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 naïve 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?