I spent some time the other day with a new writer who has recently been to one of the big conferences. She came back very discouraged. She had paid a lot of money for multiple critiques of her non-fiction work-in-progress. Now she has several detailed written critiques of her manuscript. As might be expected, each had different items they suggested changing. All of the critiques complemented her writing (a paid critiquer is never going to say “Give it up and get a desk job.”) But four out of five made the same comment: “Not marketable.” (The fifth was a writer, not an editor.)
My friend has brought this manuscript to critique group a couple of times over the last year, and I had told her that I thought it was two different books twined together, so I was pretty sure I knew what the editors were trying to say. “Tell me again about your market research,” I urged my friend.
“There’s nothing like this book out there,” she said. She went on to tell me about the other kinds of books she had found – personal experience, self-help, scientific inquiry, religious reflection: lots and lots of books on the topic but nothing like hers.
Pretty soon my friend had figured out what all those editors were trying to tell her, and it’s an important component of market research. Her book doesn’t fit into any niche. In fact, a library would be hard-pressed to decide where to shelve it. And a book that is so very different needs to be positively brilliant in order to have a chance.
When you do your market research, you are searching not only to be able to say “there is a need for this book, there is a gap in what is available.” You also need to be able to say “this book is like that successful title except. . .” My friend understood that she shouldn’t submit her book to a publisher who already has very similar book in print, because the publisher doesn’t want to compete with themselves. But she missed the flip side: a competing publisher might be very interested in a similar, competitive book – if it offers something unique and valuable to get that established readership to pick it up. Even the first publisher might be interested in a book that covers the successful topic for a different age group, or with a religious viewpoint that hasn’t been heard (if the target age group or religious viewpoint matches that of the publisher’s market!) What niches do other books on your subject fill?
Since with non-fiction you generally submit a proposal that includes an outline and a couple of sample chapters, you can (and should) actually shape the book to reflect what you’ve learned from your market research. Fiction is a little different, both in the approach to writing and in selling the manuscript, but market research is still essential. Expectations for YA historical fiction are different from those for fantasy and differently different from those for teen romance. If you think your book fits all three, it’s likely that it won’t sell in any of those genres.
By now we’re all familiar with the “elevator pitch” method of selling a concept. A related exercise may help you figure out strengths and weaknesses of your book idea. Write the copy for the sales rep who needs to sell the bookstore buyer. Write the jacket copy that will capture the browsing book-buyer. You’re not going to submit those things, obviously – but if you can’t write them, your book won’t get as far as the sales force. Always remember that the first buyer, the publisher, is only interested in your manuscript if it can turn a profit.
My friend is ready, now, to think about untwisting the strands of her book and writing just one of them really well. Perhaps another one will become a second book later. Unfortunately, she spent hundreds of dollars to get to that point, because she couldn’t bear to give up her first vision of the book when it didn’t match the market. Writers need to have a vision, but we can’t stay starry-eyed. We have to be hard-nosed and practical, just like our publishers. We need to do our research, and then, to use it.