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Building block of the pitch #2: never assume — and other lessons gleaned from Saturday morning cartoons

June 27th, 2008

Did I overwhelm you yesterday, by cramming everything you always wanted to know about book categories but were afraid to ask into a single post? I hope not; I’ll try to take my Building Blocks of the Pitch series a touch more slowly from here on out. And, as always, if any of you out there find what I’m suggesting confusing, I would MUCH rather that you ask me about it BEFORE you follow my advice than after.

I’m funny that way.

What I hope none of you will do is simply zone out during this series because you aren’t planning on pitching anytime soon. Believe it or not, learning how to give a verbal pitch well will improve your ability to write query letters and synopses — all three are built, after all, out of the same essential components, based upon a firm understanding of how the industry does and doesn’t work.

So as Fat Albert used to say, if you’re not careful, you might learn something before it’s done.

Yesterday, I introduced (quickly) the first building block of a successful pitch: the book category, the terminology that enables everyone in the industry to know instantly which presses, editors, and agents might be interested in a particular book.

Being able to describe one’s book in market terms is as essential for a killer pitch as for an effective query letter. As much as writers seem to adore describing their work as, “Well, it’s sort of a romance, with a thriller plot, a horror villain, and a resolution like a cosy mystery,” agents and editors tend to hear ambiguous descriptions as either waffling, a book’s not being ready to market, or the author’s just not being very familiar with how the industry actually works. The more specific you can be about your book’s category, the more professional you will sound.

Which means, incidentally, that within the pitch setting, you might want to avoid those ever-popular terms of waffle, my writing defies categorization, my book is too complex to categorize, my book isn’t like anything else out there, no one has ever written a book like this before, and it’s sort of autobiographical. Which, translated into industry-speak, come across respectively as I’m not familiar with how books are sold in North America, I don’t know one book category from another, I’m not familiar with the current market in my area of interest — which means, Mr. Agent, that I haven’t been buying your clients’ work lately, I’m not familiar with the history of the book market in my area, and I was afraid people would hurt me if I wrote this story as a memoir.

Hey, I just report the rules; I don’t make ‘em up.

My point is, walking into a pitch meeting NOT knowing how the industry would categorize your book is not smart strategy. It may feel like writing your own tombstone, but commit to a category and state it at the BEGINNING of your pitch, rather than making your hearer guess.

Why? Well, among other things, being up front about it will permit your pitch-hearer to listen to the CONTENT of your pitch, rather than thinking the whole time, “Well, that sounds sort of like a romance, with a thriller plot, a horror villain, and a resolution like a cosy mystery. How on earth am I going to categorize that?”

‘Nuff said, I think.

So let’s assume that you have in hand that vital first building block, your book’s category. This handy tool will not only feature prominently in your pitch, but also on the title page of your manuscript and in the first few lines of your query letter. (If it’s news to you that your title page should include these elements — or if it’s news to you that your manuscript should include a title page at all — please see the YOUR TITLE PAGE category at right before you even CONSIDER submitting any material to an agent or editor.)

Next, I shall be moving on to a more sophisticated marketing tool, one that is not technically required, but will instantly stamp your pitch/query as more professional. I refer, of course, to identifying your target market.

Or, to be more precise, to preparing a concise, well-considered statement of your book’s target market, including an estimate of how many potential buyers are in that demographic group. And yes, Virginia, that can mean talking — dare I say it? — statistics.

Intimidating news to those of us who vastly preferred the verbal section of the SAT to the math, isn’t it? (Actually, I was always good at math, but I suppose my high school calculus teacher didn’t nickname me Liberal Arts Annie for nothing. Still, there’s no fool like a fool playing hooky, so let’s press on.)

I’m not talking about publishing statistics here; I’m talking about easy-to-track-down population statistics — and that comes as a big surprise to practically every aspiring writer who has ever taken my pitching class. “Why,” they almost invariably cry, “shouldn’t I go to the trouble to find out how many books sold in my chosen category last year? Wouldn’t that prove that my book is important enough to deserve to be published?”

Well, for starters, any agent or editor would already be aware of how well books in the categories they handle sell, right? Mentioning the Amazon numbers for the latest bestseller is hardly going to impress them.

Instead, it makes far more sense to discover how many people there are who have already demonstrated interest in your book’s specific subject matter. But before I talk about how one goes about doing that, let’s discuss what a target market is.

Simply put, the target market for a book is the group of people most likely to buy it. It is the demographic (or the demographics) toward which your publisher will be gearing advertising.

Or, to put it another way, who out there needs your book and why?

I know these are not the first questions we writers like to ask ourselves, but if you pictured your ideal reader, who would it be? What books does this reader already buy? Who are her favorite living authors, and what traits do your books share with those that would draw your ideal reader to both?

While we’re at it, who represents her favorite authors, and would those agents be interested in your book?

Do I hear some disgruntled muttering out there? “I’m not a marketer; I’m a writer,” I hear some of you say. “How the heck should I know who is going to buy my book? And anyway, shouldn’t a well-written book be its own justification to anyone but a money-grubbing philistine?”

Well, yes, in a perfect world — or one without a competitive market. But neither is, alas, the world in which we currently live. As nice as it would be if readers flocked to buy our books simply because we had invested a whole lot of time in writing them, no potential book buyer is interested in EVERY book on the market, right? There are enough beautifully-written books out there that most readers expect to be offered something else as well: an exciting plot, for instance, or information about an interesting phenomenon.

To pitch or query your book successfully, you’re going to need to be able to make it look to the philistines like a good investment.

And before anybody out there gets huffy about how the industry really ought to publish gorgeously-written books for art’s sake alone, rather than books that are likely to appeal to a particular demographic, think about what the pure art route would mean from the editor’s POV: if she can realistically bring 4 books to press in the next year (not an unusually low per-editor number, by the way), how many of them can be serious marketing risks, without placing herself in danger of losing her job?

Do Fat Albert and the Cosby kids really need to break down these issues into a song for the likely outcome here to be clear?

It’s very much worth your while to give some thought to your target readership BEFORE you pitch or query, so you may point it out to that nervous editor or market-anxious agent. Try to think about it not as criticism of your book, but as a legitimate marketing question: who is going to read your book, and why?

As with choosing a book category, it pays to be specific. For one thing, it will make you stand out from the crowd of pitchers.

Why? Well, to put it charitably, the vast majority of fiction writers do not think very much about the demographics of their potential readers — which is to say, most don’t seem to consider the question at all. (A luxury, I might point out, that NF writers do not have: NF book proposals invariably have an entire SECTION on target audience. No one ever seems to think that is incompatible with the production of art.) Or when fiction writers are forced to answer the question, they identify their readership in the broadest possible terms.

PLEASE, for your own sake, avoid the oh-so-common trap of the dismissive too-broad answer: women everywhere will be interested in this book; every American will want to buy this; it’s a natural for Oprah. Even in the extremely unlikely event that any of these statements is literally true in your book’s case, agents and editors hear such statements so often that by this point in human history, they simply tune them out.

Especially the one about Oprah.

Seriously, if I had a dime for every time I have heard it, I would own my own publishing house — and the island upon which it stood, the fleet of sailboats to transport books from there to market, and a small navy’s worth of shark-wranglers to keep my employees’ limbs safe while they paddled between editing projects.

Why do sweeping generalizations tend to be ineffectual, you ask? Well, agents and editors do have quite a bit of practical experience with book marketing: they know for a fact that no single book will appeal to EVERY woman in America, for instance. Since they hear such claims so often, after awhile, they just block out all hyperbole.

Coming from authors, that is. Anyone who has ever read a marketing blurb knows that they’re not all that shy about using hyperbole themselves.

Make sure your target market are believable — but don’t be afraid to use your imagination. Is your ideal reader a college-educated woman in her thirties or forties? Is it a girl aged 10-13 who doesn’t quite fit in with her classmates? Is it an office worker who likes easy-to-follow plots to peruse while he’s running on the treadmill? Is it a working grandmother who fears she will never be able to afford to retire? Is it a commuter who reads on the bus for a couple of hours a day, seeking an escape from a dull, dead-end job?

While these may sound like narrow definitions, each actually represents a very large group of people, and a group that buys a heck of a lot of books. Give some thought to who they are, and what they will get out of your book.

Or, to put a smilier face upon it, how will this reader’s life be improved by reading this particular book, as opposed to any other? Why will the book speak to him?

Again, be as specific as you can. As with book category, if you explain in nebulous terms who you expect to read your book, you will simply not be speaking the language of agents and editors.

If you want to make their lives even easier, throw in some concrete numbers, showing just how big your target market actually is — it will make it MUCH easier for them to sell the book to higher-ups. Sales and marketing departments expect agents and editors to be able to speak in numbers — and no matter how much the editors at a publishing house love any given book, they’re unlikely to make an actual offer for it unless the sales and marketing folks are pretty enthused about it, too.

Doesn’t it make sense to make sure the agent and editor fighting for your book have that demographic information at their fingertips, when it’s relatively easy for you to put it there?

Not yet convinced that it would behoove you to go to the additional effort? Let me give you a concrete example of what can happen if a writer is vague about her target market’s demographics.

Aspiring writer Suzette has written a charming novel about an American woman in her late thirties who finds herself reliving the trauma of her parents’ divorce when she was 12. Since the book is set in the present day, that makes her protagonist a Gen Xer, as Suzette herself is. Let’s further assume that like the vast majority of pitchers, she has not thought about her target market before walking into her appointment with agent Briana.

So she’s stunned when Briana, the agent to whom she is pitching, says that there’s no market for such a book. But being a bright person, quick on her feet, Suzette comes up with a plausible response: “I’m the target market for this book,” she says. “People like me.”

Now, that’s actually a pretty good answer — readers are often drawn to the work of writers like themselves — but it is vague. What Suzette really meant was, “My target readership is women born between 1964 and 1975, half of whom have divorced parents. Just under 12 million Americans, in other words — and that’s just for starters.”

But Briana heard what Suzette SAID, not what she MEANT. Since they’ve just met, how reasonable was it for Suzette to expect Briana to read her mind?

The result was that Briana thought: “Oh, God, another book for aspiring writers.” (People like the author, right?) “What does this writer think my agency is, a charitable organization? I’d like to be able to retire someday.”

And what would an editor at a major publishing house (let’s call him Ted) conclude from Suzette’s statement? Something, no doubt, along the lines of, “This writer is writing for her friends. All four of them. Next!”

Clearly, being vague about her target audience has not served Suzette’s interests. Let’s take a peek at what would have happened if she had been a trifle more specific, shall we?

Suzette says: “Yes, there is a target market for my book: Gen Xers, half of whom are women, many of whom have divorced parents.”

Agent Briana thinks: “Hmm, that’s a substantial niche market. 5 million, maybe?”

Sounding more marketable already, isn’t it?

But when Briana pitches it to editor Ted this way, he thinks: “Great, a book for people who aren’t Baby Boomers. Most of the US population is made up of Baby Boomers and their children. Do I really want to publish a book for a niche market of vegans with little disposable income?”

So a little better, but no cigar. Let’s take a look at what happens if Suzette has thought through her readership in advance, and walks into her pitch meetings with Briana and Ted with her statistics all ready to leap off her tongue.

Suzette says (immediately after describing the book): “I’m excited about this project, because I think my protagonist’s divorce trauma will really resonate with the 47 million Gen Xers currently living in the United States. Half of these potential readers have parents who have divorced at least once in their lifetimes. Literally everybody in that age group either had divorces within their own families as kids or had close friends that did. I think this book will strike a chord with these people.”

Agent Briana responds: “There are 47 million Gen Xers? I had no idea there were that many. Let’s talk about your book further over coffee.”

And editor Ted thinks: “47 million! Even if the book actually appealed to only 1% of them, it’s still a market well worth pursuing.”

As scary as it may be to think about, if you are going to make a living as a writer, you will be writing for a public. In order to convince people in the publishing industry that yours is the voice that public wants and needs to hear, you will need to figure out who those people are, and why they will be drawn toward your book.

If you don’t want to make a living at it, of course, you needn’t worry about marketing realities; writing for your own pleasure, and that of your kith and kin, is a laudable pursuit. But if you want total strangers to buy your work, you are going to have to think about marketing it to them.

As I have said before, and shall no doubt say many times again: art for art’s sake is marvelous, but an author’s being cognizant of the realities of the market renders it far more likely that her book is going to be successful.

And, to paraphrase Fat Albert, those who don’t do their homework are not as likely to succeed as often as those who do.

Tomorrow, I shall talk about how to dig up specifics about your target demographic relatively painlessly. In the meantime, don’t play hooky, try not to assume, and keep up the good work!

10 Responses to “Building block of the pitch #2: never assume — and other lessons gleaned from Saturday morning cartoons”

  1. comment number 1 by: Shelley

    Hi Anne,

    Well, my day job is actually in marketing, so you’d think I’d be ahead of the game when it comes to describing the target market for my manuscript. But since I write what most would call literary fiction it is confounding to me. Your example about a woman who writes about her parents’ divorce is very concrete. There’s a principle topic here. But if you are telling a less topical story with themes common to most human beings it is not so easy to say “well the demo is 18 to 35, female, college educated, married with 2.5 children.” I think this is why so many writers use Oprah’s picks as a description of the kind of book they have written. Agents and editors hear this as grandiosity, but as a reader I see it as a book category in itself. I’m going to pay attention to any Oprah pick and chances are, I’m going to read it, the way others will pick up anything that says Sue Grafton or Patrica Cornwell on the cover. And the only thing I know will be consistent about her picks is the writing will be important, the characters will be important, the themes will be important. Writer’s of literary fiction often fear being buttonholed as navel gazing scribes without concern for story, who appeal to a small minority of intellectuals. I think Oprah has defied that stereotype selling the bejesus out of everyone from John Steinbok to Wally Lamb. Genre books have much more in common with each other, in terms of the conventions of their category and reader expectation. Therefore it seems much easier to define their target market. Of course I won’t use the O word in my query, because I have read many agents’ diatribes about it and I’m not about to fight city hall—although I wish the industry would recognize it for the brand it is, rather than just the delusions of unpublished writers. Because really, how else do you define the target market for the kinds of books she picks? Literary—perhaps, but don’t tell that to the millions who buy them, certainly not mainstream till she makes them so, but not stuffy, often page turners, but never genre, clearly read by numbers so large specifics are hard to pin down. I look forward to your thoughts on this. Thanks Anne. Shelley

  2. comment number 2 by: Shelley

    Serendipitously, I ran across a comment this morning that spoke directly to my above e-mail. Maria Schneider, Writer’s Digest editor, said “The term “book club novel” is hot; consider using in lieu of “literary” ficion; ‘crossover appeal’ is another good catchphrase.” Nifty, drop the O word and get the same effect. Also everyone who reads books know about book clubs, knows several people who participate…the target market begins to emerge. What say you? Thanks, Shelley

  3. comment number 3 by: Gordon G.

    Shelley – I am anxious to read Anne’s response. I never thought ‘O’,s choices were a brand as you implied. Prior to being picked there were many mainstream that didn’t need the impetus of her choice, for example – Follett, Steinbeck, Lamb etc.
    I also struggle to define what I write, and I believe mainstream captures much of what cannot be put into a specific genre. Mainstream also sounds so much better to me than ‘other’.
    As far as literary goes, all I can say is read under Anne’s categories. It can be a hard slog, especially for someone like me who writes more for the story and less for the ‘writing’.

  4. comment number 4 by: Shelley

    Gordon–Yes, Follett and Steinbeck certainly had a following before Oprah, but she re-energized their sales plenty and introduced Steinbeck as a bestseller to a new generation. As for Wally Lamb, both his first and second novels were her picks, so I guess I’d argue he certainly did need the impetus of her choice, at least to get where he has. To me an Oprah sticker on the cover of a book guarantees I’ll at least pick it up and read the back cover. I call that a brand. I know what to expect and usually I won’t be dissappointed. Again, I call that a brand. Which is why I’m intrigued by the comment I quoted above, to “consider using ‘book club novel’ in lieu of literary fiction.” It seems one way to get around a bad sterotype of literary fiction that Oprah has proven wrong again and again—but if the stamp on her books said literary fiction instead of “An Oprah Pick,” sales would plummet. I appreciate your comments and I too am looking forward to Anne’s response. Although I think she has her plate full just writing her incredibly complete posts, so we’ll see. Thanks for your thoughts Gordon. Shelley

  5. comment number 5 by: Gordon G.

    Shelley – good comeback and valid points. I will accept that the big ‘O’ on a book is a brand – not a genre stamp, and I realize that the book will undoubtedly hold interest for many. Isn’t this a great blog though, good thoughts and good people.

  6. comment number 6 by: Shelley

    I agree Gordon, not a genre stamp. I’m simply looking for a description of my target market that helps, not hurts my book. A “bookclub” novel speaks to the kind of women I think would enjoy my manuscript, as opposed to what most people take out of the term literary fiction. Yes, this is a great blog. I have learned so much, and am happy to make your acquaintence as well. See you in the comment section sometime soon huh? Shelley

  7. comment number 7 by: Anne

    I HAVE had my hands full, trying to plow through the pitch prep series before my local writers’ conference, a few weeks away. I also — and I’m not sure that all of my readers are aware of this — am a professional writer and editor over whom deadlines loom quite a bit of the time. So while dealing with this blog could easily be my full-time job, it isn’t — and that’s why I will sometimes delay answering a question that requires a post-long response when I’m in the middle of a very time-consuming series. It’s not every day that I have time to write an extra post.

    All of which is a lengthy way of saying: if my having taken a day or two to get back to a question this broad excites this much surprise amongst my regular commenters, I’m going to have to rethink how much time I’m spending answering questions. Obviously, I’ve been overdoing it.

    That being said, on to the post-length response.

    That’s as eloquent a defense of the Oprah’s Book Club demographic as I’ve ever read, Shelley — and logically, I’m with you, although if memory serves, the OBC went through a rather lengthy period when it wasn’t picking the work of LIVING writers at all — which meant, effectively, that while publishers benefitted, authors didn’t — and now seldom picks a book newly on the market. This means that the authors in question are usually pretty well established before the OBC picks them up, rather than being first-time novelists and memoirists getting their big break (which, to the OBC’s credit, was part of its original brief).

    So while the OBC undoubtedly INCREASES sales of particular books, especially those that haven’t been popular for a while, it’s pretty generous to credit the club with ALL of the subsequent sales of these books. As fond as I am of Steinbeck, particularly CANNERY ROW, it would be hard to argue that his work being selected as an OBC book pick helped his career in any way that helped HIM personally — or that a writer routinely assigned in high school English classes wasn’t already being introduced to new generations on a yearly basis.

    But undoubtedly, the OBC label — especially once it became a literal label, in the form of a sticker — has helped sell a whole lot of books. I don’t agree with all of the picks (THE CORRECTIONS? Please.), but the choices are often interesting. Certainly, Shelley is not alone in letting that sticker influence her book-buying decisions.

    But contrary to what you seem to be arguing, Shelley, not everything the OBC picks is literary fiction, or even fiction — and frankly, I suspect that the club would not have been nearly so successful had it stuck to only one book category. From your definition of the OBC brand, I would suspect that what you expect upon seeing the Oprah sticker on a novel isn’t literary fiction, but a moving story told well.

    Which could easily describe a novel in any category — or a memoir.

    This makes me suspect that in this set of comments, at least, that you’re defining literary fiction too broadly, as many aspiring writers do. Half the novelists out there claim that their work is literary, because they’re using the term as a synonym for GOOD WRITING.

    Which is why, in case you were wondering, an agent might wince a little when someone pitches a story with a thriller plot as literary fiction. Many agents cringe at the literary label not because they’re averse to that particular market, but because aspiring writers so often use the term incorrectly. (And don’t even get me started on how often agents and editors say people who describe their work this way overestimate the quality of the writing.)

    Literary fiction is NOT fiction that is well-written; it’s fiction that does new and interesting things with the language, pays particular attention to imagery and rhythm, and, usually, concentrates upon character development more than a mainstream novel.

    These have not, as nearly as I can tell, been the exclusive criteria the OBC has used to select its book picks. (And, again, not all of their picks have been fiction — or at any rate, not labeled as such. A MILLION LITTLE PIECES, anyone?) That is not to criticize the OBC’s choices — but it does mean that its criteria and the industry’s book category definitions are obviously not identical, and should not be treated as such.

    The stigma against LF you describe exists, of course, but it’s much stronger outside the publishing industry than within it — and aspiring writers themselves tend to do as much to perpetrate it as anyone else. I’m always fascinated when writers of literary fiction say that they don’t want to be pigeonholed as appealing to a niche market, when the members of that particular niche market are among the most loyal out there — including a heck of a lot of people who happen, not entirely coincidentally, to work in the publishing industry.

    Who do you think keeps publishing authors whose last books sold only a few thousand copies, in the hope that they might someday write a breakout novel?

    While the book club market is a real one, its tastes vary too much to have boosted only a single book category — it forms a PART of the literary fiction market, certainly, but actually hasn’t changed the LF demographic as much as it’s changed, say, women’s fiction. Even counting OBC sales, literary fiction accounts for about 3-4% of the fiction market every year, a figure that hasn’t changed all that much since the 1920s.

    It’s a little weird that LF writers so often complain about that, as if relatively low sales could only be the result of a publishing world conspiracy against good writing, when good writers for many other markets would happily cut off toes for that faithful a readership. Not to mention the fact that in literary circles, being a writer of relatively pedestrian LF tends to generate more respect than being a genuinely brilliant genre or NF writer.

    Which is why, incidentally, it’s kind of nice when the OBC picks genre fiction.

    What the OBC primarily did for the book world, it seems to me, is not to change the definition of literary fiction or who was frowning upon it, but alter mindsets on two even more important points: dispelling the myth that so-called ordinary people didn’t read, and getting a whole lot of readers who felt isolated in their literary tastes to think it was cool to discuss what they had read. All of us who write should be very, very grateful for that.

    All that being said, I think you’re confusing the general public’s view of what literary fiction means (highbrow, stuffy, read mostly by intellectuals, books like OF MICE AND MEN that one might have been assigned to read in the 10th grade) with the industry’s notion of who buys it (traditionally, almost exclusively college-educated women). The stigma of snobbery lies primarily in the first mindset, not the second.

    The fact that most fiction agents choose not to represent LF is a matter of economics, not fear of being labeled snobs. Because it’s not a very large proportion of the fiction market, there are fewer venues in which agents can sell it, venues that typically pay substantially smaller advances than imprints in, say, genre fiction or NF. That’s not a fear of stuffiness; it’s a fear of not making a living selling one’s clients’ work.

    Which brings me to your second comment, Shelley, where you ask me to respond to a sentence from an article I haven’t read. As I explain in my guidelines on posting comments, as a matter of principle, I prefer not to answer to questions like this, which essentially ask me to pit my opinion against something another writing advice-giver has said, taken out of context . Arguing for or against a paraphrase of an argument with which I’m not familiar doesn’t strike me as a fair way to frame a discussion. I can envision an even-handed way of doing it, of course — but while it would be creative to offer to pay for my time to bone up on the other person’s argument (logically necessary, to give an informed response to it) or to provide speakers’ fees to get me and another expert I’ve never met into a room for a debate on the subject, so far, none of my readers who has asked me to do this kind of compare-and-contrast exercise has ever framed it this way. I can only assume, therefore, that no one involved wants a genuine debate on subjects suggested in this manner.

    Because I have absolutely no knowledge of Ms. Schneider’s broader argument on the subject than what you have paraphrased here, I’m going to give only a general response, one that I have in fact given before on the subject of hot new would-be book categories.

    I ALWAYS recommend against using a non-recognized book category in approaching anyone BUT the person who made it up. Until the category has gained some traction in the industry, it’s going to come across as unprofessional to most agency screeners, alas. Is it possible that Ms. Schneider was suggesting not that you use this term as a SUBSTITUTE for a book category, but an additional descriptor?

    I ask because while the traditional book categories convey more information than the target market — they say what KIND of book it is as well — the term you mention describes ONLY the demographic/ Which, if one is NOT talking about the OBC in particular (your goal here, yes?), is made of mostly of college-educated women and the people who read like them.

    If that’s different from the usual understanding of the literary fiction market, it’s not readily apparent to me.

    And while we’re at it, what would be the point of trying to fool an agent about whether a book is literary fiction? Even if this term did briefly mislead an agent who normally shied away from representing literary fiction, what possible benefit could a literary fiction writer hope to gain by it? Presumably, the agent in question already has a pretty good idea what her own connections are — if she doesn’t have a track record selling LF, however you choose to label it, why would she be a good agent for an LF book?

    What it would look like in a query letter, I suspect, is a paraphrase of the VERY common writerly concept, the literary fiction book that is also mainstream — often described as “a natural for Oprah’s book club!” As I have mentioned before, while such books do undoubtedly exist, they also tend to be the work of already-established LF writers — and the standards for a writer breaking in are different than the standards for an already-established author’s next book. Or, for that matter, for John Steinbeck’s.

  8. comment number 8 by: Shelley

    Anne, thank you so much for your response and your thoughts. First things first. If in any way I made you feel like you owed me more than you have already given me, I regret that immensly. As I said in my comments, I have learned so much from you, you have been a gift to me. That’s what I was trying to say in my response to Gordon’s comments—that I thought you were doing quite enough for us, that you had a full plate and I would happily live with that and still come out way ahead. Your response seemed to suggest I was impatient or didn’t understand your obigations. I so do. I have a million of my own and don’t manage to give what you do on the side to asiring writers. So let me be heard, loud and clear, you don’t owe me a post length answer, although I’m impressed with your output and drink up your words. And I thank you for your passion. It is a tribute to how much I respect you and how comfortable I feel writing you that I wrote such a lengthy opus on my feelings regarding the dreaded Oprah reference. Hard as it may be to believe, I usually just lurk. My words were not meant to idolize Oprah (BTW, I too HATED The Corrections, HATED IT) but to point out that she has made the literary saleable, that when writers invoke her name it is not all about grandiosity. And I do take some issue with your point that her fiction picks are not largely literary. I think they always lean that way, like I said, she doesn’t pick Anne Rice or Patricia Cornwell. Ken Follet might be her most mainstream fiction pick ever and he’s hardly James Patterson. Having said that, I agree that her original book club is different than it is today. But I think it is her original book club that still brands her, which as you said, included mostly debut novelists who most had never heard of. But more importantly, I think she has delivered the message that character development and a reasonable amount of description does not preclude a good story. In any case, I really didn’t want to fall on my sword defending Oprah. But rather, that it is my belief that there is a huge market for, as you say, “a story well told,” outside of genre, and I don’t think mainstream covers it. It seems too generic of a term to have any meaning. I simply struggled with how to say that after reading your post on how to define your target market. My manuscripts do take off on the foundation of character, absolutely. I don’t know how to get to plot without people whose actions are believable because the author has made them so through character development. I’ve read plenty of books that aren’t concerned with this, and while I may enjoy the read, I feel kind of like I do after I eat a Big Mac. Good going down, no echos except indigestion. Yet I loose interest in books that don’t tell me a good story, no matter how beautiful the writing is. (I’m the one who wrote you and said—“Atonement, huh?” Good writing, but I was bored to tears. Took me three tries to read it all the way through, and I only did so based on the many reviews I read, lots of agents who couldn’t get over how great this book was. I kept thinking I was missing something.) I am just struggling with the idea that a book steep in well drawn characters, and a useful amount of description can’t also be page turning. I rarely find deeply drawn characters in genre fiction. There does seem to be a spot between literary and mainstream, not yet defined. I agree, it won’t do me any good to make this case to agency screeners, and I don’t intend to. You have taught me better than that. I just wanted to have the discussion. Thank you for listening and commenting. Shelley

  9. comment number 9 by: Anne

    Good questions need no apology, Shelley! They’re just time-consuming to answer.

    I do make a pretty sharp distinction between the original incarnation of the OBC and the current version — and it’s possible that I’m biased, because I know an excellent literary fiction writer whose debut novel was slated to be a OBC pick (they’d printed it on the cover and everything) when the OBC decided to stop picking new releases. I can certainly understand why they made the decision — publishers were lobbying hard for places on the pick list, and it did turn the club into something of a marketing venue — but with newspapers all over the country eliminating their review pages, I do think the switch to already-established authors was a loss for the writing community.

    I don’t think that any agent or editor in the industry who handles literary fiction for a living would agree with “the idea that a book steep in well drawn characters, and a useful amount of description can’t also be page turning.” I suspect that’s how they would define POOR literary fiction.

    There’s good writing in every book category, after all — and there’s plenty of genre writing out there with perfectly wonderful character development and solid description. These categories are just boxes; they’re not meant to be totally descriptive, nor are they value judgments. Mainstream (like Adult Fiction or plain old Fiction) is just a bigger box than most, that’s all.

  10. comment number 10 by: Shelley

    Anne, Your story about your friend is a heart break. Why do all good things have to come to an end? I agree, the original OBC was so exciting, the current OBC, not so much. Still, there’s something there that makes people read books they otherwise wouldn’t. More importantly, your comment about looking at genre as boxes, and mainstream just being a bigger box, was so helpful. I may have gotten myself in a twit over nothing. Unpublished novelists are a bit intense, yes? Again, thank you for all you do. Tthere is no one in blogsville who equals your dedication. Shelley

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