Saturday, August 8, 2015

50+ Successful Query Letters from Contracted Authors

Query Letter Success now has more than 50 successful query letters and behind the scenes detail from authors that resulted in contracts with literary agents and/or publishing companies such as Random House, Scholastic, HarperCollins, Bad Day Books, Entangled Teen, Hydra, SAGA PRESS, and many others.

If you're working on a query letter or are writing a book with the intent to eventually query an agency or publishing house, is a GREAT resource to see what success reads like or to get inspired by author success stories. And here's the best part: it's only going to get better. The site will soon contain an entire section on what to do after you've signed that contract.

So keep writing... and chasing your dreams. And when you're ready to query your favorite agent or publishing house, remember that Query Letter Success was created especially for you.

#amediting #querylettersuccess #queryletter #amwriting

Saturday, November 1, 2014


Judging a query letter, like in many Olympic sports, may appear subjective at best, so I've created the Ten Point Query to help you reach for the perfect score (and agent!). These are all based on my list of query letter best practices.

1. Stick to what works (query format)
2. Find your voice
3. Focus on characters that matter
4. Start in the action
5. Deliver on conflict
6. Be specific
7. Show, don't tell
8. End with a bang
9. Make it easy to read
10. Omit needless words

I've provided additional detail on these ten points at Submit your query letter for a free review to see if you're ready to submit to your favorite agent. I will edit, score, and publish the results for free. All scores are based on the Ten Point Query method. You get one point for successfully incorporating each principle of the Ten Point Query throughout your query letter. No partial credit is given.

My service is similar to the one provided by Query Shark, except I won't be selective about whose query letter I review. You submit it--I'll review it. The other main difference is that the Ten Point Query lets you know up front (in simple terms) what's required to get a good score. I will point out how and why you lost points, relating my feedback to one or several of the principles in the Ten Point Query and what needs to be done to fix it.

I've spent years working on the dreaded query letter. Anyone who's written one knows how daunting of a task it can be to condense your 80,000 word novel down into a few hundred words. I've tested the Ten Point Query enough to know it works. Try it for yourself. Keep in mind, a perfect score does not guarantee an agent is looking for or will want to ready your particular story. But (to steal a line) the odds will be ever in your favor. Good luck!

P.S. If you're interested in my story and why I'm providing this service for free, you can read it at

Friday, July 25, 2014

Query Letter Best Practices

What I Learned From 25 Professional Critiques. 

Pete J. Knapp is a literary agent at the Park Literary Group, LLC, focused on middle grade and young adult fiction. He recently held a query critique e-conference where 25 writers were lucky enough to have their query critiqued by him in a public forum, free of charge. Unfortunately, he didn't choose mine. I still came out on top because I synthesized all 25 professional critiques into a list of query letter best practices. I’ve broken it down into three sections: the general query letter, the plot/synopsis, and a list of don’ts. I hope you benefit from this as much as I have. Thanks, Pete! 

  • Open the query letter with the most exciting part: the story plot. Not the title of your book or how you found out about the agent. The one exception to this is when you have a personal connection to the agent.
  • Query letters that match the style of the book are more successful. If your book is supposed to be funny, the query letter better make the agent laugh. Find the voice of your protagonist and pretend that he or she is writing the query letter for you.
  • If your story has SciFi or Fantasy elements to it, this should be clear early on in the plot/synopsis. When saved for the end, it comes across as a bait and switch.
  • Your query letter should read like a letter. Lists can be risky.
  • The most important element to your query letter is your plot/synopsis.
  • Sell the story, not why you wrote it.
  • Even quiet stories must have something that shows why this is “THE” story worth telling.
  • Scientific, medical, or other complex terms used in a query should be explained if they are not common knowledge.
  • Break the query into three parts:
    • The plot/synopsis
    • Your book title, genre, word count, and what it's most like (similar to)
    • Personal connection (why you chose this agent) and any relevant credentials
  • Keep your query letter between 200 and 500 words, with 350 being the happy medium. Either end of this range can be too short or too long if not done right.
    • Pete critiqued more queries for being too short (not enough detail) then he did for being too long.   
  • Include credentials that make you an authoritative subject matter.
  • Why you chose this agent: keep it short and relevant.
    • Your book is similar to another book the agent likes (always state which one), we met at a conference, etc.
  • Start in the action—what does your protagonist want?
  • The first sentence of plot/synopsis needs to excite the agent, set your story apart.
  • Explain the extraordinary instead of stating the ordinary (what makes your story different?
  • Introduce the protagonist in the opening paragraph.
  • Keep your plot points in sequential order.
  • Your protagonist must have compelling reasons for the decisions they make—keep motives clear.
  • Show how the character arc develops—what are the emotional/physical challenges that develop your protagonist?
    • Use specific examples—if you can’t show how they change over the course of the story, then your story isn’t worth reading.
    • What’s at stake—low risk translates to low reward for the reader and agent.
  • Tell what the protagonist wants, why they can’t have it, and how he he/she gets there.
  • Make plot points clear, easily understood. Agents want to know what they’re getting and general statements that leave them guessing don’t help.
  • Always explain a character’s importance if you mention them by name.
  • Use normal case for character names (don’t use CAPS).
    • Everything in your plot/synopsis should make an agent want to read your book.
  • Include the emotional state of the protagonist in the plot.
  • State the objective/motive of villain or it will come across as flat.
  • End plot/synopsis with a punch.
  • Let the theme of the story be shown through the plot description rather than telling it up front.
  • When using a hook, let it be a standalone sentence/paragraph.
  • Some agents, like Pete, prefer you start at the beginning of the plot and let it build rather than throwing the hook up front.
  • Choose your plot points sparingly. Trying to explain too much will sink the query letter. Better to have fewer plot points with necessary detail than many plot points and little detail.
  • Specifics, specifics, specifics . . . don’t leave the agent guessing.
    • Leaving teasers like “family Secrets”, “tested”, “special powers”, etc. without explaining the what or the why will sink your query.
  • Make sure your plot/synopsis flows, reads smooth from one sentence to the next. There is no such thing as a scene change in a query letter. Lead your agent from the beginning to the end of the story arc. How they got from point A to point D of your plot points should read logically.

  • Avoid using a quote from your novel in the first sentence – opinions may differ on this, but quotes generally don’t provide any of the vital information agents are looking for about a story.
  • Questions distract agents from the story you’re trying to convey - - tell, don’t ask.
  • Don’t be presumptuous (I look forward to hearing from you soon).
  • No need to state that you are looking for representation.
  • Avoid excessive use of adjectives (more than one to describe a noun).
  • Don’t ramble on about why the agent will like your book. Let him/her decide for themselves.
  • Avoid using headers – paragraph form is preferred – this is a query “letter” afterall.
  • Don’t repeat yourself (say the same thing twice in different ways).

If you liked this post, you might also be interested in my BETA READER CRITIQUE GUIDE or my QUERY LETTER SUCCESS site where you can read a collection of more than 25 successful query letters that helped authors sign contracts with literary agents and/or publishing companies.

Happy writing!

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Create a Flexible Story Outline in 7 Steps

I have yet to write a story by creating an outline first, but Brian Klem's article has convinced me to give it a try. I love letting a story take me where it will, but I believe this creative approach may double the editing work needed after the first draft is completed, unless you're a prodigy and can naturally anticipate each character arch and resolution. I've written the first chapter of my next novel, but I will pause and give this approach a try before continuing.


Thursday, July 3, 2014

Scribophile - A Favorite Online Writing Community


Every writer needs a place to sharpen their craft. Scribophile is one my personal favorites. I've included a number of screenshots below because a picture's worth a thousand words. This site wins simply because it makes writing fun. The entire experience is based on a rewards system. If you want to post a work for critique, then you have to earn Karma points by critiquing the work of others. You get all sorts of crafty titles along the way as you accumulate points, such as Pencil Pusher, my current status. The best part . . . occasionally you get to read some truly impressive writing while having other writers offer helpful critiques on your own work.  I'm a fan. See for yourself. Check out the site or at least take a look at the screenshots below.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Determining the Right Category for your Boook: MG, YA, NA

This is one of the best summaries I've read on how to determine what genre your book falls into.

By by Sabine Berlin, with Angela Eschler

It started with a boy wizard, it grew with a vegetarian vampire, and it continued to explode with a girl on fire. Sprinkled in among the dark lords, werewolves, and districts was a magical forest behind Grandpa’s house and a school for the half-blood children of Greek gods. Since the early 2000s, books for kids have taken a dramatic turn right into the hearts of young and old alike. As the children/youth book market keeps growing, more and more authors are finding that creating a young protagonist opens a whole new world for their storytelling. So how do you know into which genre your main character fits? Is your protagonist a bold and daring Middle Grader, an adventurous Young Adult, or has your character slipped into the newest category and become a brave New Adult?

At a Glance

It isn’t always easy to know into which category your character fits. A lot of it has to do with age, but theme plays a big role as well. When Brandon Sanderson wrote the Alcatraz series, his protagonist was originally 15, but when the book was published, the age was lowered to 13 because of the themes and content; thus a perfect set of books for Middle Grade readers was born. (A book may be shelved at the bookstore according to the age of the protagonist—over age 12 often moves from the children’s section to YA—so choose the age and themes wisely.) Then there are series in which the protagonist morphs from one age to another: Harry Potterstarted out as a Middle Grader (MG) and eventually joined the ranks of Young Adult (YA). Most teenagers belong to the YA world, but once they leave high school they start to jump ship into the sea of New Adults (NA). So while it may be easy to remember that a 10-year-old protagonist is MG, a 15-year-old is most likely YA, and a 20-year-old has definitely hit NA, there is still some murky ground in between.
A general rule of thumb is that your protagonist or narrator will be two years older than your main group of readers. (This is when we’re talking about books written for children;  The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time or The Night Rainbow are not really books for kids, no matter how young the narrators. Obviously the themes are more geared toward adult interests.) Depending on the agent or editor to whom you are talking, the following numbers may shift slightly in either direction, but for the most part this guide will get you where you want to go.
Middle Grade: One of the best definitions of MG books I’ve ever heard was on a Writing Excuses podcast: They noted that MG books are those a teacher or librarian gives to a kid, rather than ones kids buy for themselves. This is one of the reasons that MG and even some YA books are not necessarily a great fit for self-publishing. Kids at this age are not going to buy an ebook for themselves, and most school libraries don’t stock self-published books. (If you’re not sure if your book is better off being self- or traditionally published, check out our article on traditional vs. self-publishing.)
MG books can range anywhere from Diary of a Wimpy Kid to Percy Jackson & the Olympians. They are usually for readers 8 to 13 who are ready to jump away from chapter books and really start exploring their world. There are little to no romantic subplots in these books, and they usually find the protagonist going on some type of quest to save the world. Think the Farworldseries by J. Scott Savage or even a contemporary quest like in R. J. Palacio’s Wonder.
The average word count for MG ranges from low picture book end at about 20K to higher MG at about 50K.
Young Adult: YA books are usually for readers 13 to 18. These books are all about discovering who you are in the world. Most of the time the teen protagonist is on his or her own or with friends; family is not as prevalent in this journey. While MG is about saving the establishment and keeping the world around the characters from changing, YA is about breaking the establishment down, fighting against it, and starting something. Katniss wants to stop theHunger Games, Tris wants to break free from the factionsThe Fault in Our Stars explores rebellion against terminal illness. YA books need to have teen voice and appeal to that market’s interests and mindset.
Teens are interested in themselves and their world. This is one of the reasons there’s a lot of first-person narrative in YA. A lot of YA also takes place in school, as this is a big part of a teenager’s life. You will find more school-related stories in YA than in MG.
The average length for YA will be between 50K and 80K words.
New Adult: NA is a fresh and upcoming category that is still working on an exact definition. The basic ages for this category are late teens (18+) to early 20s. It explores the theme of becoming an adult. Here you will find stories about moving out for the first time, going away to college, and learning how to survive in the big, bad world. At this stage in the game you are going to find a lot more sex than in YA (although YA nowadays has its fair amount); even though romance is currently driving the sales in this category, don’t think NA is just about sex. It is about self-development, becoming the adult you want to be, and finding your way in the world. A great example is Losing It by Cora Carmack.
Agent Kathleen Rushall does a great job of sifting NA from YA:
In a sense, New Adult is similar to YA in that it can cross subject matter, but whatever the plot, it’s defined by general themes of what the characters are going through. … Where in YA we find characters trying to find their place in the world while still struggling with restrictions or being under someone or something’s control (be it parents, guardians, the government, etc.), NA is a step beyond that age. Generally, NA focuses on characters that are free from those kinds of restrictions for the first time in their lives. They are finding their path, whether it’s experiencing love, experimenting with something in a way they haven’t before, discovering a career path, or leaving home for the first time. NA is all about beginnings and the challenges that can bring.”
These books are about the same length as YA, though they can be slightly longer, just like certain YA can. Generally, NA comes in at 55K to 85K words.
A key consideration: If you are a new author (unsold/no strong sales numbers), you are much more likely to sell  to a publisher (and get an agent) if you stay within the word counts above for each category, and if you avoid exploring the crossover gray areas between categories. For instance, it’s much harder to sell a book for tweens than one that is clearly for middle graders or young adults (in terms of character age and themes matching perfectly). You will often see authors of series characters successfully explore these in-between places, but solid sales and a built-in audience support that. Newbie authors almost always have to jump through hoops before they can break “rules.” You may see exceptions out there, but don’tcount on  being one if your goal is to be successfully published as soon as possible. For breaking into kidlit, write something solidly marketable, make a name for yourself, and then  the sky’s the limit.

Write It Right

Once you choose your protagonist’s age and the core story you want to tell, there are a few tips to remember when writing, as an adult, for children and teens.
  1. Papa Don’t Preach: Perhaps the worst thing you can do when writing for a young audience is to preach to them. Kids don’t like to be talked down to. They will pick books that make them think, learn, and grow, not books that make them feel like they are getting a lecture.
  2. The Wonder Years: Agent John Cusick talks about this phenomenon. Remember the narration at the beginning of each episode of The Wonder Years? Remember how the narrator fondly—or sometimes not so fondly—looked back on the days of his youth? Books written for kids should not be retrospective. It is a kid’s story, not an adult’s story. (If it’s looking back more than a few months, it’s for adults.)
  3. Emperor’s New Clothes: Another bit of wisdom from Cusick is not to be phoney. Just like it was a child who called out the emperor in the fairy tale, kids can tell the difference between trying to imitate them and writing them the way they are (from their own point of view). This sort of ties into the not reminiscing about your own childhood. When writing for kids today, you need to write how kids are today. Don’t create the world you think they live in, create the world they actually live in. Kids have unique views of the world; find out what those views are before you start writing your book.
  4. What’chu Talkin’ ’bout, Willis? When writing for kids you don’t want to dumb down the ideas, but you do want to use language that they can relate to or understand. It is one thing to have a few choice words that a child may need to look up, but when they are putting your book down every few pages to look up another word, it won’t be long before they stop picking your book back up. Also, is your slang contemporary enough or are you still throwing “groovy” in there? Do your kids sound snarky because that’s what you think kids sound like? Basically you want to avoid writing in a voice that sounds like an adult’s perspective on how kids talk. This is especially true for YA. Teens take themselves seriously. You might think they talk like bubblegum heads, but they don’t think they do.
These are just a few tips to get you started. In a week we’ll talk about the next step in writing for kids (and any age reader!)—coming up with ideas that sell, or what agents call “high-concept” ideas. We’ll define what they are so you can tailor them for kids. Remember, books for children are all about exciting ideas, whether it’s discovering a hidden world in the wardrobe or the hidden world of a college campus. Popular MG, YA, and NA books offer a wide range of concepts kids are excited to explore, whether it’s hope, mystery, courage, or charm—ideas that sometimes, as adults, we find ourselves turning hard and cynical toward. Franz Kafka said:
Youth is happy because it has the capacity to see beauty. Anyone who keeps the ability to see beauty never grows old.”
Dave Wolverton describes this quality in kids as “wonder,” arguing they are drawn to books that fill them with awe. Whether your book is being read by a spunky teenager in New York or a middle-aged mom in New Mexico, let your story be beautiful, let it be filled with wonder, let it come of age.

Do This Now

Get yourself in a younger mindset by trying the following tips.
  1. Watch the CW and ABC Family networks. Vampire Diaries, Pretty Little Liars, andThe 100. These are the shows about teens and shows that teens watch and love. A lot of them are based off popular teen book series. For the pre-teen audience, you may have more luck with Nickelodeon or the Disney Channel.
  2. Read books in these genres. And, by this, I mean read the most popular best-selling books. Sure, The Chronicles of Narnia are amazing books for kids, and all children should read them, but the way to break into the kidlit market of today is to dial in to what kids love right now. I’ve listed a few, but go to Goodreads and search the lists or see what’s on the shelf at your local bookstore.
  3. Listen to kids. Do you have teenagers? Nieces and nephews? Neighbors under the age of 18? Find ways to listen to them. When I’m driving kids to and from soccer, I listen to them, trying to pick up on the latest slang, as well as their likes and dislikes. You’ll get more insight just from listening to them—especially when they’re talking to their friends—than you will by quizzing them about things.
  4. Find yourself a child/teen reader. Actually find yourself as many readers as you can in the genre of your book. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have adults read it, but knowing what kids like will help your book soar into the marketplace.
Your Turn: Have a great tip on finding voice for young readers? Share it with us! Do you have a favorite MG/YA/NA book to recommend? We would love to know what you (and your kids) are reading right now.
And if you liked this article, please share!
Sabine BerlinSabine is an avid reader of everything from Asimov to Zusak. She has a degree in history, writes YA fiction, and was selected to attend Orson Scott Card’s Literary Bootcamp, where she studied writing and critiquing. She has been with Eschler Editing since 2012. She invites you to visit her blog.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Beta Reader Critique Guide

Being a good beta reader is an art, a carefully crafted skill for most people. The critiques they provide are invaluable, but especially for aspiring authors throwing their work out there, so to speak, with 700,000 other manuscripts (published last year). So how do you help new beta readers out without overwhelming them? I did some searching and found a little help.

Dimitri Tishler and MelanieConklin compiled a nice list of tips for beta readers. I’ve taken a lot of their suggestions and added in several of my own to create a Beta Reader Critique Guide (see below). I place the guide at the front of the manuscript so that it’s the first thing beta readers see. It includes a personalized note at the top, thanking them in advance for taking time to read my book. Then I put the beta reader critique form at the back of the book so it's the first thing they see when they finish reading. And they can summarize their thoughts for each of the major categories. My example below is for beta readers with hard copies but is easily modified for electronic versions of your manuscript.

I don’t claim my Beta Reader Critique Guide is perfect or complete, but it’s a fantastic jump start if you’re wondering where to begin. I’d love to hear from those who have done something similar. If you have tips you’d add to this, leave a comment. The goal is to help beta readers understand what to look for as they read your book. I have no expectation that anyone will critique my book on every single point listed in the guide. But I do believe this will help new beta readers give a more thoughtful critique than they otherwise might have.


I hope you enjoy reading HOWIE & THE PRINCE OF GREED. Please feel free to mark up the manuscript as you read. If you find a mistake, circle it. If something doesn't make sense, circle it and let me know. Write in the margins or at the end of chapters or use the survey at the end of the book to summarize your thoughts. Or you can type out your feedback and email it to me. Whatever works best for you. To help get the creative juices flowing, I’m looking for any feedback you have to offer regarding the main topics described below:

-          Plot / Story Pacing
o   Does each scene have a natural flow to it or do they move too fast or too slow?
o   Are the transitions between scenes smooth or are they clunky and disjoined?
o   Do chapters start and end well, make you want to keep reading?
o   Are the scenes authentic and believable – keeping in mind this is a fantasy novel?
o   Does the plot surprise you? Disappoint you? Is it too predictable?
o   Are there enough action scenes? Do they create enough excitement?
o   Is the plot too predictable or are there nice surprises along the way?
o   Is there any payoff (sense of satisfaction) for reading this book? Is there closure?
-          Grammar / Dialogue / Structure
o   Does the story show you or tell you what’s happening?
o   Is the passive voice (was, would, etc.) too excessive?
o   Are there too many cliché phrases? Or too many adverbs (words ending in “ly”)
o   Is the dialogue differentiated from one character to the next? Are you aware of which characters are speaking by the identity of the dialogue?
o   Is the dialogue smooth and interesting or is it stiff and clunky?
o   Does the book read easy or are you pulled out of the story by frequent mistakes?
o   Who does my writing most remind you of?
-          Character development
o   Is it easy to identify with or remember each the main characters? Or are there some characters you have a hard time following or remembering? Who they are?
o   Are there any minor characters which seem over or under developed - how?
o   The story is written from the viewpoint of Howie - does the view point ever stray?
o   Are the characters believable?  Do you care about any of them? Do they do things that seem illogical?
o   Who is your favorite character and why? Who is your least favorite character and why?
-          Theme / Symbol / Metaphor
o   Do you like the spiritual or religious themes which underpin this story or do you find them intrusive and uninteresting?
o   Does the incorporation of Native American culture and mythology come across as authentic – what worked or didn’t work for you?
o   Does the Lenpe language used in the book help or hinder the story, was it written in a way that made it easy to understand or did you find it disruptive?
o   Does the medallion come across as a believable object of power in the context of the story? Did the medallion’s connection to Lenape and Christian culture/topics help or hurt the story?
-          World Building / Setting
o   Can you visualize the scenes being described?
o   Do the scenes get bogged down in too much detail?
o   Is the setting or environment believable and authentic?
o   Does the setting enhance or distract from the story?



Thank you for reading or attempting to read my book. A writer is nothing without readers. Please be honest with your feedback. Specific examples of what worked and what didn’t will give me the best chance at making improvements and of the book being successful. Please refer to the front page of the manuscript for a detailed description of questions you can answer within each feedback category covered in questions 4-8 of this survey.
  1. Did you finish reading the book (circle the correct answer):  Yes    or     No
  2. Please rate HOWIE & THE PRINCE OF GREED as you would on Amazon (circle your answer).
    1. One Star
    2. Two Stars
    3. Three Stars
    4. Four Stars
    5. Five Stars
  3. Write a brief critique that you might leave if you were posting this to Amazon or Goodreads right now (your comments will not be published or used without permission).
  4. Summarize your thoughts around story plot and story pace.
  5. Summarize your thoughts around character development.
  6. Summarize your thoughts on grammar, dialogue, and structure.
  7. Summarize your thoughts on the story’s theme, symbolism, or metaphor.
  8. Summarize your thoughts on the story’s setting (world building).

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Publishing Brands - Great Forbes Article

The Strongest Brand In Publishing Is ... (by David Vinjamuri)

When comparing authors, publishers tend to focus on book sales.  But sales figures tell only part of the story.  Expensive advertising and a strong push for distribution and display at bookstores might yield strong initial sales but create lots of returns and low profitability.  An early and fortuitous movie deal might overexpose a book that doesn’t meet the promise of the movie.
A thousand other externalities make sales data inadequate to measure the strength of an author’s franchise.  To understand which authors are worth investing in, publishers need a better measure of an author’s value.
Brand, Not Platform
The metric often used to evaluate new or developing authors isplatform – roughly defined as the social reach of the author though Facebook fans, Twitter followers, blog views and speaking engagements.  But according to Peter Hildick-Smith of the Codex Group, which polls thousands of readers to determine their preferences and purchase behavior, platform is a misleading metric.
We’ve seen celebrities with extremely high name recognition and very large platforms fail miserably in book sales.  Being famous or having millions of Twitter followers alone is not enough to build a strong franchise as an author.
Hildick-Smith points out that only about half of adults read books and just a fifth are regular book buyers.  So a celebrity with a large and dedicated following will not automatically become a bestselling author.
Brand loyalty is important because it has a direct impact on profitability.  In fact, Codex data shows that consumers are willing to pay a 66% premium for a book by a favorite author over an unknown author.  The chart below is for eBooks only (the prices are higher and premiums narrower for print books), and it also suggests that ebooks from new or lesser-known authors should be priced under $6.00, versus the $9.36 or more that readers are willing to pay for a favorite author.
Codex Author Brand - eBook Price Expectation 2.28.14
Loyalty, Not Sales
“A great book will find its audience.”
One view in the publishing industry is that bestseller lists are the product of a skill-based meritocracy.  But the reality is that the popular perception of a book itself is colored by the strength of the author’s brand.   When we view bestseller list, part of what we’re seeing is a brand ranking.  Without a strong and loyal fan base, there are few routes to these lists, and they all involve either book awardsor copious amounts of money.
Yes, both online and critical reviews can help, but only if the book attracts enough attention to make these review relevant.  In other words, before a book can possibly become a bestseller, it needs to reach critical mass.  Without the foundations of a strong brand, most authors will never get this far.
We saw the proof of this point last year.  In April of 2013, Little Brown (Hachette) published The Cuckoo’s Calling by unknown author Robert Galbraith.   Despite the big-five publisher and solid early reviews, the book sold just 440 print copies in April.   When it was revealed several months later that the book’s author was none other than J.K. Rowling, the sales arc bent.  As you can see from the chart below, The Cuckoo’s Calling sold 228,000 print copies in July.
Codex Author Brand - Cuckoos Calling 2.28.14
So the author brand clearly has a huge impact on the success of a book, regardless of the quality.  The question is – what makes for a strong author brand?  To answer this question, let’s look at the strongest brand in the most recent Codex survey.
And The Winner Is … JACK REACHER
Jack Reacher is the creation of British author Lee Child, and has sold more than 70 million books, making Reacher more than a billion-dollar brand.  But what’s most interesting about Lee Child’s creation is not the size of the brand but its strength. Child doesn’t have the largest following among bestselling authors: just over a third of book shoppers are aware of him versus the more than 95% who know John Grisham and the 99% aware of Stephen King, both of whom have sold more books.
But while just under a quarter of Grisham and King’s readers count either man as their favorite author nearly a third of Reacher readers mark Child as their favorite.   (King and Grisham still rate on the higher end of reader loyalty, by the way.  Most bestselling authors have less than 20% fan loyalty.)
This loyalty is not just theoretical: Child carries a higher percentage of his readers with him to each successive book than any other bestselling author.  While just 41% of John Grisham’s fans owned or planned to buy his newest novel Sycamore Row, 70% of Child’s fans wanted a copy of the last Jack Reacher tale “A Wanted Man”.Codex Author Brand - Fan Fulfillment 2.28.14
In fact, Child has the strongest reader loyalty of any bestselling author.  To get some insight into why Reacher is such a strong brand, I spoke to Child while he was running errands in Manhattan on a sunny New York morning last week.  He emphasized three key factors behind Reacher’s success:
  1. Consistency – Unlike Stephen King or John Grisham, Child’s work is a single series. “A series is better than a sequence of [unrelated] books in terms of building brand loyalty. There are two components of loyalty: one is the author and the second is the subject.  If you like the author but you’re uncertain of the content of the next book, that’s an obstacle. It runs counter to the literary view of writing that values originality and growth.  Jack Reacher is the same person in every book.  He’s unemotional and focused on detail.   There are lots of things that he always does that characterize who he is.”  It may be no coincidence then that the last two offerings from King and Grisham (Doctor Sleep and Sycamore Row, respectively) are both sequels of their most popular early novels.  Grisham’s work did a good job of communicating this relationship – and sold 21% more than his last book, The Racketeer.  Doctor Sleep didn’t initially communicate that it was the sequel to The Shining, and it’s sold only on par with 11/22/63, King’s last bestseller.
  2. Authenticity – Child has a very unique take on what makes a novel authentic.  “Authenticity is not the same thing as accuracy.  I live in New York.  If you know New York then some of the actual reality of [life in] New York might not seem believable to the reader who doesn’t live here.”  And by this, Child means that the art of narrative authenticity is culling details that are authentic from the larger pool of those that might be merely accurate.
  3. Uniqueness – Corporate marketers find uniqueness in two-axis consulting charts showing them where the holes in the market exist.  Child stresses something completely different.  “I ignored all the other series.  If you start with a laundry list of things then the book won’t be organic.  Reacher is not a white knight.  He lies and cheats and steals but because he’s doing it with integrity, people recognize him as a real human being.
Building an Author Brand Today
Child published the first Reacher book in 1997, in the early days of the Internet.  While he had some early experience with online forums, he essentially withdrew from active online participation with his readers before the rise of social media.  He believes that Reacher lives more effectively online without his interference.
New authors face a starkly different reality.  For one thing, the number of titles available to read has grown exponentially. Readers shopping online will have more than 700,000 new books to choose from this year.  That’s up fairly dramatically from the11,022 books published the year Stephen King turned 3.   The books they’ll find online will range from Mr. King’s own bestsellers from Scribner (Simon & Schuster) to the works of small presses and individuals.  More than half the number will be self-published.
Codex data suggest that beyond personal recommendations, existing platform tools like blogs, Facebook, Twitter and appearances to connect with booksellers and librarians, there are two emerging ways for a new author to break through.  The first is through price promotion, which has emerged over the past year to account for 6% of new book discovery.  The largest two portals for this discovery are Amazon’s Kindle Daily Dealsand BookBub; an independent e-mail list that promotes discounted books to over two million readers.  Both are powerful tools, but may be inaccessible to many authors.  Amazon deals are not open directly to authors and BookBub favors established titles and rejects a reported 80% of requests to be featured on the daily e-mail.
The second tool that now accounts for 1.4% of all book discovery isGoodreads.  Goodreads is a social network that focuses specifically on books.  Amazon acquired Goodreads in the second quarter of 2013.
Building a Brand With Goodreads
Goodreads was launched in 2007 by Otis and Elizabeth Chandler.  It allows readers to identify and review books they’ve read, and connect with other readers to discuss books.  Part of the success of the site stems from a close integration with Facebook, which allows Goodreads members to automatically post their Goodreads reviews to Facebook.
I spoke to Patrick Brown, the Director for Author Marketing at Goodreads.  He gave me a brief list of best practices for authors using Goodreads:
  1. Cover – similar to other online sites, most readers view the book cover as a thumbnail.  A cover that communicates strongly at this size is key.
  2. Book Description – The value proposition for the book is extremely critical on Goodreads.
  3. Social Interaction – Remind your existing friends or fans to review your book on Goodreads and add it to their shelves.  Put the Goodreads badge on your website to drive people to engage with your book.
These seemed like basic points to me – what respectable publisher or author doesn’t work to produce the best cover and book description possible?  Brown emphasized that incremental improvements in these areas do matter, however and he cited an internal study done last year that showed that many readers on Goodreads were attracted by the book description for The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern.  So perhaps closer attention to the short description of a book pays dividends.
Goodreads doesn’t mirror the world of Bookscan sales or Amazon reviews. Most authors who sell in appreciable numbers in the physical world or on Amazon have a presence on Goodreads, whether they manage it or not.  But there are outliers, whose Goodreads impact dwarfs their real-world book sales.  And some of these become significant authors because of Goodreads.  When I asked Brown to cite one of the most effective authors on Goodreads, he named fantasy author Michael J. Sullivan without hesitation.   Sullivan is one of those writers who’d written a closetful of books before he was first published.  He moved from publishing in a small press to self-publishing and then traditionally publishing with Hachette starting in 2011.  He’s sold 475,000 books in English and has been translated into 16 other languages.Hollow World Cover 1200 x 1900
Goodreads Secrets of the Fantasy King
Sullivan’s told me that he engaged with Goodreads as a reader first, rather than an author.  He set aside an hour a day to engage on the site.  “Goodreads was 80% of our success early on.”  Sullivan joined multiple fantasy groups and avidly read and discussed the work of other authors.  While he listed his own books in his signature, he was careful not to push them as a community member. But he built a solid base of friends on the network and these friends helped him grow as he published new books.   He had three specific suggestions for using Goodreads:
Run a Giveaway – Sullivan gives away advanced reader copies (ARCs) of his books on Goodreads up to 6 months before the book is available in print.  This gives the books more value to contest winners who read them before the general public.  “I was only giving away two copies but 2,700 people entered and I got the member names for all of them,” Sullivan told me.  In addition, each contest entry generated a story on that person’s activity feed on Goodreads, which became free advertising for the book.
Build a List – In Sullivan’s world, building readers can be a one on one chore, but the numbers add up quickly.  “I used to go to malls and stand in a bookstore for an event for three hours and I’d get 5 people to read my book.  But then they’d write back to me and some of them would become fans and recommend my books.”  Goodreads makes the same process much easier.
Participate in The Community – Sullivan stresses a central point about communities – they treat others in the community best.  The secret to being promoted within a community like Goodreads is being a good citizen and participating not just as an author but as a reader.  Sullivan was also one of the first authors to friend virtually every reader who gave his books positive ratings.  As a result he now has over 51,000 reviews of his books on Goodreads.
It may be unknowable what separates Jack Reacher from thousands of other series as the strongest brand or which authors will find the most success in social networking.  Looking beyond sales numbers to measure reader loyalty – and then systematically building that loyalty is worthwhile for publishers and authors alike.