I ended yesterday’s post with a cliffhanger: no matter how large the prospective market for your book, I told my wide-eyed readers gathered around the campfire, is you can’t legitimately assume that an agent or editor will be aware of just how many potential readers inhabit it. When you are crafting a synopsis — or query letter, or book proposal — it’s prudent to assume that they will underestimate it… and thus the market appeal of your book.
This is particularly true if you are pitching a book about anything that ever occurred west of, say, Albany to a NYC-based agent or editor, or any story set north of Santa Barbara or east of Los Vegas to an LA-based one. The news media are not the only folks who think that little that happens to anyone outside of their own city limits is worth reporting, alas.
If those of us who lived outside of the major urban centers thought this way about, say, New York City or London, we would be called provincial.
It seems silly in the age of lightning-fast electronic communication and swift travel across time zones, but regional prejudices still run strong enough that you might actually find yourself explaining to a charming, urbane agent with an MA in American Literature from Columbia or a law degree from Yale that yes, the inhabitants of Boise CAN support a symphony, and indeed have for many years.
And schools. And indoor plumbing.
I know: depressing. But being aware that agents may not be hip to your market means that you, savvy marketer that you are, can compensate for it by coming right out and saying in your synopsis — and perhaps in your cover letter as well — just how big your target market actually is.
This isn’t a bad idea for novelists, either: it’s very, very easy for a book to be labeled as appealing to a niche market. For those of you unfamiliar with the term, niche market is industry-speak for “Well, no one I know would buy this book…”
Okay, okay, so I’m exaggerating a trifle: it technically means that the pros think that a book would only be marketable to a tiny demographic. Trout fisherfolk, for instance, or people with cerebral palsy.
I think my definition is closer to what they actually mean, however, because I’ve seen too many agents and editors dismiss books without bothering to find out just how many people there actually ARE who habitually angle for trout or who have cerebral palsy. I’ve never seen a guesstimate that wasn’t low, sometimes by a factor of millions.
The same often holds true for regional interest. Due to the perversity of where books get published in the United States, a story set in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, or San Francisco will often be deemed of national interest, meaning that book buyers in other parts of the country (and world) might well flock to the bookstores for it.
Because, obviously, readers the world over are sitting on the edges of their seats, wondering what’s going on in Brooklyn.
But let that SAME story be set in Minneapolis, Shreveport, Olympia, or Halifax, and NYC, LA, Chicago, and San Francisco-based agents and editors tend to dismiss it as appealing only to audiences in the region where it was set. If THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA hadn’t been set in Manhattan, I seriously doubt that any major publishing house would have given it a second glance.
Over the years, I’ve heard many agents and editors tell writers of so-called regional works that they’d be better off submitting their NF and even novels to regional publishers, but in recent years, I’ve begun to wonder to whom they are referring. The publishing industry isn’t like theatre — not every major city will spontaneously see a publishing house spring up out of the ground.
It’s a lovely fantasy, though. Can’t you just picture it? “I’ve got a barn,” a would-be publisher pants breathlessly, “and you have a mimeograph machine. Let’s publish some books!”
Doesn’t happen very often, alas. Even for nonfiction, it is definitely trickier to interest agents at the big agencies in subject matter unfamiliar to denizens of the Eastern seaboard. So it’s a stellar idea to use your marketing materials to make the case that your subject matter IS of national interest.
Here, as in the pitch, statistics can be your friend — and they needn’t be statistics about just how many people have already bought books on your subject matter, either. If you’re writing a blistering exposé of bear abuse in Montana, for instance, it would a VERY good idea to mention in your synopsis just how many visitors Yellowstone sees in a year, because chances are, Manhattanites will have no idea. (For more hints on how to find statistics to back up your book, please see the YOUR BOOK’S SELLING POINTS category at right.)
In a NF book synopsis, you not only need to establish the importance of the subject matter — you need to demonstrate that you are an expert in it. If “Why are you the best person to write this book?” seems secondary to the subject matter, you probably haven’t pitched a NF book lately.
Seriously, it’s the first question almost anyone in the industry will ask after you mention casually that you are writing a NF book. “So,” they’ll say, reserving comment about the marketability of your topic until after they hear the answer to this particular question, “what’s your platform?”
Platform is industry-speak for the background that qualifies you to write the book — the array of credentials, expertise, and life experience that qualifies you as an expert on the topic.
Put another way, platform is the industry term for why anyone should trust a NF author enough to want to read her book, as opposed to any of the other similar books on the market. The platform need not consist of educational credentials or work experience — in fact unless you write in a technical, scientific, or medical field, it generally has less to do with your educational credentials than your life experience.
But by all means, if you happen to be a former Secretary of State or NBA superstar, do mention it. Don’t be downhearted if you haven’t yet held a cabinet post in your field of expertise, however. The platform is ANY reason, or collection of reasons, that you are the best person in the universe to write this particular book.
Give some serious thought to your platform before you begin to market your book. All of you NF writers out there should not only be prepared to answer questions about your platform BEFORE you have ANY contact with an agent or editors — your synopsis should contain at least passing mention of your expertise.
This is true, incidentally, even if your book happens to be a memoir.
“Wait just a memory-picking minute!” I hear the memoirists out there cry. “Isn’t it pretty darned obvious that I would be the single best authority upon my own life?”
Not necessarily, from the industry’s point of view. As someone whose memoir’s publication process has been plagued by legal threats over whether I had the right to tell the story of my own life or not, I am here to tell you: not everyone may agree with you that your personal experience is yours to discuss in print.
Yes, I know: it seems self-evident that a memoirist would be an expert on the story he tells, because it’s his own life. But a memoir is always about something in addition to the life story of its author, and your platform should include some reference to why you are qualified to write about that other subject matter as well.
If your memoir is about spending your teenage years in a foreign country, for instance, take a sentence or two of your synopsis to talk about how being an outsider gave you a unique perspective on it. If your memoir rips the lid off the steamy secrets of a cereal factory, you’ll be better off if you use your decade’s worth of experience filling those boxes as evidence that you are a credible expert on flakes. And if your childhood memoir deals with your love affair with trains, make sure you include the fact that you spent 17 years of your life flat on your stomach, going “woo, woo” at a dizzying array of model trains.
You get the picture. It’s not enough to make your subject matter sound fascinating: in your synopsis, your account needs to come across as both fascinating and credible.
For what it’s worth, novels are generally about something other than the beauty of their writing, too. They have settings; characters have professions. For instance, the novel I am writing now is set at Harvard, where I got my undergraduate degree: think that is going to make my novel more credible in the eyes of the industry? You bet.
I can feel fiction writers’ blood pressure going up right now, but don’t panic: technically, a novelist doesn’t NEED a platform. It’s always a nice touch, though, if a fiction writer can mention a platform plank or two in her query letter. But for fiction, keep your platform out of your synopsis; in the eyes of the industry, self-promotion in a novel synopsis tends to be regarded as compensation for some heretofore-unsuspected weakness in the plot or the writing.
Before anyone points out to me that other sources give different advice about crafting synopses, I’m going to be brutally honest with you here: very few writing teachers will advise you to include your platform in your synopsis, even for a NF book. That’s material for the author bio, they will tell you.
Many writers include a background paragraph in their query letters — a great place to present your platform, eh? — but personally, I think it makes a whole lot of sense to give a quick nod to the platform in the NF synopsis as well, if it makes your work sound more credible. It’s not uncommon for a synopsis to end up in different hands than the query letter, after all.
They’re not going to know if you don’t tell them, I always say. Go ahead and state your qualifications, but keep it brief, and make it clear how those qualifications, well, qualify you to write this book.
More wit and wisdom on the synopsis follows in the week to come. Keep up the good work!