One Question Every Writer Better Be Able to Answer

I spent three hours at the bookstore last Saturday. It was a strange and upsetting day.

It was the first time I have ever been in a bookstore as a “featured guest” on a day that wasn’t really about me or my book. There was no event and no reading. There wasn’t an author’s panel or party. I wasn’t leading a workshop. I was just sort of … there, sitting with a stack of books that no one had any particular reason to care about.

A lot of people came into the store to buy books, but here’s the critically important point for you and for me and for anyone who thinks they want to write a book: 98% of the people came into the store with an extremely specific request:

 

·      “Do you have the latest in the Game of Thrones series?” (Far and away the biggest request that day.)

·      “Do you have the new Scott Turrow?”

·      “Do you have the Oprah book club pick?”

·      “Do you have a children’s book about whales?”

·      “What’s a good book I can take on my flight to Rome?”

·      “What’s a good gift to give a vegan cook?”

 

There was one family who spent about 45 minutes in the store. A mom and two young boys, maybe 10 and 12. The boys wanted something like The Hunger Games. They camped out in front of the young adult section, eagerly pulling books off the shelf and reading the jacket copy. The mom was working really hard, picking the bookseller’s brain. I could feel her happiness (“I’m with my boys in a bookstore!”) and I could feel her despair (“Please let them continue to be readers!”) The bookseller was amazing – reeling off plots as if she’d read every book in the store, which she probably had. This, by the way, is what you can’t get at an online bookstore, in case there was any doubt.

They ended up buying books in the Divergent series — another series, another dystopian theme, another “game”-based plot. Those books are killing it right now.

The takeaway here is that readers know what they want. They know EXACTLY what they want, and they ask specifically for it, and they may take a few suggestions, but they are not, for the most part, wandering aimlessly looking to discover a hidden gem of a book by an author they have never heard of.

I know, because there I was in the flesh, an author they never heard of. “Oh hi,” they would say, “What’s your book about?”

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Well. I said the day was upsetting. Part of the reason for that is that this is my least favorite question in the entire world. Whenever someone asks me that question, in my brain, I am screaming, “I HAVE NO F**ING IDEA.” Should I say it’s a historical novel set in 1950s McCarthy-era New York? Or should I say it’s a book about who owns an idea? Or should I say it’s a book about a young woman trying to find her voice in a society that would prefer her to stay silent? What is the answer that will make the person want to shell out $12.50?

My not knowing the answer is my downfall. I am not famous like Scott Turrow or George R.R. Martin or whoever wrote the latest Oprah book club pick. With every single reader, I have a giant hurdle to overcome — What’s your book about? And why should I care?

I sold one book on Saturday. That was the fruit of my 3-hour stint. (Well, that, and the goodwill I got from the people who own and run the bookstore — which is a significant result.) I sold it to a woman whose kid was flinging board books off the shelf and whose husband was standing in line at the cash register growling at her for not controlling the little tot. “What’s your book about?” she asked — mostly because she had to. Her kid was practically standing on my feet. I determined that this young mom probably doesn’t have three seconds to call her own on any given day, and so I said, “It’s about a woman who has a great idea but no time to bring it to life.” She nodded. “Sounds good,” she said, and handed the book to her husband.

You see the trouble here? That was one lucky moment, but there aren’t enough such lucky moments in the life of a book. You can’t hand craft your message to every book buyer. You can’t expect everyone to magically see the nuances of your finely honed story, and to automatically know why it is they should select your book out of the thousands of others on the shelves.

And you will not be there to make your book’s case.

You have to be able to write a book that people will ask for. You have to meet a specific need.  

Maybe that need is escape while on an airplane flight, or maybe it’s the comfort of a mystery that unfolds in the same way mysteries always unfold, or maybe it’s a book that will get their son to keep reading after he read the first book he ever really loved, or maybe it’s a book that will help them solve some challenge they are currently facing in their lives — how to get through grief, how to speak Portuguese, how to discern the difference between amber and white ale.

We write because we want to be read. And people read for very specific reasons.

So imagine that some nameless person is walking into a bookstore. They are asking for X and YOUR book is the answer that will solve X.

What is X? That’s the question you absolutely have to know.