Chip MacGregor

June 15, 2016

Ask the Agent: How can I make my book successful?


Recently I had someone write to ask me about a couple novels I represented that did well in the market. Specifically, she asked, “What did the publisher do to help make each book a success? And are there lessons I can take this will help me succeed with my own novel?” I can think of a number of things that were done well, and I think they offer a model for others to follow…

First, in both cases the authors spent a couple years building a readership for her writing through websites. That took a lot of patient work and investment by the authors, and it helped immensely (and I realize that’s not a publisher activity, but I bring it up because it wouldn’t be fair to talk about the success of the novels without that fact). Both authors worked tirelessly at marketing, which also helped. I’m one of those who realizes writers don’t get into this business to become “marketers” — they want to be writers, so investing a bunch of time into marketing is a sacrifice. Both of these authors made that sacrificed and did the hard work to make their books succeed.

Second, each author wrote a very good novel. The publisher’s role in that was to push the writers to make their books better. The editors weren’t satisfied to let the novels be adequate — they pushed them toward greatness. So I think the publisher really believed in the books. That may sound trite, but I think it makes a difference. A publisher can’t believe in every book — no matter what they say, the lists are too long, and there’s only so much time to invest. They need to spend the bulk of their energies on their current bestsellers, since that’s close to being a guaranteed source of income. It’s tough to invest a lot of time, money, and manpower on a newer author who may or may not pan out. But with these novels, they got the manuscripts in early, then asked their sales team to read them. In both cases I know the publishers themselves actually read the books and liked them, since we talked about the stories. All of that internal buzz seemed to get the company more enthused. In one case they flew the author out to meet the sales team — which, no matter how much the publisher claims doesn’t make a difference, seems to generate enthusiasm. It was clear their marketing director was really behind the book. In the other case, the marketing team created a special film of the author talking to the sales staff about her book — and that allowed everyone to feel as though they’d all met her personally. The author followed up with various staff people, to make sure they had all the ammunition they needed.

Third, the publisher pushed it hard with book clubs. I know they twisted arms to get Books A Million to make one of the books the inspirational book club choice, and they spent time and money getting the other book some advertisements on targeted websites, on BookBub, and on GoodReads. I know they made sure they got review copies out to sources early, and asked them to review each book as a debut.

Fourth, they made the books available for a very low price on Amazon for a short time, which garnered a bunch of readers. That might seem odd, but it certainly seemed to work in this case. (I’m not always a fan of giving away books, since it tends to devalue the work, but I think free or very low priced ebooks can be one part of an overall strategy.)

Fifth, they actually spent money on the books. The publisher bought ads and tried to push them online, and demonstrated that they were going to do all they could to make these books work. They weren’t going to just throw them out there to see if they worked or not — instead, they had a marketing strategy to generate success. And I should note here that the authors also spent time, money, and energy — neither simply sat back and felt the publisher would take on the entire work of promoting the book.

Sixth, in both cases they made a point of working with the author. For example, when one author asked for contacts so she could do media pitches, the publisher shared a list of helpful names and information. When we suggested the proposed cover didn’t work, they listened and worked with us to create a cover we could be excited about (which showed they believed the author knew her audience). In fact, I think they tested the final cover with readers before they chose it. And when the other author had ideas for places the sales or marketing folks could go to, the marketing and sales people followed up and talked with those folks. The publisher knew one of the authors had a big following on her website, so they actually invested in the site and helped get her “community” behind her. This is something we don’t see all the time — a commitment from both sides to work together fully.

Finally, the publisher kept it up longer than three weeks (the normal pattern we’ve come to expect on contemporary marketing plans). Each campaign probably went about 12 weeks, and they kept us informed what they were doing, so we could jump in and help. Often I find publishers will, for example, talk with a magazine but not tell us — which is silly, since we sometimes have connections where we might have some influence. This publisher teamed with us and listened, even made us part of the discussion.

Of course, there were other things that happened, and maybe we got some dumb luck (I’m one of those convinced that “luck” plays a key role in publishing success.) Still, the end results were excellent: Both books worked. Both hit their respective bestseller lists. Both authors started with successes. Can you expect that on every novel? No, of course not. But it can be done, and often it just needs planning, clarity, hard work, and someone following up to make sure the plan gets implemented. I hope you find that helpful.

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