Every bookstore you have ever visited

Hello, readers —

Yes, I skipped a day of posting yesterday, but no, I was not playing hooky; I was filling out the author and book questionnaire for my memoir, A FAMILY DARKLY: LOVE, LOSS, AND THE FINAL PASSIONS OF PHILIP K. DICK, due out in May. Since the book was originally due out in March, you would think that the marketing folks would have wanted some information about the book before now, but no: if you have been paying attention to all of my months of railing about how conceptions of time are different in the publishing world (whose heartbeat runs “I NEED IT NOW!” —wait — “I NEED IT NOW!” — wait—), you may perhaps understand why.

The author questionnaire is an in-depth analysis prepared by a book’s author for the sales and marketing departments of a publishing house so they have some idea how to sell the book to booksellers and consumers, respectively. Although we writers tend to focus on the big sale moment, where the agent (or the author herself, in the case of small publishing houses) sells the book to the editor, any book needs to be sold many, many times before it reaches the shelves at your local bookstore. If you go through an agent, first the author has to sell the book to the agent; the agent or author sells it to the editor; the editor sells it to the higher-ups in the publishing house, often department by department; the sales department goes out and sells it to buyers for bookstore chains; the marketing department sells it to consumers, and finally, the bookseller sells it to the customer.

The next time you hear a writer at a conference complain about how much time and energy authors now have to spend on marketing, recall that necessary chain of sales.

The argument the sales department will make to booksellers is all about the book’s selling points and target market. Even in the case of literary fiction, it is seldom sufficient for the sales crew to say merely, “Hey, we’ve found this great new author — her writing is wonderful,” because there are so many great new authors out there who write well. The sales crew needs to be able to talk about who will buy this book and why — specifically, why THIS book as opposed to any of the others on the shelves at the same time.

The marketing department, on the other hand, will need to sell both you and the book to potential readers, so they need to know about your every quirk. What makes you different from any other author? Are you personable? What about your life story is unusual? With so many other books on the market, what drove you to write another? What makes your book special, unique, the only book on the subject anyone should buy?

In the author’s questionnaire, the writer is expected to provide all of that information, at least in embryonic form. This comes as a surprise to many fiction writers, who are often laboring under the charming impression that all that a book has to be is a good read in order to sell; it’s the nonfiction writers who have to come up with target market demographics and selling points in their book proposals, isn’t it?

In a word, no. In the author questionnaire, you will be asked to answer questions like this:

What are the main points about you and/or the book should be emphasized to the media?

If you could stress only one or two points about your book, what would they be?

Whom do you think will buy your book (i.e., your market)?

What other books similar to yours are on the market? How does your book differ from them?

Hard to imagine more direct appeals to your marketing sense than these, isn’t it? And often, the writer is not given a tremendous amount of time to answer such pointed questions. Not to frighten you, but I was given only a week to fill out my author questionnaire (“I NEED IT NOW!” — wait — “I NEED IT NOW!” — wait—). If I had not given serious thought to the market prospects of my book, I doubt I would have been able to complete it in time.

As it was, it was difficult to prevent my written answers to such broad-ranging questions from extending to the length of the Bible. These are difficult, soul-searching questions for a writer — because, admit it, deep down, each of us wants to believe that readers will buy our books simply because WE have written them. The author questionnaire forces you to confront that embarrassing belief, and quickly, so you can sound like a professional-minded adult in response.

How difficult were the questions, you ask? Well, for one of them, I was asked to conduct an interview with myself, where I provided both the questions and the answers. Instead of copping out with Barbara Walters-style softball questions (“Have you always wanted to be a writer? Was this a fulfilling book to write?”), I was asked to be a hard-bitten, unsympathetic interviewer. So I spent several hours last night engaged in a fight with myself.

This kind of thing doesn’t happen much to people in other lines of work.

And if you thought that all of that tedious synopsis-writing would end once you got an agent and sold a book, think again. How’s this for a doozy of a writing assignment?

“Please give a brief (200 words) description of your book. If fiction, please provide us with a brief plot summary and, if appropriate, your intention in writing the story. If nonfiction, discuss your basic approach to the subject, emphasizing how your book differs from the competition.”

200 words is not a lot of space: in case you are curious, the first paragraph of this post plus the first two sentences of the second paragraph add up to 201 words. Brevity is tough. I’ve known writers who have worked for years to get their synopses down to 3-5 pages!

Oh, and they asked me to give the name, address, and phone number of every bookstore where I had ever spent a significant amount of time. I swear, I am not making this up. As anyone who has ever visited my house can tell you, there is hardly a wall in it that isn’t lined with books, so this list was bound to be lengthy.

I am passing these questions along, so you can start to think about them now, early in your writing process, rather than having them sprung upon you a few months before your first book comes out. I know, I know, practically every writing guide on the planet will tell you not to concentrate too much on your eventual success, expending energy daydreaming about what you’ll wear to eventual book signings, but honestly, coming up with ways to package yourself and your books is part of the work of being a professional writer.

This is work, not self-indulgence.

Thinking about marketing issues now can also help you produce more effective query letters and synopses. Does the query letter you’ve been sending out give any indication of who is in your target market — or how big that market is? (I have written the phrase “47 million Gen Xers” so many times in the last week that I can see it imprinted on the inside of my eyelids when I try to sleep.) If you don’t know, doesn’t it make sense to do some research now, so you can sell your book to an agent or small publisher more effectively?

Even if you write fiction, you should be thinking now about your target market and how to reach it — and conveying that information in your query letters. If your protagonist is a mountaineer, you might want to find out how many North Americans habitually go hiking. If your story takes place in some vacation hotspot, you might want to find out how many tourists visit every year. (Hey, tourists have been known to buy books while on vacation. It’s a proven fact.) If your plot concerns an agoraphobic, you might want to find out how many of them there are in the country these days. Basically, if any part of your pitch is dismissible with the response, “Well, how many people can there possibly be interested in that sort of thing?” it would behoove you to provide precisely that information up front.

If you can’t find the information on the Internet, call your local library and ask for research help. If you live in the greater Seattle metropolitan area, it couldn’t be easier — the Seattle Public Library runs a free Quick Information Line; since so many of the questions they get are mundane (“What’s the capital of Paraguay?”), a genuinely interesting research question will often generate a flood of helpful information. Longtime readers of this blog may remember my account of the time I called Quick Information to ask where I would find out what kind of grammatical mistakes a native English speaker fluent in Russian might make while learning to speak Lithuanian — and ended up having a half-hour discussion with a Baltic language expert who hadn’t been asked a question by a lay person for years. All for free.

And when you find this information, work it into your query letters, pitches, and synopses. That is your marketing material; the more lucid you are about the target market for your book, the more professional you will sound to agents and editor — and the better prepared you will be when the time comes to fill out your own author questionnaire.

May that happy (but LONG) day come soon.

Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

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