Start your New Year off on the right foot, and finish your literary puzzle

I’m big on finishing my puzzles. They stare at me on the dining room table, calling and whispering at me to find that one piece that will complete a particular scene. After all, you can’t call something complete without all the pieces in their proper place, right?

And this is why the query that bumped into my inbox a few days ago made me feel as if the author hasn’t finished her literary puzzle. The sin?

I am in the process of researching promotion strategies.

Didja read that?


The author had the synopsis and bio down, but blew it out of the water by not having all the pieces of her literary puzzle in place. In order for editors to determine if something is publish-worthy, they need to see a puzzle. I bleat this like a goat drunk on peanut butter daiquiris…if you write nonfiction, you need to have a promo plan that outlines your platform.

Writing your book and outlining your bio is only two-thirds of your literary puzzle. The missing pieces are vital, and I know of very few commercial publishers who appreciate an author’s query that creating a friendly online presence is a foolproof method of promotion. Those who say this either already have a very strong online presence and can back up that statement, or they have zero online presence and have no idea how long that endeavor takes and how hard it is to establish and maintain.

It’s not that we’re snobs. We would give our eye teeth to publish books based solely on their literary quality and message, but sadly, this isn’t the way of the world. We’re slaves to the publicity machine, and it’s really hard to make something out of nothing. If you sit at home knitting toilet paper doilies and your book is about trying to entice readers about postpartum depression, then how can your publisher market and promote your book when your potential readers don’t know you exist and you have nothing that establishes your fabulosity?

What do you bring to the postpartum depression party other than having suffered it? I know that sounds trite, but let’s put this into perspective. I’ve had two hip replacements, but I wouldn’t write a book about it because I don’t have any identifiable credentials about hip replacements other than my own experience. And unless readers want to know the joys of hippy hopping around Trader Joe’s after forgetting my cane, then who cares? I’m not so much of an expert as I am a participant. Big whup. There needs to be more meat on a book’s bones in order to attract an audience, and publishers know this.

There is too much money wrapped up into publishing, marketing, and promoting a book, and this is why publishers need to have a complete literary puzzle. Those elements are the foundation we use to pitch, market, and promote your book. Let’s broaden the horizon a bit. Will Library Journal will get goosey bumps over your cancer book if you collect navel lint and shape them into Christmas decorations? Or might they feel more compelled to bite if you are actively involved with the major cancer groups, give seminars to cancer patients, and are considered an expert in your particular field?


While I’m on the subject of experts, I’m not talking about advanced degrees, corporate sponsors, and people who kiss your ring (though that’s not too bad). Rather, it’s something that you establish yourself. Sounds self-serving, right? But think about the people you see interviewed on the Talking Head shows. They are always introduced as an expert in their particular field…even if it’s as innocuous as reading body language. But here’s a factoid to stick in your pipe and smoke:

Media Lurves Experts.

And it makes perfect sense, doesn’t it? Can you imagine the producer for Regis and Kelly saying, “Yah, let’s invite that lady who bakes radish casseroles and wrote that book about human trafficking.” No, they want someone who has the credentials to stand behind their book, an expert. Instead, they’ll invite Chris Baughman, who doesn’t bake to save his soul, but he wrote a fantastic book (Off the Street) that details how he rescues a lot of victims of human trafficking for a living. Simply put, there is no better expert than Chris.

Now, has anyone waved a magic Promo Wand over Chris’ head and deemed him An Expert? Nope. However, marketing folks are the Great Yodas at exploiting every last morsel of someone’s platform. But there’s a fine line to walk because they aren’t magicians. An expert must be able to withstand any and all questions tossed at them during an interview. So our radish casserole baker isn’t seen as a serious contender in human trafficking because she doesn’t have the broad based experience of human trafficking.

If you write nonfiction/memoir/biography, be prepared to sell yourself as An Expert. Merely saying, “I lived it,” doesn’t necessarily count. This only means that you’re an expert in your particular experience and lack a wider perspective. Interviewers will start out with your personal experience, but then move over to a larger context so as to grab viewer interest.

Passion vs. Blinders

The problem that usually gets in the way of an author completing their literary puzzle is they are so passionate about their story that they put on some fairly large blinders, which prevents them from analyzing whether they have a story at all. All of our authors are extremely passionate about their stories – as they should be – but they and their agents knew they had to sell their stories. And not just to me, but to their targeted readership. As such, they came prepared with both passion AND clarity about who they are and what makes them the best person to have written their book.

Honor yourself by stopping what you’re writing and ask yourself whether you’re wearing blinders that keep you moving in only one direction and prevent you from seeing the whole picture.

To Be or Not To Be

It may seem a silly thing to say, but books have a raison d’etre. I get a lot of people whose lives bump up an experience, and they decide to write about it. The problem is that most of the stories aren’t newsworthy.

I got cancer. Yawn.. so have a million other people.
I had a midlife crisis. Run me over with a missile launching Mack truck, who isn’t having a midlife crisis these days?
I’m going through a divorce. Shave my eyebrows and call me Shirley…you think you’re the only one?

They’re all too personal…so personal that I almost feel like a literary Peeping Tammy.

Book or magazine article?:  In addition to being too personal, many stories don’t have enough literary gas to make a book. Instead, they’d make great articles. It’s not that your story is any less valid, but that your experience simply is not a 65,000 story. Learn to appreciate the difference and ask yourself where your story fits.

The trick to putting together a fabulous literary puzzle is research. Knowing that your puzzle is a pie-sized bunch of awesome is the kind of confidence writers need when querying – and you only get that kind of confidence by knowing how your book measures up to what’s already out there.

And it’s not just your book – but it’s you, too. How do you measure up in a editor’s eye? Are you marketable? What are those marketable qualities? Are you an expert? If so, what is your particular expertise, and is it the same as everyone else’s who is your competitive equal? Is your platform exploitable enough to get those media types and book reviewers sniffing around? And most important of all – have you even addressed these issues? ‘Cos if you haven’t, then your literary puzzle is incomplete.

3 Responses to Start your New Year off on the right foot, and finish your literary puzzle

  1. I find this very interesting. From what you’re saying, you prefer your authors to be experts on the fields they write about. With nonfiction, self-help tomes, I can understand this. But with memoir it seems superfluous.

    Memoir is supposed to be personal.

    As part of my marketing strategy, I’ve spent several hours lately on Amazon reading the reader reviews on memoir books. For each book, I’d read the first few 5 star reviews, then click on the 1 or 2 star reviews. I wanted to see what readers found objectionable about that particular memoir. Why did they hate it and give it such low marks? Almost universally it was either “boring” or “poorly written.” Never was the objection due to the author’s lack of authority or expertise on the subject matter. Readers weren’t idiots. They were completely aware that the author was coming from a perspective of personal experience, not one of clinical expertise. They weren’t reading the book for a diatribe on the technical aspects of the subject matter but to better understand the internal emotional workings and how the author overcame a less than ideal situation.

    Secondly in all the author interviews I’ve read on various websites around the Internet, the author isn’t asked to supply technical descriptions of the subject matter. Instead the author is asked how the specific events impacted her. If in the process of coming to terms with say, postpartum depression she has familiarized herself with statistics, she might like to share them but again, it’s a venue for personal experience, not technical data.

    Granted if an author is a member of NAMI, for instance, she might be able to offer her book to certain members. I do think it’s good to be available as a friendly lay support person if the opportunities afford themselves. From my research so far, and I could be wrong about this because I’m far from finished and probably never will be, the market for memoir consists of readers who enjoy reading about the personal experiences of others, period. And there is a very strong market for these types of books.

  2. Julie Rowe says:

    For me to read a memoir it needs four attributes:

    1. Great writing – most folks who write their memoir have never written anything else…and it shows.

    2. Interesting to a wide audience – most memoirs are only interesting to a few (family and friends).

    3. Unique – most of us have led remarkably similar lives, as Lynn stated: cancer, divorce, mid-life crisis, etc happen to virtually everyone in one shape or form.

    4. Relevant – despite its uniqueness, a great memoir must be relevant to a large audience.

  3. Grace, it depends on what kind of memoir it is. The memoirs we publish transcend our authors’ experiences. It’s our marketing strategy and because of that, our authors are always asked broader based questions that reach outside the boundaries of their books. This, in turn, makes them a larger target for media. Again, that’s our particular strategy. There are plenty publishers who publish straight memoir that are very personal, and that’s great.

    As with anything in publishing, there are no hard-fast rules. I give advice that I feel will help authors be more successful.

    Julie: Word…

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