11.17.2016

What Is a Literary Selling Point?

Many novelists dread the query letter they must write for a submission. How can they condense the entire contents of their novel into one page? How can they write ad copy when they hate advertisements? Is a query letter like a book report? And what about the dictum to state the book’s concept in 25 words or less?

A good deal of the trepidation can be removed by defining one key aspect of book marketing. I say that because a query letter is above all a marketing document. You can start by reading the copy on the back cover of any novel you like. What do you find there? It reads like a little story, albeit with subtle superlatives. So why does it make you want to open the book and check it out?

That’s because the copy writer knows that distinctive character traits and plot turns are selling points. The customer in this case wants to read a good story. What are the unusual aspects of your story? What makes it fresh, unlike any other? You want to fill the query letter with those selling points.

If you pick out all the fun or stirring highlights of your book, you probably can come up with a list of a dozen. Look at that list and ask yourself: how can I string them together so that they form a paragraph or two? You may notice that some of the points won’t fit in that matrix. So you cut those ones out. Maybe some of the characters won’t fit. Cut them out of the copy too. You’re telling a mini story here, and it must fit within the compass of any developing story.

Now bring in your lead character. If you narrate the copy from one point of view, all of the highlights will fall into a chronological line: this stuff happened to her. Then add her opinions about what’s happening, giving the prose a narrative attitude.

That’s what you want: engaging copy. A book report is told from a distance. Ad copy is narrated by the voice that leads the reader through the book. I know you’re going to love this story because look at all the interesting things that happen.

Exercise: Think of the times that you’ve tried to explain to a friend of yours what the story is about. What parts of your explanation made them nod, or their eyes light up? That’s the stuff they find interesting. Recite that pitch back to yourself. What do you find interesting? Do you see why they were nodding? Write that down as your copy.

“If you can’t explain it to a six-year-old, you don't understand it well enough yourself.”
—Albert Einstein

Copyright @ 2016, John Paine

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