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.


  1. Bingo - you've succinctly described the Holy Grail. I've written a romance about residents at a retirement center. Books like Water for Elephants, Driving Miss Daisy and The Notebook were about people's lives before they arrived at an retirement center/nursing home. This one is about live AT the retirement center. "I enjoyed reading your story/pages, but it's not right for me." That's what I hear time and again.

    I really believe in the story and I guess I'll never give up on it, because I feel like it's the story I was born to tell, but I'm in the process of adjusting my focus in another direction. Maybe if someone falls in love with something else I write, this story will finally find a home.

  2. This is another reason why I self publish because I don't need a publisher to tell me what my readers want I ask them. I write what I love and they love it too. When you think about it everything has been done, but I put my own twist on it and have found an audience. And it's the same audience that other fantasy writers have. What a lot of publishers don't realize is that readers are smart and they love to read everything in their genre of choice, but it still needs to be good and interesting.

  3. I think my story has a new twist but then I'm also sure that I can never be objective about it either. I really like my story and would live for people to read it and love it as much as I do. There are parts that still make me cry when I'm reading to edit!'s good to be reminded of a publisher's perspective once in a while. Do you ever stop wanting to say, "If you'd just read it you would love it!" ?And now is that just being arrogant? :)

  4. I want to tell stories that will be loved by as many people as possible. In that regard, having a publisher and editor able to advise me on how best to achieve that is invaluable. Even if I were self-publishing, I'd want to be able to tell stories that have that kind of range.

    When I get a new idea for a book, the first thing I ask myself is "will anyone want to read this?" If I think it seems too out there, or if it's too similar to what's already on the market, I look for ways to make the story and characters more enjoyable and appealing.

    I find that a good way to ensure that a book is appealing to as many people as possible is to work out the human factor.

    No-one can empathise with someone fighting vampires or travelling the world searching for a lost love, because that's just not part of the average person's daily life.

    But if that vampire hunter is trying to hold down a normal job, or struggling to keep a relationship going despite his girlfriend's protests that he's insane, then there's something readers can relate to. Maybe the forlorn lover has decided to give up on her career or education to go searching the world. Maybe she becomes aware of another opportunity that will become available on her journey. People can understand the desire to leave behind a job they don't like in order to pursue a dream or new chance at success.

  5. I think this is the hardest part of writing for me--finding the "right" story to tell. Not a good story or even a great story, but the right story at the right time in the right voice. For me, that still takes practice! Like you, Jody, I come up with what I think are brilliant plots that get immediately tossed aside. But it just means that to find those one or two gems in the rough, I must pan through a lot of rocks that appear to be the real thing, first.

  6. And this is why so many great books have a hard time finding the right publisher. Truly original works require publishers smart enough to recognize their potential and brave enough to take a risk. Sure, it's safer to publish a book that is similar to a previous hot seller. An original book is more likely to flop. We an environment where many flops are allowed so the original gems have a chance.

  7. Good morning, everyone! If you haven't read agent Rachelle Gardner's post yet today, I think it's very encouraging. It just shows the variety of rejections that publishers give to books that have gone on to sell. So another point I'd add is to persevere! Sometimes an idea that doesn't appeal to one publisher, might to another!

  8. I have no lack of ideas for stories or completed manuscripts. Some have been pitched, rejected, and returned to the closet. Others never left the closet, because the time doesn't seem right--yet. If nothing else, I am a better writer now for having worked on those books in the closet.

  9. Oh boy, this is what I'm going through right now. I have several characters in my head and I'm trying to figure out where to place them in history and what the conflicts are so that I can send a few ideas to my editor. At the same time, I'm super nervous that they'll all be tossed aside.

  10. I think this all goes back to writing the book you love versus following a trend. My historical romance is in a tough time period, but I love it, I've worked hard on it, and will try to sell it. That's all you can do until you find another book that you love just as much to run it through the gamut. I'd like to think at some point things work out. Maybe not in the way you intended, but at least set the groundwork for something else.

  11. I don't believe it has to be a simple case of writing the book you love versus writing the book that follows a trend.

    As writers, we can find a balance between our passion and the practicalities of marketable storytelling. Whether a book is a modern-day romance or historical, or features vampires or mermaids, these are all set dressing. A good story is a good story regardless, and when told well and pitched well, it can sell.

  12. I write both. I have a series that takes place in the 1870s in Kansas, but I'm also entertaining a Christian steampunk fantasy novel that I hope publishers will one day be interested in. The Christian fiction market is a bit slower to leap onto trends as the secular market, but it is coming around. It's just a matter of being patient and keeping a close eye on what's selling. If you have a good story that's written well, there's a good chance that someone will show an interest in your work. People's demands change over time, and publishers have to respond to them.

  13. Great points. I get frustrated about this very topic. Finding the happy-medium is my goal.
    Thanks, Jody!

  14. Well, I think it is well proven through history that regarding something new, publishers have NO idea whether there will be a majority of the public to read it.

    Many new concepts were introduced to the public and they broke the market, against all odds. Harry Potter is a good example.

    It's simply an excuse. I think that due to the economic circumstances, publishers don't go with the safe types, but with the safe authors. They rarely agree to undertake a new author anymore, whether it is something new or it is something already tested, no matter how good that author is.

    And even with salable authors' works, they don't venture on new ideas. They try to keep on the well-known and safe path. A pity really, but it's low risk business tactics and in pace with global economic requirements.

    Very interesting post :)

  15. Interesting post, particularly since all I seem to see in Christian fiction lately is Amish leaving-the-community tales...

  16. Trying to predict what the market will do is so hard. Publishers are having a hard time right now. And you're right, they do watch how your book sells in all venues.

    Isn't it wonderful how unique authors writing styles can be. Like you said, you can have similar plot lines, but the books are very different.

    Great post!


  17. Great post! And I agree with your persevere post... There are SO many reasons a publisher might not "like" your idea but another will. So I think that's important to keep in mind as well. Personally, I'm always nervous as I start a book and a new idea. As an unpublished writer, I'm taking the risk on MYSELF... ask I'm spending a LOT of time with one idea to nurture it and grow it into a book. I'm working on a book right now that *I* really like, but there is always that fear that, what if I'm the only one??? What if this is royally stupid???????? But, in writing you take chances. We all do. And if everyone says it's stupid and won't sell, well, I'll just write another book I guess. :-)

  18. I belong to a critique group. One member has an amazing voice, fresh ideas. Her writing brings me to tears and makes me laugh out loud--all at the right places. She never settles for a cliche.
    And the fact that she's not published stuns me. Publishers say they want something new ... and then they say it's "too much."
    My own stories? I believe the adage there are only so many basic plots. But I try to make those plots my own--write them in my voice. And then rewrite them so the story sings.

  19. Thanks for expanding on this Jody. I had no idea my random thoughts on publishing would inspire a blog post. :-)

    Sorry I was to busy to check in yesterday, but it's encouraging to know "successful" authors also get plot ideas tossed aside at the beginning stages.

    Interestingly, I learned my lesson about not using different settings with my first novel. So when I plotted my second novel, I looked at what was selling and considered a "marketable premise." Then I twisted everything around. Even though my WIP has a cowboy, math teacher, and British lord, I don't look at the story and say "well that's been told a thousand times before." But I put A LOT of work into the plot. It takes a while to think up something original

  20. Good thoughts! I'm not sure if my story is tried and true enough, but I'm neck deep in market analysis for my proposal and was wondering if you knew how to find sales figures for a particular book?

  21. This is such a tough balance to strike--what's marketable and what you're passionate about. I have two book proposals out my editor right now so I'm biting my nails.

    And I had a similar experience like you did with your author friend. Another author at my publishing house has a book coming out before my debut that sounds SO much like mine. But we share an editor and my editor bought my book knowing she already had that one slated. So obviously the books are very different even if there are similarities in the set up.

    So that was a lesson for me because had I seen that book come out before I had submitted mine, I would've considered giving up on sending it to that house. We have to trust that our voices are unique and that no one can tell a story exactly like we do.

  22. Great post, Jody! You've laid out the issues here. I think writing the story you want to write will probably produce the best story. At the same time, knowing the market viability of that story will help you to have realistic expectations.

    And, like you said in your comment. Sometimes several publishers will reject story and then another decides to make an offer.

    You never know. :-)

  23. Gina asked: I'm neck deep in market analysis for my proposal and was wondering if you knew how to find sales figures for a particular book?

    My thoughts: Gina, I don't think there really is any way to track down sales figures--especially of other authors unless of course they go public. But most of us are urged not to do so in order to avoid the comparison trap!

    And actually, if I want to know how my books are doing, I have to ask my publisher or wait for my twice a year sales reports that come in the mail. If you sign up on Amazon, you can check your BookScan reports, but those don't include a lot of retailers or online stores, so they're not really an full picture of how your book is doing.

  24. I found your blog post quite interesting. As I read it, I kept wondering if this is one of the reasons some people choose to self-publish. I also enjoyed reading all the comments of your followers.

  25. I'd like to think that my books are fresh enough, but it's like stepping out of my own skin and thinking that I'm not fat, you know? I'd only know if a knowledgeable someone told me so!

    Can Alex save Winter from the darkness that hunts her?
    YA Paranormal Romance, Darkspell coming fall of 2011!

  26. I don't intend to go the way of traditional publishing, but I do believe that my story is different that what's out there now. I've looked at all of the historical fiction books available (yes, there are thousands) and there is nothing with a setting like mine. All stories have a hero who strugles toward a goal, as does mine. My story is one I must tell and I hope it's unique and well written enough to stand out. Jody, I love your books and I think they're different from the norm. You'll hit on something they'll like.

  27. Thank you for your very kind words, Marcia! :-)

  28. Story ideas is always being considered by publishers. But some of them would just accept your story and help you publish your book.


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