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

December 21, 2011

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.

The crowded genre: sending stuff to an editor is never a wasted effort

April 22, 2010

I read a query the other day that sounded intriguing, even though it was written in a crowded subgenre – cancer. Normally I pass on these queries because cancer/addiction of any flavor/domestic abuse/child abuse/midlife crisis/divorce/bipolar [I could go on all day] have been done to ad nauseum. Bookshelves are lined with these books. In fact, I can almost hear my distributor’s brain exploding at the mere mention of undertaking any of these categories. I’m a small publisher, and I appreciate my limitations to make an impact within the marketplace. If I’m going to take on a crowded genre, I need a lot more than just a good book.

The query was well-written and alluded to a higher than normal quality of writing. Pricey, I thinks to meself, get the full proposal and see what the author is made of. Of course, I already know that the writing has to be off the charts amazing and the author needs a good platform. So I request the proposal, which includes the first couple chapters.

I wasn’t too disappointed with the writing. It was well-written and kept my attention pretty well. Totally on the fence with this. So I go to her title comps, which are the usual suspects, then I move on to her platform. And this is where I jumped off the fence and wrote her personalized rejection that included my likes and my reasons for turning it down. The long and short of it is that I felt her writing is good, but her topic is heavily impacted and I didn’t have the confidence I could sell the book to the stores based on her platform.

End of story, right? Wrong.

The Great Dismay

She wrote back expressing dismay and frustration. “If you knew this was a heavily impacted category, then why did you make me go through the hassle of sending you my proposal in the first place?”

I understand what she’s saying. She wants to know why I asked to see her proposal if I was pretty sure I was going to reject it. She’s mildly pissed at what she saw as a waste of her time. That much came through. And if she is, then it’s a sure bet others are as well when it comes to this roller coaster ride we call publishing.

Riding the Literary Seesaw

What the author doesn’t take into account is that queries are the fulcrum to the publishing seesaw. Just like the fat kid who always threw me off my side of the seesaw because he outweighed me by at least 1,000 pounds, a book can do the very same thing. Sure, cancer is an impacted category, but until I see more of the story, how do I know which way that seesaw is going to go – toward the fat kid or toward an empty seat.

The author assumes that I think impacted topic = instant rejection, and that’s not the case at all. When super agent Paul Fedorko sent me a query about Alzheimer’s, I thought, oh no, not another one. Had I prescribed to this author’s methodology, I would have rejected it on the spot. Rather, I was pulled in by the query, which included a short passage written by the author. Holy bran muffins, thinks me, I must see this. I nearly drank myself into a coma after I read the full proposal. “Good Gracey Goosebumples,” I screamed at the beagle. “We done hit us the motherlode.” We couldn’t sign Barry Petersen fast enough [personal website here].

This has happened time and again with many of the authors I’ve signed. There was something that nipped my nose in the query, even though the subject matter had a lot of competition. But it was their proposal that tipped my personal seesaw.

So to the author who was exasperated at having sent in her proposal even though I knew at the outset hers was a heavily impacted subject, I say chill out. Nothing is ever a wasted effort because there is always another side of that seesaw, yanno? Rather than finding fault with me, perhaps she could use my comments to further cement her position by meeting the reality head on. What do I mean by that?

Tip the seesaw in your favor and head ’em off at the pass

If you write in an impacted category like the ones I mentioned above, admit it. Understand it. Deal with it. Confront it. I always think of Kate McLaughlin [personal webby here] when I talk about this subject. She sent me a query that instantly caught my eye, even though the subject was bipolar disorder. Oh no, sez me, not another one. But Kate, no neophyte, headed me off at the pass and never gave me a chance to complete the thoughts that were knocking against my brain cells.

She whacked me over the head with her title comps and did a comprehensive compare and contrast of each title – proving the unique qualities of her book. It was as simple as, “This is what title ABC covers, but it doesn’t address issues X, Y, and Z. Mine does, and here’s how.”

She confronted the issue that her book had a ton of competition, but she convinced me that her voice was unique. Indeed it is. Kate’s Mommy I’m Still in Here is the Great Yoda for families suffering bipolar disorder because of her unusual and fabulous perspective.

But I would have never known that had she not told me. Proven it to me.

No Whine Zone

So authors are invited to pick their poison. Do they allow frustration to creep in when an editor tells them they write in a crowded genre, or do they head it off at the pass and realize they have a higher hill to climb and must work harder to be accepted. Hopefully Ms. Rejected Author will pick up the seeds I dropped in my rejection letter to her. If she does, she can crank out a proposal like Kate’s.

Or…she can tell me I wasted her time. Who’s the winner here?

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