Book marketing 101: your book’s selling points, part III — but wait, there’s more

Welcome back to my ongoing series on marketing your work — be it in a pitch, query, or submission. In my last few posts, I have been talking about how to generate a list of selling points. This may seem like a pain to generate, but believe me, it is hundreds of times easier to land an agent for a book if you know why readers will want to buy it.

Trust me, “I spent three years writing it!” is not a reason that is going to fly very well with agents and editors.

Apart from the very real benefits having such a list by your side when pitching, I like to ask writers about their books’ selling points before they pitch or query in order to pull the pin gently on a grenade that can be pretty devastating to the self-esteem. A lot of writers mistake professional questions about marketability for critique, hearing the fairly straightforward question, “So, why would someone want to read this book?” as “Why on earth would ANYONE want to read YOUR book? It hasn’t a prayer!” Deriving this impression, some writers shrink away from agents and editors who ask it — a reluctance to hear professional feedback which, in turn, can very easily lead to an unwillingness to pitch or query.

“They’re all so mean,” such writers say, firmly keeping their work out of the public eye.

This response makes me sad, because the only book that hasn’t a prayer of being published is the one that is never submitted at all. There are niche markets for practically every taste, after all. Your job in generating selling points is to SHOW (not tell) that there is indeed a market for your book.

So back to possible bullet points:

(9) Recent press coverage. People in the publishing industry have a respect for the printed word that borders on the irrational. Thus, if you can find recent articles related to your topic, list them as evidence that the public is eager to learn more about it.

Possible example (and please note that I made up all of the examples throughout this series off the top of my head, so don’t quote me on any of this): so far in 2007, the CHICAGO TRIBUNE has run 347 articles on mining accidents, pointing to a clear media interest in the safety of mine shafts.

(10) Your book’s relation to current events and future trends. I hesitate to mention this one, because it’s actually not the current trends that dictate whether a book pitched or queried now will fly off the shelves after it is published: it’s the events that will be happening THEN.

Current events are inherently tricky, since it takes a long time for a book to move from proposal to bookstand. Ideally, your pitch to an agent should speak to the trends of at least two years from now, when the book will actually be published.

(In response to that loud unspoken “Whaaa?” I just heard out there: after you land an agent, figure one year for you to revise it to your agent’s specifications and for the agent to market it — a conservative estimate, incidentally — and another year between signing the contract and the book’s actually hitting the shelves. If my memoir had been printed according to its original publication timeline, it would have been the fastest agent-signing to bookshelf progression of which anyone I know had ever heard: 16 months, a positively blistering pace.)

If you can make a plausible case for the future importance of your book, do it here. You can also project a current trend forward. Some examples: at its current rate of progress through the courts, Christopher Robin’s habeas corpus case will be heard by the Supreme Court in late 2009 – guaranteeing substantial press coverage for Pooh’s exposé, OUT OF THE TOY CLOSET; if tooth decay continues at its current rate, by 2012, no Americans will have any teeth at all. Thus, it follows that a book on denture care should be in ever-increasing demand.

(11) Particular strengths of the book. You’d be surprised at how well a statement like, “BREATHING THROUGH YOUR KNEES is the first novel in publishing history to take on the heartbreak of kneecap displasia,” can work in a pitch or a query letter. If it’s true, that is.

So what is your book’s distinguishing characteristic? How is it different and better from other offerings currently available within its book category? How is it different and better than the most recent bestseller on the subject?

One caveat: avoid cutting down other books on the market; try to point out how your book is GOOD, not how another book is bad. Publishing is a small world: you can never be absolutely sure that the person to whom you are pitching DIDN’T go to college with the editor of the book on the negative end of the comparison.

I would STRONGLY urge those of you who write literary fiction to spend a few hours brainstorming on this point. How does your book deal with language differently from anything else currently on the market? How does its dialogue reveal character in a new and startling way? Why might a professor choose to teach it in an English literature class?

Again, remember to stick to the FACTS here, not subjective assessment. It’s perfectly legitimate to say that the writing is very literary, but don’t say that the writing is gorgeous.

Even if it undeniably is.

Why not? Well, that’s the kind of assessment that publishing types tend to trust only if it comes from one of three sources: a well-respected contest (in the form of an award), the reviews of previous publications — and the evidence of their own eyes.

Seriously, this is a notorious industry pet peeve: almost universally, agents and editors tend to respond badly when a writer actually SAYS that his book is well-written; they want to make up their minds on that point themselves. In fact, it’s not at all unusual for agents to tell their screeners to assume that anyone who announces in a query letter that this is the best book in the Western literary canon is a bad writer. Next!

So be careful not to sound as if you are boasting. If you can legitimately say, for instance, that your book features the most sensitive characterization of a dyslexic 2-year-old ever seen in a novel, that will be heard as a statement of fact, not a value judgment.

Stick to what is genuinely one-of-a-kind about your book — and don’t be afraid to draw direct factual comparisons with other books in the category that have sold well recently. For example: while Jennifer Anniston’s current bestseller, EYESHADOW YOUR WAY TO SUCCESS, deals obliquely with the problem of eyelash loss, my book, EYELASH: THE KEY TO A HAPPY, HEALTHY FUTURE, provides much more detailed guidelines on eyelash care.

(12) Research. If you have done significant research or extensive interviews for the book, list it here.

Some possible examples: Leonardo DiCaprio has spent the past eighteen years studying the problem of hair mousse failure, rendering him one of the world’s foremost authorities; Bruce Willis interviewed over 600 married women for his book, HOW TO KEEP THE PERFECT MARRIAGE.

(13) Promotion already in place. Having a website already established that lists an author’s bio, a synopsis of the upcoming book, and future speaking engagements carries a disproportionate weight in the publishing industry — because, frankly, by the standards of almost any American currently under the age of 30, the average agent or editor is barely computer-literate. Most major agencies don’t even employ in-house IT support, for heaven’s sake.

You didn’t hear it from me, of course. But let’s just say that you shouldn’t be surprised when the agent who is demanding that you e-mail your latest revision immediately is still running Windows 95 on a computer that was old when you graduated from college. Or that despite the fact that Macs represent roughly 15% of the consumer computer market, and are favored disproportionately by creative artists, several of the major publishing houses STILL cannot open Word documents created on them.

If I told you that I have experienced both of these phenomena within the last six months, would you faint?

Suffice it to say that almost any web-based marketing plan you may have is going to come across as impressive. Consider having your nephew (or some similarly computer-savvy person who is fond enough of you to work for pizza) put together a site for you, if you don’t already have one.

Finished brainstorming your way through all of these points? Terrific. Now go through your list and cull the less impressive points. Ideally, you will want to end up with somewhere between 3 and 10, enough to fit comfortably as bullet points on a double-spaced page.

Then reduce each point to a single sentence. Yes, this is a pain for those of us who spend our lives meticulously crafting beautiful paragraphs, but trust me, when you are consulting a list in a hurry, simpler is better.

When your list is finished, label it MARKETING POINTS, and keep it by your side until your first book signing. Heck, you might even want to have it handy when you’re giving interviews about your book, because once you’ve come up with a great list of reasons that your book should sell, you’re going to want to bring those reasons up every time you talk about the book, right?

Oh, and keep a copy handy to your writing space. It’s a great pick-me-up for when you start to ask yourself, “Now, why I am I putting in all of this work?”

Tomorrow — drumroll, please! — I shall move on to those magic words that summarize your book. Be prepared to get pithy, everybody. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

2 Replies to “Book marketing 101: your book’s selling points, part III — but wait, there’s more”

  1. A great place to find statistics is the U.S. Census Bureau site. Once on the site, go to the link: “American Factfinder.”

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