Writing Books: From Indie Stacks to Traditional Racks

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Photo: Tamarcus Brown on Unsplash


October 19, 2017

Earlier this week, Publisher’s Weekly ran a story by Sally Lodge about a self-published novelist whose book attracted the attention of an agent. The agent signed the author as a client, and later negotiated a deal with a renown traditional publisher. As I read the article, I quickly noticed 10 things the author did well that likely landed her the deal. I posted a list of those on Facebook, and expound on them here.

Those 10 factors can help any self-publishing author create great books. In addition, they may generate interest from agents and traditional publishers. Authors who are not interested in self-publishing can also glean some tips worth emulating in their projects.

The author had:

1.    A great cover. We say “don’t judge a book by its cover” yet we do it all the time. Covers sell books – or not. Your font, title, text arrangement, “art” (photos and illustrations), and art placement all play a role in making or breaking a cover. Ask yourself:

  • Illustrations – Do these reflect the theme, genre, or targeted age group? Children’s books use illustrations designed to spark kids’ interest and imagination, for example.
  • Photos – Are they well-targeted to audiences? Do they enhance or detract from the theme? For example, many romance novels boast covers with a couple who are obviously smitten with each other. And mysteries and suspense novels feature covers that convey danger or intrigue.
  • Design balance – Art and text (including font) should balance each other, resulting in an attractive blending of those elements.

Tip: there are contests for book covers. Check out some of those – like the one sponsored by the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association – to see what criteria befits an award-winning cover. That criteria should be visible in yours.

2.    Interesting characters. Characters in novels and short stories should evoke love, courage, hate, fear, outrage, delight, scorn or any other emotion you want them to evoke. Make the characters so interesting readers will want to know about their lives and exploits.

3.    Intriguing setting. Setting not only draws readers into the time and place, it also keeps readers anchored there throughout the novel, making the difference between whether a reader tosses a book or stays up well into the night to finish it.

4.    High adventures/stakes. Suspense and romantic fiction are two genres where high adventure/stakes are essential to the book. This characteristic draws readers in, fueling interest in the characters (heroes and villains) and book’s outcome. If a reader says “I could care less,” he or she will abandon reading. You will have missed the chance for any positive word-of-mouth promotion, and/or potential sales.

5.    Relatable themes. Readers seek relatable themes. They actually buy or borrow books based on the theme. Theme goes beyond genre. For example, the genre may be romance and the key theme love, but another major theme may be forgiveness; in order for a character to embrace love he or she may first have to forgive a past or present acquaintance. That’s a relatable theme for potential readers with similar challenges. For example, last year I bought Rice and Rocks by Sandra L. Richards after noticing a post about it in my twitter feed. The cover was appealing. But the theme of celebrating diversity/embracing one’s culture attracted my attention, as did the title’s play on “rice and beans.” I love, love, love rice and beans, and I’ve eaten the dish as prepared by several cultures. I pre-ordered the book, even though I did not know the author. I’m glad I did!

For nonfiction, think of theme as a “felt need” – i.e., what short- or long-term real-life issue is addressed that offers readers information, inspiration, advice, etc.?

6.    Well-written prose. Finishing a book is a great accomplishment. But if you have not thoroughly revised it, it’s not ready for publication. The author revised her novel numerous times before self-publishing.

7.    Numerous reviews. Sure reviews are just opinions, but opinions sell books. And word-of-mouth remains a key type of promotion. Intisar Khanani’s work generated hundreds of reviews.

8.    Reader connections. Where do you get those reviews? From bloggers, other authors, friends, etc. The author connected with bloggers and other readers online, including on Goodreads, a site many authors use for this purpose.

9.    Impressive “sales”. The author’s books were available online. Obviously, they did well! Sales matter – whether the numbers represent free downloads, or books purchased. Larger numbers prove: 1) a book’s quality is superior; 2) the book met a fiction or nonfiction need; and, 3) the author likely conducted promotional activities that generated sales. Traditional publishers want to know you’ll partner with them in marketing your book, increasing its sales potential.

10.    More books. Most publishers usually don’t want a “one book wonder” – someone content to write just one book in a lifetime. Rather, they seek authors who are interested in writing many. Intisar Khanani had written a number of books. Her efforts proved: 1) she could write a book more than once; and, 2) she had other ideas and knew how to execute them.

 Other Success Stories

It’s worth noting: while not as frequent as many self-published authors would like, other authors also have experienced the thrill of seeing a book picked up by a traditional publisher.

I asked some of my Facebook friends to share their books that have been released by traditional publishers, or information about other authors with similar experiences. I only gave them a couple hours to respond, so this is a really short list.

  • Norma Jarrett noted her “Sunday Brunch led to a three book deal (Sunday Brunch, Sunday Brunch Diaries and Sweet Magnolia).”
  • Cheryl Carter reminded me her self-published book “Chasing God and the Kids Too was picked up by Revell.”

Other responses:

  • Children’s nonfiction author Annette M. Whipple reminded me of William Paul Young’s self-publishing journey that ended up with a traditional deal and a recent movie.
  • Doug Trouten, University of Northwestern—St. Paul journalism professor shared an article highlighting Amanda Hocking’s amazing success, and this list.
  • Wendy Boston – budding novelist, and my former Utica College roomie directed me to Jamellah Ellis and Kimberly Lawson Roby.
  • Finally Kelly Huckaby offered up Ruth Soukup’s name. (Note: Kelly was the webmaster for my award-winning magazine for writers, SPIRIT-LED WRITER. I highly recommend her. If you need a content manager or virtual assistant contact her!)

Chances are you can think of other authors who books moved from the indie stacks to traditional racks!

Will your self-published book get picked up by a publisher? The chance is slim. But as this post reflects, it can happen. But it will neither thrive as an Indie endeavor nor attract traditional publishers’ attention if it doesn’t exemplify the 10 characteristics above.

Lisa A. Crayton is an award-winning freelance writer, multi-published author, conference speaker…and more. She loves helping writers, and challenging them to achieve their goals and dreams! Connect with her on Facebook.


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