Monday, August 9, 2010

15 Lessons from SCBWI-LA: How to Sell Your Novel

Last week, I promised to give you my take-away on the SCBWI Summer Conference, and I needed time to digest and think it through. There was so much good stuff. Throughout the four days, the various intensives and keynotes provided loads of actionable information to take a novel from "almost publishable" to "sold." Recaps of every event are available on the SCBWI Conference Blog, and Alice Pope and the other bloggers did such a fantastic job reporting on them that I'd rather send you there than try to add my two cents for most of the material. Instead, I want to boil it down to the key tips that made me change my thinking on how to write or submit a manuscript.


If I have to use one word to sum it all up, that word is marketability. It underlay everything from publisher's perspectives to craft intensives, and these days, it's something no writer can ignore. I know we'd all rather escape to our ivory towers, but overall, keeping your eye on marketability at every stage of the writing process is a good thing.

I sat in one of the keynote sessions when I had one of those epiphanies that only seem to come to me during an SCBWI conference. A novel, it struck me, is like a tripod. To make the journey to successful publication, it needs a combination of three elements:
  • a marketable concept, 
  • an engaging voice, 
  • a solid plot.
If all three of the elements are there, the novel is on solid footing. Let any of the three fall short, and suddenly the novel's publishing potential is wobbly. Doubtless, you and I can both come up with plenty of exceptions to the rule. Novels that didn't make it in one area or another that still got published and even sold very well.

But coming up with exceptions isn't productive. Sure, I might get lucky with a wobbly novel and send it to the exact right agent at exactly the right time, and he or she might know the perfect editor for it. I'm not a big believer in luck though. I'd rather have a solid, marketable piece of work to submit. One I can stand behind and promote after it's sold, which is another thing that is clearly expected and necessary.

So is there a litmus test for deciding if a good novel is good enough?

Is It a Marketable Concept?
  • Can you sum it up in a sentence?
  • Is that concept memorable and attention-grabbing?
  • If you tell someone what your book is about, do they want to know more?
  • Are there details that differentiate your one-sentence pitch from pitches for similar novels?
  • Is there a built-in niche market that you can sell the concept into? Or would it interest a broad enough group of readers to promise a return on the publisher's investment?
Don't forget that publishing a book IS a sizable investment. One of the best talks I went to was presented by Stephanie Owens Lurie of Hyperion. I did a piece on writing the synopsis a while back in which I mentioned that my research showed how important the synopsis is not just in hooking an agent, but for actually marketing the book. The Hyperion talk underscored that your pitch does the same thing. (I will try to post additional information about the talk sometime soon.)

We all like to believe that getting an agent gives you the secret handshake into the magical world of publishing, that all your hard work is over from then on. Your agent will write all your pitches and sell  you to the publisher, right?


Selling Your Novel

Your agent may  help you polish your pitch, but you still have to develop it--and that before you waste time writing an entire novel around a concept that doesn't have legs. Your pitch has to sell the book to the editor, to the acquisition committee, to the marketing department, the sales department, the bookseller, and ultimately to potential book buyers.

Think about your pitch that way. Consider your intended audience.

Is your pitch strong enough to make a kid, young adult, or adult plunk down $17.99 he or she could spend on a lot of other things?

If not, rethink it. And if you can't, rethink your book. Find an angle. Make the writing sing. Make the action dance.

Make it unforgettable.

That's easier said than done. But so is selling a book these days.

The good news? Everyone at the conference made it clear there is a bright future in publishing. There's room for all kinds of books, in all kinds of markets. There's room for all kinds of writers.

Keep doing what you're doing. Think critically. Think magically. Think boldly.

Most importantly, keep writing.

More Conference Information

Right below this piece, we have a wonderful guest post from Ara Burklund about Deborah Halverson's workshop, including ten things you can do right now to make sure your manuscript is really ready for publication.

Tomorrow, look for an additional guest post from Ara and another of Leah Epstein's amazing conference round-ups.

And don't forget to go to the official SCBWI Conference Blog for all the information provided by Alice Pope, Suzanne Young, and a whole crew of bloggers who worked their fingers off to bring us the details as they happened.

Happy writing,



  1. Great post. I really enjoyed how you summed up the learning experience in a few key points. I agree publishing a book is a big investment by the publisher. They and we as the authors need to do everything we can to be sure it's profitable.

  2. Yeah, we writers sometimes forget that it all comes down to sells. You try to sell to an agent, then a publisher, then to readers. We all should take a few marketing classes :-D When MWA had their writer's conference I met tons of agents and editors during the recruiting and found that most of them have a sales background or mentality. That's what they do ultimately is champion a product (your book) and help you sell it.

  3. Great post! I didn't make it to Stephanie's talk. There were so many to go to at the same time.

  4. I am going to take myself through the steps today of refining my pitch...according to this post!

  5. Great post! Thanks for the information and links.

  6. I'm bookmarking this one - great post! :)

  7. Great recap, Martina! You distilled the essence of the whole conference's message in a single post. All so true!!!

  8. Natalie, great point about profitability. Even literary novels need to be profitable, or there won't be a follow on contract, right?

    L.M., that's so true about thinking of a book as a product. I never realized that so many agents had sales backgrounds, but it makes sense.

    Stina, I know right? It was so hard choosing where to go, which is why I'm so glad that we are getting the round-ups!

    K.M., there is some advice on pitching in tomorrow's post, so here's a preview:

    "Title + Genre + Hero + Life Change = Pitch

    For example, FREAKY FRIDAY is the comedic, middle grade story of a willful, disorganized girl whose life is changed when she wakes up in the body of her mother."

    Neat, huh?

    Rena and Jemi, thanks so much!


  9. Ara, so glad that you got the same message! I was hesitant to do the recap like this since I obviously couldn't get to all the sessions. Someone else might have had a completely different take-away. Love your guest post last night and looking foward to the one tomorrow!!!!!


  10. Well, Darling, you've done it again! Lovely summary and take-away. There are other important details of course, but I think those are pretty good legs to stand on. Bases if you will.

  11. brilliant brilliant brilliant.

  12. A wonderful recap. And the preview of pitches? Wow. I stopped and wrote one for my WIP according to the "formula" and it really helped me distill the essence of my story.

  13. What a great recap, thanks. I've never heard the tripod expression before, but that's an image that can stick with me! I wish I could have been there to meet you in person, but...another time!

  14. Thanks so much for sharing this with us! Awesome!

  15. This is all really good info and I'm just about to head over to the post on writing the synopsis.

    However, what does SCBWI stand for?


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