How Do You Know What Will (or Will Not) Sell?

There is a mysterious magic embedded in the mythos of the publishing industry…the ability to pick successful books. I was recently asked “You say ‘no’ so often, how do you know when to say ‘yes?’”

I wish I could claim that every agent and publisher have a secret formula that we consult to know what will sell. Ask any group of us for that secret and we will all laugh because there is no “secret.” We have all picked winners, but we have also picked ones that didn’t work as well. However, there are some things we do rely upon when making our choices.


Soren Kierkegaard wrote that “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” Such is the nature of experience. We build and learn from our mistakes and our successes. The longer I’m in the business the signs of potential success are easier to read.

My first few months as an acquisitions editor were not stellar. I still have some of the proposals I presented to the Bethany House Publishers committee back in late ’92 and early ’93. It amazes me how patient Carol Johnson, my boss, was in those days. Eventually I got the hang of it and began finding and picking successful books.

I believe that a part of that experience comes with being widely read. Experience isn’t just having a resume with decades of years listed on it. The knowledge that comes with considerable reading can help anyone, of any age, get a handle on what works and what doesn’t.

The more you read, the better you know what is being published. Being aware of the marketplace is a huge leg up on the competition. In other words, don’t pitch a new book idea with a title of The Help, or American Sniper, or Gone Girl. Or don’t write in a genre in which you have no knowledge or understanding. (I once asked an author, who was writing a thriller, “What author is your favorite in this genre and compare your work to theirs for me.” Their answer was “Oh I don’t read thrillers. I don’t like them.”

Experience, in a sense, comes by living in the room where the action takes place. Living and breathing the industry, reading or sampling hundreds of books in all genres, both fiction and non-fiction. After a while, what was an impressionistic painting becomes still-life realism.


Instinct is not something that is easily taught. Did you know that the same editor who discovered Stephen King is the same editor who discovered John Grisham? (His name is Bill Thompson.) There is an innate skill that helps with picking the best. I can’t explain it. But there are times when you just know. This writer’s work is gasp-worthy. Or you sense in them the work ethic that is going to reap huge benefits in the long run.

Think of it in terms of a baseball scout trolling the dusty fields in the backwoods of America and other countries. They watch hundreds, even thousands, of players and their job is to find the best and brightest and give them a chance to be a part of the big stage someday.

So What? How Does That Help Me?

This is a legitimate question because it may not necessarily help you with pitching your book….at first glance. But actually it speaks directly to each writer who is working towards publication.

  1. Be aware of the marketplace
  2. Read widely. Beyond your comfort zone
  3. Try to figure out why that book is a bestseller and the other one isn’t…on the same topic
  4. Let other’s teach you
  5. Trust your gut. Sometimes that instinct is simple self-delusion, but often it can tell you that “this is the one.”


13 Responses to How Do You Know What Will (or Will Not) Sell?

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    Sandie Bricker April 13, 2015 at 6:04 am #

    Excellent post with several nuggets, reminders and inspiration for the writer AND the editor in me. I especially love the advice about READING so you know what’s out there in the marketplace. I’m going to post links to this page on my writer page as well as on the Bling site.

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    Beverly Brooks April 13, 2015 at 7:01 am #

    Absolutely – the reading piece resonates with me as well. Sometimes in our quest for publication, completion of our work, the desire to make a splash in the book world …

    we forget to take a book into our canoe and float on the pond a bit. Reading is essential and outside of our preferred genre brings new inspiration. Great post.

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    Jeanne Takenaka April 13, 2015 at 7:28 am #

    That reading outside my comfort zone challenged me. I read mostly CBA. I’ve been thinking reading more ABA for the depth of exposure might be a good idea.

    I appreciate your post, Steve.

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      Tammy April 13, 2015 at 10:56 am #

      Jeanne, I gathered books from the library in my genre as well, but look out, those ABA can produce 50 Shades of Red. I realized why I write for the CBA.

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        Jeanne Takenaka April 13, 2015 at 1:16 pm #

        Tammy, that’s the primary reason I’ve shied away from ABA. It’s a tricky thing to find a book that won’t contain content I want to avoid. I think maybe I’ll ask for recommendations from friends before I venture into that arena. 🙂

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          Jenelle. M April 13, 2015 at 4:35 pm #


          I mostly read CBA but also read ABA, and my mom has belonged to a book club for nearly a decade (all ABA) and has pasted along some outstanding stories to me! If you ever want to tell me a genre you like, I’d be happy to recommend some authors/books.

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    laurabennet April 13, 2015 at 8:12 am #

    Thanks, Steve. I always appreciate your honest and helpful insights that inform and encourage us. The baseball analogy is great. A little daunting since there are so many good writers out there, but helpful in perspective. I also like the idea of the work ethic because reading is so subjective. I love Grisham, but not King. Some people rave about authors whose books don’t thrill me while I devour other authors’ books, and tell someone who says, “Yeah, I didn’t really like that one.” But personal preference aside, hard work eventually pays off. I’d like to believe even in this field!

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    Bethany Kaczmarek April 13, 2015 at 8:49 am #

    I love this question. It’s all so subjective, but your advice here is what I’ve been doing. Reading, reading, reading–growing more and more determined. I’m burdened for Christian 20- to 30-somethings. They’re most definitely reading–and watching TV and movies (Revenge, Orphan Black, Fifty Shades, New Girl). There’s a whole genre out there for them that’s flying off the shelves in the general market, and the CBA seems to be MISSING them. These new adults are walking away from our churches, and they’re buying the books the world is offering: stories where people in their stage of life are out from under their parents’ faith and doubting and struggling and hooking up and moving in and leaving behind and de-churching.

    So I write for them. They’re the greatest mission field in America, because the whole time they’re leaving, they’re having spiritual conversations. I want to make the most of that. My gut, my experiences, the general market, and my reading (though I confess I won’t read the schmexiest New Adult fic) tell me to press on. I know what and write and why. And I’ll keep going.

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    Jenelle. M April 13, 2015 at 8:51 am #

    Bring on Monday, yahoo! What an encouraging post to get the writing week started.

    This confirmed that the slow and steady path is for me. Taking time to understand how and why my story is different from those in my genre and being able to present that clearly with confidence when the time comes.

    Thanks, Steve 🙂

    P.s– I was praying this morning about the challenges faced in an industry that’s so subjective. God reminded me that I’m to take it all one step at a time as to not get overwhelmed. This post is a wonderful example that there are many legit agencies that take their responsibility seriously, have a passion for story, and know their stuff to help guide writers. Thanks for keeping it real here!

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    Carolyn Miller April 13, 2015 at 1:38 pm #

    Thanks for your insights, Steve. I’ve read plenty of ABA books in my genre, the trick has been finding CBA authors, of whom I’ve become more aware in the past couple of years. I skip over the objectionable content, but still enjoy examining what makes their stories tick. Reading widely can only refine my own writing. Thanks again.

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    Cherrilynn Bisbano April 14, 2015 at 1:13 pm #

    Great information. I have been trying to read more fiction. As a non-fiction writer; this helps me with dialogue and story telling. Thank you for taking the time to write this.

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    Name* April 14, 2015 at 6:17 pm #

    Thank you Steve. Timely. (BTW, Will you be at the CSLewis Retreat end of Oct.??) LadyLori

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    Carla Jo Novotny May 8, 2015 at 10:51 pm #

    What I needed in a reduced state of being from ripped, torn, hard life texture that just needed time and work to resolve was not available in the thousands of books I had and limited thinking and feeling kept me from searching so I made it up over the years. And polished over more years. And then came the hard part of finding words to describe what I did.

    In the five Christian magazines I read monthly comes the repeating cry lately to get into personal relationship with G-d more and to love Him more. It is said like we can will it to be so. Or maybe we know how. Or maybe we just need to do more projects or read more.

    My work gives a “doing it” method. Did G-d allow the troubles, grief and pain to have this ready for now? Did He know I’d look for a way to touch Him and love Him more in the midst of numbing hardship or are they called challenges? Does He give the burning passion to share so almost every phone call with strangers ends up a focus group to practice on?

    Will the work be in the itty bitty percentage of chosen books for publication? We’ll see. But in the meantime I share the written basics and talk.

    How do we know what will sell? Reading a wide range of Christian magazines, pulling together my classical and average life experiences, and knowing what worked for my mature grown-up Christian in distress, low self when I asked, sought, and came close enough to knock on G-d’s door. What will sell? I’ll do my best to polish the project then you tell me.

    If it is not marketable I’ll probably just give it away and make speeches as I go along.

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