Ticking the right boxes (part 2)

In part 1 of this article we talked about how an agent had told one of our members: “We’re turning down lots of good work unless it ticks absolutely all the right boxes.” We set ourselves the mission of working out what those mysterious “right boxes” might be. The agent himself had no idea, saying: “We’ll know it when we see it.” We decided to look for boxes that would apply to editors and publishers, not just agents. Tick enough of them and you’re sure to get published.

Since none of you sent in any suggestions of your own, we’ll have to stick with the list of ten boxes we came up with last time. Now let’s examine each box in turn and see how we might go about ticking it …

Box a: I stayed up all night to finish it

This mainly applies to fiction of course. Make sure you have a strong story that grips from the very beginning. Whenever there’s an opportunity to change the path the story takes (and there should be lots of these), stop and make a list of the most exciting things that could happen at that point, then choose the one that you rank highest. Get as many people as possible to read your outline, and ask them how you could make it even more exciting and compelling. Incorporate as many of their ideas as possible (everyone who contributed will buy a copy!), while keeping to the storyline and within the bounds of plausibility. Ask people which bits they found boring, and eliminate those sections. Or ask them to summarise the story in their own words, and remove the parts they leave out (unless they’re absolutely essential). Maintain the excitement throughout the story, right from the first page (allowing a few moments of respite here and there). Don’t build up slowly and boringly to an exciting ending. Don’t give away the ending too soon. The clues are there … somewhere. But they should only be visible with hindsight.

Box b: It’s beautifully written, smooth and easy to read and didn’t make me want to scrawl all over it with my editing pen (or stab the writer with it)

This is obviously an editing issue. If you aren’t an experienced editor yourself, then make sure you send it to someone who is before you try to get it published. Yes, that might mean paying them, but surely it’s worth investing a few hundred pounds on a book that might make you many thousands? Even if you think you are a good enough editor, it’s still worth sending a sample of your work to a professional editor at least once in your writing career, to see if they pick up on any problems you’ve missed. You can then apply what you learn to your future work. At the very least, run the text through the free AutoCrit service or use software such as StyleWriter.

Box c: I immediately saw a very large easy-to-reach market for it and pound/dollar signs flashed before my eyes

For your first major book it’s a good idea to deliberately aim for a market of considerable size that’s very easy to reach. You’ll need to think hard about this. Study the market first, before you start writing the book, and even before you come up with the idea. Learn as much as you can about those readers, their likes and dislikes, the information they need that they don’t yet have. And think about what information you have that most of those readers do not. Find out what sort of books they like reading. If you’re planning a novel, what elements in a story might put them off, and what might draw them in?

As an example: millions of people use supermarkets, so how about writing a blockbuster novel set in a supermarket? Put something in it that really captures the public’s imagination and attention – and ideally the media’s attention too. Your books can even be sold by the supermarkets themselves. You can help things along by mentioning the names of the supermarkets in the story. Try to find a way of including all the top supermarkets – and make sure they look good, so they all want to stock it (rather than sue you for defamation). How could you do this for other companies and brands?

Box d: The writer has submitted a detailed marketing plan with projected sales figures

I heard recently that some mainstream publishers are looking for books with the potential to sell a minimum of 20,000 copies . So the aim of your marketing plan should be to demonstrate how you personally could sell at least that number of books. You’ll need to think hard about how you can exploit (ruthlessly and shamelessly) every single contact, friend of a friend, and network opportunity you can think of.

There are plenty of books about book marketing around, and although most of them are based on the US market (which is very different from the UK), you should still be able to pick up a few good tips.

Only include items in your marketing plan that you are capable of doing yourself . If you’re too shy to give talks then don’t include that. For each marketing idea you come up with, explain what it is, describe how you will access it, what the size of the potential market is, and how many books (a conservative estimate) you think you’ll be able to sell through that route.

Your plan is not complete until you reach a minimum projected sales figure of 20,000 copies. If you can’t get anywhere close to that figure, then you’ll need to rethink the book or the market and come up with something else. Or perhaps consider self-publishing the book in a smaller quantity and selling them direct to the markets you’ve identified. You can still make a decent living from doing this.

Don’t plan to rely totally on advertising – I’ve found that it’s rarely effective when it comes to selling books.

Box e: The writer has had at least one book published previously and made a fortune

If you’ve done this then publication of your next book is pretty much a certainty. But how do you turn one published book into a fortune? By marketing. Ruthlessly (that word again). And by aiming at a big market rather than a small niche one. Don’t rely on your publisher to do your marketing for you. If it’s your first book they probably won’t do much to promote it, other than including it in their catalogues that go to bookshops. The bookshops might be aware of your book’s existence but see no reason to stock it, especially if no one ever comes in and asks about it. So do the marketing yourself, and make sure of its success. Create a marketing plan as outlined above, even if your book has already been published.

It makes no difference whether that first fortune-making book was published by a mainstream publisher or if it was self-published. A success is a success. It’s out there with your name on it, and those who liked it will be looking to buy more. But if that first book made you a fortune and was self-published, why the heck would you be trying to interest a mainstream publisher in your next one anyway, when you can just do the same thing again?

As I mentioned above, self-publishing your book allows you to target the smaller niche markets that the mainstream publishers aren’t interested in. You might not make a fortune, or entice the mainstream publishers to accept your next book, but you could nevertheless make a very good living indeed. Target your next book(s) at that same niche … and repeat until you’ve earned your fortune. (The Fastest Way to Write Your Book will be useful here!)

Box f: The writer is a celebrity

This overrides all the other boxes, obviously. If you became a celebrity through writing a previous book then congratulations, you can skip this bit … and the rest of the article … why are you even reading this?

For everyone else, I’m not talking about becoming a celebrity through writing (that will hopefully come later), but becoming a writer because you’re already a celebrity. That’s how it works these days, isn’t it? So how are you going to become a celebrity? That’s entirely up to you, what suits you best, what talents and interests you have, and so on. It doesn’t take much to become a celebrity these days: unshakeable self-belief, supreme self-confidence, and endless, shameless (and ruthless!) self-promotion, and you’ll get there in no time. But if you can, please do try to rise above those pointless “celebs” who are famous for being famous and nothing more. Do something worth “celebrating” and being “celebrated” for first. And then do the endless, shameless (ruthless) self-promotion thing. Publishing contracts and over-inflated advances will swiftly follow.
Box g: Where humour is present it exactly matches my own sense of it and made me snort milk out of my nose

Who are the authors that make you laugh so much that you lose control? Whose books do you avoid reading in public for this very reason? Do you write like them? Are you as funny as they are? If so, find out who their agents are, and who publishes their books, and make them your primary targets.

It’s a good idea to let other people read some of your work, particularly if they’re well-read, and get them to tell you which writer’s humour is closest to your own. Their answers might surprise you. And the more suggestions they give, the more agents and publishers you can target. Just make sure your jokes are really really really funny. Your friends will soon tell you if they aren’t. And if you have any friends who are good at telling jokes, work with them to improve yours. If the reader doesn’t snort milk down his best shirt then it’s not funny enough.

Box h: Publishing this book will maintain or enhance my reputation, not harm it

Whichever publisher you’re planning to target, get hold of a copy of their most recent catalogue and check that your book would fit alongside the other books listed. If it looks out of place, look for another publisher.

Think about why this publisher is the best one for your book. And tell the publisher why that is.

Write to the best of your ability. Have it proofread and edited by a professional. Strive for quality and accuracy. Avoid errors and libel. And have definite evidence to back up any controversial statements.

Box i: The writer is a personal friend, or someone I’ve known for a significant length of time, whose opinion and expertise I trust, and I know I can rely on

There are three things you can do here. First, without making direct contact with the person in question, you can start to build a name and reputation for yourself. Get your name out there: enter competitions, write stories or articles (or preferably both) for magazines and newspapers, represent some group or organisation and get your name into the press through that and by being outspoken – and a little controversial perhaps. See shameless (ruthless) self-promotion above.

Second, get your name somewhere where the person in question will see it regularly. For example, see if you can find out which websites and forums they frequent, and become the most active participant there. It takes time and effort, but you don’t have to do it forever; fifteen minutes a day for, say, three months might be enough. Where else might these people hang out – in the real world as well as online? Do whatever you can to become an active, contributing part of that circle. Build their trust, without necessarily making direct contact with them.

The third way is the direct approach. Send them an email or letter, perhaps asking a question or praising something they’ve done. But do your homework and find out something more about them – perhaps a hobby or interest they have. Mention that in your letter, and perhaps ask them a question about that too – it helps if you share their interest (if not, plan to become an expert in it very quickly!) If they reply, send a reply back, and gradually build up a rapport, being careful never to take up too much of their time. You’re just being friendly at this stage, not touting for work; don’t even mention your book. After a suitable length of time has passed and you’ve been corresponding regularly, you might casually mention that you’re thinking of writing a book and would they know anyone who might be interested in taking a look at an outline … how could they refuse a friend?

Box j: This book exactly matches our target market’s needs and level of experience, uses exactly the right tone, and fits in perfectly with the other books on our list

I think we’ve pretty much covered this above. Market research, publisher research, and a decent marketing plan are all required here.

Well, that’s me done. I could probably have written an entire chapter on each box and turned this article into a book – it might just happen one day, but I’ve got a lot of other books to write first! Hopefully I’ve pointed you in the right direction. If you think I’ve missed any boxes, or ways of ticking them, please let me know.

Now, let’s all tick those boxes and make our fortunes!


One thought on “Ticking the right boxes (part 2)

  1. Dave, you may be interested in the following comments concerning a (supposed) submission. Of course, since they were purported to have been made by Harlequin, according to the “Walter Mitty’ agent, Christopher Hill, they can be taken with a pinch of salt. But the report is as if boxes had been ticked. They certainly made me think.

    Good narrative
    Good balance, sets the scene well, the reader has good insight rather than having to re-read.
    Strong leading characters. Responsive. Test readers remembered the work.
    Descriptive value.

    Mixed targets, too technical for the younger readers, not enough content for the older generation.
    The main characters are good, the peripheral characters need some detail and work.
    Dialogue at times a touch too easy to read.

    I expect other Hill clients had reports EXACTLY the same as this one!
    But what I am saying is, these are good areas to think about.

    As a matter of interest, the submission was the story you have recently edited. But, as I say, I doubt the manuscript went any further than Hill’s files! So the supposed report is irrelevant as far as my Awakening Love is concerned.

    Gladys Hobson

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