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The Difficulty of Finding Story Ideas That Publishers Like

In today’s ever-changing publishing industry, oftentimes writers end up feeling that getting a traditional publisher’s attention is almost impossible.

Sometimes we wish we could be a fly on the wall in an editor’s office so that we could hear what kinds of stories they’re looking for, what interests them, or what doesn’t.

Because honestly, figuring out the “right” story or a break-in book feels like a shot in the dark. We go to all the work of writing a story, only to be given one excuse or another (See this post: Are Agents & Publishers Too Picky?)

Naomi Rawlings said this in a recent comment: “Publishers say they want fresh stories, but if your story is too fresh, they'll say they don't have a reader base and it isn't marketable enough. On the flip side, if you have a story set in a tried and true setting, say a western or prairie or Alaskan gold rush, a new writer may well hear his/her story isn't original enough and the industry is glutted. So what should new writers write to get publisher attention?”

We get mixed messages that leave us confused, hurt, and maybe even angry.

So, what’s a writer to do? What stories are publishers looking for? Do they really want fresh or do they want the tried-and-true?

First, let me just say, I’m not a publisher (surprise, I know!), and I don’t have any connections to publishers (except the one I’m contracted with). So, I’m not trying to defend the traditional publishing industry, not trying to sway anyone to consider it (if they’re happily self-pubbed), and not saying I like things the way they are.

The fact is, even as a contracted author, I still have a difficult time finding ideas that my publisher thinks will translate into a saleable book. My agent recently sent a new proposal to my publisher with six brand new book ideas I’d researched. But during a committee meeting, my editors were able to easily toss several of the ideas into the already-been-done and readers-won’t-like-this piles. And these were stories I thought were original but still ones readers would enjoy.

But the thing is, my publisher tracks sales on my books on a daily basis. They watch closely and count every sale in every possible format (paperback, ebooks, bookclubs, etc). Based on the statistics they can see overall patterns in what their particular readers are buying, what they like, and what doesn’t sell so well. They do take chances from time to time, and some of those books do well and other don’t. In this tight economy, they can’t afford to go out on a limb too often.

In other words, publishers are trying to print books that the majority of their readers will like. And while it’s not always easy to predict, they look at sales figures and the market to help them make decisions.

So what’s my point?

First, those of us seeking traditional publication need to pay attention to what kinds of books are commercially viable. We’ll need to be aware of what’s selling and why. We’ll have to keep the readers' needs in mind as we sift through our story ideas.

Second, we can stay fresh and original with the-tried-and-true. Fellow Bethany House author, Anne Mateer recently finished reading my new book. She sent me an email and pointed out how the basic plots of our books are similar. Her debut book, Wings of a Dream, has a young woman taking care of a widower’s four children (similar to my plot in The Preacher’s Bride). And our second books have some elements that are the same too. But . . . even though we both have plot commonalities, we’ve dressed up our books differently. Our voices and styles are unique. We’ve each added our special flavor to our stories. In other words, we can take well beloved plots and make them stand out.

Third, we have to be market-savvy but also tell the story we’re passionate about. When we write a well-crafted, riveting, page-turning novel that flows out of the passions in our heart, then even if it falls slightly outside the box, publishers might be willing to give the book a try. Sometimes, story trumps all. However, when bigger traditional publishers decide they aren’t able to take the financial risk, then we might consider a smaller niche publisher or even self-publishing.

My Summary: Writers pursuing traditional publication will need to consider the financial constraints inherent to the industry—which means we can’t write just anything and hope for a contract. But the beauty of today’s ever-expanding technology is that publication options are growing. Writers don’t have to “fit” the traditional standards in order to see their book in readers’ hands.

What about you? Do you think your books are fresh enough but still tried-and-true? Or does your book fall outside of what most larger traditional publishers are willing to take a risk on?

P.S. Don't miss the opportunity to WIN A SIGNED COPY OF MY NEW BOOK, The Doctor's Lady! Head over to Trivia Question #3 for your chance to enter the drawing! Deadline is Thursday at 10 pm.


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