Monday, April 26, 2010

8 Know Your Selling Point

Three different blog posts this morning got me thinking about the parallels between marketing a book and marketing a manuscript. The Intern blogged about whether a writer should bother to do a website or a trailer for a manuscript before the book is picked up. Then I read the BookEnds query recap. And after that, I took a break to watch an interview with bestselling author Casey Sherman on the BubbleCow blog.

Now, as you may already know, I am NOT the queen of the query letter, and my fondness for the dreaded synopsis ranks right up there with cow tripe in my list of all time favorite things. I don't have a website for my work, nor do I have a book trailer put together. That said, I have no lack of enthusiasm for my stories. I could talk about my characters all day, and I'm fortunate that the people who have read my manuscripts have done so not just once but several times and are almost as crazy as I am. Which is to say that they talk about my characters as if they are real people, too.

So when I think about some of the bland, boring queries I've sent out, I cringe. And I realize that part of the problem was that I knew too much about the story to identify the selling point. Fortunately, I've learned a little bit since I started querying. For one thing, I already have the one sentence pitch done for my current WIP, and for the next one on the list. I'm not letting myself get derailed by other aspects of the story that I've fallen in love with along the way. I'm also making darn sure I nail down the BIG concept before I write in the future.

Writing a book is a different job from selling a book, according to Casey Sherman. You have to put aside your Hemingway hat and put on your P. T. Barnum hat, and it's up to you to be able to do that to make your writing pay.

Hmmh. Making your writing pay. Novel concept.

Sherman also made a couple other great points:

The goal is to tell a story, and if you are a good storyteller your success will come.

And,

If you can't articulate the synopsis of your book very quickly, then the reader won't as well.

I put those thoughts together with the takeaway from the other blogs I read this morning, and here is my epiphany: the need to write a query letter isn't just some arbitrary punishment agents inflict on writers because they're mean. It's an important rite of passage for the work.

If we can't articulate the reason why an agent should read our manuscript well enough to get a request for more material, how are we going to convince a potential reader to buy the book? And no, I don't believe that's the publisher's job. Hopefully we are going to have interviews and school visits and book signings to do. That's where our enthusiasm and our ability to tell a story, and to tell it well, are going to have to shine.

So what's your book about? What's your selling point? What makes YOU love YOUR story enough to need to write it? If you can't answer that question, take time out to figure it out before you query, before you continue writing. I am convinced you will end up with a better book and a better bottom-line because you did.

Nathan Bransford asked for opinions last week about whether the query process worked. I said I thought it was probably better to have the agent read the first part of the manuscript before reading the query letter. Now I think I'm going to change my mind. I do think the query is important. But I think it works only when the writer takes the time to make the query truly reflect the work.

Someone on the BookEnds blog this morning wrote:

It still bothers me that some of us who follow directions and do our research are lumped in with those "others" who can't or those who are void of common sense.

I don't think we're lumped in with the others. Not having the "bam factor" as the above poster suggested isn't something an agent can overlook just because we followed instructions and completed the minimum requirements. I've made huge mistakes in querying--pretty much, you name it and I've goofed. I don't intend to make mistakes again, but I'm human and Murphy is not my friend. The one mistake I won't ever make again is assuming that agents will automatically be able to divine the brilliance of my manuscript, like Karnac the Magnificent, through some magical means. I have to show them, clearly and convincingly.

What do you think? I'd love to hear your thoughts....

For further reading (and listening):
http://www.bubblecow.co.uk/2010/04/advice-every-writer-needs-to-know/
http://bookendslitagency.blogspot.com/2010/04/query-recap.html
http://internspills.blogspot.com/2010/04/do-unpublished-manuscripts-need-book.html
http://blog.nathanbransford.com/2010/04/can-i-get-ruling-do-you-think-query.html

Happy pitching,

Martina

8 comments:

  1. Hi Martina!

    I followed you here from BookEnds. This is such a well-reasoned essay on the necessity of a great query letter! Do you mind if I link to it from my blog?

    Best wishes on your own publishing career!

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  2. Gah, the query letter is the hardest part. And you are so right--PT Barnham didn't write the book, but he sure as heck could sale it. Hemingway on the other hand...not so much. Alas, another hat to put on.

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  3. Hi Suzan! I'd be flattered to have you link to it. Thanks very much--and good luck back.

    And Chantal--I know, right? It's daunting, but I'm going to start trying to look at it as just a different aspect of the art of storytelling.

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  4. I struggle with the query letter too. I'm getting ready for a pitch session with an agent this next weekend and I found it helpful to write out a one sentence and three sentence pitch. You're right. You have to summarize it like that if you want to sell your book. And there are some great examples out there that make you want to read the book.

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  5. Your thoughts on the query are so true. I cringe when I have to condense it all down to bare nothings. But draft after draft, even the query gets better!

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  6. Natalie, best of luck this weekend! I'll keep my fingers crossed for you.

    Julie, you're right. Queries are less about skill and more about sheer hard work.

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  7. Great post! Queries and pitches are very hard. I had to read mine out loud and practice on people before I got them where I wanted them to be. Having a background in performing arts can help, but you as the writer do need to be able to summarize your story in a very concise, exciting way.

    Very well written essay. Thanks!

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  8. Hi Jaleta,

    Thanks so much! That's a great point about reading pitches and queries aloud. And oh, gosh, I never thought of this as an essay. I just ranted. So again -- thank you!!!!

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