Book marketing 101: the formula for urbanity, or, the magic first hundred words

Okay, today is where it starts to get exciting. If you’ve been following my posts for the past couple of weeks, and doing your homework, you have already constructed several significant building blocks of your pitch. (You’ve constructed quite a bit of a good query letter, too, but I’ll come back to that after I’ve run all the way through the pitching cycle.)

Really, you’re to be congratulated; you’re already far more prepared to market your work than 90% of the writers who slink into pitch meetings. By now, you have determined your book’s category (June 15-19), identified your target market (June 20-21), come up with a few strong selling points (June 22, 23, and 25), and developed a snappy keynote statement (June 26-28).

To put all that in terms of gaining fluency in a foreign language, you’ve already learned enough to order a meal in a fancy restaurant in Publishingland. By the end of the next couple of posts, you’re going to be able to chat with the waiter.

Impossible, you say? Read on.

Today, I’m going to show you how to pull all of the elements you’ve already perfected together into the first hundred words you say to anyone you meet at a writer’s conference. With these first hundred words, even the shyest, most reclusive writer can launch into a professional-sounding discussion with anyone in the publishing industry.

And I do mean ANYONE, be it an agent or editor to whom you are pitching, a writer who is sitting next to you in a class, or the person standing next to you while you are dunking your teabag in hot water, trying to wake up before the 8 a.m. agent and editor forum.

Nifty trick, eh?

Once again, I must add a disclaimer about being an iconoclast: this strategy is an invention of my own, because I flatly hate the fact that the rise of pitching has made it necessary for people whose best talent is expressing themselves at length and in writing to sell their work in short, verbal bursts. I feel that pitching unfairly penalizes the shy, and doesn’t truly answer the question that agents and editors most need to know about an author: not can he speak, but can he write?

But since we’re stuck with pitching and querying as our two means of landing agents, we need to make the best of it. But — as some of you MAY have figured out by now — I don’t believe that just telling writers to compress their lives’ work into three sentences is sufficient preparation for doing it successfully.

Why do I think so? Over the years, I’ve watched hundreds and hundreds of stammering writers struggle to express themselves at conferences all over the country. Not just because pitching is genuinely hard, but also because they had blindly followed the pervasive pitching advice and prepared only three sentences — no more, no less — about their books. Which left them with precisely nothing else to say about it, or at least nothing else that they had polished enough to roll smoothly off their tongues.

Seriously, this happens all the time to good writers, squelching their big chance to make a connection with the right person to help their book to publication. Frequently, these poor souls forget even to introduce themselves prior to giving their official 3-line pitch; most of the time, they pitch without having told the agent what kind of book it is.

Which leaves the agent or editor understandably confused and frustrated. The results, I’m afraid, are predictable: a meeting that neither party can feel good about, and one that ends without a request to submit pages.

Frankly, I think it’s rather cruel to put well-meaning people in this position. There is certainly a place in the publishing industry for the three-sentence pitch — quite a significant place, about which I will tell you in the next few days — but there is information about you and your book that should logically be mentioned BEFORE those three sentences, so the agent or editor to whom you are pitching knows what the heck you are talking about.

In answer to that gigantic unspoken cry of, “What do you mean, I have to say something to an agent or editor BEFORE I pitch! I was told I had to prepare only three sentences, total, and I would be home free!” we all just heard, I can only reply: yes, yes, I know. I have literally never seen a conference brochure that gave advice on what to say BEFORE a pitch.

But the fact is, simple etiquette forbids charging up to a total stranger, even if you have an appointment with her, and blurting, “There’s this good actor who can’t get a job, so he puts on women’s clothing and auditions. Once he’s a popular actress, he falls in love with a woman who doesn’t know he’s a man,”

That’s a pitch for Tootsie, by the way, a great story. But even if you run up to an agent and shout out the best pitch for the best story that ever dropped from human lips, the agent is going to wonder who the heck you are and why you have no manners.

Mastering the magic first hundred words will transform you from the Jerry Lewis of pitchers into the Cary Grant of same. Urbanity is key here, people: ideally, both pitcher and pitchee should feel at ease; observing the niceties is conducive to that.

And not just for reasons of style; I’m being practical. Trust me, in the many, many different social situations where a writer is expected to be able to speak coherently about her work, very few are conducive to coughing up three sentences completely out of context. There are social graces to be observed.

So take it away, Cary.

The goal of my first hundred words formula is to give you a lead-in to any conversation that you will have at a writer’s conference, or indeed, anywhere within the profession. Equipped with these magic words, you can feel confident introducing yourself to anyone, no matter how important or intimidating, because you will know that you are talking about your work in a professional manner.

Whetted your appetite yet? Ready to learn what they are? Here goes:

”Hi, I’m (YOUR NAME), and I write (BOOK CATEGORY). My latest project, (TITLE), is geared toward (TARGET MARKET). See how it grabs you: (KEYNOTE).”

Voilà! You are now equipped to start a conversation with anybody at any writing event in the English-speaking world. These magic words — which, you will note, are NOT generic, but personalized for YOUR book — will introduce you and your work in the language used by the industry, establishing you right off the bat as someone to take seriously.

You’re welcome.

I have quite a bit more to say about when and where you might find yourself glad to have prepared the magic first hundred words, but I’m going to stop for today, to give it all a chance to sink in. More urbanity pointers follow, of course.

In the meantime, practice, practice, practice those first hundred words, my friends, until they roll off your tongue with the ease of saying good morning to your co-workers. They’re going to be your security blanket when you’re nervous, and your calling card when you are not.

Keep up the good work!

P.S.: Are there any Spokane-area residents out there planning to attend PNWA next month? If so, would you be interested in carpooling with another fine reader of this blog? Drop me a note via the comments function (don’t worry; I won’t post your e-mail address), and I’ll hook you up.

Book marketing 101: hitting the keynote, Hollywood-style, or, Godzilla meets Anne Frank

Welcome back to my ongoing series on the basic building blocks of marketing a book. While my primary focus here is on helping you create a pitch, going through each of the steps I outline here will undoubtedly make you a better querier, too, if not a better human being.

Okay, so that last claim may have been a trifle over the top, but I’m in a festive mood today: shout hallelujah, citizens, for we are finally ready to tackle reducing your book to a single quip of bon mot-iness that would make Oscar Wilde blush furiously, if discreetly, with envy. Today, I am going to talk about coming up with your book’s KEYNOTE, also known colloquially as a BOOK CONCEPT.

(Did you know that when Wilde gave public readings, he NEVER read the published versions of his own work? Ditto with Mark Twain, another writer known to wow ‘em with great readings, and I’m quite sure I’ve never heard David Sedaris read the same story the same way twice. Sedaris seems — wisely — to use audience feedback to judge what jokes do and do not work, but Wilde and Twain apparently deliberately added extra laugh lines, so that even audience members very familiar with their published writing would be surprised and delighted. Interesting, no?)

What is a keynote, you ask? It is the initial, wow-me-now concept statement that introduces your book to someone with the attention span of an unusually preoccupied three-year-old. Because if you can impress someone that distrait, my friends, you can certainly catch the ear of a perpetually rushed agent — or the eye of Millicent the exhausted screener.

Before you pooh-pooh the idea of WANTING to discuss your marvelously complex book with someone whose attention span precludes sitting through even an average-length TV commercial, let me remind you: sometimes, you have only a minute or so to make a pitch. After a very popular class, for instance, or when your dream agent happens to be trying to attract the bartender’s attention at the same time as you are.

I ask you: since any reasonably polite hello will take up at least half a minute, wouldn’t you like to be ready to take advantage of the remaining 30 seconds, if the opportunity presents itself?

I know: it’s not very glamorous to approach the agent of your dreams in the parking lot below the conference center, but the market-savvy writer takes advantage of chance meetings to pitch, where politeness doesn’t preclude it. (Remember, it’s considered extremely gauche to pitch in the bathroom line, but pretty much any other line is fair game.) You’re not going to want to shout your keynote at her the instant you spot an agent, of course, but a keynote is a great third sentence after, “I enjoyed your talk earlier. Do you have a moment for me to run my book concept by you?”

If you have a keynote prepared, you honestly are going to take up only a few seconds of her time. Brevity is the soul of the keynote. Its goal is to pique your listener’s interest as quickly as possible, so s/he will ask to hear more — not to sell the book.

How do you accomplish this? By providing a MEMORABLY INTRIGUING PREMISE in a swift sentence.

Think of it as the amuse-bouche of the publishing world: just a bite, designed to intrigue the hearer into begging to hear the pitch. In your keynote, your job is to fascinate, not to explain — and certainly not to summarize.

Let me repeat part of that, because it’s crucial. All too often, aspiring writers will knock themselves out, trying to come up with a single sentence that summarizes everything good about a book, but that’s really not the point here. But the keynote is NOT a substitute for a full-blown pitch; it is a conversational appetizer to whet the appetite of the hearer so he ASKS to hear the pitch.

In that moment, you’re there to tease, not to satisfy. And did I mention that it should be memorable and brief?

There are two schools of thought on how best to construct a keynote statement. The better-known is the Hollywood Hook, a single sentence utilizing pop culture symbolism to introduce the basic premise of the book. (Not to be confused with a book’s hook, the opening paragraph that grabs the reader and sucks him into the premise.)

Logical contradiction provides the shock of a Hollywood Hook, the combination of two icons that one would not generally expect to be found together. For instance, a Hollywood Hook for:

…a book that teaches children the essentials of the Electoral College system might be, “Bill Clinton teaches Kermit the Frog how to vote!”

…a book on alternative medicine for seniors might be expressed as, “Deepak Chopra takes on the Golden Girls as patients!”

…a novel about sexual harassment in a tap-dancing school could conceivably be pitched as “Anita Hill meets Fred Astaire!”

Didja notice how they all ended in exclamation points? There’s a certain breathlessness about the Hollywood Hook, a blithe disregard for propriety of example. There’s a reason for this: in order to be effective as an enticement to hear more, the icons cited should not go together automatically in the mind.

Otherwise, where’s the surprise? The whole point of the exercise is to intrigue the listener, to make him ask to hear more. If someone pitched a book to you as “A private investigator chases a murderer!” wouldn’t you yawn? If, on the other hand, if someone told you her book was “Mickey Mouse goes on a killing spree!” wouldn’t you ask at least one follow-up question?

Again, the point here is not to produce a super-accurate description, but a memorable sound bite.

I have to say, I’m not a big fan of the Hollywood Hook method of keynoting. Yes, it can be attention-grabbing, but personally, I would rather use those few seconds talking about MY book, not pop culture.

And that’s not just about ego, really. Not every storyline is compressible into iconic shorthand, whatever those screenwriting teachers who go around telling everyone who will listen that the only good plotline is a heroic journey.

Use the Force, Luke!

The other school of thought on constructing a keynote statement — and my preferred method — is the rhetorical teaser. The rhetorical teaser presents a thought-provoking question (ideally, posed in the second person, to engage the listener in the premise) that the book will presumably answer.

For example, a friend of mine was prepping to pitch a narrative cookbook aimed at celiacs, people who cannot digest gluten. Now, there are a whole lot of celiacs out there, but she could not automatically assume that any agent or editor to whom she pitched the book would either be unable to eat wheat or know someone who couldn’t. (Remember that great rule of thumb from last week: you can’t assume that an agent or editor has ANY knowledge about your topic.)

So she employed a rhetorical tease to grab interest: “What would you do if you suddenly found out you could NEVER eat pizza again?”

Rhetorical teasers are more versatile than Hollywood Hooks, as they can convey a broader array of moods. They can range from the ultra-serious (“What if you were two weeks away from finishing your master’s degree — and your university said it would throw you out if you wouldn’t testify against your best friend?”) to the super-frivolous (“Have you ever looked into your closet before a big date and wanted to shred everything in there because nothing matched your great new shoes?”).

Remember, you don’t want to summarize here — you want to intrigue. Keep it brief, and make it memorable.

How does one pull off both simultaneously, you ask? Tips on same follow tomorrow. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

Book marketing 101: your book’s selling points

Welcome back to my series on building the toolkit to construct a stellar pitch — or a brilliant query letter, for that matter. The essential skills are, after all, if not the same, at least closely related.

Note that I called them skills, and not talents. Contrary to popular belief, success in marketing one’s work is not entirely reliant upon the quality of the writing; it’s also about professional presentation. Which is, in fact, learned.

I cannot stress this enough: pitching and querying well require skills that have little to do with talent. No one is born knowing how to market a book — even me, and I grew up in a family of writing pros. As in any other business, there are procedures to learn.

I wish this were a more widely-accepted truth. Writers so often plunge into pitching or querying with sky-high hopes, only to have them dashed by rejection. But an unprofessional pitch or query letter is generally rejected on that basis alone, not upon the book concept or the quality of the writing. Until a book has been marketed properly, it’s virtually impossible to glean writing-related feedback from rejections at all.

So, onerous as it is, it truly behooves writers to start to think like marketers.

Today, I’m going to talk about a little invention of my own, a single page of selling points for the book to be pitched or queried. A really well-prepared list of selling points is like a really, really tiny press agent that can travel everywhere your manuscript goes.

What’s in this magic document? A page’s worth of single-sentence summaries of attributes (the book’s or yours personally) that make the book the best thing since the proverbial sliced bread.

And why bullet-pointed, rather than paragraphs? So you can retrieve precisely the piece of information you need at any given moment, without fumbling for it. Even if sweat is pouring down your face into your eyes and your heart is palpitating, you will be able to sound professional.

And that, my friends, is nothing at which to be sneezing.

Even if you are not planning to pitch anytime soon, it is still worth constructing your list of selling points. Pulling together such a document forces you to come up with SPECIFIC reasons that an agent or editor should be interested in your book.

Other than, of course, the fact that you wrote it.

I’m only partially kidding about this last point. Nonfiction writers accept it as a matter of course that they are going to need to explain explicitly why the book is marketable and why precisely they are the best people in the known universe to write it — that mysterious entity called platform. These are specific elements in a standard NF book proposal, even.

Yet ask a fiction writer why his book will interest readers, let alone the publishing industry, and 9 times out of 10, he will be insulted.

Why the differential? Well, as I mentioned earlier in the week, a lot of writers, perhaps even the majority, do not seem to give a great deal of thought to why the publishing industry might be excited about THIS book, as opposed to any other. Interestingly, many do seem to have thought long and hard about why the industry might NOT want to pick up a book: as a long-time pitching coach, I cannot even begin to tote up how many pitches I’ve heard that began with a three-minute description of every rejection the book has ever received.

Not only will constructing a list help you avoid this very common pitfall; it will also aid you in steering clear of the sweeping generalizations writers tend to pull out of their back pockets when agents and editors ask follow-up questions. As I mentioned earlier in the week, agents and editors tend to zone out on inflated claims about a novel’s utility to humanity in general (although if your book actually CAN achieve world peace, by all means mention it) or boasts that it will appeal to every literate person in America (a more common book proposal claim than one might imagine).

In short, the selling point sheet prevents you from panicking in the moment; think of it as pitch insurance. Even if you draw a blank three sentences into your pitch, all you will have to do is look down, and presto! There is a list of concrete facts about you and your book.

”Yeah, right,” I hear the more cynical out there thinking. “What is it, a Ginzu knife? Can it rip apart a cardboard box, too, and still remain sharp enough to slice a mushy tomato?”

Doubt if you like, oh scoffers, but his handy little document has more uses than duct tape — which, I’m told, is not particularly good at mending ducts. How handy, you ask? Well, for starters:

1. You can have it by your side during a pitch, to remind yourself why your book will appeal to its target market.
2. You can use it as a guideline for the “Why I am uniquely qualified to write this book” section of your query letter.
3. You can add it to a book proposal, to recap its most important elements at a glance. (My agent liked the one I included in my memoir proposal so much that she now has her other clients add them to their packets, too.)
4. You can tuck it into a submission packet, as a door prize for the agency screener charged with the merry task of reading your entire book and figuring it out whether it is marketable.
5. Your agent can have it in her hot little hand when pitching your book on the phone to editors.
6. An editor who wants to acquire your book can use the information on it both to fill out the publishing house’s Title Information Sheet and to present your book’s strengths in editorial meetings.

Your list of selling points can include market information, trends, statistics, high points in your background — anything that will make it easier to market your book. Why are you the best person in the universe to tell this story (or to put it another way: what’s your platform?), and why will people want to read it?

Those of you wise to the ways of the industry are probably already thinking: oh, she means the items on my writing résumé. (And for those of you who do not know, a writing résumé is the list of professional credentials — publications, speaking experience, relevant degrees, etc. — that career-minded writers carefully accrue over the years in order to make their work more marketable.)

Yes, list these points, by all means, but I would like to see your list be broader still: include any fact that will tend to boost confidence in your ability to write and market this book successfully — and that includes references to major bestsellers on similar topics, to show that there is already public interest in your subject matter.

So it’s time for a good, old-fashioned brainstorming session. Think back to your target market (see the posts of the last two days). Why will your book appeal to that market better than other books? Why does the world NEED this book?

Other than, obviously, the great beauty of the writing. As I pointed out yesterday, even the most abstruse literary fiction is about something other than just the writing — so why will the subject matter appeal to readers? How large is the book’s target demographic? And if you were the publicity person assigned to promote the book, what would you tell the producer of an NPR show in order to convince him to book the author?

Remember, the function of this list is ease of use, both for you and for those who will deal with your book in future. Keep it brief, but do make sure that you make it clear why each point is important. Possible bullet points include (and please note, none of my examples are true; I feel a little silly pointing that out, but I don’t want to find these little tidbits being reported as scandalous factoids in the years to come):

(1) Experience that makes you an expert on the subject matter of your book. This is the crux of a NF platform, of course, but it’s worth considering for fiction, too. If you have spent years on activities relating to your topic, that is definitely a selling point.

Some possible examples: Marcello Mastroianni has been a student of Zen Buddhism for thirty-seven years, and brings a wealth of meditative experience to this book; Clark Gable has been Atlanta’s leading florist for fifteen years, and is famous state-wide for his Scarlett O’Hara wedding bouquets; Tammy Faye Baker originally came to public attention by performing in a show featuring sock puppets, so she is well identified in the public mind with puppetry.

(Actually, I think this last one is at least partially true. But I should probably state up front that otherwise, my examples will have no existence outside my pretty little head, and should accordingly remain unquoted forever after.)

(2) Educational credentials. Another favorite from the platform hit parade. Even if your degrees do not relate directly to your topic, any degrees (earned or honorary), certificates, or years of study add to your credibility.

Yes, even if you are a fiction writer: a demonstrated ability to fulfill the requirements of an academic program is, from an agent or editor’s point of view, a pretty clear indicator that you can follow complex sets of directions. (Believe me, the usefulness of a writer’s ability to follow directions well will become abundantly apparent before the ink is dry on the agency contract: deadlines are often too tight for multiple drafts.)

Some possible examples: Audrey Hepburn has a doctorate in particle physics from the University of Bonn, and thus is eminently qualified to write on atomic bombs; Charlton Heston holds an honorary degree in criminology from the University of Texas, in recognition of his important work in furthering gun usage; Jane Russell completed a certificate program in neurosurgery at Bellevue Community College, and thus is well equipped to field questions on the subject.

(3) Honors. If you have been recognized for your work (or volunteer efforts), this is the time to mention it. (Finalist in a major contest, in this or any other year, anybody?)

Some possible examples: Myrna Loy was named Teacher of the Year four years running by the schools of Peoria, Kansas; Keanu Reeves won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1990 for his research on THE MATRIX; Fatty Arbuckle was named Citizen of the Year of Fairbanks, Alaska. As a result, newspapers in Fairbanks are demonstrably eager to run articles on his work.

(4) Your former publications and public speaking experience. Another good one from the standard platform list. If you have any previous publication whatsoever, list it, EVEN IF IT IS OFF-TOPIC. If your last book in another genre sold well, or if you were affiliated somehow with a book that sold well, mention it.

If you have ever done any public speaking, mention it, too: it makes you a better bet for book signings and interviews. If you have done a public reading of your work, definitely mention it, because very few first-time authors have any public reading experience at all.

Some possible examples: Diana Ross writes a regular column on hair care for Sassy magazine; Twiggy has published over 120 articles on a variety of topics, ranging from deforestation to the rise of hemlines; Marcel Marceau has a wealth of public speaking experience. His lecture series, “Speak Up!” has drawn crowds for years on eight continents.

I feel some of you tensing up out there, but never fear: if you have few or no previous publications, awards, writing degrees, etc. to your credit, do not panic, even for an instance. There are plenty of other possible selling points for your book — but of that array, more follows next time.

Keep up the good work!

Book marketing 101: literary and women’s fiction

For my last couple of posts, I have been proceeding on the assumption that most of you intending to pitching books whose subject matter would dictate a fairly comfortable fit in just a couple of book categories. A novel might legitimately walk the line between suspense and thriller, perhaps, but it is unlikely to fit in the uneasy triangle where horror, chick lit, and Western intersect, right?

Although I would dearly love to take a gander at the latter book.

For the next couple of days, I want to talk about the two categories where content is not necessarily the deciding factor, literary fiction and women’s fiction. The first has to do with HOW a particular novel is written, not what it’s about; the second label is sometimes applied because of who is expected to read the book, and sometimes by whom it was written.

See why I saved these two for last?

Let’s take literary fiction first, because it is the less understood. Remember how last time, posing as your literary fairy godmother, I waved my magic wand and knocked, “…but it is written like literary fiction,” out of your pitching vocabulary? I removed it, I said, because saying it during a pitch (or within the context of a query letter) can confuse the hearer, an agent or editor who is undoubtedly thinking in terms of a single label for the book.

Why did I single out this phrase in particular? Pervasiveness: by my count, it is muttered apologetically within the context of somewhere between a third to a half of all pitches. Because, you see, most of us deep down secretly long for an agent to read a paragraph of our work, spring to her feet, and shout, “My God, this is the most beautiful prose I have ever read!”

Okay, maybe it’s not so secret a wish. But the fact is, from the industry’s point of view, MOST beautiful writing is NOT literary fiction.

Yes, you read that correctly. Contrary to popular belief, no one in the publishing industry uses the term “literary fiction” as a secret code for “very nicely written prose.” Instead, it is non-secret code for a specific book category of novels whose PRIMARY appeal lies in the interesting use of language, rather than plot.

Literary fiction tends to win awards, but actually it represents a miniscule proportion of the domestic fiction market — about 4%, in a good year. Its readership is almost exclusively female, and largely college-educated; these are the books that win Pulitzers and are taught in English classes, after all.

Or, to cast it in the mindset of the industry, these are the books that sell the least. No kidding: a first literary fiction work that sells 10,000 copies is considered a pretty roaring success.

See why you might want to think twice about insisting that your novel is literary fiction, rather than the mainstream or genre fiction its subject matter might suggest it is? To the ears of agents who do not represent literary fiction, this is like arguing that Mickey Mouse should be marketed to only an elite group of effete poets who, like Emily Dickinson, prefer to scribble away in their garrets, occasionally sending away for the latest in literary fiction to feed their rarified souls.

“My dear,” the industry pictures such souls simpering to one another, “you must cast your languid eye over this exquisite line of prose! No, no, don’t buy your own copy — I’m sure that the library has one.”

Now, admittedly, those who write on the literary/mainstream fiction cusp have an especially tough time with categorization: in a prettily-written, character-driven novel, it can genuinely be hard to tell. So time and time again, I meet writers at conferences who tell me, “Well, my book walks that thin line between mainstream and literary.”

They say it proudly, as if book category ambiguity were in itself a selling point — and as if literary fiction typically sold BETTER than mainstream fiction. To market-oriented ears, this sounds, well, backwards.

It’s perfectly understandable pride, though: they’re identifying with those rare American literary writers who’ve hit the big time. Alice Walker, for instance, or Annie Proulx. Thomas Pynchon. Philip Roth. Toni Morrison. Some might suggest early John Irving as well, say pre-1976. (Although if you want to start a vigorous debate in any circle of publishing professionals, ask whether they consider THE WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP literary or mainstream fiction. I’ve seen grown men come to blows over this burning issue.)

Feel free to start a list of your own, counting on your fingers and toes, but remember to include only living American writers: no fair wiggling a piggie for Alice Munro, Salman Rushdie, or anyone currently occupying space under sod.

How did you do? Unless you are the type of reader who rushes out and buys every volume on the Pulitzer short list, or are an inveterate fan of literary fiction, I’m guessing that you probably didn’t run out of tootsies before names stop popping to mind. Bless the writers who have experienced major success with literary fiction, but there aren’t all that many making a spectacular living at it.

And frankly, pretty much all of them published a few largely unrecognized books before hitting the big time. Some of them, too, are literary fiction authors who have written mainstream books, rather than making it big with their former style of literary prose.

Pop quiz: who out there read Alice Walker’s MERIDIAN before THE COLOR PURPLE came out? Step forward, so literary fiction writers can add you to their mailing lists. Heck, so they can build you a monument.

To cite a more recent crossover book, the pros categorize THE ROAD as literary fiction, because that’s what its author’s previous books were. But if it were a new book by an unknown writer, I think there would be genuine debate over how it should be labeled: its use of language is undoubtedly literary; its essential storyline is classic futuristic fantasy; it’s a bestseller. So should the title page say that it’s literary fiction, SF/fantasy, or mainstream fiction?

There’s no easy answer, but if I were pitching it, I would take the cynical route. I would bill it as mainstream most of the time, since that’s a category that sells well, as fantasy to agents who represented that, and as literary to the tiny fraction of agents interested in it.

Because calling a book literary will not help sell it to most agents. Or editors, for that matter, unless they are specifically interested in literary fiction.

The moral: ALWAYS check if an agent has a proven track record of representing literary fiction before even BREATHING the phrase.

Another group of writers who have an especially hard time categorizing their work are writers who write literate books about female protagonists, aimed at female readers. Even if the writing is very literary indeed, they often find their work billed by agents and editors as women’s fiction.

Why might this be problematic, potentially? In the popular mind, women’s fiction tends to be (incorrectly, from the industry’s point of view) regarded as synonymous with romance, it can come as something of a shock to the writers in question.

Often, they’re insulted, but take a look at the statistics: women’s fiction is far and away the consistently largest category, in terms of sales. However, that’s a trifle misleading, because women buy roughly 80% of the fiction sold in this country.

Including, incidentally, virtually all of the literary fiction. But then, if we were just going by sales, all fiction EXCEPT suspense, thriller, some mysteries, and some SF should properly be called men’s fiction; women are the primary readers of almost everything else.

So if a book is about a woman, and intended for female readers, is it automatically women’s fiction, no matter how it is written? Well, no, not necessarily: if it falls more comfortably under the rubric of a specific genre, it belongs there. (If you do not know whether your novel belongs under women’s fiction or romance, go ask the Romance Writers of America; they will be able to tell you a whole lot more about the various and ever-expanding subgenres of romance than I could.)

Technically, the differential between mainstream fiction with a female protagonist and women’s fiction really depends how important the relationships are in the book: if we’re hearing a lot about the protagonist’s mother or her children, chances are it’s women’s fiction; if we’re hearing primarily about her work, it’s probably not. But truth compels me to say that I have seen what I would consider very mainstream fiction about female doctors and professors labeled as women’s fiction, evidently simply because the author was female.

I suspect this may sound rather familiar any woman under the age of 45 who attended a writer’s conference during the height of the chick lit boom. Remember, ladies? To fill you in, gentlemen: back then, to walk into a pitch meeting with active ovaries was to be told that if one was not writing chick lit, one ought to be. It was grim.

Or, as one agent put it to me after hearing my pitch for some very serious political fiction, “Honey, why do you want to be poor? If you call it literary fiction, maybe a thousand people will read it, but add some humor and slap another label on it, and it could be the next BRIDGET JONES’ DIARY.”

And although I believe that my response to her contained several pointed references to going over to the dark side (I am no fan of the Jones), from a marketing point of view, she definitely had a point. Labeling work as literary DOES render it harder to sell; insisting upon calling a book mainstream when there’s a women’s fiction agent clamoring for it is a bit quixotic.

If you’re uncomfortable with the women’s fiction label — which, again, is an indicator of a book’s target market, not a value judgment about its writing quality — you could engage in a bit of strategic equivocation. When in doubt, “mainstream fiction that will appeal especially to women” is about as much as it is safe to waffle in a pitch; if you really want to be Machiavellian, you could always pitch such a book as mainstream to agents who represent mainstream and as women’s fiction to those who represent that.

Hey, I’m on your side, not theirs. I want to see you land an agent.

I think situational category-hopping is a legitimate strategy in general, to tell you the truth: if your book honestly falls into more than one major category, use the category that best suits your needs in the moment. If you have written a comic horror novel, there’s nothing to stop you from billing it as humor when you were pitching or querying an agent who represents humor, and describing it as horror when you are approaching one who represents that.

After all, the book category label is there to help market your book, not limit it. Right?

But don’t worry, literary fiction writers — I’m not going to leave you in the lurch. Tomorrow, I shall give you some tips about how to tell if a book is in fact literary fiction, or just well-written, and how to present it if it’s the former.

In the meantime, keep up the good work!

Book marketing 101: identifying your work in terms the entire industry can understand

Yesterday, I warned you that my approach to pitching is a TEENY bit unorthodox. Contrary to the prevailing wisdom, I believe that the definition of pitching successfully is not merely being able to cram an entire 400-page book into three sentences and spit it out coherently.

Instead, I define pitching success as the ability to speak fluently and persuasively about a book in terms that make an agent or editor likely to say, “Gee, I’d like to read that. Please send me the first 50 pages right away.” I define a pitch’s success by its results, not its conformity to a pre-set model to be used in all instances.

I know: radical. But thinking of it this way makes it far, far easier to make it through the pitch preparation process, I find: instead of grumblingly adhering to an evidently arbitrary and difficult standard of presentation, you’re gearing up to have all of the marvelously fulfilling conversations of the rest of your life as a professional writer.

Much nicer to wrap your brain around, isn’t it?

Now that you are prepared for my advice to be a bit offbeat, I am not afraid to shock you with my first unorthodox suggestion: DON’T start the pitch-prepping process by sitting down and trying to summarize your book. Instead, let your first step be figuring out where your book would be placed on the bookshelves of Barnes & Noble, Borders, or a similar chain bookstore.

And no, I don’t mean just in fiction, alphabetically. In a marketing display, what kind of books would be grouped around it? How would it be placed so as to suggest that if the potential buyer liked book X, he would probably be interested in your book as well?

Once you know where the pros would envision your book selling best, you will have both an infinitely easier time pitching AND finding agents to query. Suddenly, those cryptic lists of book types in agents’ guides and opaque conference bio blurbs will spring to life for you.

Unfortunately, writers often do not do their homework in this respect — and believe me, from the pros’ perspective, it shows. The industry defines types of books far more specifically than writers tend to do — and no agent represents every kind of book. The sad fact is, the vast majority of aspiring writers out there have only a vague idea of how their books would be marketed to booksellers.

Yet the FIRST question any editor would ask an agent about a book, or a committee would ask an editor, or a book buyer would ask a publishing house’s marketing department is, “What’s the book category?” The book category is in fact the industry shorthand for where a book should be directed in order to sell, at every level.

Before I launch into how to figure out where your book belongs, let’s take a look at how the average pitcher deals with this primary question, and why the standard response tends not to impress agents and editors very much. In the first place, writers often mishear the question as, “So, what is your book about?” rather than what it is, a straightforward question about marketing. Thus, they all too often give exactly the same response they would give anybody who asked the more general latter question at a cocktail party:

“Well (gusty sigh), it’s a novel…mostly, it’s women’s fiction, but I guess it’s also suspense, with thriller elements. And the writing is definitely literary.”

I hate to be the one to break it to you, but to an agent or editor, this kind of response sounds EXACTLY like that noise that Charlie Brown’s teachers used to make: “Wah wah wah wah waagh…”

To put it bluntly, agents and editors think about books as products, rather than merely as works of art or expressions of the inner workings of the writers’ souls. And as products, agents need to sell books to editors, and editors to editorial committees, and marketing departments to distributors, and distributors to bookstores, and bookstores to readers. And I assure you, a vaguely-defined book is much harder to drag through that process.

So it’s an excellent idea to tell them up front — as in both your pitch and the first few lines of your query letter — what kind of book it is. But in order to make sense to people in the industry, you need to speak their language: pick one of their recognized categories.

In other words, don’t just guess, don’t hyphenate, and don’t make up a category.

How do you know where to start? Take a gander at the back jacket of most hardcover books: you will find, usually in either the upper left corner or just above the barcode, a one- or two-word description. That is the book category.

Now, think about your book. Can you come up with, say, 3-5 titles that are similar to it in subject matter, tone, approach, voice, etc? Once you have your list, go to a bookstore (either physically or online) and see where those books are housed. That is, most likely, where your book would be categorized, too.

You can also go through the generally accepted categories and see what intuitively seems like the best fit. Here is the list for fiction:

Fiction (a.k.a. Mainstream Fiction), Literary Fiction, Historical Fiction, Futuristic Fiction (that is not SF. The usual example is THE HANDMAID’S TALE.), Adventure Fiction, Sports Fiction, Contemporary Fiction; Women’s Fiction, Contemporary Women’s Fiction, Chick Lit, Lady Lit, Lad Lit; Romance, Category Romance, Contemporary Romance, Historical Romance (designate period), Paranormal Romance, Romantica, Erotica, Inspirational Romance, Multicultural Romance, Time Travel Romance; Science Fiction, SF Action/Adventure, Speculative SF, Futuristic SF, Alternate History, Cyberpunk; Fantasy, Dark Fantasy, Comic Fantasy, Epic Fantasy; Horror, Paranormal, Vampire Fiction; Thriller, Spy Thriller, Suspense, Romantic Suspense; Mystery, Police Procedural Mystery, Legal Mystery, Professional Mystery, P.I. Mystery, Psychological Mystery, Forensic Mystery, Historical Mystery, Hardboiled Mystery, Cozy Mystery, Cops & Killers Mystery, Serial Killer Mystery, British Mystery, Noir, Caper; Western; Action/Adventure; Comics; Graphic Novel; Short Stories; Poetry; Young Adult, Picture Book, Children’s, Middle Readers.

Pick one for your novel. Specifically, pick the one that comes CLOSEST to where you envision the book being shelved in a big bookstore. But whatever you do, NEVER tell anyone in the industry that you have a “fiction novel” – this is a very, very common pet peeve amongst agents and editors. By definition, a novel IS fiction, always.

For NF, the accepted categories are: Entertaining, Holidays, House & Home, Parenting & Families, How-To, Self-Help, Pop Psychology, Pop Culture, Cookbook, Narrative Cookbook, Food & Wine, Lifestyle, Medical, Alternative Medicine, Health, Fitness, Sports, Psychology, Professional, Engineering, Technical, Computers, Internet, Automotive, Finance, Investing, Business, Careers, Memoir, Autobiography, Biography, Narrative Nonfiction, Historical Nonfiction, True Crime, Law, Philosophy, Religion, Spirituality, Travel, Travel Memoir, Outdoors & Nature, Essays, Writing, Criticism, Arts, Photography, Coffee Table, Gift, Education, Academic, Textbook, Reference, Current Events, Politics/Government, Women’s Studies, Gay & Lesbian (a.k.a. GLBT).

Yes, I’m running through these quickly, but do not despair: the major genre’s writers’ associations tend to provide precise definitions of each subgenre on their websites, and I have gone over all of the standard categories individually under the BOOK CATEGORIES section at right.

And yes, one does occasionally see other categories listed on book jackets. Naturally, there are new categories popping up all the time, a side effect of the expansive creative impulse of the human mind. That doesn’t mean, however, that you should make one up.

Generally speaking, it’s safer to pick one of the standards rather than to insist upon a category that has only been introduced recently: if it’s too new, the agent or editor to whom you are pitching may not yet be aware of it yet. (It happens.)

Trust me, if you are off just a little, an agent who is intrigued by your work will nudge you in the right direction, rather than writing you off because you picked the wrong sub-category. In fact, it’s not at all uncommon for an agent to sign a writer and then say, “You know, Ghislaine, I think your book would sell better as women’s fiction than mainstream fiction. Let’s market it as that.”

And if Ghislaine is a savvy writer, she won’t immediately snap back, “Why is it women’s fiction rather than mainstream — because the author possesses ovaries?” (Not all that an uncommon an underlying reason for the choice, actually; some of my work has been categorized that way on apparently no other pretext.) Instead, market-ready writer that she is, she will respond, “If you think it’s a better idea, William. But do you mind explaining the logic to me, so I may consider it when I’m writing my next novel?”

THAT, my friends, is language the entire industry understands. This is a business where finesse definitely counts.

When in doubt, pick the more general category. Or at any rate, the more marketable one. It increases your chances of your work sounding to an agent like something that will sell. (And for those of you out there sporting ovaries: women’s fiction is far and away the best-selling fiction category. It’s something of a misnomer, because the vast majority of fiction buyers in North America are women, but hey, I don’t make up the lingua franca; I just speak it.)

If you truly get stuck, here is a sneaky trick: go to a well-stocked bookstore and track down a friendly-looking clerk. Describe your book to her in very general terms, and ask her to direct you to the part of the store where you might find something similar. Then start pulling books off the shelf and examining their back covers for categories.

Hint: don’t be too specific, and don’t mention that you wrote the book you are describing. “My favorite book is a suspenseful romantic comedy about murderous contraltos set in the Middle Ages — would you have anything close to that?” tends to yield better results than, “I’m looking for a book about an opera diva who lives in 9th-century Milan, has scores of amorous misadventures, and strangles her conductor/lover. Where would I find that in your store?” The latter is more likely to yield a puzzled shrug than useful directions.

Repeat in as many bookstores as necessary to start seeing a pattern in where you’re being advised to look. That location is where your book is most likely to be shelved.

Yes, this process can be a pain, but stating your category up front will simply make you come across as more professional, because it’s the way that agents and editors talk about books. Agencies do not impose this requirement in order to torment writers, you know; the category you pick will determine to a very great extent whether any given agent or editor will be even remotely interested in your work.

Because yes, Virginia, there are professionals who will simply not read a query or listen to a pitch unless it is for a book in one of their pre-chosen categories.

Agents and editors LIKE making snap judgments, you see. It saves them time. Sorry.

To put a more positive spin on the phenomenon, think of it this way: if you tell an agent immediately what kind of book you are pitching, the busy little squirrels in her brain can start those wheels spinning toute suite, so she can instantly start thinking of editors to whom to sell your book. And that is precisely what you want them to be doing, right?

If you’re still a bit confused, don’t panic: tomorrow, I shall delve into fine-tuning your selection. In the meantime, keep up the good work!