Stories that Sell

The following is a brief overview of Jerry’s notes on a presentation by Paula Munier at Writer’s Digest 2015. For more information, please join the Ubergroup and seek out our pinned “trade publishing industry information” thread.

Paula Munier gave a seminar on the most common reasons she’s been given when publishing houses turn down books she represents, as well as the most commonly requested changes.

She made a point of saying none of these things are hard and fast ‘rules.’ They are merely indications of what is currently unpopular. Doing one of these things is not necessarily a deal-breaker, so much as a strike against you, and it may be worth your while to consider how many disadvantages you want to work against.

Reasons Books Do Not Sell:

  • Not high-concept enough. A solution may be to try a smaller house.
  • Doesn’t fit neatly into a genre. “Genre” here includes known subgenres, such as dystopian+thriller, paranormal+romance, or easy-to-picture crossovers, like scifi+western, historical+fantasy. If your mashup is elaborate but the story is good, a solution may be a digital-only initial run.
  • The book is too long or too short. There is a 90,000 word ‘sweet spot’ for debut novels and YES, this includes fantasy, scifi, and historical. If you are over 100k… good luck. Romance and YA can be marginally shorter (80-85k) and anything under 70k is almost certainly a dealbreaker unless it is MG.
  • ‘The pacing was off.’
  • ‘It’s old-fashioned.’ ‘Pacing’ and ‘edgy’ are the biggest buzzwords currently.
  • The stakes just weren’t high enough. No fix but to re-write.
  • A similar book failed. Joining publisher’s marketplace to have an idea of what is currently selling is an option, but if a similar book right before you fails while you’re already on submission… there’s some rewriting and a title/angle change in your future.
  • The protagonist doesn’t drive the action. Rewrite.
  • There are too many POVs. If you are writing in first person, cut back to one. If you are writing in third person, use limited only, one POV per scene, and cut back to six major POVs per book.

The most commonly requested changes:

  • Can you build it around a holiday? Make the mystery/romance/adventure take place over Christmas, and suddenly it’s perfect for the December display table at Barnes and Noble. A touching contemporary novel about a single dad and son/daughter is a Father’s Day cash cow.
  • Can you make the protagonist female?
  • Can you give the heroine a dog? (I am serious.)
  • Can you sex it up?
  • Can you lighten up the ending?

A few other comments Paula made on her process included a breakdown of how she found the clients on her list:

  • 38% Conferences and Workshops
  • 18% the genre association (RWA, SFWA, that sort of thing depending on your genre)
  • 15% references
  • 10% queries
  • 5% contests

She emphasized knowing your USP, or Unique Selling Proposition. Why is your story different? Find a sentence that explains it pithily: “It’s like x, but y.” “The only trouble is…” or “It’s x meets y.” Know your logline. Make the rounds of conferences and networking. Line up your referrals and exploit social media.