While teaching about writing and publishing I have, on occasion, asked the question, “Would you buy your own book if you saw it on a shelf but didn’t know who you were?” I’m met with a variety of reactions. Laughter. Pensiveness. Surprise. And even a few scowls.
The question is meant to provoke you into describing why your book idea is unique. Why it will stand out among the noise of the competition.
It is unfair to ask the author this question, of course. I assume you would buy your own book. There is no one who knows your book better than you. But that isn’t what I’m asking.
It is not a question of whether your book is important or valuable or even well written. Don’t hear it that way. It is actually a question of commercial viability.
The greatest problem of today’s writer is obscurity. The industry uses the word discoverability to describe how a book can be discovered. You may have heard that ebook piracy can be a problem for writers. But if no one knows about your book no one will steal it–and no one will buy it either!
This is why the competitive analysis portion of your book proposal is so important. Help the agent help the publisher create space on the physical or virtual shelf. Help them position your book, so it rises from obscurity into viability. With thousands of new books appearing online every day, there must be something that makes yours interesting.
Imagine you are standing in a physical bookstore. (I know it’s hard to imagine, but play along.) Go to your favorite section of the store. Now lightly run your finger along the spine of the various books shelved there. What makes you stop and pull that one down to look at it. The author? The title? The color? The binding? What magic is in that moment for you as the consumer. Then ask, “Why did I just do that?”
Would you buy your book if it wasn’t written by you?
This can be as “simple” as a dynamite title. Or it could be a strong platform that stands out in the crowd. Or the skill in the writing is so amazing that the book creates word-of-mouth buzz that spreads throughout the world.
You know the question is coming, so prepare your answer. Would you buy your own book if it was on the “shelf” next to an über-famous author on the same topic or in the same genre?
[An earlier version of this post ran in November 2011.]