The Spine of Success: Good Storytelling

Practical advice on everything from the changing publishing landscape, the secret ingredients in a New York Times bestseller, and how to approach an agent.

Emily Loose is an independent book agent, editor and publishing consultant. She has worked as a senior acquisitions editor at three of the big five general trade publishing houses, Crown Publishers of Random House, The Penguin Press of Penguin Books, and Free Press of Simon & Schuster, signing and publishing seventeen New York Times bestsellers in that time. At the upcoming Creative Nonfiction Writers’ Conference, she will meet with writers to discuss their projects, provide insights into the evolving publishing landscape, and explore the pros and cons of self vs. traditional publishing.

In anticipation of the conference, Creative Nonfiction’s Kristina Marusic spoke with her about the changing publishing landscape, the secret ingredients in a New York Times bestseller, and how to approach an agent.

CNF: How has the world of publishing changed over the last ten years, and how do you think it will continue to change?

LOOSE: That’s a big question. Publishing has changed a whole lot during that time in some ways, but in other ways it has stayed fundamentally the same.

I think that the amount of change and the nature of the change has been somewhat misrepresented due to all of the press coverage about the advent of e-books and the growing portion of the market they’re taking. In the last two years we’ve actually seen a plateauing of the sale of e-books, and something of a settling down in terms of the disruption the industry has been going through. All of the talk about the death of print books and the emergence of radical new types of narrative forms, such as enhanced e-books, has been wildly premature. Those things may ultimately still happen, but not for many years.

I also think the coverage about the closing of so many bookstores and of numerous houses and imprints, and the merger of Random House and Penguin, has led to an overemphasis on the doom and gloom of consolidation, which, though it’s been substantial and quite painful for so many in the industry, has also made many of the remaining houses stronger, just as the bookstores still standing are generally better run. This is not to say that there aren’t still troubling developments, as with Amazon wielding the daunting power of its sales platform to pressure houses into agreeing to more favorable sales terms by slowing the shipment and increasing the prices of selected titles, as covered recently in the New York Times. For sure, one of the most significant changes in the last ten years has been the rise of Amazon, both as a disruptive force transforming the sales landscape, e.g. the closing of Borders, and more recently as a publisher. While Amazon’s traditional book publishing division hasn’t generated many ripples, the growth of its self-publishing programs—Kindle Direct Publishing and CreateSpace—is a major development, as is the rise generally of self-publishing. This area of change is sure to continue developing in interesting ways.

Probably the biggest change in addition to the consolidation and the explosion onto the scene of e-books has been the evolution of so many new ways for authors to publish their work and to build a readership—self-published books, e-singles, online-only magazines and blogs, subscription services publishing long-form pieces, such as Byliner, podcasts, webcasts and webinars, and of course social media and online reading communities like Goodreads. These have all empowered writers to form direct relationships with their readers, which has been a very positive development, and the evolution of these platforms is sure to continue apace. More and more established and successful authors will be deciding to either go the self-publishing route entirely or to publish some of their work that way, and more and more new voices will break out into bestseller-dom. That said, the overwhelming majority of self-published books earn their authors very little money, and publishing with a traditional house still has many important benefits—editorial and promotional expertise, distribution of print books into stores, which is still a mighty driver of sales. So I think we’ll see the rise of the hybrid author, publishing some work through these new platforms and some with traditional houses, which a recent study showed generates the highest median income for writers, by a significant margin.

Another trend that’s received a good deal of attention and I know is troubling to writers is that royalty advances have been decreasing. That’s partially true, but the situation is actually more of a dichotomy—royalty advances have been getting both larger and smaller. There’s a more intense focus on what we crudely call in the industry “big books”—those that can be reliably expected to become bestsellers, whether because they’re by high-profile authors, celebrities, politicians, or are news-making—and the advances for those have arguably actually increased over the decade. For books we’ve traditionally called “midlist,” advances have been getting somewhat lower on average. So I think one new development we’ll see more of also is authors turning to other means to fund their writing, such as crowdfunding.

All of the factors that make writing effective and able to find a market have remained the same. Good storytelling, and specifically for nonfiction, great research and great argumentation, are still the spine of success.

Publishers are also scrutinizing proposals for these books more rigorously. And this leads me to the biggest thing that hasn’t changed, and won’t in the future. All of the factors that make writing effective and able to find a market have remained the same. Good storytelling, and specifically for nonfiction, great research and great argumentation, are still the spine of success. Those are the elements that all publishers are most intent on, and the authors who demonstrate strong command of the craft are, in my time in the business, more sought-after than ever.

CNF: You’ve been involved in the publication of a number of New York Times bestsellers. Is there a secret ingredient?

LOOSE: One of the most reliable drivers of success for a work of nonfiction is powerful narrative, whether  that’s in the  form of a nonfiction novel (In the Garden of Beasts, Seabiscuit, A Civil Action) or strongly character- and scene-driven expository writing (The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Moonwalking With Einstein). Nonfiction that demonstrates a deft incorporation of a number of the techniques of fiction is one of the most sought-after types of writing by the major trade publishers and by the public. Those books have a disproportionate chance of breaking out. Another way to really connect most reliably with a large audience is by doing the kind of exquisite research behind books like Quiet: The Power of Introverts by Susan Cain, The River of Doubt by Candice Millard, and Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo, about a topic of genuine interest or importance. With each of these books, it’s apparent that the writer has done a stellar job of accumulating and interpreting important research on an issue that is of clear concern to a well-defined and sizeable constituency of readers. 

This notion of a constituency of readers is key. Many books that have a strong narrative and for which the author has done extensive research don’t hit. This is often because they are on a subject for which it turns out there actually isn’t a bestselling-sized constituency for a full book-length revelation or story. They would have been better written as a magazine article, or now a long-form online piece or e-single. So another key ingredient is an established, or a newly primed, readership. Rather than trying to make a readership, authors should aim to tap into existing readerships. I always tell writers to determine a lineage of successful books that they want to contribute to, to deeply study the fundamental elements of those books  that made them connect so powerfully, and then to do their own, original version of offering those fundamental elements. So, for example, one such lineage would be that of urban ethnographies, and books in it would include Tally’s Corner, Rachel and Her Children, There Are No Children Here, and Random Family. Katherine Boo extended the lineage and brought it abroad to a slum in Mumbai in Behind the Beautiful Forevers.

The other key component of bestselling success is that the authors have developed what we call a “platform.” Authors will connect much more reliably with a significant audience if they’ve been building up a following well before the publication of their book. That can be done in many ways. The most sought-after by publishers is for an author to have regular television or radio exposure or to be sought-after by the media for interviews because of information the author has that is newsworthy. But being a regular contributor to a prominent periodical, whether print or online, developing a strong following on a prominent blog, and building strong interest in your book well before launch through these mechanisms, as well as social media, are great ways to build your platform.

Becoming savvy about platform building is vital for writers now because it’s very difficult to get approval for signing a book if  there isn’t at least some indication that the author has the capability to do more and more of that over time.

CNF: Do agents and publishers expect writers to have all of that already in place when they’re submitting a query or a book proposal? Is that something you have ever coached writers in doing?

LOOSE: Great question. Yes, publishers are looking to see an author’s platform in place when a proposal comes to them. And yes, I have coached a number of authors into developing good platforms and strong advance followings for their books. It is still possible to get a contract if you don’t have this kind of platform yet if your proposal is truly compelling, but in those instances it’s important to at least have started on the process of building your platform – such as by contributing to a blog, or having placed some articles for print publication, and to immediately begin the work of growing that platform so that it’s much better established well in advance of the launch of the book. It’s very important for authors not to expect that the publisher to be the primary driver of building their platform up. Beginning to publish articles in better and better periodicals, blogging, and tweeting about other people’s work—giving attention to other writers—are all great ways to build awareness among an “early-adopter” community about your own work. There’s what I call a culture of reciprocity on the web—e.g., if you tweet about people’s work they notice and are more likely to return the favor—and tapping into that can be a potent strategy for building awareness about yourself and your work. Becoming savvy about platform building is vital for writers now because it’s very difficult to get approval for signing a book if  there isn’t at least some indication that the author has the capability to do more and more of that over time.

CNF: What’s the main mistake that writers make when trying to approach an agent?

LOOSE: The biggest mistake is that too many authors approach agents far too early in the process of having conceptualized their book and having developed an understanding of who the readership for the book is. They’re often looking to the agent to be the one to do that conceptualizing for them, and also to do the heavy lifting of figuring out who the readership is. I think the single most important piece of advice I can give aspiring authors is that it will be all to their benefit, and will make an enormous difference in the path of their writing career, if they take primary responsibility for knowing how to conceptualize their work in the ways that the largest reading public wants to receive their work. Writers should be able to articulate exactly who their readership is comprised of, and have great clarity about what that readership is looking for in a book, what I call the mandate. That doesn’t mean they have to know what the complete readership is. When a book hits, there are often surprises about the groups of readers who jump onboard. But you have to start from a place of knowing who your most representative reader is and what he or she is really looking for from you. You shouldn’t let anyone else do that work for you. Agents can do a lot of helping to shape and optimize a project. They can do a great job of informing you that your readership may well be wider than you’ve been thinking, or (as is much more often the case) that it’s much smaller than you’ve been thinking, and of helping you revise your concept to reach a larger group of readers. They can provide insightful readings of your proposal and your manuscripts and extensively develop those editorially with you. And they have valuable expertise about which editors to send your proposal to and how to generate optimal interest in it and how to orchestrate the best possible set of offers. So agents can do a great deal of good for you in terms of making your project more sellable, but the ultimate authority over the vision for your book and its readership should be yours.

CNF: What are some examples of the types of readerships nonfiction writers should keep in mind when they’re developing that vision?

LOOSE: Readerships are often described by genres—e.g. history readers, science readers, women’s interest readers—which is much too vague. Some people who love Civil War history have no interest whatsoever in European or Asian history. This is where knowing the lineages of successful books is so powerful.  Rather than history readers, you can identify readers of Civil War battle narratives; rather than science readers, those who devour high-level physics books, one of the strongest lineages in popular science. But it’s even better to have identified a more specific “family” of successful titles. One example of a family of titles would be Fast Food Nation, Omnivore’s  Dilemma, Good Calories, Bad Calories, all of which an author whose book I signed—which is just out and has generated a great deal of media attention and is selling strongly, titled The Big Fat Surprise—drew on as models. You can also identify “anti-readerships,” meaning subject areas in which books almost never generate a large audience, even if they are very good. One such is genetics. It’s extremely difficult to draw a large group of readers to a book in the field, which makes carefully studying the few successes, such as Matt Ridley’s Genome, all the more important.

I also like to explain to authors that there are two basic dynamics by which large readerships develop. The first is the concentric circles dynamic, where an inner core of people—those Malcolm Gladwell would refer to as “mavens”—become fans of the book, and create enough buzz about it that a larger and larger market radiates out from that core. The other is the Venn diagram readership, where there are two, three or more clusters of readers who come together around a book. Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks attracted several groups of readers right at the start—those interested in African-American lives and race issues, biography readers, and science readers. Once the word radiated out that it was such a rich narrative of a family’s experience and of the author’s own journey of discovery, it also attracted many memoir and fiction readers, at which point it became a mass appeal phenomenon.

CNF: If you could give emerging writers of creative nonfiction one piece of advice, what would it be?

LOOSE: Study, study, study, study deeply the techniques of creative nonfiction writing, and hone your command of them; become a master craftsperson of those techniques. Make sure that you do not present your materials to editors and to agents before it’s really singing. Because you don’t get a lot of shots. •


About the Author

Kristina Marusic

Kristina Marusic works as a writer for MTV News’s social justice vertical, “Issues,” covering topics including the Black Lives Matter movement, LGBTQ issues, and feminist pop culture. She is a full-time reporter for Environmental Health News.

View Essays