Notes from Book Concepts That Sell

This past weekend I attended the World Domination Summit in Portland, Oregon. One of the sessions I attended on Saturday was Book Concepts That Sell  presented by David Fugate (@LaunchBooks) of Launch BooksFor those who missed the session, my notes are below. 

As these are notes taken during a session, do not expect perfect grammar, or even full sentences. Assume errors exist and that I may have misquoted or added information as I took notes. Leave any questions in the comments and I’ll try to clarify as much as I can remember.

About David Fugate

David has been working in publishing for 20 years. He represents Chris Guillibeau as well as writers from Wired & Forbes. He’s sold more than 1,200 books and wrote the Unconventional Guide to Book Publishing.

Tips for Book Concepts That Sell

These tips apply both if you want to sell your book to a traditional publishing house or if you want to self-publish.

Have a Great Idea, Not Just a Good One

As an agent, David receives 10-20 pitches (book queries) a day (over 5,000 a year). The odds are bad. Most book ideas are not compelling, only average. After The 4 Hour Work Week came out, he had hundreds of pitches about similar books.

The biggest mistake of authors is they don’t kill enough okay ideas. An idea needs to be compelling right from the start. If you don’t get a “Wow” response telling someone the title and subtitle, you don’t have a great concept yet.

Research Your Idea

Check out what other books exist on Amazon on your topic and how well they are selling. You don’t want to write a book that will be 26th behind 25 other books that aren’t selling.

Think About Your Audience

Too many authors only care about what they want to say, not what others want to read.

Find a Unique Approach

If it’s in one of the core area, such as a business, diet or recipe book, find a unique way to approach it. For instance, a unique approach to recipe books was Hungry Girl: 200 Under 200 – 200 Recipes Under 200 Calories.

Take The $100 Startup. Chris collected 1,500 stories. Then he add the “$100 to start a business” idea & they had multiple publishers lined up when they started sending out proposals.

Physics of the Impossible: A book about the physics of sci-fi ideas for a lay audience. Fantastic concept.

The Healing of America: Rather than write about the healthcare debate, this guy went to India, France, Canada & experienced their healthcare systems. He had knee surgery in India. Then he wrote the book about all these systems.

Don’t Worry About Protecting Your Idea

As in software, ideas are a dime a dozen. Execution is what matters. You can’t really protect your idea. Why would any agent steal your idea? They 50% regardless. They’d rather have you write the book than steal it and get someone else to do it.

Stake Out Your Territory

When dealing with idea-based books, you need to say something controversial. Don’t worry about pleasing everyone, worry about engaging people. For example: Everything Bad Is Good for You or The Upside of Irrationality.

Read Books

You have to read books. Too many book queries are about books that are already on the market. Anytime you come up with a book idea or title, check it on Amazon. Make sure you’ve read the other books in the space. If you haven’t read the other books, you don’t know how your book is different. If you figure out what they are doing, you can be different.

Think Like An Editor

The first time an editor receives a pitch, they go look at comps. They look at Nielsen book scan to see how other books in your category are selling. If none of them sold over 10,000 copies, they won’t pay attention to your book. If the other books in your category are all ranked at  #30,000-40,000 or lower across all book sales, then don’t bother. They need to be closer to # 5,000-10,000 or even higher. At this level, you are selling about 100 books a week. But it’s almost a geometric progression going from #1 down. The #1 bestseller sells vastly more than the #10 bestseller.

Publishers Marketplace is where agents & editors post the deals they are doing on an ongoing basis. If an agent sells a book, they’ll write a short blurb about the book deal they just sold. About 60-70% of the books being sold wind up there. They’ll give you the title, subtitle, author & one-sentence description of the book. Their newsletter comes out once a week. Agents & publishers use it to promote their books and their services. It gives you a chance to look at how books are being described. Read the book summaries to understand what’s engaging about the titles, subtitles and descriptions.

Search the deals database. It’s broken down into categories. Pick a category, leave the search field blank & pick a timeframe. Then you can see what’s been done. In publishing it’s a 2 year time gap between the book being sold and it being published. If you don’t research the book deals, you may be pitching a book idea that’s already been sold.

Look on Amazon

If a book isn’t getting at least 25 reviews, then people aren’t reading it. Read the reviews on Amazon to see if readers are liking the concept of your book. Also look for gaps or needs reviewers are expressing.

Find an Agent

When you want to find an agent, sign up for Publishers Marketplace for $20 a month and use it to find an agent. You can see all the agents who have published the books in your category in an afternoon. Just search for books, then click through to the agent who published that book. You can then click through to see what other books that agent has sold.

Don’t Copy The Megahits

No one knows why the megahits hit. You can’t copy the formula and have it work. Instead, find very successful books that aren’t megahits. Show how your book fits within that category, but has a different spin.

Be Careful of Publishing Trends

Take the “do-something-for-a-year, then publish a book” about it trend. It’s worn out. There’s still books in the pipeline, since it’s a 2 year pipeline. But the trend is worn out. The original was The Year of Living Biblically.

Avoid Odd Formats

Be creative with structure and approach, but don’t be creative with the format of the book. Publishers are more open to smaller books with more whitespace like Re:Work. But if you have lots of color photographs or odd dimensions, only a few publishers publish those books. And they don’t pay a lot of money or buy that many.

Do Not Sell for Average

Be brilliant. Be fascinating. Be engaging. If you have the right idea, you’ll have that a-ha! feeling. Don’t want to be a writer, want to write.

Build a Following

The more you can show you can promote the book, the more money you can negotiate. You need at least 25,000 – 30,000 Twitter followers and around 100,000 unique visitors to be taken seriously. Also take into account your friend’s followers & reach. Get people to say they will help promote your book and include them in your numbers.


How do you measure your own success?

He worked for other agencies for many years. He got tired of making money for each book, worrying about his metrics. David doesn’t worry about the money. He wants to sell cool books & work with good authors.

For instance, one book he pitched was called The Cure for Alcoholism. He had 60 rejections. It has only sold 10-12,000 copies, but has changed people’s lives.

Talk about publishers. Why would you go traditional vs self-publishing?

Publishers will do almost nothing you will see. Sometimes they will pay to have your book shown face out. They mainly focus on getting your book into stores.

Revenue per copy is much better on self-publishing. 70% vs much lower (25% for electronic copies). Traditional publishing gives you authority. Most books are still sold physically: 80% physical copies, 20% digital right now. If you can do a book that can get on a bestselling list, it will improve everything else: speaking opportunities, etc.

eBooks monetize your tribe. A successful print book expands the size of your tribe.

Can you talk about Amazon working directly with authors?

Amazon wants to be the Walmart of publishing. Amazon hired the CEO of Warner Books to run their publishing division & hired 5 New York editors to find books. So Amazon is now a publisher just like a conventional publisher. They also pay traditional fees (25%, not 70%). Barnes & Noble won’t carry physical books published by Amazon.

What about books with only 5-star reviews on Amazon?

Everyone is looking to game Amazon. Front-loading reviews happen all the time. You want to get people to review your book. Ideally you want them to be honest. But if you ask your “tribe” to review your book, you’re more likely to get 4 & 5 star reviews, since they already like you and your writing.

What should you look for in an agent?

Look for an agent that has a good track record of sales. You want to see them doing deals for lots of money, for books in your genre and to have a good relationship with that person. There is no rulebook for how an agent should work. Your agent should be your advocate. They need to be your warrior against the big company. And you better like your agent. The relationship lasts a minimum of 3 years.

Send your pitch to a bunch of agents. Ideally you want 3-4 agents responding saying they want to represent you. Then interview them, talk to them. Ask them what they liked about your project, how they would approach it.

What genres have been the most marketable in the past 5 years?

Fiction outsells non-fiction at the top level. Business books are steady, but not the bestselling. Most exciting thing that happened was Harry Potter because it spawned a whole new generation of readers. Though now he’s sick of all the zombie & vampire books coming out now.

Why did 50 Shades of Grey take off?

No clue. No one knows. You can’t predict the megahits.

For more of my notes from the World Domination Summit check out Indie Publishing Demystified and Less Is More: Simple Productivity Hacks

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