Early Bird pricing is available now for my Book Startup Group Workshop starting September 21. This is the first time I've offered a group workshop like this in more than a year and I'm excited about it! It's my favorite thing to teach. Learn more and sign up here. The lower pricing will be available through August. This is a group class for anyone interested in starting a new book project (or repairing one that's stalled or gone off the rails.) I'll be holding a free webinar in September about how to even decide whether to commit to a new project so stay tuned for that.
Last week I spoke about the surprising power of serendipity at the start of a fiction project. This week, I’d like to share with you how serendipity can work in the middle of a non-fiction project. I can’t say anything very specific about the project just now, but you don’t need details (and you don’t need to be writing non-fiction) to get the benefits of this particular lesson.
I have client whom I shall call Cassidy. A week or so ago, she was working on her audience analysis and competitive title section. These are two key steps from my Book Startup program and two key parts of a book proposal – which is the document we use to pitch a book to an agent. (Fiction writers are well served to develop a book proposal, and to include these two sections, although their audience analysis section will be much shorter than a non-fiction proposal.) Cassidy is on a very fast pace to finish her memoir, and she has made the decision to start taking some of the early work we did on audience and competition and refine it for the proposal even before she finishes writing.
The audience for your book is the universe of ideal readers.
The competitive titles are the ones that your ideal readers already love, that are stacked on her bedside table, that she is likely to consider buying when she considers buying yours. It’s the world your book will be born into.
Because of my piece on bookstores last week, Cassidy was inspired to go to her local Barnes and Noble to see what she could learn. “I spent two hours on a sunny afternoon sitting in the aisles,” she said, “reading the back covers of memoirs, the book jackets and writing down authors' names, [knowing she'd look later to see who their agents were].” That experience transformed the work of doing a competitive analysis and audience analysis “from something vague and scary to something fascinating. It was very inspiring!”
After her outing, Cassidy emailed me with a question: if she is writing memoir, can she include other genres in her competitive titles?
I emailed her back to say that YES, it can sometimes be really smart to include a mix of genres in your competitive titles. After all, you can only name about six books in this section. And the whole point is to frame your book so that agents and editors can really picture it in the world. If a novel or a how-to or self-help book helps you frame a memoir, then those are the books you want to reference. (This works the other way, too. I recently worked with a writer, for example, who is writing a novel about a world where it’s illegal to be fat. Her competitive titles include novels about other worlds gone askew, but also a memoir and even a nonfiction book about women and food.)
All of this framing work is an effort to locate your book’s BIG IDEA. Every book has one, and you need to know what it is because your book can really only sit on ONE SHELF. In a bookstore or a library, it’s going to be in ONE SPOT. Yes, amazon may slot your book into six different subcategories but there will be one main category you occupy. You need to know what that category is going to be, and a key way to figure it out is to do the kind of research she was doing.
Cassidy and I talked about the book H is for Hawk, which I wrote about in that bookstore piece I mentioned earlier. This is a memoir about grief and also about birds of prey. It could easily be shelved in the grief section (because it also has an audience in people looking to understand the loss of a beloved parent), but it is shelved at Vroman’s in the Nature Essays section. And if you look at the back of the book, by the ISBN number, the category the publisher selected for it is “Nature.” On amazon, you can see that the book currently occupies #447 in all books, but it is #1 in Nature Writing and Essays. It is owning its category – which is a dream, because once you are at the top of one list, the algorithms kick in and it becomes easier to move to the top of other lists. Look at ultra hot title The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up for proof. It's #5 overall -- the book that is selling fifth best in all of amazon -- and it's #1 in every other category where it appears.
Bar code for H is for Hawk:
Amazon ranking and category breakdown for H is for Hawk:
Amazon ranking and category breakdown for The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up
The Nature Essays category was a deliberate choice in how to position H is for Hawk. If you sell your book to a publisher, they will be making those kinds of choices about your book. If you self publish, you will be making these choices. You select the categories where you would like your book to appear. The more you can understand about your audience and the competition before you have to choose, the better. Studying the categories where your competitive titles appear is a great start.
Cassidy realized that she did NOT want her memoir to be shelved in the memoir section, which is one natural category where it could fit. She wanted it to be shelved for her Big Idea – what her story is really about, and not the surface events of it. (Kind of like how I said last week that my dog story is not really about dogs…)
So Cassidy and I got on the phone and on the computer to do a little side-by-side sleuthing. And here’s where the serendipity kicks in, because we started with three words I had heard on an NPR radio show a few days before while I was stuck in traffic. Three words that were the title of one of NPR’s “desks” or areas of special reporting, that I only heard because the ridiculous nature of Los Angeles traffic put me on the road at the moment that particular story came on the radio. These three words described exactly the theme of Cassidy’s books – and it was something of a revelation that there was an NPR desk with that name.
So we went to the NPR website and checked out the desk. And we noticed that this particular desk was sponsored by a major philanthropic organization, which was interesting. So we clicked over to that organization and we were amazed at the richness of resources there and the depth of information. We poked around for a while and then began to brainstorm authors and books that covered some of the same ground. With the inspiration of the organization, we had a lot of ideas.
We jumped over to amazon, and worked the whole “if you like this book, you’ll like this one” angle, going down, down, down the rabbit hole – all the while paying attention to the ways that amazon was slicing and dicing the book categories occupied by the books were studying.
Our click fest eventually landed us on a specific author’s book that was right in the wheelhouse of what Cassidy is writing – and neither of us had before considered this somewhat famous author’s somewhat famous book, although we were both well aware of it. All this author’s books were right in the wheelhouse of what Cassidy is writing – and here is the part where it gets really good. We clicked out of amazon to this author’s website, and it was as if a party was being thrown for Cassidy’s book. It was as if all the books and all the articles and all the events and all the initiatives were just waiting for her book to arrive and be part of the conversation.
Plus, the author had a place on her website inviting conversation on the topics at hand.
And there was a link to an organization the author had founded that has a Facebook page, a Twitter account, a whole staff of eager people, and initiative and events that Cassidy could potentially be a part of once her book comes out.
In one hour, by accident, by following the thin air around three simple words, we hit paydirt. We found:
+ a killer competitive title and several other fantastic candidates
+ a wish list for a dream blurber for Cassidy’s books. Famous authors DO sometimes give blurbs – the little testimonial quotes on book covers -- even for unknown writers. Being asked goes with the territory of being famous, and it’s good karma to do it. So you can’t lose by asking. I can write a future post about how to go about this, if people are interested.
+ an influencer she can follow, and try to build a bridge to through blog comments, letters, Tweets and more. Knowing who the big players are in your topic or genre means you know where your audience is already hanging out – on their site and at their events. You don’t want to become a creeper stalker fan, but you can certainly pay attention to the conversation and see if there is a way to become part of it.
+ a foundation she can explore to see what opportunities might exist for cross promotion, and a wealth of ideas to propose in a marketing section of a proposal.
+ a list of reporters working on the topic she is interested in. She can begin to follow these reporters’ efforts – and again, try to start becoming part of the conversation.
+ a clear indication that there is an audience and a market for her book, and where that audience can be found.
This one hour turned out to be a major turning point for Cassidy. She understood something about positioning her book that she just didn't get before -- and that understanding helped her see her book as more of a reality than she had seen it before, and that led to a boost in confidence and joy in the process.
This is exactly the same sort of shot in the arm I got from the universe for my dog story – and it was an “accident” that happened because Cassidy took the time to explore, to do an activity that was not immediately “productive,” to just see what there was to find out there.
I am a firm believer that allowing the time for this kind of “wandering” makes you a better writer and a better author entrepreneur. I think it’s one of the best-kept secrets, in fact – a kind of life hack for being a better writer.
How can you welcome serendipity into your creative process? What can you do to welcome in these kinds of happy accidents?