G is for Great

by Steve Laube

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“There are a lot of good manuscripts out there. What we want are those which are great.” I’ve said this may times but thought I should elaborate. Please note the following applies mostly to non-fiction projects.

When it comes to the non-fiction books that attract the major publishers I believe the author must have at least two of three “great” things:

Great Concept
Great Writing
Great Platform

Let’s look at the various combinations to see how this plays out.

Platform + Writing

These books are well written by a highly visible author. They get published but have modest sales. It may be that the concept or idea doesn’t resonate with the readers. It may be the author’s constituents are the only ones who buy a copy. I may be the topic is too academic for a commercial audience. But if you are great writer with a great platform, there is no question you will find a publisher who partner with you.

Platform + Concept

These books are often celebrity driven. The publisher and the author brain-storm for the right package. Or the author’s material is based on a great title from a sermon series or a particularly popular talk. Unfortunately the writing is weak for whatever reason. They converted a sermon series without much editing. Or they hired a ghost-writer who did their best under the time constraints they are put under. You get the idea. And you may have bought a book like this. Famous author with a great book title…but then you tried to read it and it felt forced or manufactured. (Disclaimer: That is not to say that all Platform+Concept books are poorly written. My attempt here is highlight great writing versus good.)

Concept + Writing

This is where most writers land. They aren’t famous, yet. They have a great concept and are an amazing writer. The combination can overcome a lack of platform in the right circumstances. I’ve seen it happen over and over again. We’ve frequently sold unpublished authors to a major publisher because the book idea is tremendous and the writing is stunning. (Our agency has dozens of fiction and non-fiction clients whose first book was sold by our agents.) And that should be an encouragement to anyone who is working on their first book. It is not easy but it can, and still does, happen.

Platform + Concept + Writing

There are those magical books where all three elements come together and create a bestseller that outsells even the wildest projections. Can you name a couple that, in your estimation, fit all three criteria?

Your Turn

Is there a broad stroke area that is missing in this overview?
Is this a helpful way to think about platform vs. no-platform?

16 Responses to G is for Great

  1. Avatar
    Diana Harkness July 29, 2013 at 4:04 am #

    Perhaps if academic books were not marketed as “academic” they would obtain more readership. I am not afraid of academic books so I read them like any other non-fiction. I don’t care if the author has a great following; I simply want them to be an expert in their field and able to communicate to non-experts. i also want the book to be priced like other non-fiction. I recently read a review of a book that looked interesting to read, but when I checked the price, it was $103. http://www.amazon.com/Ethics-Beginning-Life-phenomenological-Theological/dp/0199673969 For that price, I would expect it to have great artwork, but I suspect that it does not. So, to your three criteria, I think you need to add genre and price.

    • Avatar
      Steve Laube July 29, 2013 at 9:19 am #

      Diana, Some excellent observations! I had not thought of looking at this from the perspective of the consumer. This exercise is intended to express the perspective of the major publisher or the literary agent.

      Thus price would not be a consideration, unless it were a heavily illustrated book or one with 1,000 pages. Then the prospect of a book that expensive to produce would become a question.

      In addition, I think “Great Genre” would be an implicit part of the “Great Concept/Idea”. In other words the idea may be clever but it is in a category/genre of books that no one is buying.

  2. Avatar
    Rick Barry July 29, 2013 at 4:43 am #

    Thanks for an interesting and succinct summary, Steve. I would note that the first two “great” things will especially benefit from an agent’s or editor’s objective input. At conferences I have sat across tables from writers who were convinced their concept is magnificent and that that their writing will push that concept to stellar sales figures. Often, though, I sit there thinking, “There’s no way this project will fly. No one will buy it.” No matter how convinced a writer (including me!) might be concerning his idea’s greatness, a professional in the industry can provide either a reality check or encouragement the project deserves.

    • Avatar
      Steve Laube July 29, 2013 at 9:21 am #

      Rick,
      Exactly.
      It is an ugly thing to think or say, but we often must ask the question “Who cares?” when considering a new project. The author cares, that is obvious, but are there 10,000 other people who are as passionate, who could find this book if published, and who would be willing to buy it.

  3. Avatar
    Bethany Kaczmarek July 29, 2013 at 7:04 am #

    The combined experience and wisdom in your agency blows me away and keeps me in gear. I love to read News You Can Use and glean insight from posts like these. But THIS statement flat out filled me with hope and determination: “Our agency has dozens of fiction and non-fiction clients whose first book was sold by our agents.”

    Thank you for that.

    • Avatar
      Steve Laube July 29, 2013 at 9:25 am #

      It is very satisfying to discover an author, nurture their work and career, find the right publishing partner, and watch it flourish.

      I felt like a proud papa in 2012 when both Ronie Kendig and Ginny Yttrup walked up on stage to accept their Christy Awards for best fiction. Both were unpublished writers that I had the privilege to start on their journeys. And like a proud papa, my eyes watered with joy.

      • Avatar
        Rick Barry July 29, 2013 at 11:04 am #

        Since this is a blog and not Facebook, this is my best effort to “Like” your response, Steve.

  4. Avatar
    Shulamit July 29, 2013 at 11:08 am #

    Three thoughts come to mind.

    1. I’ve often felt that Platform *comes* from being published, if the author isn’t already well-known for their area of expertise.

    2. It reminds me of what a contractor once told me. There are three aspects of construction, and you can have any two: high quality, fast work, low price.

    Luckily, authors can manage to attain great concept, great writing, and great platform.

    3. There is one you may have missed. Great productivity. Publishers and agents seem pretty wary of taking on a one-hit-wonder, no matter how good the other three are.

    Thank you again, Steve, for another excellent blog post. Always helpful.

  5. Avatar
    Marci Seither July 29, 2013 at 2:12 pm #

    Great post Steve. I was wondering where marketing fits in or if it is a point all by itself? It seems that platform is a big topic, but it seems that the marketing aspect is getting to be as important to potential publishers as the writing.
    Thanks for your expertise on this topic.

    • Avatar
      Steve Laube July 29, 2013 at 2:44 pm #

      Marci,
      Depends on your definition of marketing. Implicit within “Platform” is the ability to reach a certain sized segment of the population. Social Media metrics, speaking engagements (size and frequency), traditional media outlets (regular radio show, TV, columns), and other similar things are the Platform. Each thing I mentioned could have “marketing” as facet.

      But to separate Marketing out as in, “I, the author, am a great self-marketer” would have to be defined.

      Many authors will put a Marketing section in their proposal if they have skills or outlets that would attract a publisher’s attention.

  6. Avatar
    Lynn Morrissey July 29, 2013 at 6:33 pm #

    Steve, you asked, so I’d say an example of P + C + W = bestseller magic would be Ann Voskamp’s One Thousand Gifts.

    I think it’s important for Christian authors not to leave God out of the equation. In the end, if He wants it published it will be.

    Thanks for a great blog!
    Lynn

  7. Avatar
    Pippa July 30, 2013 at 3:12 am #

    Hi,

    Thanks for this. Very interesting. The only thing I wonder is whether a truly great book should actually overturn the way we’ve always looked at things. To an extent this comes under concept, but it is a little bit more. I would say, for instance, that Germaine Greer’s ‘The Female Eunuch’ (whether you agree with it or not), did this.

    Do you – or others – agree?

    Pippa

  8. Avatar
    Peter DeHaan July 30, 2013 at 4:58 am #

    It’s encouraging to know that I don’t have to have all three elements. What I hear (either correctly or incorrectly) from too many camps is that concept and writing don’t matter if you lack platform.

  9. Avatar
    Chris Morris March 21, 2014 at 3:24 pm #

    It’s interesting to read your opinion on the books from people who have a Platform, distinctly because so many other voices seem to be saying that a platform is necessary to even have a chance today. I have read in two different places from authors I respect that, if I don’t have a social media or newsletter presence in the tens of thousands, I will never have an agent even sniff my proposal, no matter how amazing the concept or writing. Thanks for restoring some sense of hope to me, as I’m in the process of looking for an agent for a book right now.

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