3 Things You Need for a Successful Book

3 Things You Need for a Successful BookI was going to title this post, “3 Things Publishers Look for in a Book,” or maybe “3 Things Agents Look For.” But then I realized that the three keys of a successful book apply across the board. It doesn’t matter you’re using an agent, if you’re going through a publisher, or even if you’re self-publishing. There are some essentials that every writer needs to consider if they intend for their work to attract readers.


The elements of a successful book are:

1. A compelling topic (a great idea).

2. Excellent execution (strong writing and organization).

3. An audience (also known as a platform).

These three essentials work together to determine the strength of your book. You need all three, but sometimes if you’re weak in one area, you might make up for it with exceptional strength in the other two areas.

In fiction: the idea and execution are primary; the author platform is still important but not nearly as important as the writing.

In non-fiction: the author platform is of primary importance; the idea comes next, and the execution (the writing itself) becomes the third consideration.

If an unpublished writer comes to me with a medium platform, then in order to consider them, I need a really killer book idea. It can’t be just another “good” idea. But if the platform is enormous and I know the book will sell partly based simply on the strength of the author, then the idea just has to be “good enough.” It’s a sliding scale, with each element contributing its strength and hopefully there is enough “oomph” between the three elements to push the book over the tipping point into “sellable.”

There’s no formula. It’s an art, not a science, and a subjective one at that. What one person thinks is a great idea, another may find “ho hum.” Even so, every agent, every publisher, and every self-publisher should be looking for each book to have a winning combination of these essentials.

Let’s drill down a bit:

1. A compelling topic

The concept itself must turn heads. In one sentence it’s obvious that you have a fresh idea. It sparks interest, it compels people to want to hear more, and it might even make some people mad.

Take a look at your idea, and how you’re phrasing it. Does it sound fresh and exciting—or like a hundred other books already out there?

2. Excellent execution

This is all about the writing. Plenty of people can string a few words together. But when you put your words on a page, do they sing? The craft of writing is exactly that—a craft. Like any craft, it requires learning, practice, apprenticeship, dedication. Have you done what it takes to make your writing worthy of public exposure prior to submitting it for publication?

In the fiction queries I receive, average or poor writing is the biggest reason for rejection. Some people have terrific ideas for stories that sound like they’re going to knock my socks off. But when I start to read, I realize they haven’t taken the time to develop their craft prior to submission. (This can be quite disappointing to me, because often the ideas are really good.)

In a non-fiction book, the ideas need to be well-organized and the prose needs to shine. It’s easy for a non-fiction book to become boring and lose the reader’s interest. The writing matters.

3. An audience.

You probably already know that you need a platform, which refers to the means by which you’ll help sell your book by your presence in the media, social media, and/or the public sphere.

The key to platform is your target audience and what you are doing to reach them. It’s smart to begin building your platform well before you hope to be published—years, even. Are you already blogging, building a Facebook community, writing articles, or out on the speaking circuit?

Evaluate Yourself

Look critically at your proposal and manuscript—better yet, have someone else do it for you—and make an honest evaluation as to how you’re faring on the three tiers: Topic, Execution, and Audience. Whatever is lacking, set out to improve it. And don’t worry about how much time it will take. It is better to do it right than to do it fast.

Of course, having these three elements doesn’t guarantee you’ll have a successful book. These are the bare bones—the minimum needed to find success in publishing. The rest is, as you know, timing, luck, and a sprinkling of fairy dust.

In which area — topic, execution, audience — are you strongest? Which do you find most difficult? What are you doing to strengthen your weaker areas?


“It is better to do it right than to do it fast.” @RachelleGardner on elements of a successful book. Click to Tweet.

Do you know the 3 things you need for a successful book? @RachelleGardner explains. Click to Tweet.

3 things your book needs: great idea, excellent execution, strong platform. Click to Tweet.



Rachelle Gardner

Literary agent at Gardner Literary. Coffee & wine enthusiast (not at the same time) and dark chocolate connoisseur. I've worked in publishing since 1995 and I love talking about books!


  1. Andrew Turner on August 10, 2015 at 6:59 AM

    Surely if a book is any good it stands on its own without blogs , social media and the like. Are you not trying to persuade the reader that the average is worth reading?

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  8. Christy Fitzwater on April 27, 2013 at 8:10 AM

    Thank you, Rachelle, I just heard from my agent that my platform and my execution need work -the idea is strong. It’s encouraging to hear you say the same thing!

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  10. Christina Banks on April 24, 2013 at 10:16 PM

    Great post, Rachelle. I am still a little ways away from looking for agent representation. I’m honing my craft, reading books, taking courses, and practicing what I’m learning. I love my story ideas, and believe others will too, if I can execute them properly. The area I struggle the most with is my networking and platform building. As an introvert, this doesn’t come easily for me. It was nice to hear that strengths in the other two areas could make up for my deficiency in platform building.

  11. Natasha Crain on April 23, 2013 at 11:43 PM

    This was such an interesting post. Everywhere you go, you hear about the importance of platform, but to actually see it ranked before topic and execution (for non-fiction) is eye-opening. I loved seeing how you fit the pieces together in a sliding scale as well. As someone else mentioned, it begs the question of what a medium vs. large platform is, but I know there aren’t hard cut-offs.

    The area I’m most uncertain of would be my topic. Of course, I think my topic is unique, important and commercially viable, but I’m sure everyone does! It’s “untested” because I haven’t yet queried (currently doing the sample chapters). The appeal remains TBD. I think I have a strong platform, but that is in the absence of hard numbers for comparison.

  12. Barbara McDowell Whitt on April 23, 2013 at 5:26 PM

    Rachelle, my compelling topic is that I wrote my book in the 1960s with nightly entries in one-year-diaries. In 2010 I began a blog in which I am posting
    the entries from my high school and college diaries, 50 years after I wrote the original entries. I have always had strong writing skills. Since my blog, by its nature, is “static,” I practice my writing skills when I leave comments on other people’s blogs or on social media sites. Some authors and agents think of platform as skills rather than or in addition to audience, so I am working to gain exposure in both of these areas.

  13. Vashti Quiroz-Vega on April 23, 2013 at 2:02 PM

    Great post! Very helpful, thank you. 😀

  14. J. M. Tompkins on April 23, 2013 at 12:20 PM

    I feel that I have great ideas, but have a small audience and need to work on execution. Thankfully, I have great mentors guiding me on how to develop my craft and I am working on the platform, which is a slow process. I am happy to read that for fiction, the idea and craft are more important since that is where I am trying to spend my time.

    • Cherry Odelberg on April 23, 2013 at 12:59 PM

      How fortunate to have great mentors! I, too, have great ideas and a small audience. I think if we are faithful to the ideas and the craft the audience will grow according to God’s time.

  15. Stéphanie Noël on April 23, 2013 at 11:11 AM

    I guess I have problems with a mix of all 3. I have great stories, but I can’t see them through, so no matter how godd the execution, I never get to finish them. As for the platform, I have none because I fail to finish my stories and have nothing to show. Also, I have a hard time showing my material to people because I always feel they can’t be bothered.

    • Cherry Odelberg on April 23, 2013 at 1:00 PM

      Perhaps you are not alone. These seem like pretty widespread challenges.

  16. Dan Erickson on April 23, 2013 at 10:05 AM

    Based on editor and reader feedback, I’m confident about #1 and #2. But as a self-published writer who is also a single parent and works full-time, creating a platform is a long, slow process. My hope is that my platform increases with each book I write. Book #2 “At the Crossing of Justice and Mercy” is now complete.

  17. Joanne Bischof on April 22, 2013 at 10:35 PM

    Great post and great points, Rachelle. There’s just something that draws you in about a compelling concept in fiction. Mix in great writing and I’m always hooked. 🙂

  18. Chris Schumerth on April 22, 2013 at 8:29 PM

    I have a question about a specific genre. What does/should a platform/audience look like for a creative nonfiction/memoir writer? I’m definitely doing some things with a blog and social media, but obviously this kind of writing is not the same as, say, an expertise on a certain topic. Thoughts???

    • Nancy Petralia on April 23, 2013 at 11:23 AM

      I’m right there with you Chris. The book my husband and I wrote, Not in a Tuscan Villa, is due out in about a month. It’s the story of two sixty-somethings who abandon a comfortable retirement to move to Italy for a year. The experience-good and bad-recaptures their youth, reinvigorates their romance, and gives them a new perspective on America and how they want to live the rest of their lives.

      The point of all this platform stuff is to reach potential readers. Does your book’s story appeal to a group or groups you can describe? The more narrow the group the better. Now where do you find those people–online and off? Focus your platform efforts there.

      One of our key audiences is Italophiles–people who love Italy. We plan to reach them through the organizations that attract them like Italian Cultural groups both online and off. So think about where your likely readers might go, what they might read, and who already gathers them together. Like Rachelle gathers writers.

      And don’t overlook the power of friends and family. I have a list of more than 125 people that I can count on to tell their friends in person or social media and/or write a review for Amazon, Goodreads or another reader site. If each one pulls in 10 others that’s 1250 book sales and a boatload of promotion.

      Hope this helped.

      • Laura Libricz on April 25, 2013 at 8:13 AM

        Hi Nancy,
        Thanks for your comment. I write historical novels set in Germany in English and it seems the subject is a bit obscure for the average reader. I never thought of contacting cultural societies. Wonderful idea!

    • Kelly Kilen Kuhn on April 23, 2013 at 1:38 PM

      I wonder the same thing, Chris. I wrote a memoir last year, and I’ve received excellent feedback, primarily from people I don’t know so I assume they’re honest. I’ve started a blog and am reaching out to people to build a platform for it. Still, I know the line is blurry with memoir – and experts argue whether it should follow the rules of fiction or nonfiction.

      I’d love to know what is a tipping point for attracting a lit agent and publisher – how many unique visitors or page views or subscribers for a blog before starting the querying process? How many facebook fans? It would be so helpful to have quantifiable guidance with that so I don’t waste a lit agent’s time and query too soon. Or wait longer than I need to.

  19. Morgan Tarpley on April 22, 2013 at 2:58 PM

    Great post, Rachelle! I believe my writing and ideas are strong. My beta readers have said multiple times that my novel doesn’t seem like it’s a debut but of a seasoned writer, which was great to hear. My platform is growing in leaps and bounds on my blog (www.pensonaworldmap.com), which has been so exciting!

    I recently received feedback from an industry pro about the organization of my novel though. The person thought my writing is very good and the idea is unique but had trouble with some of the book’s structure. So I will be addressing this issue now. It’s encouraging to know I’m on the right track to being agented and published! 🙂 Thanks!

  20. […] 3 Things You Need for a Successful Book, by Rachelle Gardner – “I was going to title this post, “3 Things Publishers Look for […]

  21. Marilyn Rodwell on April 22, 2013 at 2:23 PM

    Good useful points! I am just coming to the point where I am thinking about these things. I’m on my 3rd edit, and starting to write strap lines and pitch. It’s so easy to sound boring. I have to find a way of adding some zing to my lines!

  22. Jeanne Takenaka on April 22, 2013 at 10:16 AM

    I enjoyed this post. I think my topic is strong, but I need to figure out how to word it in a way that gets people thinking. I’m growing in craft and writing daily. I am also figuring out the ins and outs of blogging. I guess I’m still growing in all these areas. Thanks for giving me some good parameters to shoot for.

  23. Esther Aspling on April 22, 2013 at 10:14 AM

    Thanks for the great post! It was a wealth of information that I’ll be sharing with friends!


  24. Andrew Budek-Schmeisser on April 22, 2013 at 3:31 AM

    I thought I was weakest in platform-building, but a funny thing happened on the way to…well, wherever.
    I started actually trying to understand how FB worked, and started using it consistently. And…
    My Facebook audience suddenly took off. I have no idea why.I started writing short mini-blogs about what was important to me, every day, and then I began to be deluged by friend requests, some from people I only saw on television.
    At first I suspected that the bulk were folks who were going to ask for money, as the horror stories go…but the only one who did, kind of, was a pastor from Pakistan. He didn’t ask for money. He asked for shoes. Used shoes.
    I also thought (uncharitably, to be sure), that some friend requests from women were using FB as a de facto dating site, but I was flattering myself.
    They all seem to be sincere Christians, who post occasional positive and hopeful messages on their walls.
    I’d love to say this has led to a feeling of validation, or completeness, or something like that. But I’m just puzzled. (I’m tempted to say ‘humbled’, but there would be a certain arrogance in that, and I’m not humbled. Just puzzled.)

    (If anyone has had a similar experience, or can suggest an explanation, I’d be delighted to hear it.)

    • Sue Harrison on April 22, 2013 at 8:54 AM

      I believe that’s called the “tipping point,” Andrew. It’s that place where (when?) you have a large enough audience that the chatter is strong enough to generate more – buyers, friends, readers, etc. Congratulations on being at that point!

      • Andrew Budek-Schmeisser on April 22, 2013 at 10:47 AM

        That makes sense, I’ve heard that term! Thanks, Sue!

      • Cherry Odelberg on April 23, 2013 at 1:03 PM

        Good categorization, Sue.

    • Jeanne Takenaka on April 22, 2013 at 10:13 AM

      Andrew–nice. What’s your one tip for using FB well?

      • Andrew Budek-Schmeisser on April 22, 2013 at 10:47 AM

        I never thought I’d be in the position of giving a tip on using FB! But here goes – be consistent in leaving something fresh on your wall, every day – and make sure it has something to do with your platform. Don’t be all over the map, and don’t be too personal. If you’re writing to a Christian audience, it’s a ministry. Respect it as such.