I appreciate a good story that says, “Holy crap, Pricey, wanna hear what happened to me?” But the operative is “holy crap.” It’s like when Barry Petersen’s wife, Jan, was diagnosed with Early Onset Alzheimer’s while he was still CBS’ Asian correspondent. How do you care for the love of your life and still maintain your career? JAN’S STORY oozes “holy crap!”-itude…by opening a vital discussion about the unique problems of Early Onset Alzheimer’s – which include love, working, saying goodbye, all while trying to maintain a job. There’s nothing else like it on the marketplace and there’s a huge readership, so it’s easy to see why it’s a bestseller.
And I reject many, many other Alzheimer stories because they lack those qualities.
Now, I realize “holy crap!” stories are subjective, and what I perceive to be a “holy crap!”-tastic story and the author’s perception of “holy crap!”-tastic could be as far apart as my bank account and retirement. Since we pour time and gobs of money into each title, I have to depend on the marketplace. What’s already out there? Is what you’re saying unique? Will they buy it?
Using that as a litmus, I’ve been going through my latest round of query letters, and nearly all of them lack that “holy crap!” element that will merit the marketplace’s attention in numbers large enough to blip the reader radar.
I know – I can hear you screaming from here: “What the hell, Pricey, what makes a memoir “holy crap!”-worthy?? It’s all so subjective.” Well, here’s my take on it: We all experience life in a myriad of ways. Some get debilitating diseases or have the motherlode of Bandini drop in their laps. The thing with memoirs is that Life happens to us, not through us…and it’s how we choose to deal with that crap that makes a story.
Ye Olde Cancer/Addiction/Death/Divorce/Life Change
These are the members of the Unholy Cinquinity tribe – so named because there are 5 instead of 3 – get it (oh the cleverness abounds)? These are the hot buttons that usually melt my brain before I finish reading a query letter. Why? Because they’ve been Written. To. Death. Unless you have a huge platform or have an incredibly unique message, these books are next to impossible to market.
But don’t despair…be aware.
For example, when Amy Biancolli’s lovely agent sent me her proposal over Christmas vacation – I wanted to reject it outright because it’s about losing her husband. In my mind’s eye Joan Didion already sailed that ship with THE YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING. But her agent prodded me, so I huffed and puffed and committed to read the first chapter. Well, a few hours later I finished the entire manuscript because I couldn’t put it down. Not only is Amy’s writing some of the best I’ve ever read, but her story is unique when compared to all the other books of the same genre.
Of course, it details losing her husband, but it’s also about putting the pieces back and FIGURING SHIT OUT. It’s irreverent, poignant, honest – and carries the universal theme that we all have shit that needs figuring out, and we don’t always have to do it with dark-cloaked-respectful-whispers-knit-eyebrows seriousness. Sometimes gallows humor is the closest thing to sanity, yanno? I see Amy’s book as an inspiration for anyone wallowing in their own shit.
That is a “Holy crap!” story I know I can sell.
Conversely, I’ve rejected two other “death” books in the past two weeks that were, indeed, sad, but basically rode on Joan Didion’s coattails. Heartbreaking, yes, but there was no hook.
- “My husband died.”
- “I have/had cancer.”
- “I suffered from addiction.”
- “My husband left me after 30 years of marriage.”
I feel horrible for all of these stories, but what makes it marketable? These same experiences have happened to many others, so I always have to ask mysel, “Who cares?” Sure, it’s cutthroat and heartless (I have no soul, remember?), but so is publishing. If you don’t have your Big Girl/Boy panties on and objectively pre-screen yourself, then you’re going to suffer a lot of rejection. Which sucks.
I see many stories that are more like therapy sessions than marketable books. They’re too personal, so I sometimes feel like a Peeping Tonya. Many times, the stories are a rehash of books that are already crowding store shelves, so the “holy crap!” elements already exist…in someone else’s book.
If you write in one of the Unholy Cinquinites, you have to be able to defend your story’s viability:
- What specific elements make my book unique?
- Why would readers read and recommend my book?
- Who is my direct competition – how does my book compare and contrast?
- What specific kinds of people will read my book (intended readership)? – I get a lot of, “This is a book that will appeal to everyone,” which makes me reach for the bottle. I can’t market to “everyone,” but I can market to cancer groups, bereavement groups, addiction groups, etc…so if you have a platform within those kinds of groups, it makes it easier to get bookstores interested in writing a big fat purchase order.
Writers of the Unholy Cinquinities who have a grip on these questions are in a better position to understand the “holy crap!”-ness of their stories and highlight those elements in their query letters so a heartless, soulless editor won’t reach for the bottle before hitting the Reject button.
Like I said, Don’t despair…be aware. Now go out and embrace your “holy crap!”-ness.