August 17 – 23: “In today’s market, does plot alone lead to sales?”

thriller-roundtable-logo5In today’s market, does plot alone lead to sales? This week ITW Members Mauro Azzano, Barb Han and Jean Heller will discuss how age, life experiences, and a strong social media presence factor into the equation.




death by deceitMauro Azzano was born in Italy, north of Venice. He grew up in Italy, Australia and finally Canada, settling on the west coast outside Vancouver, Canada. He has a broad experience to call on as a writer, having worked as a college instructor, commercial pilot and a number of other unusual occupations. Currently, he is working on the Ian McBriar Murder Mystery series and training as a distance runner.


hellerMost of Jean Heller’s career was as an investigative and projects reporter and editor in New York City, Washington, D.C. and St. Petersburg Florida. Her career as a novelist began in the 1990s with the publication of the thrillers, “Maximum Impact” and “Handyman” by St. Martin’s Press. Then life intervened and postponed her new book, “The Someday File,” to publication in late 2014. Jean has won the Worth Bingham Prize, the Polk Award, and is an eight-time Pulitzer Prize nominee.


texas preyUSA Today bestselling author Barb Han lives in Texas-her true north-with her adventurous family, a spunky golden retriever/poodle mix, and too many books (if there is such a thing). She loves romance novels, thriller movies, and cooking. Her favorite hobbies include hiking, swimming and skiing.




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  1. If I pick up a book and don’t find the characters interesting, the plot really doesn’t matter. I generally put the book away and likely never pick up a book by the same author again.

    A large element of what makes a good plot is the way events affect and change the characters, especially the protagonist. This is where life experience comes in. When I sat down to write my first novel, MAXIMUM IMPACT, the protagonist initially was 26 years old. I found very quickly that someone that age doesn’t have enough life experience to respond to stressors in a genuinely interesting way, at least in adult fiction. I’m sure YA authors know how to maneuver around that obstacle.

    I was reminded of the old story about a father who comes home to find his young son playing on the floor, surrounded by toys, books, an iPad, and puzzles. “What’s new, son?” the father asks. And the wide-eyed boy responds, “Everything, Dad. Everything.”

    In a slightly more adult world, my 26-year-old was more likely to regard events with wonder and amazement rather than impatience or fear or anger. I aged him by eight years, and suddenly he was a man I had fun writing. That book, btw, was nominated by the publisher for a Pulitzer Prize in fiction, so I guess my instincts were correct.

    Characters and their response to the events of the plot are a big percentage of what makes a book soar or crash.

    In terms of social media, I don’t know if you’re asking about its impact on a novel or on sales. I don’t think it’s critical to force social media into a plot that doesn’t really call for it. Anything good that goes into a plot has to evolve organically.

    In terms of sales, a strong social media presence for a book can help sales, but social media won’t sustain sales if the word-of-mouth response to the book is, “Meh.”

    So I always advise clients who come to me for editorial and editing services to pay attention to characters first. They make or break the story. My current novel, THE SOMEDAY FILE, has been getting rave reviews, including Publishers Weekly and Kirkus. All the reviews mention how great the characters are, making my point, I think.

  2. Covers and back cover blurbs sell books, so an interesting plot is key. Writing the best books we can, as frequently as we can is the best way to build a career.

    Those two things being said, social media is rising as a means by which readers are finding new-to-them authors. Word of mouth still tops the list (for now).

    I’m not sure what age and life experiences have to do with sales other than helping us gain a better perspective of the world, which in turn could help us write more interesting books. I’d say being a voracious reader, knowing what’s out there in your genre and what’s fresh is a bigger help.

    So, I see those initial couple of questions coming down to one: How much time should I spend marketing my work versus writing a new book and focusing on craft?

    The answer, for me at least, is always to spend most of my time writing a new book and I make a commitment to myself to try to write an even better book every time.

    As far as social media/marketing goes the results of my efforts are always a drop in the bucket compared to any promo I get from my publisher. I sell well in states where I don’t have a lot of social media engagement from readers.

    So, does that mean social media is a waste of time? Not at all. I’m active on Facebook and Twitter to nurture relationships with my readers. Those sites allow me to engage on a personal level with higher frequency without having to travel (which frees up more time for writing).

    I think it’s good to have a social media presence. I also know that my readers want more books from me, so they would rather I spend a greater portion of my time writing.

    1. Barb, I didn’t say the life experience of a character relates directly to sales. I said life experience gives us more possible points of conflict between a character and events of the story, more ways events affect and motivate the protagonist. In a good plot, the protagonist is changed by events, perhaps in subtle ways, but changed nonetheless. Maybe the character fights the changes. Maybe the character is alarmed by the changes. All this makes the character more interesting. The more interesting the character becomes, the more interesting the book becomes, and the more good media and word of mouth the book will get. And that’s when there’s an impact on sales.

      The best books are about people, not events.

          1. Thank you so much, Jean. I love what you said about the best books being about people not events and agree wholeheartedly with your statement, “A large element of what makes a good plot is the way events affect and change the characters, especially the protagonist.” Brilliant!

  3. Hi all:
    Late to the party, as ever, but you’re both right.
    If plot alone was a predictor of popularity, then Jane Austen would be an unknown. By the same token, ‘Battlefield Earth’ would be a blockbuster Oscar winning movie.
    Plot, like street cars, carries the action, but I believe that it’s only a vehicle for the characters.
    In all my books, currently in print and on the drawing board, the plot is important, but not nearly as important as the interaction between people.

    Here’s a familiar scenario: bar owner bumps into ex-girlfriend and her husband, helps them out. Yet who can’t name at least three scenes from ‘Casablanca’, yet none of them probably relates directly to the plot?

    Or: girl bumps head, dreams of faraway place with midgets and witches.
    Then again, ‘The Wizard of Oz’ was always more about Dorothy’s reactions to her new surroundings than it really was about her getting home to Kansas.
    Plot matters, sure, but again, only in the way it provides exposition for the protagonists.
    Just saying.

  4. Well said, Mauro. Love the examples. I think we’re all in agreement about what makes a great and memorable read.

    So here’s a question for all of us…does a great book sell well on it’s own or does it need marketing support, i.e. author having a social media presence, etc?

  5. Ms. Han:
    Unfortunately, the quality of a book does not often correspond to its popularity. I have avoided slagging other authors to this point, but I have to admit that a couple of years ago my boss asked me to read her copy of ‘Fifty Shades’. She had read my first book, and wanted my opinion as a writer.
    I only got through a few pages before I had to give it back. In my humble opinion, it was tripe, and poorly written tripe at that.
    Still, it has made more money than some African countries, and its popularity has caused a substantial reduction in the number of trees.

    John Cleese (of Monty Python fame) once said that, given the choice between being one of those Victorian struggling geniuses whose work is only appreciated after his death, and being a pedestrian artist who earns a very comfortable living painting fields and dogs, he would much prefer the comfortable lifestyle.

    I don’t think any of us hopes to be regarded as geniuses post mortem at the expense of our lives now, but I for one have resisted the urge to write about S&M vampire wizards merely for the sake of sales.

  6. Mauro,
    I totally agree with you about FIFTY SHADES. Horribly written, shallow, and promising way more than it delivered. Having said that, Barb, a great book is in the mind of the reader. The really great ones that combine popular themes, brilliant writing, and exquisitely rendered characters will succeed on their own — 20 years after the author dies. That’s an exaggeration, but the world will discover the great books in time. If an author wants to see quicker results, social media and other marketing seem to be a prerequisite these days.

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