Defining Your Territory

While authors in both fiction and nonfiction need to be aware of their competition on the bookshelf, a lack of knowledge by a neophyte author in nonfiction is more likely to doom the book’s sales. For a novelist, stirring characters and a finely wrought writing style can overcome a reader’s niggling doubt that he has read a similar story. Factual prose does not have the same advantage.

I frequently receive submissions from nonfiction authors that contain strong elements: a striking concept, good organization of topics, well-written chapters. Yet my first question is always the same: how is the book different from what’s already out there? I go to Amazon or a bookstore immediately if the author’s field is well established.

What am I looking for? I’m not about to read an entire book, you can be sure. I would waste hours of valuable business time that way. No, I read the copy on other books’ back covers or inside flaps. A browser won’t commit to buying a book if he thinks it’s too much like another book he’s already read. So he reads that copy to see if new, unique selling points are being made. That’s what I’m doing too. Please bear in mind, you novelists out there, this is a useful practice for you too.

If you are writing a book on sales, for instance, you do want to have a catchy name for your method, along with a tagline. But there are hundreds of books on sales, and some of those authors are among the biggest names in publishing. So you need copy that will fill up that back cover. As a reader I have to be convinced that you have fresh ideas that could really help me out. If I’m on a plane and I’m reading the same old stuff, I’ll be spending most of the flight asleep.

Buzzwords are not enough. New ideas you read in another book are not enough. You need a unique selling proposition. It’s the same process as writing an elevator speech. In a limited amount of space you need to sell your idea. Don’t automatically assume that readers want to read a new book. You need your best writing just to get them to open the front cover.

Exercise: Creating good copy is not the same as writing a report of the book’s contents. Examine the manuscript and pick out five points that you know are making a new contribution to the field. Place your best first. The entire time, think to yourself: what would make me want to read this book, this one right here in my hand?

“Don’t bunt. Aim out of the ball park. Aim for the company of immortals.” 
—David Ogilvy

Copyright @ 2016, John Paine

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