Hey, nonfiction-ers, do you write in a crowded category?

This morning’s queries brought forth a story about cancer. I know the story is vitally important to the author, and I honor her for that, but I have no choice but to reject it because cancer has been done over and over and over. I’m not sure if the author realizes this or not because with memoir, many people have an experience and go no further than their laptop to bang out their story. They don’t know anything about trolling their competition.

Because this happens so often, I thought I’d share how editors look at stories written in crowded categories such as cancer, mid-life crisis, addiction, divorce, bipolar disorder, Alzheimer’s.

Since there are a gajillion books already written on these subjects, there is very little “new” under the sun. Authors should realize this because they need to tailor their query letter to win us over, to convince us their stories are unique.

When I say unique, I don’t mean, “Well of course my story is unique because the circumstances are different and the characters are different.” What I mean by unique is that the storyline/plot is unique from what’s currently on the shelves.

Do Da Research

Anyone writing a book should know their competition. You should choose at least three titles and be able to speak about how your book compares and contrasts to the competition. Not only do we use this information for promotion purposes, but we use it during our submission committee meetings. I heart authors who include this info in their queries. A lot.

Once you’ve analyzed your competition, you should be able to address your book’s unique qualities, what makes it stand out from all the others.

Confront the 500 pound gorilla

The next thing I suggest is to get it out there in your query letter. You and I know your story is in an overcrowded category, so address it. Kate McLaughlin, author of Mommy I’m Still In Here, did this, and she immediately won me over because she knew what I was thinking. Bipolar disorder is an extremely crowded topic, but Kate blew my doors off by acknowledging this fact and telling me the unique elements of her book.

I was hooked because it was/is a fantastic book, and I could see she understood the publishing industry and appreciated the dilemma of selling a book on this topic. Because we all knew the unique and uplifting message of Mommy I’m Still In Here, this book remains a bible for families and friends of those with bipolar disorder.

Platform – Who knows you, baby?

I know authors hate this word, but it’s the way of the world, so we may as well acknowledge it and appreciate it. Having a platform is the difference between rejection and a contract offer.

For example, I’d been considering a manuscript for a couple months. The writing was fantastic, but the story is written in a crowded category. I shared my concerns about the author’s lack of platform, and she wrote up several promo plans in hopes they would convince me that the story had legs. Alas, I finally had to turn her down. It hurt. If only the author was advocate for her subject matter and involved in foundations that deal with this topic, her book would have flown off the shelves.

As it stood, I knew our sales and marketing guys would have tossed a loaded brick at me if I’d come to them with this book because the first thing buyers are asking is, “What’s the author’s platform? What are they doing to promote the book?” The author has no affiliation with her subject matter other than her personal experience, so she had zero name recognition. That’s a death knell for a publisher – regardless of who that publisher is. I have colleagues with the Big Boys who have suffered from authors’ lack of platform.

Just because an author is with a Big Boy publisher doesn’t mean anything other than they may get more copies more widely distributed, but it doesn’t guarantee sales. If you write in a crowded category, then you need to work on your platform so you have name recognition. So many authors are dependent on social media, and I’m still wary about this dependence because social media is as crowded as the bookstores. It’s hard to swim to the top.

Consider your readership and become involved in foundations or groups where your book’s subject matter takes place. The more people know you, the bigger target you become – and we all lurve big targets.

In short, the world of literature is crowded, and there are certain topics that enjoy a huge number of titles. If your book is in one of those categories, then take some vital steps to ensure your success. Being an author these days puts you in a much more visible position by the merits of promotion. Take an unbiased look at your book and ask yourself what makes your book a gotta-have-it, and what those unique qualities are.

4 Responses to Hey, nonfiction-ers, do you write in a crowded category?

  1. Well written! It’s important for people like me, writers with homeless manuscripts to understand the business-end of publishing. For probably the better part of two years, I’ve focused on my writing, avoiding those all-important aspects of platform building and marketing strategies. I guess I just needed to let the concepts creep in and take root. Posts like yours affirm that making myself appealing to publishers doesn’t have to be drudgery. On the contrary, it’s actually quite enjoyable. 🙂

  2. Brian Clegg says:

    Nice one, Lynn. I would add, ‘Make sure what you’ve got is a book, not an article’. I’m infamous for churning large numbers of book ideas, but many of them, when gone into in some detail, turn out to only have enough meat on them for an article. It could well be a great article. But it ain’t a book.

    Oh and have a great Christmas and a prosperous New Year!

  3. Lev says:

    This is so true and the real estate dictum of “location, location, location” really is platform, platform, platform for writers.

    And I tell beginning authors all the time they *must* do their research, they must know what’s out there that’s competing and if their books aren’t different enough to stand out, then *make* them so.

    Happy Holidays to all, and to all, Happy Holidays!

  4. Brian, you are spot on! I’ve seen many queries that made great magazine articles, but simply didn’t have the oomph to make a book.

    And a Merry Christmas to you!

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