Excerpt from author cover letter: (not real)
“Dear (Agent or Publisher),
The enclosed book proposal contains never-before-seen information to help the most important of all human relationships. It identifies six different kinds of languages of love, combines the findings of extensive studies from all cultures and is endorsed by every important person living within one hundred miles of my home. It contains a stirring story how I went to heaven and met the Apostle Paul in person. He agreed to write a foreword, which I expect to receive any day. Throughout the 15 years it has taken me to research and write this 350,000-word manuscript, I have sweat actual blood. I am convinced this is a best seller for the ages.”
Agent and/or Publisher: (thinking)
“Oh, another marriage book.”
You pour yourself into writing something and after carefully pointing out the uniqueness of your work to an agent or publisher, the pigeon-holing and rejection begins:
Memoir – they don’t do memoirs.
Marriage – too much competition.
Science Fiction – nope.
Poetry – oh my, no.
Bible study – already have some.
For men – men don’t read.
Parenting – too many.
Theology – not enough letters after your name.
Devotionals – can’t sell them.
Children’s Story – isn’t that cute, no.
So let’s take a deep breath here and try to figure this out. You see your work as never before explored territory, but an agent or publisher doesn’t see it that way.
Imagine standing near a grove of trees. Each one is different. A few pine, others are magnolia, ash, maple, and oak. Each one is different from the other. The very makeup of each tree, from the height, to the hardness of their wood to the shape of their branches, texture of their bark and leaves are different one from another. Underground, their respective root systems have distinct characteristics.
You live on the ground and see the trees clearly. And because you can see the trees so clearly, you can’t see the forest. (Insert common metaphor here)
The agent or publisher on the other hand lives at 30,000 feet. (The lack of oxygen at that level would explain a lot what goes on in agenting and publishing) Sellers of books might live a little lower, but not much. At this altitude, the beautiful grove of trees where you can see every nuance and unique feature is merely a green outcropping on the vast landscape below.
If publishers were in charge of forests, there would be neat groupings of oak trees over here, maples in a cluster over there and willow trees would have their own imprint.
Publishing is generally the art and business of doing new things that are like things done before.
For authors trying to be creative and distinguish themselves from everyone else, it can be very frustrating because just about every person or company that touches your work after it leaves your computer serves in one or more of the following roles:
The curator is that job of a quick subjective decision that decides if it fits with that agent or publisher. The categorizing determines what the book is like, or similar to, so we know how to think about it from a business perspective. Once determined to fit and where it fits the agent and/or publisher will be become an advocate for it and commend it to others.
As an agent, I function as all three at one time or another.
This might seem rather silly, but the phrase that strikes fear in agents and publishers is, “This book is unlike anything you have ever read.”
While your intention is to communicate the highly creative nature of your work, unintentionally you have said, “This book is immune to any attempt to categorize it, at best making your job more difficult or worse, very frustrating.”
Increasing the pain for a publisher is not a good start to a successful writing career!
Being easily categorized is a good thing. Don’t fight it.
A final note related to all this, whether you publish traditionally or indie, your book will need to be given a written description. That description will need to include certain key words to describe your book. And whether you like it or not, some of those words need to be the same old words as everyone else uses to describe their novel, marriage book, devotional or whatever.
Intentionally avoiding those key words in an attempt to be creative and different will leave your online search results lacking. And with the majority of books now being sold direct to consumers online, this is more important today than ever before. Product descriptions are to be written with great care. Take your time. It might be the most important thing you do for your book.
Traditional publishers have people doing this, but it never hurts for the author to know a bit about it as well. Collaboration is a good thing.
There are online resources that can help you. Click here for Amazon’s take on it.
Remember, if people can’t find you, they can’t buy you.
Good morning Dan,
I think this is a post I’ll refer back to often as I write proposals.
Thanks for the great insight.
And yet…consider “Jonathan Livingston Seagull”, a ten-thousand word manuscript that made the rounds of over thirty publishers before Eleanor Friede decided to take a chance.
One can well imagine the reactions of all those editors…What on Earth IS this? Looks like a kid’s book, but it’s obviously not, and a talking seagull that sounds like Khalil Gibran’s Prophet…I mean, this is the Sixties but we all have SOME brain cells left…PASS!
And the rest is history. Released without much publicity,Jonathan flew to the top of the lists, and stayed there for pretty well forever. (Sorry, the metaphor was just too corny to resist.)
It wasn’t completely unique, of course; it had roots in “The Prophet”, and in nevil Shute’s “Round The Bend”. But the approach was about as close to singular as they come.
Bach followed it with “Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah”, which drew a bit more from “Round The Bend”,but was solidly a part of Jonathan’s family, in terms of style and structure, not to mention message.
Illusions was in turn followed by the utterly forgettable “There’s No Such Place As Far Away”, featuring another talking bird, and showing that it was a literary device whose wings had been well and truly clipped by its elder brother’s success.
But the mark was made, and anything that came after Jonathan and Illusions was A Richard Bach Book; effectively, a genre all its own. Further titles included “The Bridge Across Forever”, a rather nice love story; “Running From Safety”, a strange sort of memoir that has found a following among psychologists and therapists, in recommending it to their patients; and a series about anthropomorphic ferrets. Yes, ferrets.
Bach’s penultimate work harks back to his early aviation books, “Stranger To The Ground”, “Biplane”, and “Nothing By Chance”; it’s called “Travels With Puff”, and it’s a nice story about his flight across the US in a small aeroplane.
And then…Bach was nearly killed when Puff hit high-tension wires (I’ve done that too, and it ain’t fun). His survival was a near perfect story of trauma care, and while in hospital, he developed the idea for…wait for it…the fourth section of…wait for it again…Jonathan.
I’m sure that publishers would love to find another Jonathan. There have been attempts, from “Dinner With A Perfect Stranger” to “Conversations With God” to a book by Ravi Zacharaias which postulates a conversation with a nastily irascible Buddha and a decent and humourous Christ, which shows nothing so much as a profound lack of understanding of Buddhism.
And there are doubtless thousands of writers who are working to pen another JSL (I’ve done it, but I’m not a materialist and I won’t allow it to be read, much less published). But be warned; Jonathan brought Mr. Bach fame and riches and divorce and bankruptcy and the fate of living in a trailer on the high desert for years, something of a recluse.
Come to think of it, I live in a trailer on the high desert, something of a recluse…but no, wait.
It’s a manufactured home. I’m safe from the riches and fame part. Phew!
(And please excuse the length of this comment, which is getting on for JSL-size itself.)
Great post, Dan. Yes, you make a great point for not being too “creative,” at least in how we categorize our books. I struggle with being one who completely stands out from a crowd. In this case, that sounds like a good thing, at least in terms of how my work is presented. 🙂
It’s tricky to write a unique story that catches an agent’s or publisher’s attention in a good way. Not so unique it’s too “out there,” and not so cookie-cutter that it’s been done too many times.
Now, to figure out that written description . . . 🙂
Sandy Faye Mauck
I would say basically there is “nothing new under the sun.” The basics are there. It reminds me of people through the years who sell a song and 10-20-30+ years later someone else takes it, makes it their “own” and make some more bucks. But it wasn’t their song originally.
However there are new twists sometimes. I remember in the late 70’s – 80’s a woman who was refused many times over with an idea that I knew was good. (one I actually had). She finally self-published and it was a best seller. I was pretty poor at the time but I saved my pennies to buy that book—The Christian Mother Goose by Marjorie Ainsborough Decker.
Great reminder, Dan. Enjoyed the witty oxygen reference. Meaty post served with delicious, subtle humor. Appreciate the Amazon link. Book-marked it for future use. Now, I need to quit email surfing and get on to writing! Karen
You can always make me laugh–and learn. I found this down to earth and timely. Thanks.
Thank you so much for this great article because it’s exactly what I was going to say, ‘My book is extremely unique!’ I appreciate the blog and will work on the new way to approach my ‘unique’ book.; ‘Chocolate Flowers’ Thank you! Jori
But I KNOW that my book is unique – because I haven’t written it yet. Still on the forthcoming attractions list 🙂
Well written – good information – always enjoy the comments – thank you.