Bestsellers: Original, Compelling Concepts

Bogged down in the midst of the digital publishing revolution, I often feel as though I have been stuck in time and thrown into the era when Henry Ford was beginning to manufacture his automobiles. He knew how to build the cars. He understood how to make the engines run smoothly. He could make the wheels turn.

Henry Ford with his original, compelling idea.

But here’s the problem he faced.

What makes a car sell?

And how do I market them to the nation when there are few roads, hardly any gas stations, and even fewer dealerships out in the hinterland to showcase my brand new Model A’s, Model T’s, and roadster coupes?

As writers, we, more or less, find ourselves in a similar situation.

We know how to slap words together to create a book. We know how to begin and end a novel. We know how to devise a few plots, subplots, red herrings, and throw our readers into so many twists and turns they wind up dizzy. We even know how to build characters and then get out of their way simply because they have the talent to tell a good story better than we can. We’ve figured out how to convert the novel into eBooks. We know how to place them on Amazon and even sacrifice them to the whims and algorithms of Kindle Direct Publishing. We’ve mastered the art of social media, filling every corner of cyberspace with blogs and tweets and mentions on Facebook. We’ve begged for reviews, traded reviews with friends, bought reviews, and shamed our families into writing reviews. Our cover images are sharp and stand out in any crowd.

But the mystery remains.

What makes a book sell to an agent or editor or publisher? And if we take the independent route to publishing, what makes a book sell to thousands of readers who may not know use ever heard of us, or even know we exist?

What makes the difference between success and failure?

The answer is quite simple.

Nobody really knows.

However, the best answer I’ve found came from a blog written by agent Jill Corcoran. She understands the question on everyone’s mind. What is the road to book sales? She made it a point to find out.

Jill Corcoran wrote: “It is NOT how fabulous your website or blog is. It is NOT how many Facebook or Twitter friends you have, how many publishing links you forward or put on said website, blog, Facebook, and Twitter. It is not how many editors and agents like you.”

Maybe she’s right. Maybe social media is a waste of time. Or maybe it’s just part of the overall puzzle.

What does make a book sell?

Jill Corcoran spells it out as plainly as a good agent can put it. She says, “What sells a book is THE WRITING coupled with an ORIGINAL, COMPELLING CONCEPT.”

Agent Jill Corcoran

The more I think about it, the more I tend to agree with her. Writers have a bad habit of looking at Amazon, determining what the latest hot books happen to be, and trying to write a another novel just like them. Vampires big? Let’s write a bloodsucker. Serial killers big? My serial killer can kill more than your serial killer. Erotica number one? I’ll write a novel where nobody wears clothes and sells off their morals in a garage sale. Historical romances selling?  I’ll have Martha Washington falling in love with every wounded veteran in town while George is coping with the snow at Valley Forge.

Copycat writers are in trouble from their opening sentence: Warmed over characters. Warmed over plots. Warmed over ideas.  And the finished product is about as compelling as a Barnaby Jones script with a touch of Dragnet and a heavy dose of 77 Sunset Strip thrown in. If you don’t remember those television shows, you wouldn’t buy or remember the novel either.

As J. K. Rowling warned, “Don’t be a trend follower.”

Quit writing what everyone else is writing long enough to create your own trend, a new trend, A COMPELLING CONCEPT. Lay out the groundwork for stories, ideas, characters, and plots that have never been covered before. Don’t take the road less traveled. Take the road that’s never been traveled, at least not the way you plan to travel it.

That’s what Rowling did with Harry Potter, Suzanne Collins did with Hunger Games, and E. L. James did with Fifty Shades of Grey.

Sure, genre sells.

Always has.

Always will.

But the big books, regardless of the genre, have GREAT WRITING COUPLED WITH A COMPELLING CONCEPT.

The authors dared to be different.

And it made a difference.

Jill Corcoran points out, “Couple GREAT WRITING with an ORIGINAL AND COMPELLING CONCEPT, and you are seventy-five percent there. The rest is luck, timing, bizarre unknown factors that none of us understand, but we kill ourselves trying to.”

If I can figure out how to be seventy-five percent there with great writing and an original, compelling concept, I’ll take my chances with luck, timing, and those bizarre unknown factors that cover the digital world of publishing like the plague.


He came up with one.

Henry Ford invented the assembly line and started turning out cars while everyone else was still looking for an old wrench and new bailing wire. If he had spent his time in the same old shade tree garage, hammering together a car every few months, Ford, these many years later, would have been nothing more than the forgotten name on a tombstone.

Caleb Pirtle III is author of the Christian thriller, Golgotha Connection.

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