[I posted a version of this article 521 weeks ago. Amazing how true the principles remain unchanged.]
There are many factors that go into the acquisition, development, and sale of a new book. But the majority of ideas never get to that point. I thought it might be helpful to review some of the most common issues we’ve run into.
1. You Won’t Do the Work
Writing a novel, a nonfiction work, or even a short article isn’t a casual enterprise. It takes hard work to do it well. Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Outliers, described the notion that it takes 10,000 hours of work before finding success. While it isn’t an exact formula, there is truth to this assertion.
Here is the math: If you work at your writing craft for 20 hours a week for 50 weeks, it will equal one thousand (1,000) hours x 10; and the calculation reveals nearly ten years of hard work to feel like you have a chance.
Unfortunately, we run into writers who have dashed off something during a lunch break and think it is worth millions.
2. You Are Hard of Hearing
In other words, you won’t listen to critiques and suggestions and are unteachable. I cannot count the number of times I’ve made the effort to provide a few suggestions in a letter to a prospective author only to have them fire back with an angry missive questioning my intelligence or my Christian faith. Or there are those who simply refuse to accept editorial input, claiming the editor is incompetent, or worse.
A writer once cold-called me by phone and pitched their idea (despite our guidelines saying not to do that). I gently suggested the title needed help, and they bristled a little. Then they unveiled more about their story, and I had to suggest that it would be a tough sell to base a novel on a 6th-century Egyptian copper scroll that claims Jesus was married and had children. The writer got angry and begin defending the authenticity of this scroll and telling me I needed to open my mind. Suffice it to say that the call ended quickly thereafter.
3. You Aren’t Ready
I thought of titling this section “You Aren’t Good Enough,” but that wouldn’t be fair or nice. See number one above. It is a frequent error to submit a book proposal and sample chapters before it is well crafted and critiqued.
This is a danger of taking a first-time project to a writers conference and pitching it before it is ready. A “false positive” (an editor or agent saying to send the proposal after the conference) gives the impression that it is ready when the agent or editor is really offering the opportunity to look at it outside the pressure of a conference. It doesn’t mean they are offering a contract. That doesn’t mean you don’t attend that conference! Instead, it means that you view your pitches as “practice,” not as a “sales exercise.” At least not until you’ve “done the work.”
For a nonfiction author, especially, it can be that while the idea is good, the platform from which they speak and minister is not “big enough.” It takes time to build that visibility, but the publishers aren’t going to wait in most cases.
4. Your Idea Has Already Been Done
This can be painful. You may not realize that your storyline is already in a forthcoming publisher’s catalog. Or your nonfiction idea that filled a niche has just been published by a well-known author.
For example, a few years ago I was looking at a marvelous proposal (well-written by an author with a modest but relatively successful platform) on a particular topic that would resonate with many readers. That same week I saw a large ad for Max Lucado’s new book on that same topic. That is what is called a “category-killer.” The popularity of Lucado made it very hard for another book on that topic to come out for a while. So I had to turn away what was a wonderful book.
Or to refer to the example in number two above, a novel called The DaVinci Code made the same suggestions about Jesus. In other words, “It’s been done.”
At the same time there is a continual need for a novel or non-fiction book with a new twist or a new direction or a new voice. This is what publishers and agents are looking for. That special something that makes us say “Ooooo. That’s interesting!” There may be room for something like that.
5. Agents and Editors Are Blind to Your Genius
I readily admit that I don’t always get it right, and there are some that got away. This business is more an art than a science. We have to learn to trust our instincts. And most of the time those instincts are spot on. However, a few get away for whatever reason.
The bottom line is that if you do the work, have a teachable spirit, are fully prepared, and come with a unique idea, number five on the list shouldn’t be a problem.