R.I.P., Mr. M — and a few thoughts on marketing

My mother called me with some sad news today: Bob Mondavi, one of the grand old men of my childhood, passed away a few days ago. He was 94, so it wasn’t precisely a surprise, but while normally, the death of a nice little old man would be primarily a matter of local mourning, in this case, pretty much everyone who has ever drunk a glass of good American wine should be just a little saddened by Mr. M’s passing.

Why? Because Robert Mondavi was to a great extent responsible for Napa Valley wines becoming respectable. If you’ve ever paid more than $10 for a bottle of American wine, you might want to drink a toast to his memory.

Oh, there had been good wine coming out of the region for decades before he broke off from his family’s Charles Krug Winery to form the Robert Mondavi Winery (viticulturists are not known for their retiring egos) in the mid-1960s — in the 1890s, my great-uncle and great-grandfather won European awards for a wine grown in what is now known as the Carneros — and there were certainly much better wines being made than at RMW throughout my formative years.

Yet Mr. M was one of the first to see that it wasn’t enough just to make good wine — the world needed to know about it.

Sound familiar? This was someone who understood marketing.

How well, you ask? Well, as hometown legend has it, for years and years, it was extremely difficult for Californian winemakers to sell Sauvignon Blanc to restaurateurs. Not because it isn’t a perfectly lovely varietal — Mike Grgich, another of the grand old men of my childhood (perhaps even grander because he liked to sport a rakish beret year-round), has been making one of the best liquids to accompany fish available on earth since I was in pigtails — but because, I kid you not, people weren’t sure how to pronounce Sauvignon.

So they felt uncomfortable trying to say it out loud in front of a waiter.

How did Mr. M handle it, you ask? By changing the name of the wine.

Seriously — RMW was the first to release Sauvignon Blanc under the much easier-to-pronounce moniker Fumé Blanc. The switch was so successful that within a few years, one of the easiest ways to tell if the would-be snob across the table from one on a date knew a grape from a raisin was if he insisted that Fumé Blanc was actually the name of the grape.

Which it isn’t — and couldn’t be, as both of the words in question are adjectives: Sauvignon is the varietal, and thus a noun, but fumé means smokedblanc means white. By a certain stretch of tastebud definition, a Sauvignon Blanc could be said to have some rather smoky undertones.

But really, what people started ordering in restaurants was a kippered pale thing — which could refer, logically, to anything from a cigarette to sole. But heavens, does it roll off the tongue!

In latter days, like so many family wineries, RMW became the possession of a corporation while retaining the our-kids-and-grandkids-work-here façade. The old winemaking names stick to the the buildings and land long after the flesh-and-blood people who bore those names are long gone. (Which is why, in case you were curious, there’s hasn’t been a Chuck making Two-Buck Chuck for quite some time now.) To outsiders, the Mondavi name, like so many others, is just another brand.

But it was a sad day for a lot of locals when the Mondavis left the Robert Mondavi Winery, the end of an era of winemakers who still remembered having to fight the stigma that used to attach to any American wine.

Mr. M founded RMW the year I was born, and I was graduating from middle school before people stopped laughing at the phrase Californian fine wine. Those grapes have come a long way, baby.

So goodbye, Mr. M. The winemaking — yes, and the wine-drinking — world is poorer for your loss. I hope the angels pulled up something grand from the cellar in honor of your arrival.

And yes, Virginia, I am going to tie all this into advice on your writing career. Just watch me.

How? Well, like it or not, querying is marketing.

A writer has only a very, very short amount of time to grab an agent’s attention in a query letter or a pitch, especially in an e-mailed query. It’s imperative, therefore, to label your book correctly — and that means learning to define it in the terms used by the industry.

Yes, I AM talking about book categories.

Stop groaning, long-time readers — judging by the average query letter, many writers simply don’t know that the industry runs on book categories.

But think of it from the other side of the desk. It would be literally impossible for an agent to sell a book to a publisher without a category label — in an agent’s pitch, it’s usually mentioned before either the title or the premise. And since no agency represents every kind of book, or even every kind of novel, category is the typically the first thing an agency screener is trained to spot in a query.

Knowing that, think about Millicent’s mood immediately after she’s burnt her lip on that latte: how likely is she to feel charitable toward a query that makes her search for the category or — sacre bleu! — guess it?

Some writers, bless their warm, fuzzy, and devious hearts, think that they are being clever by omitting the book type, lest their work be rejected on category grounds. “This agency doesn’t represent mysteries,” this type of strategizer thinks, “so I just won’t tell them until they’ve fallen in love with my writing.”

I have a shocking bit of news for you, Napoléon: the industry simply doesn’t work that way. If Millicent does not know where the book mentioned will eventually rest on a shelf in Barnes & Noble, she’s not going to ask to read it.

Do I see some raised hands out there? You, in the front row: “But Anne, not all books, particularly novels, fall into obvious categories! What if I’m genuinely not sure?”

Good question, You. Yes, for most books, particularly novels, there can be legitimate debate about which shelf would most happily house it, and agents recategorize their clients’ work all the time. However, people in the industry speak and even think of books by category, so you’re not going to win any Brownie points with them by making them guess what kind of book you’re trying to get them to read.

Part of learning to market your writing well involves developing the skills to describe it in terms the industry will understand. When in doubt, pick the category that coincides with what the agency (or, better still, particular agent to whom you are addressing your query letter) represents.

If you found the last paragraph mystifying, please see the posts under the BOOK CATEGORIES heading at right. Scroll down until you find the entries on how to decide which is for you, and study it as if it were the Rosetta Stone.

In a sense, it is: book categories provide terms of translation between the often mutually incomprehensible conceptions of manuscripts held by their authors and the people they are asking to represent them.

Think of your query letter as a label for the bottle of wine you’re trying to sell.

Stop laughing; it’s not all that far-fetched a comparison. Just as a wine connoisseur expects the label to tell her what kind of grapes were used to produce the bottle she’s considering serving with her dinner, to try to figure out if it’s the kind of wine she tends to like, Millicent and her ilk want a query letter or pitch to inform them up front what kind of a book the querier is offering.

That’s not so unreasonable, is it?

Or, better yet, think of it as a personal ad. (Oh, come on, admit it: everyone reads them from time to time, if only to see what the new kink du jour is.) In it, you are introducing yourself to someone with whom you are hoping to have a long-term relationship — which, ideally, it will be; I have close relatives with whom I have less frequent and less cordial contact than with my agent — and as such, you are trying to make a good impression.

So which do you think is more likely to draw a total stranger to you, ambiguity or specificity in how you describe yourself?

This is a serious question. Look at your query letter and ponder: have you, as so many personal ads and queries do, been describing yourself in only the vaguest terms, hoping that Mr. or Ms. Right will read your mind correctly and pick yours out of the crowd of ads? Or have you figured out precisely what it is you want from a potential partner, as well as what you have to give in return, and spelled it out?

To the eye of an agent or screener who sees hundreds of these appeals per week, writers who do not specify book categories are like personal ad placers who forget to list minor points like their genders or sexual orientation.

Yes, it really is that basic, in Millicent’s world.

And writers who hedge their bets by describing their books in hybrid terms, as in “it’s a cross between a political thriller and a historical romance, with helpful gardening tips thrown in,” are to professional eyes the equivalent of personal ad placers so insecure about their own appeal that they say they are into, “long walks on the beach, javelin throwing, or whatever.”

Not very effective marketing, is it? Other than provoking idle speculation about precisely what kinds of activities would logically fall into the whatever category, appealing to both the beach-walker and the javelin-thrower, labeling this vague just isn’t all that intriguing.

Trust me, to the eyes of the publishing industry, this particular type of complexity doesn’t make a writer look interesting, or a book like an innovative genre-crosser. To them, this at best looks like an attempt to curry favor by indicating that the writer in question is willing to manhandle his book in order to make it anything the agent wants.

At worst, it comes across as the writer’s being so solipsistic that he assumes that it’s the query-reader’s job to guess what “whatever” means in this context.

Again: just how cordially do you think Millicent is going to respond to an invitation to play a guessing game with a total stranger? And don’t you want to know before you order a glass of wine whether it’s a white or a red?

Be specific, and describe your work in the language Millicent will understand. Because otherwise, you run the risk that she’s just not going to understand the book you are offering well enough to know that any agent in her right mind should be grateful to read it.

And please, don’t allow a handful of rejections to convince you that you don’t have a marketable book. Remember, there was a time that wine sellers laughed whenever anyone said that good wine was being produced in the Napa Valley.

Ask the shade of Bob Mondavi: it took a whole lot of convincing — yes, and giving away a whole lot of sample tastes — to establish the region’s reputation to the point that a Napa Valley wine meant something specific in the potential buyer’s mind. About fifteen years’ worth, in fact.

Not a bad parallel for an established author’s quest to market her latest work vs. a first-time writer’s, eh?

Stop giggling; it’s true. If the potential buyer is already familiar with a winery’s reputation, it’s far easier to cajole him into taking a chance on its most recent vintage than if he’s never heard of it. It might take some persistent marketing to convince him to taste what’s in the bottle and judge for himself whether the wine’s any good.

Think about it: whose book are you more likely to pick up in a bookstore, a brand-new author’s first book or the latest from an author you’ve been reading for years? And how likely are you to look for a thriller in the romance section of the bookstore?

Label your work well. You want Millicent to ask to taste what’s in the bottle, don’t you?

Next time, I’ll get back to craft issues. Keep up the good work!

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