The Building Blocks of the Pitch, Part III: identifying your target market

Hello, readers –

Welcome back to my continuing series on the building blocks of a successful pitch. With them firmly stuffed into your writer’s bag of tricks, you should be as prepared as it is possible for any first-time pitcher to be to present your work to agents and editors at the upcoming PNWA summer conference. (And for those of you who have not yet registered, and thus not you’re your agent and editor selections, please check out my archived posts for April 26 – May 17 for the agents and May 18 – 26 for the editors. There, you will find copious information on who represents or prints what.)

So far, I have covered the building blocks that not only should feature prominently in your pitch, but also on the title page of your manuscript and in the first few lines of your query letter: for the last couple of days, I have been discussing book categories, and I snuck in a treatment of how professionals estimate word count (hint: it’s not the way your word processing program does) on June 23rd. (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 my post of February 17th.)

Today, however, I shall be moving on to a more sophisticated marketing tool, one that is not technically required, but is always appreciated. I refer, of course, to a concise, well-considered statement of your book’s target market, including an estimate of how many potential buyers are in that demographic. I refer, admittedly with some trepidation, to statistics. Even the most personal literary fiction is about something other than the writing in the book, and chances are, you will be able to track down some demographic information about who is interested that topic.

What do I mean? Well, let’s say you’ve written a charming novel about an American woman in her late 30s 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 your protagonist a Gen Xer — of whom there are 47 million currently living in the U.S., roughly half of whom have divorced parents. Think some of them might identify with your protagonist? Let’s say that your protagonist’s father is a collector of classic cars. Think he’s the only one in the country? And so forth.

”Whoa!” I hear some of you cry indignantly. “Who do I look like, George Gallup? Wouldn’t any agent or editor who specializes in a book like mine have a substantially better idea of the existing market than I ever could — and what’s more, infinitely greater means of finding out the relevant statistics? Do I have to do ALL of the agent’s job for him? When will this nightmare end, oh Lord, when will it end?”

You’re beautiful when you get angry. Especially, as in this case, when annoyance stems from a very real change in the publishing industry: even ten years ago, no one would have expected a fiction writer to be able to produce relevant potential target market statistics for her book. (It’s always been pretty standard for NF book proposals.) And in truth, you could probably get away with not quoting actual statistics, as long as you are very specific about who you think your ideal reader is. However, if you do, you run the very serious risk of the agent or editor to whom you are pitching radically underestimating how big your potential market is.

They don’t do it on purpose, you know. Honestly, is it fair to expect someone who spends her days poring over manuscripts in a Manhattan high-rise to have any idea how many corn farmers there are in Iowa?

How much harm could it possibly do if your dream agent or editor misunderstands the size of your book’s potential audience? Let me let you in on a dirty little industry secret: people in the industry have a very clear idea of what HAS sold in the past, but are not always very accurate predictors about what WILL sell in the future. THE FIRST WIVES’ CLUB floated around forever before it found a home, for instance, as, I’m told, did COLD MOUNTAIN. And let’s not even begin to talk about BRIDGET JONES.

In fact, five of the ten best-selling books of the twentieth century were initially refused by more than a dozen publishers who simply did not understand their market appeal — and refused to take a chance on a first-time author. Get a load of what got turned down:

Richard Hooker’s M*A*S*H — rejected by 21 publishing houses.

Thor Heyerdahl’s KON-TIKI — rejected by 20 publishing houses. (Yes, THAT Kon-Tiki.)

Dr. Seuss’ first book, AND TO THINK THAT I SAW IT ON MULBERRY STREET — rejected by 23 publishing houses.

Richard Bach’s JONATHAN LIVINGSTON SEAGULL — rejected by 18 publishing houses.

Patrick Dennis’ AUNTIE MAME — rejected by 17 publishing houses.

And think about it: these first books were roundly rejected back when it was significantly easier to get published, too, when the major publishing houses were still willing to read unagented work, and back before so many of the major publishing houses consolidated into just a few. With this much editorial rejection, can you imagine how difficult it would have been for any of these books to find an agent today, let alone a publisher?

And yet can you even picture the publishing world without any of them? Aren’t you glad they didn’t listen to the prevailing wisdom? And don’t you wish that Richard Hooker had taken a few moments to verify the number of Korean War veterans (or veterans of any foreign war, or doctors who have served in war zones, or…) BEFORE he composed his query letter?

My point is, even if you write on a very well-traveled topic, it’s always a good idea to have a few statistics at the ready, to back up your claim that there is a significant pre-existing audience for your book. The Internet is a tremendous resource, although do double-check the sources of statistics you find there — not all of the information floating around the web is credible. If you really get stuck, call the main branch of public library in the big city closest to you, and ask to speak to the reference librarian. (In Seattle, the Quick Information Line number is 206-386-4636, and the staff there is amazing. Send them flowers.) They may not always be able to find the particular fact you are seeking, but they can pretty much invariably steer you in the right direction.

Even after all this, I’m sure that there are more than a few of you out there who deeply resent the idea of having to identify a target market at all. Shouldn’t a well-written book be its own justification? Well, yes, in a perfect world, or one without a competitive market. But think about it from the editor’s POV: if she can realistically only bring 8 books to press in the next year, how many of them can be serious marketing risks, without her losing her job?

It’s been my experience that most fiction writers do not think very much about the demographics of their potential readers — but, as with book category, if you explain in nebulous terms whom you expect to read your book, you will simply not be speaking the language spoken by agents and editors. Their sales and marketing departments expect them 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.

Let me give you a concrete example of what happens when you are vague. Remember the book above, about the Gen X woman reliving her parents’ messy divorce? Let’s assume that our author, Suzette, has not thought about her target market before walking into her pitch meeting. She’s stunned when the agent, Briana, says that there’s no market for such a book. Being a bright person, quick on her feet, Suzette’s instinct is to argue. “I’m the target market for this book,” she says. “People like me.”

Now, what Suzette actually meant by this is: 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 what agent Briana heard was: 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 an editor at a major publishing house (let’s call him Ted) would conclude is this: this writer is writing for her friends. All four of them. Next!

Obviously, then, being vague has not served Suzette’s interests. Let’s take a peek at what would have happened if Suzette had been a trifle more specific, shall we?

Suzette says: Yes, there’s 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?

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 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 at the ready.

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 didn’t know that. 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.

The moral is, it ALWAYS pays to be prepared in as many ways as possible for questions you may be asked about your book’s market potential. Think about your target reader — and why that reader really wants to read your book.

Tomorrow, I shall move on to another building block of a great pitch: knowing your book’s selling points. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

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