If that wasn’t lovely enough, 500 books flew out the door at four Seattle Costcos. Yup, sold out. In five weeks. Not bad, not bad.
Kristin, you rock…
If that wasn’t lovely enough, 500 books flew out the door at four Seattle Costcos. Yup, sold out. In five weeks. Not bad, not bad.
Kristin, you rock…
First off, I can’t believe I haven’t blogged since November! Where did the time go? Yikes.
Anyhoo, the months have passed by all too quickly, and I’ve been keeping myself off the street by working on this amazing book, THE CHICKEN WHO SAVED US – releases April 4.
I know I’ve mentioned it many times, but being in this business is such an honor because of the many outstanding people I’ve had the luxury of meeting. Kristin Jarvis Adams is just one such person.
I met Kristin at the fabulous Pacific Northwest Writer’s Conference in Seattle. We had been trying to make contact, but her pitch sessions didn’t seem to coincide with mine, so I suggested breakfast. Oh, she was so nervous, and I really wanted to reach out and tell her that I’m the last person anyone should be afraid of. I’m fairly benign. Really. But she gulped and dug in. What came out of her mouth riveted me to my seat.
Her son, Andrew, was autistic. Being a teacher in a prior incarnation, I was well-familiar with the challenges of working with autistic kids, and their tough time with communication. If this challenge wasn’t enough, Andrew grew deathly ill, and he and his family were thrown into a decade-long quest to diagnose and find a cure. The only person (thing?) he would confide in was his pet chicken Frightful. To her, he spoke of his secrets and fears.
The long and short of it is that Kristin’s story is one that truly touched my heart. I’ve probably read the manuscript a dozen times or more throughout the production process, and I laughed hysterically and grabbed for my Kleenex box Every. Damn. Time. Yah, it’s that good.
But the message I hope to put across is how my authors humble me. They’ve had experiences drop into their laps that would destroy the souls of mere mortals. And that is why I hold all of my authors in such high esteem. It’s truly an honor to say, “Yah, I published their book.” Happy sigh.
If you find yourself wanting to read a riveting impossible-to-put-down story about a place where heroes wear capes, chickens talk, and miracles happen, then march thee to the nearest bookstore and pre-order THE CHICKEN WHO SAVED US. And if you live in the Seattle area, then be sure to catch many of Kristin’s upcoming appearances. Knowing Kristin is like a warm hug.
Many of the query letters I receive have this exclamation in it – meaning that friends and family who’ve heard the author’s personal journey punctuate their excitement and support by prodding the author to write about their experiences. On the surface it seems a great idea.
And yes, there’s always a “however.” It’s easy to get caught up in the thrill of having people around you insist that your story is amazing enough take up residence on store shelves. But it may not be the reality, and it’s important that you know the difference.
The Friends and Family Bias
Your friends and family will love you even if you have spinach stuck in your front teeth, so they’re far from being unbiased. And that’s a good thing. You want to have good people surrounding you. However…agh, there’s that dreaded word again…they’re too close to you and not educated in the ways of all things publishy.
This is precisely why I receive an overabundance of addiction/cancer/midlife crisis/I-was-a-child-of-war queries. The author is pumped by their friends and family and they dig right in without realizing there is A LOT of ground to cover from, “Hey, you oughta write a book!” to actually being convinced you have a marketable story…and thy name is Research.
Competition: How many stories like yours are already on store shelves? If there are a gajillion cancer stories out there (and there are), then you need to know that. You need to be prepared if you’re writing in a crowded category, such as cancer, divorce, grieving, etc.
Why do you need to know? ‘Cos I’m gonna ask, for one. I want to know the three titles that compare most closely to your book – how they compare and contrast. Why? ‘Cos my sales and marketing teams are going to ask. Why? ‘Cos the genre buyers are going to ask. Whee! Dominoes.
READ: It’s not enough to look at store shelves to see how many other books like yours are in the marketplace; you gotta READ them. Why? ‘Cos you need to be able to speak to the unique elements of YOUR book. And this is where many queries/submissions fall down. I can tell whether an author has read her competition or not in the way she writes her query letter. She may use short examples to offer a frame of reference:
“My Inverted Belly Button is reminiscent of the popular 2014 adventure Inverted Belly Button Blues, however my story is specifically geared to college students, who are much more sensitive to having an inverted belly button than the general public.”
This is helpful to me because I can quickly recognize an expansive and identifiable readership. This is a savvy author who understands the unique elements of their story compared to a popular book in the same category. This helps our sales and marketing teams a great deal.
Platform: Memoir/nonfiction is a tough nut, and authors need to have a platform in which to swim to the top. Ask yourself not how many people you know…but how many people know you? Are you the airline pilot who wrote about her cockpit experiences? Are you the mother of a desperately sick child who has done countless talks and seminars about this subject matter? Are you an expert in the topic you’ve written about to the point where media would call you for your input?
Platform wears many different faces, but I can tell you that authors who have a large footprint sell a lot of books. Those who sit on their hands either don’t get a good publishing contract, or they make their publishers very grouchy.
Writing Quality/Beta Readers: It sounds elementary, but it’s so often overlooked that it bears discussing. Your writing has to be solid, meaning an excellent command of the English language, artfully constructed, and engaging. Of course, writing style is subjective, so it’s tough to gauge. But this is where beta readers come in handy. These aren’t your friends and family (because they’ll never be honest), but instead, your writing group, or writing class. People who will be able to honestly tell you what did and didn’t work for them, and why.
Ask Yourself These Questions
As you can see, thar be lots to consider after some darling relative or friends yelps, “You oughta write a book!” The idea is to set yourself up for success, and that means having the ability to determine whether you really have a great story in your heart, or that your friends and family need to be committed.
It should be a no-brainer that anyone looking to pitch their story would do so in a mindful manner that would ensure they’re dealing with people who would be interested in their story. For instance, romance publishers will hardly be fascinated with a fantasy (unless said fantasy included some heavy breathing and talk of penetration). Likewise, horror publishers will give memoir a huge pass.
Okay, these are the “duh, Pricey” examples; others are a bit more subtle. For example, we publish memoir/biography/self help, but that doesn’t mean all types of memoir/biography/self help books will scratch our itch. If you have a sweeping Forrest Gump type memoir that encompasses someone’s life and all the happenings that take place over a twenty-five year span, it isn’t for us. We don’t do that.
Sure, I talk about what we’re looking for in our guidelines, but many authors see “Memoir” and stop thinking, and begin sending. Once I get it, I’ll immediately send them a rejection letter – which sucks stale Twinkie cream. It’s a rejection letter that didn’t have to happen if the author had simply done one thing…looked at our list of books. It’s called narrowing the field.
Agents have a much broader gauge of genre with what they represent. They’ll take all memoir/biography, or all fantasy and romance. They don’t narrow the field because they sell to a wide range of editors. Publishers, on the other hand, specialize. At least the smaller independent houses do, because that’s their expertise. They become known for it. If you’re looking for personal journeys, I’m your gal. If you have a saga, then someone else can better fit the bill.
If you’re ever in a quandry about whether a publisher is right for your work, simply go over to see what they’ve pubbed. Read the synopses. That way, you’ll get a better feel for who they are. Take a look at the description of what they’re looking for. Yes, this all takes time, but isn’t it better to query those who publish the exact kinds of books like the one you’ve written?
Work smart and hit a home run!
Of late, I seem to be the recent recipient of every addiction/abuse/life nightmare story ever written. I realize people have tragic lives, and writing about them can bring about a large measure of emotional release and comfort. And yes, I do publish memoir – so I understand I’m a non-moving target. But for crying out loud – so many of these stories are simply too horrendous, and I find myself reaching for mouthwash and eye bleach. Many of these, I simply want to unsee.
Many of these queries have no other purpose than to horrify (mission accomplished) and cluck one’s tongue about how gruesome humans are to one another. My concern about these stories is…do you have a point? It’s one thing to flood the market with “Read About What Ghastly Shit Happened To Me” stories before readers tire of the sameness of it all. It’s the literary equivalent of the National Enquirer…and sure, they do have a large readership, but where those stories are sandwiched between the covers of a known quantity, your Lurid Lucy story stands all by itself – without benefit of a ready audience. And the queries I’ve seen seem intent on out-grossing each other.
“My story is about how I was abused at 7.”
“Oh yeah, well I’ll up that by telling my story about how I became a prostitute at 10 and addicted to cocaine.”
Oh dear GOD!!! Enough! I can’t handle it.
My problem isn’t necessarily what happened to these people (and my soulless heart breaks for them), but where they put the focus. If the nucleus is about detailing every inch of each horror, then what’s the point of the story? Is this violence for violence’s sake? Is it self therapy? Is it both?
I can appreciate anyone who comes through a tough life and finds unicorns and rainbows on the other side, but in order to get my attention, these stories have to have a point. A message. And that’s the problem with Gruesome Gandys…the messages always seem to be the same: Believe in yourself.
Never give up.
Whatever it is, it’s already been written about. A lot. And since there’s nothing unique about the message, it’s very hard to get readers’ attention, let alone an agent or publisher’s. The media and reviewers will invariably yawn because it’s a Been Thar, Done That kinda book.
Of course, some stories are very tough to read and a literary masterpiece. I think of our own book MOMMY, I’M STILL IN HERE. Kate McLaughlin unflinchingly writes about the ravages of bipoloar disorder that afflict two of her kids. I spent much of the book with my fist in my mouth. But I was also blown away because Kate never keeps the sole focus on the horrors – but about finding the light at the end of the tunnel and that bipolar disorder isn’t a death sentence, and people can go on to live happy, healthy, productive lives. I cheered. I huzzah’d. I jumped on furniture and fist-pumped the air. It was because of those horrors that I could rejoice in the sweetness of success. But the vital element was that the message was unique, and she had a clear point to make.
If you’ve had a horrid life, you have my blessings and hugs. If you want to write about those horrors, ask yourself why you’re writing it. Is it a form of therapy, or do you have a concrete message? If you have a concrete message, is it the same one that’s already been written about thousands of times already? If so, then how are you going to interest an agent or editor?
Lastly, the only way to know whether you have something that’s been done to ad nauseam or unique is to read books in the topic you’re writing about. You have to go from victim to analyst in order to determine whether you have a point, or whether you’re simply talking about your horrible life. And if it’s solely about your horrible life, please, please, please, don’t query me. I’m on heart medicine, yanno…
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.
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:
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.