the next point, and how each point ties in with the larger argument or concept of my book. As I read bestselling authors I’ve noticed their skill at hooking readers with an problem, a concept, or a mystery. They convince me that I need to keep reading in order to find that information.
Step-by-step, a good book walks readers through a story, an argument, or lesson. The writer can’t abandon the reader part-way through the book. No matter how good the idea or how important the information, if readers feel overwhelmed with information or confused by dots that aren’t connected, they’ll put the book down. Typically, writers will fail in this regard because they have ignored the closely related principle of writing for an audience.
Address the Needs of an Audience
While good writing is important, authors must also adopt a targeted approach to their book’s intended audience. Besides merely addressing a need of potential readers, authors should address that need in a way that is accessible and hopefully remarkable. When many readers find themselves inserting caveats such as “I liked this book, but I found it hard to follow at times…” some wind is taken out of its word-of-mouth appeal.
I have learned how easy it is to get wrapped up in covering my bases or in addressing every possible angle of a topic that I miss readers in the process. Most readers of my book don’t take any issue with my ideas, but some weren’t too happy about the amount of information I included. Though many readers were tracking with me, I’ve found that I sometimes warn new readers, who may be completely new to theology, about two chapters in particular that are a bit… dense. In other words, my desire to be thorough trumped my ability to connect with all of my intended readers.
We can pick up books from the library, look up information online, and hear authors talk about their books on the radio, therefore, if writers want readers to say, “I really need to own that book,” and to take the next step of saying, “All of my friends need to own that book too,” we need to get into the minds of our audience. This is an ongoing struggle to figure out the best way to connect our ideas with the preferences and needs of our readers.
It’s easy enough to think of an idea or concept that may appeal to a wide group of people, but to present that idea in a way that addresses the questions and concerns of a broad group of readers, meets a felt-need, walks readers through step-by-step, and prompts them to tell others is the holy grail of publishing—that is, if you ask me.
The next step…
Our next topic in this series will be the second thing that sells a lot of books: A Trusted Name with an Extensive Platform
Also in this series: Five Great Things That Don’t Sell a Lot of Books