(Continuing my series of blog posts about the Writer’s Digest Conference 2016 in New York City.)
Paula Munier is a literary agent and “content strategist” (as her website says), who gave a talk entitled “The Well-Sold Story: An Agent’s Secrets to Writing Stories That Sell.” Her talk was profusely illustrated by text-heavy PowerPoint slides, and it was hard to keep up. I (and quite a few others) started snapping pictures of them so we could concentrate on listening, and she admonished us that they were copyrighted materials, so we stopped and let it all wash over us. Unlike many other presenters, she didn’t offer to give us a link to the presentation.*
She encouraged us by saying books have a longer life than they used to, and ebooks have rescued backlists because books can be available so much longer. To sell, however, a story must be the same but different from stories that have gone before. You need a USP (unique selling proposition), and your pitch should have an “only trouble is” element. For instance, “X meets y, but the only trouble is z.”
Ideas only sometimes sell books, such as A.J. Jacobs’s The Know-It-All. Play to your own strengths. What do you know, love, or love to know? Mine yourself: The story is about what? about who? The story happens where, when, and why? She exhorted us to “know your logline” – the genre, plot, USP – and tell it to anyone, anywhere.
The single most common objection about stories is that the pacing is off. There’s too much backstory, navel gazing, or telling. Write in scenes. The second objection is that the stakes aren’t high enough. There must be a great deal at risk for your main character physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. All too often, the protagonist doesn’t drive the action. Your hero has to be the one who solves, rescues, or saves the day.
The third objection has to do with marketing and is a little out of the author’s hands, which is when the publisher doesn’t know how to place the book – is it a big enough idea? Does it fit a genre? Did they just publish a similar book that didn’t work, or did the author’s last book fail? Does the author have no platform? Is it old-fashioned rather than edgy? +
Publishers are looking for series potential. They want to “brand” authors, create series characters, sell various formats, build their backlist, and sell sub-rights.
Publishers only take work that’s at least 90% there, and agents get you past gatekeepers. The presenter gets 5,000-10,000 queries a year and has 30-50 clients. 38% come from conferences and workshops, 15% from genre association referrals, 13% from queries, and the rest from contests.
She suggested hiring an editor, either developmental editor, line editor, or copy editor, and ask for referrals. Then make the rounds. Goodreads is a generous community, and you can line up endorsements. Go to book signings, exploit social media, follow favorite editors on Twitter.
90,000 words is the sweet spot for a novel.
Finally, as they all did, she urged us to “build your brand.” You can post novellas online, for instance, to keep your readers interested. You’re not giving away something that would sell, because publishers generally don’t publish novellas. ***
Takeaway: There’s a grouchy kernel in my heart that keeps muttering that if I wanted to go into marketing, I’d work for Campbell’s Soup the way my dad did. He was very good at it. We had all kinds of free samples, and we papered the attic with surveys.
* PowerPoint presentations aren’t that effective; they occupy a strange demilitarized zone between speeches and books, being both too full of information and too uninformative. Handouts stink, too. I can’t tell you how many times I have acquired a handout from a talk, and then looked at it later, only to realize I couldn’t make sense of it. But people like handouts. I always told my co-presenters at conferences that one of the surest ways to get an engaged audience is to promise them handouts. Paper is not outmoded. Not yet. (This is a discussion that can engage people better than Trump v. Clinton, by the way. Or the Oxford comma.)
It’s funny how valuable packaged information is. There’s quite a market in it. Not just books and webinars; there are websites that offer lesson plans for sale, and publishers who paywall all their supplemental materials. There was discussion for a time at my school about copyrighting lessons so we could market them.
Yet people who speak to the public are in the business of giving knowledge away. We are paid for it. Are we paid for the facts we present, or is it for our ability to reach students and help them understand? Was I paid to be an expert in English (or science, math, or computers, which I also taught) or to be an expert on teaching? I toy with turning my knowledge about teaching poetry into a how-to book. I gave presentations on the subject at conferences, and I posted the PowerPoints and my extensive documentation up on my website for free. But on the whole, if I’m going to work that hard at it, I’d rather teach poetry than teach people how to teach poetry.
** Of course, if her PowerPoints were basically the outline of another book, I understand her problem with sharing them. In which case, she probably shouldn’t have shown them to us. Yeah, I’m still thinking about this.
*** Okay. I’m still confused. How much content should we give away for free? PowerPoints, no. Novellas? Short stories? Excised scenes from our novels?
+ Based on my last visit to the bookstore, right now Victorian is very edgy.