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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
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
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
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.
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 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
"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
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.
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.
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
Larkin suggests, "Consider whether your book
idea would work for talk shows, reviews, serious articles, or other television
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.
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
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
Don't give up -- unless you
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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