Writing is a scary old business but of all the scary things about it, perhaps the scariest is getting the concept right.
I mean, you will spend hours, days, years writing the book itself. Getting the characters right. Tweaking your prose. Labouring with the plot. But what if the whole book is just an unsaleable idea? How do you know before you start?
The first thing to say is that you MUST know the market. That means reading a lot of contemporary fiction in your area. If you don’t do that, you won’t know the market, which means you will almost certainly misunderstand what literary agents are looking to take on, which in turn means that your book won’t sell. And why should it? You are creating a product for a market and you haven’t even conducted the basic research.
But you’ve done that, of course. So what next?
To answer that question, you need to understand the way your book will be sold to retailers. It’ll get a one- or half-page entry in the publisher’s catalogue. There’ll be a one page “Advance Information” sheet. And that’s it. The retailer won’t (in general) read the book before they determine their order, so all your loving and crucial work on plot, prose, character and all the rest of it is effectively irrelevant. (Except that you wouldn’t have got that far unless those things were in shape.)
What matters therefore, is the “Elevator Pitch”: the twenty seconds that your publisher’s sales guy will have to pitch your book. Here are examples of pitches that could really work:
TWilight: A teen romance between an ordinary American girl and a boy who is actually a vampire.
The Da Vinci Code: a mystery thriller revolving around the hunt for the Holy Grail.
Wolf Hall: A historical epic revolving around Thomas Cromwell, the most important man in the court of King Henry VIII.
It’s pretty obvious that Dan Brown’s book had a killer premise – and that it was that which effectively sold the book. (It wasn’t his prose style!) It’s less obvious, but equally true that the vast success of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall (a literary novel) also depended on finding a brilliant hook. If Mantel had written effectively the same book about a king / court / period that was less huge in the popular imagination, the book wouldn’t have sold on anything like the same scale. Indeed, none of her previous ones did.
Here are examples of pitches that really don’t work. (These examples are invented, by the way. Books with bad pitches never get published.)
Eco-fantasy for 6-7s: three children go to a fantasy world where they have to save the planet and learn about the importance of recycling and the dangers posed by electro-magnetic radiation.
Chick-lit for self-harmers: Katy is a feisty fashion-loving thirty-year-old who fancies the sexy photographer who freelances for her fashion mag. But Katy is a secret self-harmer whose troubles stem from a difficult childhood.
Non-literary literary fiction: a slightly mediocre book about two somewhat boring people in whose lives nothing much seems to happen.
We honestly get books like these. We really do. So do literary agents. And they’ll never work. If you don’t have an instant, grabbing, easily communicated pitch you could be making a similar kind of mistake. The only way to know: write a pitch for your own book. Does it sound limp or strong? Experiment with different ways of couching it. See if you can add a little edge, something new, something vibrant. Even if you need to change the book to fit that pitch, you need to do it.
Oh, and although I’ve illustrated these points with examples from the world of fiction, they’re equally relevant to authors of non-fiction – or even more so. Especially for subject led non-fiction, you must offer something clear and distinctive to agents and publishers. Why your book? Why your angle? What’s new? What’s special? Your elevator pitch has to answer those questions swiftly and decisively.
Good writing matters. But saleability is essential.