How to Market Your Novel, Starting with the Query Letter

04:27

6a00e54ff9f2cf88340120a786bd73970b I have this fantasy. It goes like this: I’ve published my first novel. Naturally, it receives great critical acclaim followed by brisk sales. My heretofore naĆÆve publisher decides that they were horribly wrong about not sending me on a publicity tour, which they correct immediately. I find myself in an NPR studio, probably in D.C. (where I’m about to move!). After we talk for a while about my wild success and limitless talent and potential, the discussion veers towards the writing game and the faith required to do it against such odds.

I’m asked to give advice to the great unwashed masses of struggling writers and I do of course (being magnanimous, and now rich). I mean, I was just one of them after all. More or less, I say the same thing every writer who talks about writing says: You’ve got to write the book you want to write. If you don’t, you’ll never get published. And then I think back to when I was a book editor, and add: But you have to be aware that acquiring editors are hugely concerned with selling to a particular market and marketing in general. Their jobs depend on it sometimes.





This is where my fantasy breaks down, because the interviewer shoots me a confused look. And I don’t blame her. How can you write the book you want to write and be concerned with writing for a particular market while also formulating an erstwhile marketing plan? It’s hard enough just finishing a damn manuscript. Now, in addition to writing something compelling, fully realized, and with an original plot, I’ve got to make sure it’s perfect for a specific target market (Teens? Women? Vampires? Teen Women Vampires?) and I also have to be savvy enough to jumpstart the marketing plan myself?

Here’s why I’m wrestling with this: I’m currently trying to land an agent—not successfully, I might add—and I think it has to do with my lack of attention to the market/marketing part of the book-selling equation. I wrote a literary novel about a guy who goes back to his suburban hometown, which is not exactly a new or obviously marketable trope. But it was the book I absolutely wanted to write, so I got half of the “success” equation nailed, right? Now I just have to figure out how to make it seem timely and market-driven and well, different. And then express that in my query letter.

It took me a while to figure this out. Which is scary, because, as a former book editor, I should know better. But I’ve sent out a dozen query letters and had only a one request for partial and one full read (which led to a very nice “no thank you”). Somewhere between finishing the manuscript and basking in the glory of all the compliments I got from my readers, I figured the thing would sell itself. Wrong. I have to set the “marketing” scene for a potential agent before they even read it. That way, they have an idea how to sell it to an editor, who in turn has to convince his/her publisher or an entire editorial board that the book is worth their investment. But it all starts with me. I have to set the stage. I have to plant the seed about how, and to whom, to sell my project.

Which means: I have to get back to work.

This week’s question: How have you overcome the marketing/write-your-story divide? Or how do you plan to? Who do you see as your target audience?


JMHammock1 John Meils is currently finishing a first novel, tentatively titled The Warring House. He has written for Elle, Men’s Health, and MyTango.com, among others. To learn more about him, visit johnmeils.com.



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9 comments

  1. 1) I haven't ;)
    2) Small-niche marketing... self-marketing to people that are likely to like my book... a kind of ready made audience.
    3) Christian Homeschool Children

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  2. I think that the solution is to write more books. Like you, John, I wrote The Novel I Wanted To Write first. It was published, but by a very small press. Now I'm writing more novels, half focused on myself and half on marketability. I see it as a sliding scale; each book has a bit of what I love in it, but some are more focused on particular audiences than others.
    The best advice I could give is unfortunately a difficult one to swallow: write more books. Write books that are exciting and focused toward a particular audience, draw them in with these books. If people love what lies underneath the story - the themes and syntax that are unique to yourself - they will seek out your other stories. You can imbue a genre story with literary elements, and just because teens like dark urban fantasy doesn't mean you have to write about vampires. Be original and creative and literary, but still be exciting and give the audience what they want.
    Also, be brutally honest with yourself (because trust me, agents and editors will be as they reject you). If your book is intensely personal, there's a good chance most other people won't connect with it. However, if audiences are attracted to you as a writer, they will probably be curious about your life as well. This may draw them into your more literary works.
    We see some intensely personal, literary works on our Classics list occasionally - but even the masters who wrote those books often have a lot of trouble receiving marketing or publishing attention. James Joyce had a hell of a struggle trying to get Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man published, for instance. If it wasn't easy for him, it might not be too easy for you.
    But, y'know. If you're *really* a novelist, why would you stop with one book? It's going to take several. Even Stephen King wrote three before his first was published. Don't expect to knock it out the park on your first try, this is a journey.

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  3. Great post JM -
    If it's the book you absolutely wanted to write, there's got to be something about it that screams "marketing buzz." Ask yourself why you love it - then hone in on that single thought. I've pitched my YA novel around a bit ... but I've been a bit timid because the girl in my book does something super illegal, then asks her readers to see her as a role model for sticking up for what you love to do. My thought process has been - "No one's going to buy a book about a girl who has to break the law to get what she wants." Then I remembered why I wrote the book - as the dad of a daughter who will be 13 before I know it, I am sick of YA books about girls that focus on boys and dating and vampires. Sure, that stuff has sold (didn't Twilight sell a few copies?), but what about girls who are athletic and resilience and dangerous and reckless? I think Hunger Games Tri is nailing this previously untapped market. I'm hoping to do the same, without violence.
    So I guess I'd keep coming back to the questions: What is about your book that's awesome? What do people who have read it love about it? Why is it important? Maybe narrowing in on these things will help you nail down an agent/editor. Keep at it!

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  4. I guess my business training came into play with my novel. Not so much in the story itself (it is a science fiction/romance), but in the marketablity of the idea. As I wrote the book, which is a book I absolutely wanted to write, and in a way wrote itself, at the back of my mind I remembered: write for your audience. Ultimately, it is one more way of saying: is the book marketable?
    Keeping that in mind, the first person I allowed to read the rough draft is my boss. She doesn't read science fiction, as a rule, but she does like a good spicy romance. She agreed to read it because the romance part attracted her attention. She loved it! She was excited when she learned the book was going to be published. Her reaction told me I might have an audience.
    (By the way, my boss is very honest. If she had not enjoyed the book as much as she did, I truly believe she would have said so.)
    In answer to your question, part of the marketing plan is to let people know the story is there. Write what you know, which means write a story in the genre you like most to read. Finally, as one erstwhile soul already mentioned, write more than one. After all, I'm not content telling just one tale. I have plenty left in the box.
    Good luck to you!

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  5. I had a very interesting telephone conversation yesterday with an Agent who’s moderately interested in my novel. She ask me some very strange questions:
    1. How many FaceBook friends do you have?
    2. Do you Twitter? How many followers do you have?
    3. Do you blog?
    Of course, the conversation ended with the stereotypical, ‘don’t call me - I’ll call you if I decide you’re worth my time’.
    Was this simply a fluke - or is it possible that Agents are showing some interest in our ability to create buzz about our books ourselves?

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  6. W&M- this is the new media publishing tactic- By using author friend and family trawling through the social media gives them numbers. If you have enough 'numbers' on your social media then of course they calculate a cost for a small run- thus ensuring a small return , without risk.
    But- You can do that yourself and make 100% profit-
    To produce a book, these days, is not difficult- Cost of a paperback can be less than 6 dollars on small jobs- And you can sell it through your own social media contacts- So, take a print run of 200 books- that gives = 1200 dollars profit- Use some of that for a larger print run and placement on Google Books etc and use half of it on Ad words and PR - and Bling...You are on your way to sellin Books as an Author/Publisher....
    But is it Art? and is that hat you want?...To make plenty of dosh or to write beautiful literature?...
    Can't do both at the same time....I think.
    'The road to hell is paved with good intentions'
    Denis
    (your friend on WeBooks)

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  7. Since we're talking a bit about self-promotion and marketing for writers, here's an interesting article about the dangers of mixing too much self-promotion with your personal life...always two sides to the coin.
    http://publishingperspectives.com/2010/10/so-many-friends-so-little-friendship/

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  8. That is an excellent article! Thank you so much for posting the link. Rachel Aydt really brought the whole thing into perspective for me. Some of the comments were helpful as well. I have to admit, I catch myself blurring these lines more and more on a daily basis - and I’ve became quite good at adding a link to a status update.

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  9. @Denis: Excellent point about doing it yourself. There is very little a small press can offer a writer other than a tiny bit of prestige - and that prestige is useful, but it's not enough.
    However, I do think you can make intelligent books ("art" if you will) that will sell well. I mean, maybe not like a Meyer or a Rowling, but 99.9% of all the novels I've ever enjoyed, especially those considered classics, make cash and are art. Steinbeck, Hemingway, Joyce, Faulkner, Twain.. I don't need to elaborate, you get it. The very definition of art is defined by authors who were commercially successful in their time period. I personally define a "good book" or "art" as looking at the past masters and trying to take their spirit forward. But, there's no denying that they were also commercial successes.
    Intelligent books are still recognized, still make money, and the literary community is very much still alive. You just have to write well enough to join it.

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