You should write the book that compels you first and foremost, no matter its sales potential.
I’ve had a couple of books like this in the past. A novel about two boys who meet on the first day of first grade and proceed to fall in love over the course of twelve years, that was one. I’ve tried to sell it on and off for four years now, with no success.
For the most part I’ve been lucky in that what compels me for the most part in my novels is commercial stories. Stories of romance and horror and suspense. Stories that will hopefully grip any reader who comes in contact with it.
Because here’s the deal. If you want to be a novel writer, at the end of the day, you need to at least grasp the concept of commercial novels, of sales hooks. You need to write books that lots and lots of people will want to read!
In her 2012 book Writing Irresistible Kidlit, author Mary Kole defines a commercial novel as the following…
A commercial book is one that has blockbuster potential, whether it’s because of a trendy genre, an engaging world, an unforgettable character, or a great “meets” comparison. For example, a commercial premise could be “Lord of the Flies meets Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and gets a lot of editor attention (if done well). Commercial books are larger than life and have higher stakes than most literary books.
I grew up loving commercial books, loving commercial movies, and I’ve always been drawn to larger-than-life stories that have high stakes.
And you know what? So do many readers, especially younger ones.
They want a story that keep them hooked from beginning to end. One that offers endless surprises. One that makes it impossible for each and every one of them to put the book down!
That’s the kind of book you want to write, whether it features non-stop action or features no action of any kind. It doesn’t really matter the genre ultimately. What kind of story can you tell that has big stakes, not small stakes. What kind of story can you tell that will transport the reader to a different place?
And what kind of story can you tell that has a great sales hook to a potential agent, editor, librarian, reader? What will make people want to read it?
Kole defines a sales hook as the following…
[It’s a] selling point. Is this book in a particularly hot genre? Does it feature romantic elements or a strong friendship story? Does it tackle a hot-button issue in a new way? Is it about an especially timely topic? Is there something to the storytelling that makes it stand out? A selling point isn’t a gimmick, but it’s a unique benefit that’s easy to get excited about and pitch.
Having a sales hook is important because it will actually get the important people who can make a difference in your professional life as a writer to get excited about your latest manuscript.
I write books for children. I want to get my books in front of children. But the only way I will ever get there is to write a book that will excite my agent, excite editors, excite librarians. And a really helpful way to do all of that is to write a book that has a commercial component, that has a hook of some kind.
Remember that you don’t ever want to write a book just to write something commercial.
All those gatekeepers I mentioned before will see right through that. You have to be passionate about your stories and characters, you have to care about the world you’ve created.
To write something just to sell it, just to make money, without any deep feeling or care for the story as a whole, will lead you down a lonely road that ends in disappointment.
At the end of the day you need to write the story you’re fascinated by, that you simply have to write no matter what. And even if it’s not the most commercial story in the universe, still at least keep in mind those elements that make up a commercial story in the months and years to come.
Because it’s super important, always, to consider your potential readers, as Kole talks about in her book…
[Your readers] want stories that surprise them, thrill them, and lift them out of the everyday with a once-in-a-lifetime plot that’s a big departure from their normal existence. What’s something they can’t experience in reality? What’s something realistic but unlikely to ever happen to them? What are some universal “What-if” questions all humans tend to indulge in and that you can drill into? This is the beginning of high-concept thinking.
Your readers want a story they’ve never experienced before. Something that will keep them mesmerized from the first page to the last.
Give them that story, no matter what story it may be, no matter what genre it might be in.
Take a chance on writing a commercial book one of these days… and then see what happens!