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My thanks to Gutsywriter for sharing her experience at a writer’s conference. Now it’s my turn to share with you. The whole weekend Gutsy heard the three questions that stop the hearts of most writers because they haven’t given it any thought:
1. “Why is your book unique?
2. “Why would anyone want to read it?”
3. “Who is your target audience?”
I ask these questions all the time when I’m doing advanced submissions because I can see authors are stumbling with their pitch.
“Why is your book unique?
When we ask this question, we’re not looking for a completely new story that no one has ever written before because, face it, it’s been done before in some fashion. We’re asking for the unique elements to your fantasy/memoir/biography/romance/mystery that hasn’t been done before.
For instance, there are a million Alzheimer’s books already on the market, so why did I want Barry Petersen’s Jan’s Story? I wanted it because this is about Early Onset Alzheimer’s, which is a whole different set of books – it’s more virulent, attacks far more quickly, and affects people at a much younger rate. Those books you can count on one hand. Talk about unique.
Same goes for Janice Eidus’ The War of the Rosens and Doug Light’s East Fifth Bliss. Each had unique elements that aren’t in the mainframe of fiction. They spoke to me, above the din of all the other novels that cross my desk. And this leads me to the second question:
“Why would anyone want to read it?”
These books kept me riveted in my chair. As I read, I could make a case for why readers would love these books. With Rosens, Emma grabbed my heart with her innocence. She was the white flower in amongst a family of weeds, and it was her brave little soul, her resilience that kept them together, even at the worst of times. I never saw this as a Jewish book, but a book about questioning beliefs in general. That’s a powerful message – to question, even if you’re attacked for it. I could say that I was a better person for having known Emma. She represents that large population who ask questions and wonder if anyone is listening. That has universal appeal.
Same thing for East Fifth Bliss. Poor, haphazard Morris…that man takes procrastination to the limit. And don’t we all? Aren’t each of us “fixin'” to do something? Lose weight, paint that fence, weed the garden, pay the bills? Bliss taps into that unspoken angst that, yah, we realize we need to take action but we keep sweeping it under the rug. Only Morris does it with hilarity and disastrous results because he’s strayed for far too long. I cannot WAIT to see how Michael C. Fox plays Morris in the movie. Again, this has universal appeal, and I have to say that I’m a better person for having met Morris.
Pulling out the elements that have universal appeal is a marvelous way to capture an agent’s or editor’s attention because it shows that you understand what makes the marketplace’s mind tick. Sure, many of us read for escapism, but deep down, are we always looking for some element that we can tap into? Don’t we hear that all the time? “Man, that book really spoke to me.”
“Who is your target audience?”
In 0rder for us to get readers to say “that book really spoke to me,” we need to define exactly who is most likely to say that. That’s why mainstream fiction is so tough to sell – it doesn’t speak to a definable audience. And that’s why it’s so important to go deeper. By pulling out those reasons why someone would want to read your book, you’re defining your audience. Some books are easy to define – Barry’s Jan’s Story, for instance, has a built-in audience.
But what about mainstream fiction? Sometimes it’s near impossible to define. That’s why pulling out the universally appealing elements is so important – it gives you something to build on.
Let’s say that East Fifth Bliss decides to play up the procrastination elements. Author extraordinaire Doug Light could develop a talk about procrastination and give it some silly title; “I’m Fixin’ To Jump Start My Life.” Maybe he would write about what he shares with Morris, what all of us share. Perhaps he could talk about what lit the fire under his own lack of inertia (provided he suffered from this!). He could write articles to magazines or give this talk at book events. It all leads back to his book.
His readings would start with, “hey, who among us isn’t sweeping a bunch of crap under our personal carpets?” And watch the hands go up in the air. What he’s doing is whetting people’s appetite by appealing to a common problem we all share. He would zing that with saying, “Well, Morris Bliss is a shining example of what can go wrong if you sweep under the carpet for too long.” Then he’d launch into one of the many cover-your-eyes scenes where poor, adorable Morris encounters yet another disaster.
What he’s doing is hitting on something we all share and before you know it, people want to read the book because we want to laugh at something that plagues our lives as well.
Authors who figure out these three questions are miles ahead of the game. Is it necessary? Well, how badly do you want to be represented or published? Publishing isn’t easy. No one ever said it was. There are no shortcuts. Sure, there are those Cinderella stories out there, but for every one of those, there are thousands who have to do it the old-fashioned way. My feeling is that authors who are willing to analyze their work this deeply are serious about their craft and are better able to promote their books because they understand the marketable factors.
I asked an author these same questions at a conference, and she really stumbled through. At the end of our time together, she looked at me and said, “You know? I don’t have a story here. I have no unique elements, no audience, and no reason why someone would want to read my book. I need to go home and write something better.” She wasn’t at all bitter; just enlightened.
Wow, what a rush!
On my wanderings through the many writer sites, I’ve noticed a reoccurring theme; readership. Boy, for the debut author, this is vital because without it, chances are slim you’ll get a second bite at the publishing apple. What concerns me about these discussions is that many authors believe the Print on Demand business plan [for further explanation, see the POD Series #1; #2 ; #3; #4; #5; #6; #7; Print on a Dime ]will help them gain that oh-so important readership. After they have a following, they plan on going the mainstream publishing route. My problem with this logic is, how are you gonna get them?
Breakdown of gaining a readership
Gaining a following of readers means that your book reached a wide audience. That means your book was bought by the publisher for its marketable content, it was edited by an experienced editing team, was widely pitched by sales teams to the genre buyers, it was marketed and promoted on a national basis, it was distributed and placed on store shelves, hundreds of ARCs and free final copies were sent to media and reviewers, maybe you got a great trade magazine review.
With the Print on Demand business plan, none of these things happened.
Since Print on Demand business plans don’t have store placement, how do they stay in business? They rely on their authors to buy books. This is why many PODs have a ton of authors and accept every genre – it’s to balance the ratio of those authors who don’t buy their own books.
Since these publishers don’t have much money, they don’t do any marketing and promotion on a national level [and in most cases, not at all]. If the POD author shoulders the burden of marketing, promoting, and selling his/her books, how wide of an audience can they realistically reach?
I’ll hire a publicist
The problem with this idea is that the good publicists won’t take on a POD book because of the inadequate print runs. POD business plan means that the publisher prints off books only where there are physical orders. This reduces their financial risk. [Note: I am NOT talking about digital print runs, where it's financially conducive to printing smaller runs. All publishers use the digital technology for printing ARCs and backlist titles]
You hire a publicist because they can open media doors that you can’t. If you have dreams of being on a major morning show – don’t say Oprah, don’t say it, Lynn, don’t, don’t, don’t – then you need a mainsteam publisher behind you who can meet that potential demand.
Case in point; I had a friend who signed with a POD and, on her own, struck a deal with a major sporting goods store. She took the contract to the POD, and they turned her down. Why? Because not only would they have to print up 10,000 units, but they faced the possibility of returns. It’s too much risk. As a consolation, they suggested she BUY the 10,000 units at a 50% discount. Then she could do whatever she wanted. Needless to say, that wasn’t an option. Now this author had a perfect chance to widen her readership by thousands, but her publisher squirreled the deal.
A publicist knows this and that’s why they won’t work with POD books. What would happen if they got a Fox News Channel interview with the ever-ascerbic Glenn Beck? Demand might go through the roof. But the problem is the book isn’t available in stores, nor are there enough printed books. Result; pissed off buyers and egg on the publicist’s and Beck’s faces. Beck, I’m certain can handle that. The publicist won’t fare so well because his credibility is shot.
What are the POD author’s options?
Options are few since the publicity comes down to what kind of footprint the author can make on her own. This costs time and money. Of course there are Cinderella stories all over the place, but keep in mind that they are the exception; not the rule.
POD as a publishing credit
The thing to keep in mind is that after everything is said and done, mainstream publishers and agents don’t consider a POD book as a publishing credit. So you’ve pubbed your first book with a POD, and chances are you sold maybe a hundred or so copies. You then query mainstream agents and editors with your second book and proudly list your POD credit.
This is where the needle goes scritchy scratchy across the record. Unless you sold a couple, three thousand units – that we can verify through Bookscan – no one will care about that book. As I always suggest to authors – don’t list a POD book at all in your query.
In short, when authors talk about going the POD route to gain a readership, I’ve come to think of this as shorthand for, “I’m not good enough.” Whether they are or not remains to be seen. But I can guarantee one thing; if every POD author didn’t buy their own books, PODs would go out of business. This isn’t opinion, but fact.