Writing a Saleable Book

10 Aug

by Susan Dennard


Recently, someone asked me:

What is required to make a book saleable?

That is a rather large-in-scope question, and as such, I’m afraid my answer will be kinda vague. All the same, I thought it was worth taking the time to answer for everyone.


My super broad response is the:

The most important thing in writing a saleable book is writing a good book.

I am 100% convinced that if you have a well-written, compelling story, your novel will eventually find an agent/editor. Period.

That said, there are a few critical things that define a “good book”. Again, these answers are vague, and I’d be more than happy to get specific for anyone with questions (ask in the comments, please!).

Parts of a Good Book

1. First and foremost, the story absolutely most flow. Stilted dialogue, poor pacing, or unreadable grammar/syntax will kill a manuscript. A reader can put up with slow scenes if it all flows beautifully, and a reader can put up with a less-than-compelling plot if it’s smooth.

The way to ensure your novel flows is to revise-revise-revise. Learning to master the written word is absolutely critical. Few people write stunning first drafts, but give them a red pen, and they can line-edit their words into perfect prose.

2. Secondly, a book needs a compelling plot with tension on every page. The story builds, the tension builds, and everything ends in an explosive climax (and this applies to any genre—by explosive I simply mean all aspects of the story finally come together).

This is something you can learn by reading about writing, taking workshops, or simply reading heavily in the genre you write. There are structure to stories (three-act is the most common), and your job is to practice until these are second nature when you write/revise.

Again, my first drafts are rarely good examples of compelling plot, but I can revise them until they shine and all the subplots weave into the main plot.

3. Third, a book needs a cast of characters that readers care about. The best way to achieve this is to ensure the MC has a desperate need—secondary characters too. This is also something you have to learn by doing/practicing.

4. Fourth, the book must have high stakes. “High stakes” simply means we are invested in whether or not the MC achieves his/her goal. What will she lose if she fails to reach her goal? And why does that matter? A common reason a book fails to compel readers is low stakes—if we don’t care about the MC’s failure, we don’t care about reading the book.

Finding Problems

My biggest suggestion in terms of how to address these 4 components is to start critiquing and getting your work critiqued. Either find a critique partner, join a critique group, or stay active in a critiquing community. This is no doubt something everyone here already knows, but it’s so important (in my opinion) that I just have to emphasize it!

When you see others make mistakes, you learn to spot them in your own writing. Additionally, we, the writers, are often too close to our novels to see them “as a whole”. CPs and betas have the needed distance to spot problems

When I got an agent, Something Strange and Deadly had been through 4 crit partners and 2 betas. Did I always listen to my CPs’/betas’ comments? No—you must decide and filter feedback—but it was thanks to my CPs/betas that I caught some of my biggest mistakes (character inconsistencies, flat climax, plot holes, etc.).

What do you think? Are there any other components you think a saleable book needs? And how do you feel about critique partners or beta readers?


Susan Dennard is a writer, reader, lover of animals, and eater of cookies. She is repped by Sara Kendall of NCLit, and her debut, SOMETHING STRANGE AND DEADLY, will be available from Harper Children’s in 2012. You can learn more about her on her blog or twitter.


5 Responses to “Writing a Saleable Book”

  1. Asia Morela August 10, 2011 at 10:25 AM #

    That’s certainly an issue that interests everyone, published and non-published authors alike!

    I agree with all your points, although I must say it’s very hard to define why some books sell and others don’t… For the very reason that, for example, I’ve read published books which I loved, and others which I found very weak and un-compelling (yet they both got published, and it’s hard to find the common ground for that). For example, while everybody who doesn’t love Twilight always seems to have issues with symbolical meanings, representations and implications contained in the book, my only quarrel with it is its narrative structure (talking only about the first book here).

    Meyer rightly recognized that a romance story requires a subplot to the love story, but she failed to build a proper suspense and climax by having the two plots follow each other, instead of being intertwined (basically, once Edward confessed his love to Bella, I felt like I was done reading… except it was only the middle of the book). Yet we know how Twilight sold.

    I guess no matter how hard we try and understand what makes a book successful vs not (and we should keep trying anyway), there’s always going to be that mysterious, undefinable element about it…

    I think a saleable book should also belong to a specific genre and be fit for a specific audience. It doesn’t mean it can’t be original, but it shouldn’t be too much of a mish-mash in terms of themes and style. Like, if you write horror, any cornier part should be made patently ironical. Or if you write for teenagers, the level of violence should be appropriate. Etc.

    • Susan August 10, 2011 at 11:55 AM #

      You make a very good point, Asia! There will always be that wild card element in whether or not your book sells–it has to be 1) the right time for the market, and 2) the right fit for the genre.

      That said, a good agent will take a good book and let you–the writer–know what needs to be tweaked to make it work. Maybe it’s not dark enough for YA (this has happened to me!) so will be a better fit as MG, and now it’s your job to go back and adjust the story accordingly. Or maybe the agent will say, “Historical isn’t selling now. We’ll sit on this book for the time being, and you can go write something else now.”

      Of course, if you don’t have an agent, THEN WHAT!? 😀 Then, I really do believe if your book is good, it’ll get an agent’s attention–enough for them to sign you, at least (not perhaps sell the novel). Lots of authors sign an agent with one book but end up having their second novel be the first they sell!

      Oh the twists and turns of publishing… 🙂

  2. Kae August 10, 2011 at 1:20 PM #

    This is one of the reasons I love working with a co-writer. : ) Even as you go through the outline, you can pick it apart a little more objectively for flow, switching scenes around before we write them; because not all the writing is one person’s writing, and the different POVs slice the main stories into 3 (main plot, personal plot 1, personal plot 2). We’re pretty much built-in editors.

    The hard part with that, though, is that it takes a LOT of communication to keep the ‘main plot’ in balance, and the two personal plots in more or less echoing positions on the climax bar.

    For me, the most important thing I keep in mind for myself is that it’s not fully about the novel, or the protagonist, or any literary term, but about telling a really, really good story. The best one you can, within the world of limitations you’ve set. That keeps it a fresh experience for me, and I hope for anyone who in the future comes in contact with any of my writing (o.O Crossyourfingers.).

  3. Sherryl December 10, 2013 at 8:51 AM #

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  1. ROW80 Check-In 5: Susan Dennard’s Advice on Writing a Saleable Book « EM Castellan - August 5, 2012

    […] I really recommend you check out her blog and if you need convincing, I have posted below one of her blog posts entitled Writing a Saleable Book. It was first posted by Susan on the Let The Words Flow website on August 10th 2011. You can read the initial post here. […]

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