Yesterday, I suggested that a dandy way to prepare for a conversation with a real, live agent or editor was to sit down and come up with a list of selling points for your book.
Not just vague assertions about why an editor at a publishing house would find it an excellent example of its species of book — that much is assumed, right? — but reasons that an actual real-world book customer might want to pull that book from a shelf at Barnes & Noble and carry it up to the cash register.
By the time I finished suggesting a first set of possibilities, I could practically hear some of you, particularly novelists, tapping your feet impatiently. “Um, Anne?” some of you seemed to be saying, with a nervous glance at your calendars, “I can understand why this might be a useful document for querying by letter, or for sending along with my submission, but have you forgotten that I will be giving VERBAL pitches at a conference just a few weeks away? Is this really the best time to be spending hours coming up with my book’s selling points?”
My readers are so smart; you always ask the right questions at precisely the right time. Before you pitch is EXACTLY when you should devote some serious thought to your book’s selling points. I am going through a long list of potential categories in order that everyone would be able to recognize at least a couple of possibilities.
Because, you see, if your book has market appeal over and above its writing style (and the vast majority of books do), YOU SHOULD MENTION IT IN YOUR PITCH. Not in a general, “well, I think a lot of readers will like it,” sort of way, but by citing specific, fact-based REASONS that they will clamor to read it. Preferably backed by verifiable statistics.
Why? Because it will make you look professional in the eyes of the agent or editor sitting in front of you. And because, really, no agent is going to ask to see a manuscript purely because its author says it is well-written, any more than our old pal Millicent the screener would respond to a query that mentioned the author’s mother thought the book was the best thing she had ever read with a phone call demanding that the author overnight the whole thing to her.
“Good enough for Mom? Then it’s good enough for me!” is not, alas, a common sentiment in the industry.
I concentrated on the standard writing résumé bullet points yesterday, but try not to get too bogged down in listing the standard prestige points, though. Naturally, you should include any previous publications and/or writing degrees on your list of selling points, but if you have few or no previous publications, awards, and writing degrees to your credit, do not despair.
(5) Relevant life experience. This is well worth including, if it helped fill in some important background for the book. Is your novel about coal miners based upon your twenty years of experience in the coalmining industry? Is your protagonist’s kid sister’s horrifying trauma at a teen beauty pageant based loosely upon your years as Miss Junior Succotash? Mention it.
What you should NOT do, however, is stammer out in a pitch meeting (or say in a query letter) that your novel is “sort of autobiographical.” To an agent or editor, this can translate as, “This book is a memoir with the names changed. Since it is based upon true events, I will be totally unwilling to revise it to your specifications.”
The distinction I am drawing here is a subtle one, admittedly. Having the background experience to write credibly about a particular situation is a legitimate selling point: in interviews, you will be able to speak at length about the real-life situation.
However, industry professionals simply assume that fiction writers draw upon their own backgrounds for material. But to them, a book that recounts true events in its author’s life is a memoir, not a novel. Contrary to the pervasive movie-of-the-week philosophy, the mere fact that a story is true does not make it more appealing; it merely means potential legal problems.
Translation: until folks in the industry have forgotten about the A MILLION LITTLE PIECES fiasco, it’s not going to be a good idea to include the fact that a novel is semi-autobiographical in your pitch.
(6) Associations and affiliations. If you are writing on a topic that is of interest to some national organization, bring it up here. Also, if you are a member of a group willing to promote (or review) your work, mention it.
Some possible examples: the Harpo Marx Fan Club has 120, 000 members in the U.S. alone, as well as a monthly newsletter, guaranteeing substantial speaking engagement interest; Angelina Jolie is a well-known graduate of Yale University, which guarantees a mention of her book on tulip cultivation in the alumni newsletter. Currently, the Yale News reaches over 28 million readers bimonthly.
(Perhaps it goes without mentioning, but I pulled all of the examples I am using here out of thin air. Probably not the best idea to quote me on any of ‘em.)
(7) Trends and recent bestsellers. If there is a marketing, popular, or research trend that touches on the subject matter of your book, state it here. If there has been a recent upsurge in sales of books on your topic, or a television show devoted to it, mention it. (Recent, in industry terms, means within the last five years.)
Even if these trends support a secondary subject in your book, they are still worth including. If you can back your assertion with legitimate numbers (see this week’s earlier posts on the joys of statistics), all the better.
Some possible examples: novels featuring divorced mothers of small children have enjoyed a considerable upswing in popularity in recent years. A July, 2006 search on Amazon.com revealed over 1,200 titles; ferret ownership has risen 28% in the last five years, according to the National Rodent-Handlers Association; last year’s major bestseller, THAT HORRIBLE GUMBY by Pokey, sold over 97 million copies. It is reasonable to expect that its readers will be anxious to read Gumby’s reply.
(8) Statistics. At risk of repeating myself, if you are writing about a condition affecting human beings, there are almost certainly statistics available about how many people in the country are affected by it. By listing the real statistics here, you minimize the probability of the agent or editor’s guess being far too low. Get your information from the most credible sources possible, and cite them.
Some possible examples: 400,000 Americans are diagnosed annually with Inappropriate Giggling Syndrome, creating a large audience potentially eager for this book; according to a recent study in the TORONTO STAR, 90% of Canadians have receding hairlines — pointing to an immense potential Canadian market for this book.
I’m going to leave off here for today, to give you some time to ponder the possibilities, and resume my list next time. Yes, generating selling points IS a lot of work, but believe me, in retrospect, you will be glad to have a few of these reasons written down before you meet with — or query — the agent of your dreams.
Trust me on this one. Remember me kindly when, down the line, your agent or editor raves about how prepared you were to market your work. And, as always, keep up the good work!