I went to a lot of conferences this past year and I sat
across from a lot of writers. In particular, I sat across from children’s
They sit down with high hopes, smiling brightly, so happy to
have found an agent who is willing to look at picture books and chapter books.
But often, I’m afraid, they go away angry. The stars of hope in their eyes quickly
transform into sparks of frustration and resentment.
“Why won’t this book sell?” they want to know. All
across the country, I hear the same refrains, over and over again.
- We need more books like this.
- My grandchildren love this book.
- I loved this kind of book when I was little. My mom used to
read to me.
- I’ve been working on this book for fifteen years—it’s my
passion. It has to sell.
- God gave it to me. I can’t disobey him. I can’t stop trying
to sell it.
- I’m writing it for God. I promised God I’d give him this
- It’s profound. It teaches a lesson that children desperately
And all across the country, I’ve given the same answer, over and over again: Take your passion and put it into a form that will sell.
Let me repeat that:
Take your passion and put it into a form that will sell.
I’m not disagreeing with you when you tell me that children
need your message or even when you say God gave you the book. I have no idea
what God did and didn’t give you. All I know is that if you want to be
published by a traditional publisher, you have to write a book they’ll buy.
Some of the writers who sit across from me at conferences
are like tallow men trying to sell candles to publishers who have already
installed electric lights in their offices. It’s not good enough to write a
story like the ones you loved when you were young.
Let me shout this from the highest rafter: If you haven’t
read a picture book or a middle grade novel or a YA novel in the past forty
years you shouldn’t be surprised when your manuscripts gather a bunch of
Can you imagine a guy making sports shoes without knowing
what Nike shoes look like? Can you imagine the Barnes and Noble people making
the Nook without looking at the Kindle or the Google people putting out a
tablet without studying the iPad?
Don’t give me the stink eye for telling you your book won’t
sell. This is not meant to shoot you down. It’s meant to lift you up. It’s
meant to tell you what to do to fix the problem. Very simply: Research the
Whether you’re just starting or you’ve been writing for
years, my answer is pretty much the same. You may keep your passion. You simply
have to lose your grip on the book you’re hawking that no one is buying. You either
self publish it, or you set it aside and move on. Save your passion and let go
of the rest of the story. Arguing about how much the world needs it isn’t going
to do any good. Saying that God gave it to you, isn’t going to do any good.
God gave you a vocabulary of 500 words when you were just a
baby. That doesn’t mean he wanted you to preach the sermon on Sunday. He wanted
you to work and listen and practice and to get better and better at speaking.
The fact that God gave you a story doesn’t mean he wants you
to sell it to a big publisher this year. It might mean God wants you to listen
and learn and practice and get better at writing.
And, no, you don’t have to write about zombies and vampires.
You don’t have to write fantasy or put sex scenes in the books. Don’t go away,
thinking that’s what I’m saying here.
How about just starting with giving me projects with word
counts that are in the realm of possibility? That would be a good start.
To all you writers who sit across the table from agents at
conferences: We want to say, “yes” to you. We want you to succeed and
sell a bazillion books. We want the people of the world to read your words and to
hear that great message God gave you. Study the market. Give us books we can
sell. Make us rich. Save the world. It’s a win/win scenario.