When you submit your proposal to an agent or publishing house, you may wonder how they make their decisions as to which books to reject and which to accept. Obviously there are numerous considerations that vary from person to person, from publisher to publisher. But there is a simple three-tiered approach we all use to evaluate the viability of a project:
1. The Idea
2. The Execution
3. The Author Platform
Generally, you’ve got to be strong in all three areas in order to sell your proposal. There are always exceptions: You might be extremely strong in two of the areas and get away with being a little weaker in the third. In fiction, the idea and execution are primary; the author platform is still important but not nearly as important as the writing. In nonfiction, the author platform and the idea are of equal importance, and the execution (the writing itself) becomes the third consideration.
Pretty self-explanatory, right? The concept itself must turn heads. For example, you could say your concept is “A book about communication in marriage.” Yawn. Low marks in the idea category. But consider what Gary Chapman said: “What if we could learn our partner’s love language and unlock the secret to love that lasts?” Now that’s a fresh idea. It sparks interest, it compels people to want to hear more.
Take a look at your idea, and how you’re phrasing it. Does it sound fresh and exciting—or like a hundred other books already out there?
This is all about the writing. Plenty of people can string a few words together. But when you put your words on a page, do they sing? The craft of writing is exactly that—a craft. Like any craft, it requires learning, practice, apprenticeship, dedication. Have you done what it takes to make your writing worthy of public exposure prior to submitting it for publication?
In the fiction queries I receive, the execution is the biggest reason for rejection. Some people have terrific ideas for stories that sound like they’re going to knock my socks off. But when I start to read, I realize this is probably the first draft of the first book they’ve ever tried to write, and they haven’t actually taken the time to develop their craft prior to submission. (Truthfully, it bums me out, because often the ideas are really good.)
Folks, ideas really are a dime a dozen, so it’s not all about the idea. You’ve got to be a writer. And the fact that you’ve always wanted to write a novel doesn’t mean you’re qualified for the job, any more than always wanting to play pro football qualifies you for the Broncos startling lineup on Sunday. You’ve got to get yourself to training camp first. The execution—the quality of the writing—is crucial, especially for fiction.
The Author Platform
Your platform refers to the means by which YOU will help sell your book by your presence in the media and/or the public sphere, or at least within the audience you hope to reach with your book. Elements of a strong platform can include:
a Previous books published with high sales numbers
a Numerous articles published, whether national, local or specialized
a Appearance on television or radio with significant proven audience
a Frequent or regular speaking engagements
a Regular contact with your target audience, e.g. a newsletter
a A blog or website with proven track record
a Notoriety or authority within your area of expertise
The key to platform is your target market and what you are doing to reach them. It’s smart to begin building your platform well before you hope to be published—years, even. If you’re just setting out to build a platform, you can start a blog, write articles for publication, and begin working on establishing yourself as a speaker. Teach Bible studies, lead a retreat, speak at a women’s luncheon—whatever you have to do. Establish yourself as an authority on your topic.
Look critically at your proposal and manuscript—better yet, have someone else do it for you—and make an honest evaluation as to how you’re faring on the three tiers: Idea, Execution, and Platform. Whatever is lacking, set out to improve it. And don’t worry about how much time it will take. Contrary to what some people are saying, the publishing industry isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.
How are you doing on the three aspects of publishing readiness?
Great post, Rachelle! One to tape to the wall above my desk. How am I doing? Well…
* The idea for the next novel I’m going to pitch…what if a dude realizes he has a gift of healing, and then LOSES it? And what if this dude is a prisoner in the land of his enemy? Love to hear what people think…appealing or appalling?
* Execution – I think I can tell a good story, but the style’s a little archaic, which is intentional. Not Edwardian, but the opening scenes are more relaxed than is current. I like to get to know the characters before putting them in a vise. Or killing them. Just seems more polite.
* Platform – well, the blog’s numbers are rising steadily, and I now have 350 (count ’em) followers on Twitter, with one or five new ones every day. I still haven’t the faintest idea how to utilise Facebook.
Loses it? Misplaced temporarily? Or lost forever because healing is God’s job, not his?
See, Andrew, you’ve got me wondering.
Ah, Shirlee, now that would be telling! The nice thing is that the book’s already written. I let it sit for a few years to see if I still liked it.
“More polite.” Thanks for the giggle 🙂
Well Andrew, your style could be considered archaic, unless it works! In that case, you’re brilliant and nobody cares whether you followed a rule or not.
And getting to know the character who ends up dead is only important insofar as that character is integral to the emotional impact of the story. In most detective, suspense & thriller novels, one or more people end up dead but they’re just collateral damage; they contribute to the suspense by increasing the stakes for our hero or heroine, whether they’re a cop or detective trying to solve the crime, or a regular person trying not to become “next” on a killer’s list. I like your idea of being more “polite” by getting to know them before killing them. Haha.
Where’s your novel, so I can read it?! You write memorable characters, and you keep the plot moving. I haven’t read “Blessed Are the Pure in Heart” for awhile, but I remember it.
*Yes, it does seem “more polite” to get to know characters before killing them off. It’s only considerate. 🙂 Thanks for the laugh.
Peggy, I can send you a PDF. I hope you’ll enjoy it!
* I’ve always rather disliked the practice in detective stories of setting up a ‘straw man’ as a victim whose murder has to be solved. There should be some exposition of character so that each death brings out a sense of pathos. I subscribe to John Donne’s dictum, “Ask not for whom the bell tolld; it tolls for thee.”
* Same goes for villains. There is good and bad mixed in each of us, and to show that a ‘bad’ character has the capacity for kindness makes a story deeper. Look at Darth Vader; making him a boilerplate bad Guy would have made Star Wars far less interesting.
Rachelle, I really appreciate your suggestion to write about my platform in more narrative than list/resume form. It’s so refreshing to know that publishers want to see how I’m connecting with people, not simply what my numbers are on any given day.
Yes, typically we need both the bullet points for easy skimming, and narrative to convey the “story” of your platform.
Thanks for an enlightening post, Rachelle. Although I continue to fall short on platform, as I have yet to establish one, I’m feeling confident about idea and
And yes, Andrew, I’m intrigued.
Thank you, Lara…the book’s done, and has been for several years. I didn’t know if the basic premise was viable or a yawner, so I never query’d it.
My platform needs help. But I’m finding myself. I’ve fallen in love with Instagram. I believe in my novels’ ideas and execution, as far as it depends on me. I entered my second novel in a writing contest recently, and though my scores may not bring a smile to anyone’s faces, they did mine. I scored 99, 84, 32. The 32 didn’t even make me sad, not one tear, because two high scores were consistent. And though I didn’t final, that brings me great hope that I’m heading in the right direction. And my skin’s toughening. I’m making progress. 🙂
Shelli, it’s funny how contest scores can be all over the board! That has happened to me as well. Good for you, letting that 32 roll off your back!
I had contest scores come back like that, too! So funny how it does that.
That whole tough skin this is…well…tough! LOL
Good for you, Shelli! Entering a contest takes guts, and you have a great mindset. Hopefully, there was some gold you could mine from the low-scoring judges! 🙂
Definitely, Jeanne 🙂
You know, my answers on these seem to fluctuate daily, depending on my emotions about writing on that day. Ha! I believe the idea of my novel is appealing and interesting – an young Irish-American girl returns to her mother’s home-village to teach, only to discover secrets swirling around her mother’s reputation and reason for leaving Ireland. Now she must work to clear her mother’s – and her own – name. (I’m still working on my pitch LOL).
As far as the execution…I have also entered in to a few contests. The most recent I submitted a portfolio with samples from my fiction and non-fiction pieces. The feedback was that I write with an engaging voice, and the strongest portion of the portfolio was the fiction. So, I welcomed that, and was a bit surprised – albeit pleasantly – by it.
All that to say, I do believe the execution is there – but I’m the one that wrote it. 😀 I’m also plagued by the gnawing thought that what if my writing is like that one tone-deaf person at an American Idol audition who truly believes they can sing. Haha!
I really think I won’t know where I am with the first 2 elements until I start putting it out there and getting more feedback.
As for my platform, it’s there but could probably use some beefing up.
You’re right, it’s really hard to know whether your own writing is strong enough. We just can’t be very objective about our own work!
Thank you for this information. I have a question. What if the author has been indie publishing (and doing well at it) but now they’d like to go the traditional route. Will they be able to transition over to traditional publishing? In other words, will publishing houses see that as a negative or positive at first blush? (Aside from quality, and I know they must have the three legs you just described).
This is specific to my situation. I have books I could self-publish but I’ve been holding off in hopes to publish them with a traditional publisher. Yet, I could be creating a following by having some of these books out there.
Good question, would love to hear the answer.
Hi Norma.The fact that an author has self-published is neither a positive or negative across the board. If your numbers are respectable, selling at least 5,000 units of each book, then it’s a positive. (That number will vary depending on who you talk to.) Less than that, it could be a negative. But some publishers just won’t care about the self-pubbed books if they really like the new one you’re pitching.
However, one thing I’ve learned from experience is that writers can have successful self-publishing careers, particularly if they write genre fiction, publishing dozens of books and making good money… and never realize that the quality of their writing isn’t strong enough to interest a traditional publisher. They may be hiring a freelance editor for copyediting, but there’s nobody to tell them the hard truths about their writing, and they’re not working with the kind of editor who can help them become better writers with every book they write. So they are often surprised when their submissions to publishers come back with consistent “no’s”. I have no idea if this would be your situation; I imagine when you search for an agent, you’ll learn whether your writing is strong enough or needs more work.
Rachelle, thank you for your thorough reply. It helps me gain perspective and also answers the question I’ve stewed over for a couple of years. Thanks so much.
Great post, Rachelle. I’ve learned that my best ideas come when I run them past others and we brainstorm them out. 🙂 I find one of the trickiest things is that what I may think is a fresh idea an agent or editor has seen numerous times before.
*My execution is improving, as is my platform. My platform is growing steadily, if not exponentially. 🙂
Anna Taylor Sweringen
Thanks so much for this informative post!
How am I doing on the three aspects of publishing readiness?
I don’t know. I think my ideas are quite good, unique plots and niches I find few people else writing in. Hopefully my writing is significantly better now with 22 items self-published. That’s hard to judge, however. What little feedback I get from anyone is positive, but it’s really not much feedback. When I seek out beta readers I generally receive silence in return, and life won’t let me take part in a critique group right now. My platform is non-existent, and I don’t see that changing any time soon.
*Idea: Well, I really don’t know. When the idea for a novel comes, I’m like, “Wow, this is huge. Fresh material. Never seen.” A week later, “Hmm. Maybe not exactly huge, but it’s still good. Very good, in fact.” A month later, “Someone has written something similar. He just didn’t add this and this.” The ‘this’ could be the separating factor, if well executed, so…
* Execution: I’ve heard the comment, “You are a very good writer” more times than I should take note. The more I receive them, the more I realize how poor I am. It mirrors something Watchman Nee said about receiving more light of the word to realize how dark our souls were…
* Platform: I shouldn’t really talk about this, other than noting I’ve been blogging for almost one year.
Reading this post hours after I landed my first official rejection letter should say something.
Building a platform for marketing is my next point of focus. I brought up my Roman history site in mid-August, but it took a while for it to rise in the Google search results so people would find it. It’s there now. The interesting thing is the number of international visits: 16 different countries with 8 in Europe and ranging from Great Britain to Australia to Singapore.
* Do CBA publishers pay much attention to whether platform might promote international sales?
Mrs. Ashby, it’s so good seeing your comment here. Trust you are getting better and better.
Thanks, Michael. I’m moving pretty slow, but otherwise I feel almost normal. God is good!
Carol, international sales aren’t a huge driver of CBA books. But it’s so cool that you have an international audience!