I have never been what I consider a bestselling author. I’m no Stephen King or J.K. Rowling (although my initials are JK). I have written and co-authored several books that have been moderate successes, including The Complete Idiot’s Guide to PCs and Flipping Houses For Dummies. I’ve also written and co-authored several flops—Deconstructing Golden Tee Live, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to the Oceans, and Psychology Today Here to Help: The Secrets of Sexual Ecstasy.

Over the years, I’ve developed a list of the key components that contribute to making a book a market success. Each component may not need to super strong. For example, a popular celebrity can pen a bestseller without making a huge investment in marketing. The stronger each component is, however, the more successful the book.

Popular Topic

Ideally, you want to spot a hot topic several months before it becomes a hot topic, especially if you’re working on time-sensitive projects, such as computer books. In some categories, the first book that hits the shelves has a huge advantage, even if it’s not the best.

If you can’t find a wide open opportunity—a popular topic on which little or nothing of merit has been published—the next best thing is to find a topic that’s hugely popular already and try to take your slice of the pie. When we wrote Flipping Houses For Dummies, for example, several house flipping books were already on the market. We knew our book would be a success, because we believed we could write something better and that the For Dummies® brand would drive sales.

Although you can certainly write on less popular topics with some success by hitting the right niche, I think it is much more difficult. The potential market is just too small.

Strong Author Platform

Many professional writers can research and write on a variety of topics. Over the years, I have done this myself. However, nobody knows me as an expert in anything… except perhaps beginning-level computer topics, where being an expert isn’t all that important. (What’s important when you’re writing beginning-level computer books is your ability to communicate a complex topic in easy-to-understand language.) In other words, I don’t have a strong author platform. I don’t have a hugely popular website or blog. I don’t appear on TV. Journalists rarely seek my expert commentary. In fact, I prefer to avoid the spotlight.

Authors who have strong platforms have what I like to think of as the celebrity edge. They’ve already established credibility and built a high-profile and a following. Whatever books they choose to write in their area of expertise (assuming the topic is somewhat popular) are likely to sell pretty well.

One of the reasons I team up to co-author books with experts in other fields is because they already have a strong platform. They provide me with what I am lacking.

What Is an Author Platform?

An author platform is the marketing machine the author already has in place before he or she begins writing the book. This can consist of any of the following (the more, the merrier):

  • Websites
  • Blogs
  • Mailing lists
  • Speaking gigs
  • Print media exposure (writing or being interviewed for newspaper or magazine articles or columns)
  • TV appearances (on news or popular TV shows)
  • Radio interviews

Ralph R. Roberts, the lead author on several of the books I’ve co-authored, has the best author platform of anyone I’ve worked with. He is a self-proclaimed Madman Marketer and is constantly seeking and inventing new ways to market his products and brand, including his books. For examples of how Ralph uses websites and blogs to promote books, check out FlippingFrenzy.com and GetFlipping.com. We also do regular articles for RISMedia and Realty Times.

Solid Manuscript

Delivering a solid manuscript is essential to making a successful book. I edited manuscripts for about five years before I started writing them myself, and I found that I could always make a bad manuscript better, but I could rarely make it good. A repaired manuscript is like a car that’s a lemon—it never runs right. The author needs to deliver high-quality, comprehensive content that is clearly worded:

  • Explain everything the reader needs to know. Errors of omission are the most difficult to spot, so they rarely get corrected.
  • Present the information in a logical manner. Starting with a very detailed outline helps.
  • Writing is rewriting. Set each chapter aside for a day or two and revise it before delivering it to the publisher.

I used to think that if “you build it, they will come—that is, if you write a good book, people will automatically flock to the bookstores and buy it. As long as I believed that, I was destined to be somewhat poor. Yes, you do have to write a good book and deliver a solid manuscript. This is, perhaps, the single most important part of making a book successful, but it is simply not enough.

Excellent Editing

Outstanding editors make books better. They can make a lousy manuscript passable, a fair manuscript good, and a good manuscript excellent.

In the good old days, we used to have five editors on every book:

  • Acquisitions: The acquisitions editor was in charge of identifying potentially hot topics and lining up the best available authors.
  • Production: The production editor managed the process to ensure the book remained on track and on schedule. This person logged everything as it arrived from the author and then tracked it through the publishing process from development editor to copy editor to production.
  • Development: The development editor focused on the big stuff. Does the manuscript cover everything? Is the information presented in a logical order? Is the text even readable?
  • Technical: The technical editor has traditionally been a freelancer who is also an expert on the topic. This person’s job is to ferret out any technical inaccuracies and any gaps (errors of omission).
  • Copy: The copy editors check for and correct errors in grammar, spelling, and typing. The best copy editors also do some development work to ensure that everything is presented clearly and logically.

Unfortunately, I’ve noticed that some publishers, in an attempt to streamline the process and cut costs, have done away with some of the editors. In some cases, a single editor is in charge of development, production, and copy editing. In such cases, you usually see books with many more errors. I think that no one person can do a thorough job of developing and copy-editing a book; they become less careful with each pass.

Great Sales and Distribution

If people go to the bookstores and can’t find the book they want, you have a problem. That’s why it’s essential to have a publisher who can get your book into the bookstores, both online and off.

Admittedly, I don’t know very much about how sales and distribution work and how much of an effect these factors have on the market success of a book. Perhaps someone with more knowledge on this topic will stumble across this post and offer some insight.

Unrelenting Marketing Campaign

The publishing biz is highly competitive. To have your title’s voice rise above the clamor of the crowd, you have to market it. While much of the marketing comes from the author platform and publisher’s sales and distribution (not necessarily in that order), the author and publisher need to work together both at the grass roots and higher levels to spread the word. Here are some suggestions:

  • Send copies of the book to reviewers in the media, including bloggers who commonly blog on the book’s topic. (Include a press release with information that makes it easier for the person to write the review.)
  • Send complimentary copies to support groups, user groups, or special-interest groups who are likely to find the topic interesting. (These groups may be able to earn money by selling the book on their website or blog through Amazon’s Associates program or by making a bulk order purchase through the publisher.)
  • Offer to write articles for publications that commonly carry articles related to the book’s topic.
  • Offer yourself to the media for interviews. Many will send you their questions via email, so you can email your answers (if you don’t interview well over the phone or in person).
  • Create your own blog or website to promote the book.
  • Post comments and answer questions on other people’s blogs or in newsgroups related to the book’s topic.

The marketing opportunities are almost endless when you begin to think about the various ways you can promote a book. I haven’t even mentioned book signings and speaking engagements, for example.

Please Add Your Insights

A publisher once told me that he loved being in publishing, because it was such a “sexy” profession. I agree. I also find it fascinating. After about 20 years, I’m still learning every day. I invite my colleagues to add their comments and insights about what they think makes a book successful. I’m sure they can fill in the gaps, correct my errors of omission, and teach this old dog some new tricks.