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It's A Great Idea -- But Is It A Book?
by Carolyn Campbell

Remember that lightning-flash moment when you conceived your first story idea? The initial spark of imagining a future book is thrilling and addictive. It's often followed by visions of a million dollar publication contract or a slot on The New York Times bestseller list.

As a writer, book ideas keep crossing your mind. Are there ways to tell in advance which ones make dreams come true and which will lead to rejection slips? Evaluating your idea's potential can save time and energy. Editors, agents and selling writers offer the following suggestions:

It's gotta set you on fire for a long time.

You've probably discovered that some stories light your literary fire. The fun lasts longer -- from initial concept to publication. On book-length projects, success is likelier if you choose ideas that ignite your passion.

"Because it takes so much energy and commitment to write and promote a book, writers have to feel strongly about the story," said Michael Larsen, of the Michael Larsen-Elizabeth Pomada Literary Agency. "Writing is a small part of making most books successful. Promotion is at least eight times more important. In reality, every book is a self-published book and the author has to prove that it is fail-proof because of what he will bring to it."

Felicia Eth of Felicia Eth Literary Representation says staying power comes from a real love of the topic.

"Passion for an idea is extremely important. If it's just another idea, chances are you may not have the staying power to see it through."

Be sure it's book-sized.

Agent Sabra Larkin received a book proposal from an author who wanted to write a tag sale book featuring lists of defective products to help buyers avoid buying such products.

"I felt it was a sound idea, yet carried further, would probably be a better service magazine article for a parenting magazine."

This concept also applies to fiction. A one-incident anecdote, a single fascinating character or a fictionalized experience can often be more effectively communicated to a wider audience when conveyed in a shorter form, such as a short story, poem or essay, says Jeanne Fredericks, of Jeanne Fredericks Literary Agency.

A book's worth of information must fill at least 50,000 words and 210 manuscript pages. Eth adds that although some books appear to be lengthy short stories, one-idea shots that are extremely marketable are the only ones that sell as books.

"For an idea to be a book, its plot should have depth and many facets that need exploration. It should try to answer as many questions as it raises. It needs staying power so that the reader is willing to put in the time necessary to follow the entire story.

Estimate your audience.

Beyond well-turned phrases, engaging characters and intricate plotting, readers make everything happen. Would groups of readers be willing to pay $25 for the fictional story you offer?

"If you can describe a large, specific market of people who will want the book, but even better, need the book, you're in luck," said author Michael McCutcheon.

McCutcheon cautions about including "everybody" as your target market -- or even every woman. More specific audience markets, such as "every working woman over 40," or "every divorced father over 30" have a higher likelihood of impressing agents and editors. Actual numbers are even better.

You can find concrete statistics by consulting census figures or scouring the Encyclopedia of Associations for special interest groups that compile statistics relating to topics within your story or the genre of your book. You may also search the library's periodical index for recent articles which contain specific statistics. The Web is another source of statistical information, i.e., The American Cancer Society Web page for stats regarding breast cancer.

Test it for timeliness.

Timeliness is a double-edged sword. Fredericks suggests deciding whether your idea is so timely, such as a fictional novel about Monica Lewinsky, that it won't be of interest to readers in a year or so.

"If so, approach magazines instead, since it takes a few weeks to a few months to get a book contract signed and an additional three to 10 months to complete the book production process." Fredericks adds that while some books are produced on extremely short schedules, they are generally by famous authors and/or about topics of urgent national concern.

Conversely, the ability to calculate trends can be very advantageous.

"If you could produce an instant book to coincide with the release of Viagra, your chance of success could be great," said Denise Silvestro, senior editor at Putnam-Berkley.

While trends are tricky, sometimes a radical departure translates to instant success.

"After years of low to no-fat diets, the time was right for Dr. Atkins to release his high-carbohydrate diet plan which became the trend," Silvestro said.

One way to avoid the trend trap is to choose "perennials" -- genre novels such as romances, mysteries, suspense or science fiction that never go out of style.

Evaluate exclusivity.

Will your book be the first or the best? Fredericks said book agents and editors are careful about signing up "me-too" books, and they routinely check competition on Internet sites. Magazines, though selective, require a steady flow of articles to suit their readers' interests. They are less rigid about publishing on a subject that has been previously covered as long as the approach is fresh.

On the other hand, more than 50 O.J. Simpson trial books were released in 1995, and more will appear for years to come.

"The O.J. debacle created a huge and hot market, a killer combination in publishing," said McCutcheon. "Such markets easily support several titles on the same topic, even when they're released the same year."

Ask yourself: Does your book have a hook?

"A hook is a component of appeal that makes a book stand out," explains McCutcheon. "Sex and shock value are classic hooks." Compelling plots and fascinating characters are hooks, too, and fill the potential need for escape, voyeurism, adventure. Need is the most powerful hook. An author can be a hook, too. Kirk Douglas, Fanny Flagg and Jamie Lee Curtis are all fiction authors.

Predict publicity.

Agents advise authors to consider publicity that could be generated from a potential idea. Richard Paul Evans, who parlayed his self-published novel "The Christmas Box" into a $4.25 million contract, says that publicity and self-promotion are the single most important factors in boosting sales.

"With the exception of reference books and few others, promotion and publicity are extremely important to be book's future. A single Oprah appearance can increase a book's sales by 20,000," said McCutcheon.

Larkin suggests, "Consider whether your book idea would work for talk shows, reviews, serious articles, or other television program."

Also evaluate your willingness to promote. Effective publicity that you can initiate yourself include radio interviews, excerpting book sections to sell as articles, and speeches to support and special interest groups.

Compare the competition.

Consult "Books in Print." This multivolume reference lists all of the books currently on the market by author, subject and title, revealing an instant picture of your competition.

"If your idea is truly good, you will see many competing titles out there. Don't let that throw you. There are more than 500 books on cats in print. What it means is, someone should write one better than already exists, or with a different angle or with updated information," said McCutcheon. With "Books in Print," "You'll be able to eliminate a sizable number of apparent rivals simply by separating academic titles from lay titles, which aren't usually competitors."

Map out your methods.

Larsen suggests practicing "niche-craft," or committing yourself to literary and financial goals.

"A literary goal might be a full-page ad or ideal review in The New York Times. Ask yourself what quotes you would want to see and from whom." Then ask if your idea justifies those quotes.

For a financial goal, decide how much you want to earn and how many copies you want to sell.

"Think long term, but act short-term," Larsen said.

Don't give up -- unless you can.

How long should you try to sell an idea? This depends on your connection to the idea.

"Some ideas a writer simply must pursue, even if it means reshaping and resubmitting," said Eth. "Other ideas are of interest, but not with a burning intensity. Without a sale, the writer feels comfortable moving on to something else. I would encourage a writer to never take the response of a handful of people as gospel. You need to get a good cross-section, and then look at responses. If comments are similar and seem to make sense, then maybe it's time to move on. If the comments are all over the place, then maybe it's a question of hanging on until you connect with the right person."

© Copyright 2002, Carolyn Campbell

Carolyn Campbell is the author of the books, Reunited: True Stories Of Long Lost Siblings Who Find Each Other Again and Love Lost and Found: True Stories Of Long Lost Loves Reunited at Last (Penguin-Putnam)

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